DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Four years ago, our guest Philip Connors wrote a well-received book about the eight years he'd spent - several months every year - as a fire lookout, living in a cabin and scanning the horizon with binoculars atop a 45-foot tower in a remote region of New Mexico.
What Connors didn't write about then was a tragic event which had had a profound effect on his life. Years before, Connors' younger brother Dan committed suicide. And for reasons you'll soon hear, he carried a terrible sense of guilt - a feeling he might've been able to prevent the tragedy.
Philip Connors' new book is a memoir which recounts his relationship with his brother and his struggles to cope with Dan's suicide as he pursued his writing career. You might expect such a story would be relentlessly sad, but it isn't. It's often quite funny as Connors describes his early years in journalism and an unexpected fascination with amateur phone sex. And when, after many years, Connors decides to investigate the circumstances around his brother's death, there are surprising revelations and insights into his life and relationships. Philip Connors' book is called "All The Wrong Places: A Life Lost And Found."
Well, Philip Connors, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, this book is, you know, certainly painful at times, funny at times. At its heart is the suicide of your younger brother Dan, and I wonder if you find it harder to talk about than to write about.
PHILIP CONNORS: Certainly. Yeah. I find it very difficult to talk about, which is one reason I wrote the book. It's been my working sense that suicide is perhaps our last taboo - the thing we find it hardest to talk about. And one way that I got through those years after my brother's death was by writing about it incessantly in private notebooks. And that's the place where I gave myself free rein to talk about it with myself in a way that I just couldn't talk about it with other people.
DAVIES: As a kid, you and your brother were on your family farm. You know, both my parents grew up on farms, and I remember my dad telling me you were never born on a farm. Was it fun?
CONNORS: It was fun. I was very close to my brother, in part because we were fairly isolated. We lived out in the country. We were essentially all the other had as far as human entertainment. And so we did what farm boys have always done. We made up games. We played in the woods. We fished in the river. We spent, you know, all day, every day together, making forts and building snowmen in the winter. And, yeah, I can't remember being bored for even a second of my childhood.
DAVIES: You went to college and pursued a career in journalism, made your way to New York. Your brother went to the Southwest and kind of - was he - what was he - an electrician or a carpenter? He did a lot of blue-collar stuff, right?
CONNORS: Yeah, he did both of those things. When he first moved to Albuquerque, he got a job - you know, a woodworking shop. And he did that for a while until the shop shut down, and then he transitioned to electrical work. He worked for a small company, you know, installing security cameras for post offices and any job like that that involved electrical work that was maybe a little complex. So, yeah, he was - he had always been good with his hands, and so he could do pretty much any blue-collar work without a problem.
DAVIES: Sounds like you weren't particularly close after - you know, after you both left home. And you describe a trip that you made to New Mexico, where he was living. The chapter's called "Up In The Air." You want to just give us a little sense of what that experience was like?
CONNORS: Yeah. So in 1995 - very early in 1995, I went to visit my brother in Albuquerque because he was engaged to be married recently. So I made a trip - a long drive, in fact - to Albuquerque and just hung out there for several days with my brother, kind of seeing his world. I had never been to the Southwest before, never stepped foot in the state of New Mexico.
And during that visit, something extraordinary happened, which was that he took me up in a hot air balloon. It had been his passion - his newfound passion after he moved to Albuquerque. And at the time, I was 22 years old. My brother was 21. And I had never even been on a commercial flight before, so this was my first time up in the air, as you mentioned. And it was - even as it was happening, you know, I knew that this was a memory that was going to stay with me forever because it was such an extraordinary experience. And I - still to this day, 28 years later, I can remember it quite vividly.
DAVIES: And you kind of saw him in a different way - as, you know, competent - and you kind of connected, it sounds like. Was that the last time you saw him - in that - on that trip?
CONNORS: Yeah. That was the last time I saw my brother - January of 1995. He lived another year and a half. But, you know, we were brothers in our early 20s, living on opposite sides of the country. I was going to college, and he was working full time and had been engaged to be married. That ultimately broke off. But, you know, the really sad part about that visit - it is was both exalting and then sort of sat at the end because he made just a little passing comment that I took to be racially insensitive at best. And while I had had this incredible experience with Dan and saw him in a new light - saw him truly as an adult for the first time, not as just my kid brother - that one with little remark really soured me. And I left thinking, you know, maybe he hasn't quite grown up. And maybe when he does, we can reconnect again, but I don't have time for that sort of, you know, racist nonsense. And we never spoke again, which, you know - I'll be honest - haunts me to this day that I just sort of wrote him off like that, and we never talked again.
DAVIES: So describe the last couple of days of his life as you experienced it. You were in New York, and you got a call from your mom. And then what happened?
CONNORS: Yeah, I got a call from my mom on a Sunday afternoon. We were connecting because I had been on a long journey to arrive in New York. I was scheduled to start a summer internship with a magazine in New York City. And so we touched base, and I wanted to let her know I arrived in the city safely after this long drive.
And during that conversation, my mother said to me, you know, I spoke to your brother this morning, and he's been having some trouble with his girlfriend. He sounded really down. I mentioned it to him that you had just arrived in New York or were supposed to arrive today, and he told me he hadn't even known that you were going to be in New York - of course, because we had lost touch and hadn't really talked for a while.
And my mother said you should really call him and just connect with him and try to cheer him up a little bit because he sounded pretty down. And when I hung up the phone, I thought to myself, yeah, yeah, kid brother and his silly troubles with women. I'll get around to calling him. I'll call him in a few days or maybe next week. And as it turns out, it was the very next day that my father called me with the news that he had committed suicide. So I never did get a chance to follow through on my mother's suggestion that I call him and talk to him, connect with him and maybe cheer him up a little bit.
DAVIES: He'd been dating a slightly older woman named Wendy whose married was breaking up. And it's interesting - you know, when you write about hearing about his suicide, you mentioned that you got the call, and you turned down the album you were listening to. And then you write (reading) the known facts were these - he'd spent the afternoon with friends, drinking, he'd spoken to Wendy in the evening by phone, he hadn't shown up for work the next morning, he died alone in his apartment, he'd done the deed with a gun.
A very spare way of presenting it - I'm just wondering if there was - I don't know - why you chose to write it quite that way?
CONNORS: Well, there were probably 15 or 20 attempts to get that moment in the book right, and some of them were much longer. Some of them are very detailed. And in the end, it just seemed to me that those handful of sentences really said all I needed to say about, you know, that moment - the end of his life - at least at that stage of the book.
I spent a lot of years trying to imagine my way into that moment in his life. But when I first got the news, it was, you know, a simple recitation of facts that said all we knew at that time, which was not much. He'd been drinking. He'd had a difficult conversation with his girlfriend - then, ex-girlfriend for just a couple of days - that evening. And he'd shot himself. And that's all we knew for quite some time.
DAVIES: You flew home for the wake and the funeral, and you recount something that an uncle said to you on the afternoon of the wake. You want to tell us about that?
CONNORS: Yeah. My uncle - well, yeah, my uncle and I had always been quite close, and we spoke freely about anything under the sun. And he mentioned, just in passing, as that's part of our usual candor with each other, that there were those in my family who if they had been forced to choose ahead of time which brother would commit such an act and end his own life, you know, the odds would've probably favored me.
And naturally, I was floored by that statement - that - A, that people would think that in my family - B, that people would even express that aloud. But, you know, the more I thought about it over the years, in some perverse way, it sort of liberated me to make of myself whatever the heck I wanted to because as it turned out, I had bucked the odds.
I had been the one expected - well, maybe not expected to commit suicide. No one expects their family member to do that. But if one of the two of us was going to, and the thinking was, well, it probably would be me if it was one of us two - of me and Dan - then, heck, from that point forward, I was playing with house money. I was - I could be with whatever the heck I wanted to be, do whatever I wanted to do with my life because I was living on extra time, in a way - was the way I framed it for myself, in order to not be devoured by the fact that some people in my family thought that about me.
DAVIES: You know, you were, of course, tormented by the phone call that you didn't make. I mean, you know, your mom said give your brother a call. He's feeling down. You don't, and then this horrific thing happens. And it's occurred to me that, I mean, I know I, in my 20s, and probably most people had any number of circumstances in which we did exactly that. You know, we didn't call one of our parents or a sibling or somebody else that kind of could use a - could use a phone call. And nothing like this ever happened. And I wonder - I don't know. It just seems such an ordinary thing to have done. But in this particular case, the consequences just made it feel so different.
CONNORS: Right. Yeah. I mean, what are the odds that my mother calls me with that request one day, and the very next day my father calls to tell me that he's gone? He's not there to take my call anymore. If you try to write that into a novel, it would be unbelievable. But in real life, it's what happened. And naturally - you know, one of the things about living in the shadow of a suicide is that everyone involved is going to have some guilt, is going to wonder, what could I have done? What could I've said? How could I have reached out and provided a sustaining connection in that moment that could have prevented this?
And in my case, it was just sort of amped up because I felt like I had the chance. If I had put down the phone after that call from my mother and picked it up again and dialed my brother's number, I wanted to believe that that might have saved him. I couldn't believe, in fact, that it wouldn't have saved him. That possibility only occurred to me many years later. Like, what if I had called him, and he had still gone through with it? What would that mean? So after, you know, many years of obsessing about this possibility of having reached out to him and connected with him and saved him, I ultimately realized it was a fool's game to play the what if in that scenario because the stakes are, you know, were just so huge. We're talking about his life and - his life and death.
DAVIES: Our guest is Philip Connors. His book is "All The Wrong Places." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is writer Philip Connors. His new book "All The Wrong Places" deals with him dealing with the effects of his younger brother's suicide.
You pursued a career. You got a job at The Wall Street Journal - not a place that you're exactly ideologically in tune with. And it was sort of - I guess sort of a clerk's job, right? You were running faxes and doing various things. But you got a tip and a shot at a story - kind of a feature story for the front page. You want to tell us about that?
CONNORS: Yeah, I got a call one day at my desk when I wasn't running around handing out faxes to reporters. It was a tip, and the tip was this - there's this guy who has made it his life's goal to eat at as many different McDonald's restaurants as possible. So far, he has eaten at 10,890-some of them, and he has the documentation to prove it. And it might make a heck of a front-page story for The Wall Street Journal, so I was given the name of the guy and his phone number. And that was the tip.
DAVIES: Then how did it go when you looked into it?
CONNORS: It turned out to be true, for one thing. We met for lunch, naturally at a McDonald's, in lower Manhattan. He had these file folders full of notes about each and every one of these visits he had made it to McDonald's over the years - what he had eaten, where it was, what the decor was like, if it deviated in any way from the standard. I just found him a fascinating character - just the numbers were staggering - 10,892 McDonald's. Like, how does somebody find time for that? How do they get to that many McDonald's? It seemed like a story worth sussing out.
DAVIES: Yeah. And so what was the motivation? What (laughter) was so fascinating about finding that next McDonald's?
CONNORS: There was something inside of him that was a collector. I discovered this when I went to his home in the suburbs outside of Washington, D.C. Every single room had a different item that he collected. There were Russian nesting dolls in the dining room and African masks in the living room. You know, you only have so much space in your house, so he had expanded his definition of collecting to include - as he put it, collecting the McDonald's experience. He had collected all the national parks. He had been to every single last one. He had collected all the state capitals. He had visited every single last one. And McDonald's just raised the ante because they were opening new franchises faster than he could get to them all. So it was like the ultimate collecting quest.
DAVIES: At one point, this guy, Peter Holden, asks you, are you a collector of anything? And were you?
CONNORS: Right. It was a natural question. You know, I had been asking all the questions for hours, but he was also a curious guy too. And he asked me that question and my first thought was no. And then I paused for a second and thought to myself, wow, yeah, you know, I do have a collection if you understand collecting as broadly as he does. I had a collection in a notebook of quotes that I had copied down from books I had read because I'd become sort of obsessed, myself, with reading books about suicide. And so I had a commonplace book where I collected a sort of greatest hits of quotes about suicide. And it occurred to me to say, yeah, Peter, I collect quotes about suicide.
And then of course - that's just not the sort of collecting impulse you share with people. I mean, this was three years after my brother's death now. And I had learned quite well by then that if you want to shut down a conversation - if you want to bring it to a screeching halt as quickly as possible, just drop the word suicide. You know, it's a - pardon the pun - a killer for any conversation. So I had to reach back further into my childhood, and I just, you know, casually told him, yeah, you know, as a kid I collected baseball cards. I still have them all. But yeah, it was that odd other collection that occurred to me first.
DAVIES: Philip Connors' book is called "All The Wrong Places." After a break, we'll hear about an unusual step he took to overcome his loneliness while he was living in New York and about what he learned when he investigated the circumstances of his brother's death. Also, John Powers will consider the British crime series "Foyle's War." I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross who's off this week. We're speaking with Philip Connors, whose new memoir recounts his struggle to come to terms with his younger brother's suicide as he pursued a writing career. Connors wrote an earlier book about his time as a fire lookout in a remote area of New Mexico. His new book is called "All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost And Found." A heads up to parents, this next part of the interview includes a very non-explicit chapter about phone sex.
You have an interesting section in here where you describe how you got into phone sex. And this is amateur phone sex. I mean, this is not where you call up and pay a fee per minute to have somebody in a call center pretend to do things while you, you know, pleasure yourself. Explain how this works. This is just fascinating.
CONNORS: Yeah, I was taken by an ad I saw on the back pages of the "Village Voice" promising amateur phone sex. And that was - my first thought was, well, I thought it was a realm for professionals. You call, you pay whatever.
DAVIES: So to speak (laughter).
CONNORS: Yeah, right, right, or at least people pretending to be professionals. But this line was different in that in order to get women to call, they had to offer free calls to women. And so the promise was, women and men could call into this line and record little personal greetings that would then go up on the line, and you could listen to them and click - well, not click through - sort of click through by pressing your keypad on your phone. And you listen to them one by one, and if one of them intrigues you, you could send a request to that person to actually connect in a live conversation. And of course, the person, on the other hand, had the ability to either deny that request or accede to it and say, yeah, sure, I'll talk to you one-on-one. And so that was how the line worked, and you know, it wasn't long before I became a pretty dedicated user of this strange, unlikely service.
DAVIES: So you'd go in, offer a description of yourself, and then get connected with a woman who was just calling in - I mean, she's not getting paid - and then have what? What kind of interaction?
CONNORS: You know, it didn't necessarily have to have anything to do with sex. There were people I talked to about all sorts of things under the sun on that line. I think, you know, if they had been dedicated to truth in advertising, they might have called it a loneliness line rather than a phone sex line. Yes, there were people calling and looking for phone sex. There were also people just desperately lonely, looking for some voice to connect with, someone to talk to who would make them feel less alone.
There were nights where, you know, I would try to connect with people and fail. There were other nights where I would talk to someone for half an hour, 45 minutes or longer about their work or, you know, where they lived in the city and what they liked to do. And then there were also a couple of occasions where I had really interesting conversations with people that ended with us saying, gosh, maybe we should meet in person. And a couple of times, I actually did do that with people.
DAVIES: And lead to sexual encounters in at least a couple of cases?
CONNORS: That's correct, yes.
DAVIES: You know, this may be an utterly facile observation, but you know, I note that, you know, you were so tormented by the phone call you never made to your brother at a hard time, and now, here you were seeking, you know, something - human connection, gratification - on the phone. Do you think there's a link?
CONNORS: Oh, yeah. I think there's definitely a link. I didn't feel a need to make it explicit in the book, but I think the discerning reader will note the repeated motif of the telephone. I actually suggested to my publisher that the front cover of this book should have a telephone on it because I felt strongly that the telephone was the one thing that tied a lot of the disparate elements of this story together.
DAVIES: You write that in the flings you had had since your brother's suicide, that sex emptied your mind of everything nonessential, and the one thing that remained essential, you thought, was the story of his suicide. So I guess the point being, sex was not satisfying in person. Was phone sex different?
CONNORS: Boy, that's a good question. I don't know that I've ever thought about that. You know, phone sex could be gratifying in its way. There was always a sort of emptiness at the end of it, though because, you know, it didn't end with you, you know, cuddling with anybody or spooning with a partner. It ended with you sort of sadly looking at the phone and hanging it up and going outside to smoke a cigarette before you went to bed. It was not terribly satisfying, although, I think there is something to the idea that I was trying to use the telephone to connect with something. I wasn't sure what it was exactly. And I suspect there was some little part of me subconsciously that - especially after I discerned that the people calling this line were so lonely and so desperately in search of a human connection - that maybe I could provide that to somebody in a moment of need in a way I hadn't provided that to my brother in his moment of need.
DAVIES: Did you ever think you did that with somebody? Did you ever get off the phone thinking, that was somebody who really needed that conversation?
CONNORS: I did, more than once. And a couple of the people that I met in person through that line turned out to be people who were going through very difficult things in their lives, and I felt like we could talk to each other with a degree of honesty and candor that you're probably never going to be able to achieve on your standard first date. The way we had met already signaled to both of us, respectively, that we were a little bit weird and we weren't using the usual channels to try to achieve romantic love. So why not be totally honest with each other?
And I found that, with a couple of people in particular, that, you know, we were brutally honest with each other. We let our guard down in a way you would never do on the standard, you know, rom-com first date sort of way. Something about the way we met just made candor impossible to avoid.
DAVIES: Philip Connors's book is "All The Wrong Places." We'll continue our conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is writer Philip Connors. He has a new book about dealing with his younger brother's suicide. It's called "All The Wrong Places."
You know, after many years, you decided to find out more about your younger brother Dan's suicide - about the circumstances. And in addition to talking to a lot of people who knew him at the time and relatives, you went and found the police report and the photos of the scene, which were, as you described them in the book, certainly as gruesome as one would expect. And I'm not going to ask you to describe them here, but I was wondering why you wanted to see them and if they helped in any way?
CONNORS: Yeah. You know, I think part of the reason I wanted to see them was for years after my brother's death, I would have occasional dreams in which I was searching for him. Or a couple of times I remember a very vivid dream in which he was in a casket and being buried, and yet he was still alive. And I was trying to bring attention to this fact to everybody around like, hey, no, no, don't bury him. He's still alive, stop. And I think those dreams had something to do with the fact that there was no viewing of the body for obvious reasons. He had killed himself with a gunshot to the head, so at the wake and at the funeral, the casket was closed, and I never did get to see him deceased. And so my last memory of him was a moment in which I felt more alive, perhaps, than I had ever felt flying in that hot air balloon with him. And I felt like maybe I could put a stop to the dreams if I confronted the fact of his death - the literal, visual fact of it. And, in fact, that was the case. I stopped having the dreams after I confronted the police and autopsy photos.
DAVIES: And do the images haunt you? Or did they?
CONNORS: They were certainly very difficult to look at and shocking on first viewing. But, you know, in order to face up finally to what he had done and face up to what his suicide had done to my life, I just felt it was very important to look - look at it, face-on, head-on and not have any illusions about what he had done to himself. And one thing you do as a reporter, too - if you can't find a way into the story, and I couldn't seem to find a way into his story and why it had ended the way it did, you start with the public documents. You know, so there was a police report, there was an autopsy report. Both of which I knew I could get my hands on. And then there were these additional photographs. That hadn't occurred to me there would be that trove of evidence, but since they were mentioned right there in the reports I thought, well, I got to just continue to follow the trail and look at anything that turns up.
DAVIES: He'd had a fiance who'd broken up with him and her dad, I believe, owned the construction company that he'd worked for. You spoke to them, eventually spoke to the other woman that had broken up with him right before he took his life. You spoke to other relatives. Did you learn things that help you - that increased your understanding of the events in a meaningful way?
CONNORS: I did, ultimately. The things that people told me most when I tracked them down, people who had known him and loved him, was just the sense of how competent and mature everyone viewed him as being, thus their incredible shock at the end of his life and the fact that he had chosen to end his life.
The one thing I ultimately tracked down was a little piece of information offered me by the woman he had been engaged to be married to. And she, after an evening together, said toward the end of the night, you know, your brother had a secret. I wonder if he ever told you about it. And, you know, I thought, gosh, I don't know of any secret. If he had some secret that he had chosen to share with me, I would certainly remember that. And she - you know, it took some coaxing because it became clear to, I think, both of us that she was probably the only person on earth that he had ever shared this piece of information with.
And when she told me what it was, it sort of unlocked the mystery of his suicide for me - or at least provided a context for it that I hadn't had before. And perhaps, in some way, it even allowed me to forgive him in a way I hadn't been able to before I learned this secret that he had carried with him all his life, likely only shared with one person. And, you know, it was serious business what she told me. And it put his life and his death in a new light.
DAVIES: And what was the secret?
CONNORS: Well, the secret was one night, when they were still engaged to be married, he had been drinking. He felt that he was probably losing her because she was pulling away. She was concerned about certain things with him, including his drinking. And one night, he confessed to her that as a child, he had been raped. And it was not long after that that she broke off the engagement - not because of that fact. There were lots of things in play.
But I've always wondered whether that doubly hurt him that he confessed the darkest secret he held and - perhaps as a way of trying to hang on to someone he felt he was losing, and he lost her anyway. That's almost less, you know, less interesting than the fact that - God, the poor guy had something horribly violent happen to him when he was a child, and he was never able to tell anyone about it. He carried it with him his entire life, shared it only with one person.
And, you know, you start poking around into studies of child sex abuse, studies of suicide, and you find there's a link there. To be sexually abused or attacked as a child multiplies your risk of eventually attempting or achieving suicide. So that little piece of information - sort of a double-edged sword, you know? I was so sad and so angry to learn that something like that had happened to him. And at the same time, you know, it was almost like the lost piece of the puzzle that finally explained perhaps why he had been a tormented young man.
DAVIES: Did it lessen your sense of guilt at not having made that call?
CONNORS: Yeah, I suppose it did, which is another double-edged aspect of that piece of information. I came to think of it almost as a gift of spoiled fruit, you know? It's like, well, maybe I wasn't as culpable as I had wanted to assume I was for not picking up the phone and calling him. At the same time, if you're going to be sort of let off the hook for something, is that how you want to be let off the hook? I think not. So it's a - it was a vexing piece of information. There's no doubt about that.
DAVIES: You talked to your parents about it, and your mother shared a very painful journal that she had kept about her feelings. And I wonder kind of what made a difference for you? I mean, I can't think of any word to describe having come to a different kind of feeling about your brother's suicide. I mean, healing or getting over with it seems trivial to say such a thing. But I'm wondering kind of where you are with it today and how you got there?
CONNORS: Well, catharsis and closure and healing are extremely elusive for people who are close to someone who committed suicide. Yeah, sure, there's a desire to look back on one's own experience and make something shapely and meaningful out of it - perhaps something that would even qualify as a work of art. But there's also the desire to connect with other people, to make other people feel less alone.
You know, you mention my mother's diary that she shared with me, and that was what really unlocked this book for me. Her bravery in sharing something she had written in private, something that was extremely personal, very emotional. And her handing it to me and saying, you can read this. That was literally what kicked off the process of writing this book for me, and I'll always be grateful to my mother for that.
DAVIES: Well, Philip Connors, thanks so much for speaking with us.
CONNORS: Dave, it's been a pleasure. Thank you.
DAVIES: Philip Connors' memoir is "All The Wrong Places: A Life Lost And Found." Coming up, John Powers considers the British crime series "Foyle's War." This is FRESH AIR.
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