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Why did a talented, generous, brilliant poet destroy herself and the person she loved most in the world?

We are fascinated and horrified by the myth of the suicidal poet(ess). Dangerously, we tend to romanticize these women in order to make sense of their lives (and deaths).

In a 2004 piece for the Washington Post Magazine, Paula Span writes carefully about Reetika Vazirani’s life, drawing from her letters, her poetry and her friends’ testimonies. In doing so, Span delves into the financial, societal and emotional struggles of the contemporary artist.

When Reetika’s friends offered help—to visit her, to pay for therapy or medication:

Reetika would shrug, decline, offer excuses, simply melt away, or leave subsequent upbeat phone messages without providing a number to call back. Or she’d go off to Callaloo or Bennington and be her usual dazzling, spirited self, so that friends who had worried would relax: She was okay; they could back off.

Her time in Vermont seemed to confirm it. How could she still be in trouble if she could wow everyone with her Bennington lectures and readings, attract writers to a 6:30 a.m. yoga class, appear so cheerful with Komunyakaa, who arrived a few days later with [her son] Jehan? One afternoon she and Ethelbert Miller sat back to back on a campus bench, rocking contentedly in the sunshine. “I said, ‘I can feel where your poems come from,’ “ Miller remembers. “We felt good. We said, ‘This is better than sex.’ I thought she’d put everything together.” She seemed to be cycling between happiness and despair, possibly a sign of manic-depression, another mood disorder.

But laypeople often don’t recognize the symptoms of psychiatric illnesses or the dangers they pose. “There is, in some people who are very creative, a great deal of independence and originality, the capacity to stand back and see the world differently, to have a great number of friendships, good relationships — and still have an absolutely devastating disease,” psychiatry professor Kay Redfield Jamison cautions. And such people can tailspin quickly.

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