It wasn’t just depression that claimed Charlotte

A celebrity (at least in NZ) by the name of Charlotte Dawson died a few days ago, a victim of depression. Since then, there have been the usual deluge of news stories, and opinion pieces, either as neutral as possible or expressing grief and compassion for her family and remembering her life. It’s the same sort of thing that happens when any public figure dies. Of course, there is also the other sort of thing that always happens when a public figure dies – attacks on their character, or their life, or the way they died. This sort of thing varies – Princess Diana got an almost universal outpouring of love and grief, while Margaret Thatcher’s death was given an ambivalent public treatment at best.

The most prominent cruel and disgusting smear against Charlotte has been an opinion piece in the NZ Herald, by one Deborah Hill Cone. What she has written is shameful, projecting her own insecurities onto a dead woman. It’s worth reading, mostly to grasp the sheer cruelty of what this woman has to say. Charlotte Dawson deserves so much more than this woman’s smear on her character, and  the illness of depression deserves better than the wholesale discounting of its power.

The article starts “I didn’t know you when you were alive, Charlotte, so I hope you don’t think it is presumptuous of me to write about you now you’re not” . . . yes, it is presumptuous, because you are then going on to write all about her internal struggles, or at least the ones you want her to have had. Why do you think it’s ok to try and divine the psychology of a woman you don’t even know? It crosses the line into hubris. To the ancient Greeks this was the ultimate moral failing, and the gods cursed those who displayed it. I don’t think they were wrong about that either. There’s some gods who need to get off their butts and start smiting here.

The next claim is that “It wasn’t just depression that claimed you.” Back the truck up, lady. When did you become an expert in the complex psychology of depression and suicide? In the light of what evidence there is, I would venture a pretty confident guess that depression that ended her life. There are external stresses that make suicide more likely, but not one of them causes suicide. People with no mental illnesses cope with the stresses that she had in a normal and healthy way, so they cannot alone be causes of suicide. External stresses make things more difficult, but depression causes suicide, all on its own. Don’t underestimate the power of mental illness. Just because you can’t imagine dying because you can’t live any more doesn’t mean that it’s not what happens to mentally ill people. Sufferers of mental illnesses deserve better than you dismissing their reality. Shame on you, for speaking about things you have no understanding whatsoever about.

“I think you were also claimed by the fear of getting old. It is hard being 47. At the crisis of middle age, losing your sexual currency, becoming invisible. ” . . . she suffers from suicidal depression and you think the more powerful drive in her death is getting fucking old?! That ‘sexual currency’ is something she’s desperate to hold on to? Lady, stop projecting. You are so vain that you think ageing is something to die over? Yes, ageing is sometimes hard for people, especially women. But it’s NOT something that kills. Maybe she did struggle with age, I couldn’t tell you (perhaps because I didn’t know her? Could it be that I’m not qualified to say what went on in her head?). But it’s not something that claims lives. That would be depression (and other mental illnesses). Suicidal ideation. Acting on suicidal ideation. Dying. Those are the things that kill, damn it, and trying to blame it on ‘sexual currency’ just devalues the reality of her death.

Finding we have lost our sexual currency can come as a blow to our self-esteem, even those of us who haven’t relied on our looks to get attention. So it would have been even harder for you, Charlotte. Dr Burgo says women who can’t bear the shift to a supporting role may ape the behaviours, clothing and attitudes of the young, trying to preserve their sexual appeal. They may opt for plastic surgery.

So, you’re reducing Ms Dawson’s life to her looks. She’s a human being, not a one-dimensional image in a mirror. She was a magazine editor and a TV host, not just a pretty face but a thinking woman, as well as a model. She didn’t rely only on her looks. She had a well-rounded career, and her ‘sexual currency’ was not her sole strength, as you would like to imagine. And what is this about Dr Burgo? Are you wanting to insinuate that Dawson was having plastic surgery and choosing clothes that were only suited for young people? You dinosaur. She made choices about her appearance, and those are her choices, not yours to dissect. You’re not content to devalue her mental illness, you also want to judge the way she used her body? Again, this is just shameful.

“Socially, they become more self-absorbed and insensitive, demanding to remain the centre of attention. Sound familiar?” . . . yes, you’re doing it well.

“”I’m not a brand. I’m a human being,” you said in a tweet not long before you died. The problem was you were a brand, actually.” So, she’s actually not a person? How dare you? We’re up to devaluing her mental illness, judging her appearance, and now writing her off as not a human being. It’s people like you who add to the stresses of living a public life. I hope you’re proud of yourself here, because there are a whole lot of people who are ashamed of you. Writing off a human being as just a brand is so hateful.

“You have to stop caring what other people think of you. That was particularly hard for you, Charlotte. Individuals with low self-esteem tend to be more concerned with what others think of them than what they think of themselves.” So now we’re going from not-a-human to low-self-esteem. And remember, this is from a woman who knows nothing of Charlotte in life, but thinks she knows all her painful secrets in death. It’s bullshit, pure and simple. and not even consistent bullshit.

You felt shunned for being single, being childless, for having a mental illness. The truth is no one really cares. But for you that was even worse.

It is terrifying to think of becoming insignificant, being wiped out, being annihilated. So, ultimately, you chose to preserve Charlotte Dawson, the glamorous brand, aged 47, forever.

“You felt shunned” . . . Sure. Of course, we’re all great at insights into a dead woman’s mind. And “The truth is no one really cares”? How cruel. She has a family that care, a fan base that cares, friends that care. But you want to paint her as getting old alone and hating it so much that she killed herself.

And “you chose to preserve Charlotte Dawson, the glamorous brand, aged 47, forever”??! There are not enough angry punctuation marks on the planet for how ridiculous that is, and how wrong. Charlotte Dawson did not die because she wanted to be forever young. She died because of a goddamned mental illness and you need to stop twisting her death into a vehicle for your own weaknesses projected.

This all boils down to a few key things. First, the cause of death was mental illness. Full stop and no negotiation. There were other things going on in her life which may have contributed, but it was mental illness that took her. Using her death to make sweeping claims about older women without having ever known her is bullshit, and it really makes the author look like she has the issues that she rants on about (should we bring up the garishly dyed hair and terrible lipstick?). Depression needs to be treated as a potentially fatal illness, not an adjunct to the difficulties of growing old.

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