There is a fascination that surrounds the death of Kurt Cobain, which manifests in endless empirical investigation and the formulation of far reaching conclusions. It is widely accepted that Cobain had dealt with mental health issues most of his life and a month prior to his death was hospitalized following a drug overdose that is considered a suicide attempt. However, the fact that he eventually came to take his own life is not widely accepted. There is fascination surrounding any celebrity’s death, as there is fascination surrounding the cult of celebrity. This fascination is increased when the celebrity dies young, and Cobain’s place in the 27 club certainly plays a part in people’s interest. The obsession with understanding Cobain is evident in the bevy of documentaries that seek to understand his psychology or contest the manner of his death.
When someone commits suicide, they leave behind a whirlpool of confusion and disbelief. We, the left behind, are stuck with endless questions that cannot be answered. There is so much misconception and taboo surrounding the concept of suicide, issues of pride, family honor, and personal trust. This plays into the endless questioning of Cobain’s actions and motive. If a happily married new father and internationally successful rock star could take his own life, there’s nothing to say any regular person might not do the same. The maddening conclusion of this line of thought is that it really could happen to anyone.
rock bros want to make COurtney Love into their modern day Yoko Ono.
Cobain was 27 when he died and had apparently attempted suicide once before. In the United States suicide rates have steadily climbed since the 1980s and there has been a sharp jump in the rate of suicide in the last ten years. Suicide is the third leading cause of death worldwide in young people and young men are four times as likely to commit suicide as young women. Fifty one percent of male self-inflicted deaths are by firearms. Cobain had a long and well-documented history of mental health problems, many of which manifested in physical symptoms. He self-medicated to cope with these problems and sought the care of women, girlfriends who’d either play the role of mother figure or enable his addiction. And yet this does not slow the endless conspiracy theories, including the popular conclusion that he was murdered, even 20 odd years after his death.
It is hard to talk about suicide and even harder to accept that a loved one would chose to end their life. Cobain was loved and admired by many, yet understood by few. There are two major conversations surrounding his death, one which attempts to understand what could have led him to suicide and another which attempts to refute that a suicide happened. These conversations play out on the page, on music forums, and in film time and again. It seems that as soon as we receive a narrative that informs the idea that Cobain was a deeply troubled man who toppled under the weight of success, a dissenting narrative that he could not have possibly shot himself is not far behind.
Four years after Cobain’s death, the first major conspiracy documentary Kurt and Courtney was released. Director Nick Broomfield attempts to reveal the inconsistencies surrounding the final police report and the accepted version of events. Broomfield’s investigation was less concerned with the potential that the troubled Cobain took his life and more concerned with how that conclusion was not even a possibility. While the film touches on Cobain’s mental health, its director spends most of his time on Courtney Love’s potential involvement, retracing her steps in the weeks prior to Cobain’s death.
The suggestion that Love was directly involved in Cobain’s death is echoed in the 2014 documentary Soaked in Bleach, against which Love has filed a cease and desist order, claiming defamation due to false accusation of criminal activity. Director Benjamin Statler argues there are compelling reasons to reopen the investigation into Cobain’s death on the basis that certain law enforcement officials believe it was potentially a homicide. In these two films, there is little investigation into Cobain’s mental health history or his psychological state in the months prior. The fervor with which some disbelievers of the suicide narrative jump to Love’s involvement in Cobain’s murder has been critiqued as misogynistic, rock bros who want to make Love into their modern day Yoko Ono. Love certainly hasn’t had much space or safety to mourn yet has been accused of not showing enough public grief. There is another element to the disbelief—the fear society has of accepting suicide as a conclusion to certain lives.
FOR THE first TIME, We are allowed to imagine, truly imagine, this man was capable of ending his own life.
It is widely accepted that Sylvia Plath took her own life and I have yet to hear a conspiracy theory that suggests otherwise. The sad, betrayed wife, an object of pity and at times derision, is a far more acceptable candidate for suicide. Cobain, the well-loved cult rock figure, who at the height of his career played to packed out stadiums all over the world, does not make for a likely victim. The understanding of suicide as a weak and selfish act fuels this conception. Cobain was a successful male musician who loved his fans—this does not fit the public understanding of a suicidal person. The fragility of masculinity is a subject has only entered the public discourse in recent years and the relationship between toxic masculinity and a low sense of self in young men is hardly widely discussed.
The recent documentary Montage of Heck takes a different direction, choosing to follow Cobain’s life from birth and his social relationships and psychological history. Cobain’s childhood and adolescence are presented in detail with interviews with his family members interwoven with the recordings Cobain had made since youth. The audience is acquainted with a distressed young man with a history of self-doubt and anxiety, a young man who received little help for his mental illnesses who grew up in a world where men were not supposed to. Love agreed to be interviewed this time. Her attachment to the project may be read as some as a way of proving her innocence. It does seem that Love wants to speak about Cobain’s troubles, that she herself is trying to make sense of him. Out of the three documentaries, this is the first where we are allowed to imagine, truly imagine, this man was capable of ending his own life.
There is a lot that is uncomfortable about suicide; there are many reasons we are afraid to speak about it. Those who have never experienced or attempted suicide often see both the deceased and the left behind as victims. Those who have experience are often afraid to speak out for fear of the pity and condemnation they may receive. The question about whether or not Cobain took his own life is undoubtedly an important one for many of his fans. However, for the benefit of society and those struggling with mental health issues, it is not the right question to be asking. It is important that we talk about suicide and it is important we ask questions about Cobain’s, but we need to change the conversation.
Ruby Brunton is a New Zealand-raised, New York-based poet, writer, and performer. Find her on Twitter & Tumblr @RubyBrunton