Wednesday, September 20, 2006

 

Reality On Television



At 9:30 on the morning of July 15, 1974, Christine Chubbuck began her regular morning news program, Suncoast Digest on WXLT (Now WWSB) in Sarasota. Earlier that morning, Christine had taken her crew by surprise by announcing that she was going to begin her program with a news recap. Typically, the first half-hour of Suncoast Digest was informal, almost unscripted, focusing on guests and light features. This morning was different.

For about the first eight or so minutes of her news wrap-up, Christine was her usual self: pretty, professional, measured, but friendly. She summarized three national stories from the day before and then read a piece about a shooting at a local restaurant the previous evening. Chris's crew attempted to run footage from the story about the shooting, but a technical malfunction prevented the footage from airing. Jean Reed, the camerawoman who was working that morning thirty-two years ago, later recalled becoming nervous. Christine had a reputation for not responding well when technical problems caused her to come off badly on the air. News director Mike Simmons considered Chris "very emotional."

Jean queued her anchorwoman: "Chris, the film's not going to roll." "Not going to roll," Chris repeated with apparent wry amusement. Jean later remembered having time to feel relief that Chris didn't seem angry. The crew cut back, live, to the newscaster. The things that Chris Chubbuck said and did next weren't soon forgotten by those who witnessed them, whether at the WXLT studio or on live regional television.

Queued, on the air once again, Chris said the following:

"In keeping with Channel 40's policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color, you are going to see another first -- attempted suicide."


With that, Chris Chubbuck raised her right hand from below the desktop. In it, she held a .38 caliber handgun. Placing the gun to the bottom of the back of her skull, she pulled the trigger. A quick-thinking video-director immediately cut the live visual feed, but WXLT's audience heard the gunshot that morning. It was only when Chris's twitching, contorted body fell to the floor that everyone in the studio realized that what they'd seen hadn't been a tasteless prank. Blood-soaked on her anchor's desk was a story she'd previously written long-hand: the story of her own suicide attempt with prophetic details about her transport to Sarasota Memorial Hospital and her "critical condition." Within 14 hours of her arrival at the hospital, the 29 year old local celebrity was pronounced dead.

Chris Chubbuck had committed suicide on live television.

By the time the networks picked up the story that evening, Chris's last words resonated in almost every household in the country: " the latest in blood and guts and in living color…"




Christine Chubbuck's life was no different than most; quirky in some ways, nondescript in others. The child of a wealthy family from Hudson, Ohio, Chris had moved to Sarasota to pursue her career in television and had taken up residence in the family's vacation home in that area. By July of 1974, the 29 year old was sharing the home with her recently-divorced mother and her brother, a sickly interior decorator.

Chris had a difficult time reaching out to people and found it almost impossible to form relationships with people outside of her immediate family. It's said that she spoke self-depreciatingly of the fact that she'd reached the age of 29 a virgin, and that she considered her mother and her brother to be her best friends. It's also said that she dryly mentioned the desire to kill herself to even casual acquaintances, but that nobody took her seriously because she exuded such command. Christine Chubbuck was known as a "tough cookie."

Bob Keehn, WXLT's regular evening news anchor, remembered Chris as "someone with very deep feelings… what seemed to concern her was her involvement with the human condition. She would express a negative reaction to people and the way they treated each other." Sports reporter Andrea Kirby said that Chris "came on so heavy, so intense." Jean Reed said "she had a great sense of the absurd, almost a macabre sense of humor."

If Chris's co-workers didn't always know what to think of her, her family sometimes found themselves dumbstruck. Chris's mother, Peg Chubbuck remembered her daughter this way: "There was a haunting melody in Chris. She gave so many presents, spent so much money, not to buy their friendship... but because she wanted to. It's almost like her life was a little out of gear with other people. She was the only person I ever knew who would walk into a room and every head would turn... yet nobody ever came over and asked for her phone number. It's been like that since she was 13."

Lacking even the most rudimentary social life, Chris's existence revolved around the home she shared with her mother, brother and pet poodle… and her job. In fact, Chris's work in television became her focus. According to her mother, "She had a job that she loved. She said constantly that if it ended tomorrow she would still be glad she had had it. But she had nothing else in her social life."

Andrea Kirby recalled after Chris's death that she'd once told her that she "'would like to have, just for one week, someone I really loved, who really loved me.'" Nonetheless, Chris's mother speculated that Chris didn't have more than twenty-five dates in the last ten years of her life. Shortly before her death at the age of 29, Chris had to have an ovary removed for medical reasons. Her doctors told her that her chances of having a child would be exhausted within a couple of years.

Lacking the prospects of a family, Chris Chubbuck threw herself into her job; into television. Television became her parent, her lover, her one trusted friend. Television became her savior… and it ate her alive.

About a week prior to July 15, 1974, Christine contacted local police departments, ostensibly to gather information for a story on suicide prevention. One question she asked was which methods of suicide were the most successful. An officer told Christine that the most foolproof method of suicide involved using a "wadcutter" slug (which explodes upon entry), fired from a .38 caliber revolver, to the lower back of the head.

When she died by her own hand on that July morning in 1974, Chris related a warning to each of her viewers. That might be fitting. Who better to show us what television really is than someone who's seen it from the inside out? "The latest in blood and guts and in living color."




Two years later, in Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant satire Network, washed-up newsman Howard Beale announced his intentions to finish his career by killing himself in an upcoming live broadcast. Later in the film, as Howard's nightly rants became ratings hits, viewers tuned in by the millions to see what the "mad prophet of the airwaves" might say next. In 1976, Network played like broad and grandiose satire. Who, after all, would have the audacity to propose suicide on live TV? It's possible that in two short years, the lonely death of Christine Chubbuck had already slipped from the national short attention span.

In January of 1987, caught up in a tempest of trials and political corruption, Pennsylvania State Treasurer R. "Budd" Dwyer called a press conference and killed himself with a handgun before a cadre of television cameras.

In 1994, in one of his rare moments of clarity, Oliver Stone directed Natural Born Killers. A searing indictment of our television obsessed culture in the early '90's, Natural Born Killers plays like A Current Affair or Hard Copy would have looked, had their producers ever been completely let off the chain. Drenched in the blood and guts that viewers demand, openly worshiping the killers and criminals that the TV generation obsesses over, Natural Born Killers held a gore-dripping mirror up to the national conscious and asked if we liked what we saw. It may be ironic that many of the same shows that Stone seemed to be accusing of sensationalism delighted in reporting so-called copycat crimes.

David Fincher's brilliant 1999 Fight Club, based on Chuck Palahniuk's novel, introduces us to "Jack," a protagonist who's life literally looks just like an Ikea commercial... except for a duel personality that inserts porn clips into the children's films he projects at a local theater, makes soap out of fat salvaged from liposuction clinics (and sells his designer product back to the rich housewives who've had the fat extracted) and prowl's the streets at night looking for someone to connect with. Someone to connect with with his fists. The prospect of connecting in any other meaningful way is lost on "Jack." Having grown up without a father, and ostensibly having been raised by the warped television perspective that's shaped his Ikea value system, "Jack" just wants someone to shove. It played like satire in '99, but it was really insight.

In 2001, NBC debuted Fear Factor, a program that would go on to include footage of contestants eating raw animal entrails and blood, maggots and insects for money. The show continues to be a ratings hit, and "celebrity" editions allow viewers to see the rich and famous sinking to unspeakable levels of humiliation.

In retrospect, the desperate death of Christine Chubbuck doesn't seem quite so odd.

Maybe a bit early, yes… but not all that odd.

"We suffer at our sense of loss, we are frightened by her rage, we are guilty in the face of her rejection, we are hurt by her choice of isolation and we are confused by her message." - Reverand Thomas Beason at Christine's funeral

"And when they found our shadows
Grouped around the TV sets
They ran down every lead
They repeated every test
They checked out all the data in their lists
And then
The alien anthropologists
Admitted they were still perplexed
But on eliminating every other reason
For our sad demise
They logged the only explanation left
This species has amused itself to death
No tears to cry
No feelings left
This species has amused itself to death"

-Roger Waters


See also:

Washington Post article on Christine Chubbuck by Sally Quinn

Everything2 Article on Christine Chubbuck




Comments:
Amazing article.

But, uh, we don't need to do an intervention/prevention on you, do we? This wasn't a cry for help, right?
 
This wasn't a cry for help, right?

Oh, Lord, no. Thanks for asking, but I'm fine. I just came across the story and found it compelling. Especially in regard to what TV has become.
 
Wow, that was fascinating. I'd never heard that story. I remember watching the OJ Simpson chase, and my parents kept telling me to look away because they thought he was going to kill himself on national TV. I didn't realize there was an actual event where that happened.

You're not going to get me to quit watching The Amazing Race, though.
 
Great post
 
devastating
 
life can be tough but to commit suicide is something I can't understand. Having 2 of my best friends die by suicide, I can never truly understand what pushes a person to do such a thing. It's very sad.
 
So is the birth of O'reilly at foxnews. So endeth the lesson.
 
I mean, the weird thing about life is that at 29 you can have your chances of having kids drastically reduced and it can feel like the end. But at 40 you can look up and think: woops forgot to have kids, got caught up in everything else, an there's some feelings but it's not the end of the world. At 29, you can be a virgin and feel like a freak -- at 38 you can be someone who's had sex and think: Jesus, life would be simpler if I was abstinent.

Time's a tricky one, but one thing it brings is the luxury of perspective maybe.

RIP Christine Chubbock -- you were gorgeous, and yeah depressed, but also blessed with a wit like none other, I suspect. ("It's not...going...to roll.")
 
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