Given the nature of her celebrity, it is not entirely surprising to find there is very little in the way of biographical information on Christine Chubbuck. She is mentioned in various timelines and trivia databases. There are a few brief articles about her in encyclopedias and other sites dedicated to obscure history. There are also, as I learned in researching this, websites devoted to the perverse and macabre in which she is mentioned second only to R. Budd Dwyer. If my approach to the specific nature of her celebrity seems circumspect, it is only that I do not want the sensational to overwhelm the personal. I believe Chris' life amounted to more than a question in a game of Trivial Pursuit.
Christine Chubbuck was born on August 24th, 1944. She was raised in Hudson, Ohio in an upper-middle-class family. She, as well as her siblings, attended private schools in their youth. Though their parents would eventually divorce, it was not until all of the Chubbuck children had grown up and moved out.
There are two sides to every coin. We see this first with Chris in a tale told about her high school years at the Laurel School for Girls. Chris formed the "Dateless Wonders," a club for girls who were dateless come Saturday night. The name of the club is, at best, rueful humor. A boringly normal upbringing balanced by a little social ineptitude? This would only become magnified as Chris grew up.
She attended Ohio State University before graduating from Boston University, her majors were film and broadcasting. In her middle twenties she moved to the family's summer home in Siesta Key, Florida. Chris' mother, Peg, joined her a few years later, following the divorce from Chris' father. Her brother Greg followed her lead and lived with them briefly before becoming engaged and moving out. Chris' other brother, Timothy, moved in to the guest cottage shortly after that.
"It's sort of like an adult commune. Everybody thinks it's a little odd, we know that, but it's a nice arrangement for us. We all have our own privacy."- Peg Chubbuck
After graduation from college she worked for a number of small television stations. In August of 1973 she was hired by WXLT-TV, Channel 40, and soon after began her first on-camera work, a morning public affairs program called "Suncoast Digest."
By all accounts she is a competent professional doing her best in something of a small pond. Her show averages 500 viewers, 1000 in season - it is a small station, only a few years old and making-do with rather older equipment. Her biggest complaint with her job is not the size of the endeavor but the flavor. The station owner, Robert Nelson, prefers the sensational in news reporting, what Chris often referred to disparagingly as "blood and guts." In addition, an interview was often part of the morning show's format. Nelson tended to book local business leaders rather more than Chris felt was necessary. Chris felt they ended up pandering to their advertisers.
Her show on July 15th, 1974, would gain for her national attention and scores of newspaper headlines.
Chris opened the show that morning from the news desk. She did three quick pieces of national news followed by a short story and a film clip about a local shooting at a restaurant the night before. At this point another film clip was to begin to accompany her main story. When Jean Reed, the camerawoman, indicated to her that there was a technical problem and the film was not going to roll, Chris continued with her next piece:
"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."
At which point she produced a .38 caliber revolver from under the desk and took her own life on live television. She was pronounced dead 14 hours later. She was only a few weeks shy of her 30th birthday.
The inevitable question "Why?" always follows a suicide. It has to. If we were better at asking "Why?" at the right time, there would be far fewer suicides. As it is, Chris left us no suicide note. We are left with our own best guesses based on the observations of those who knew her and the events leading up to her death.
As was mentioned earlier, Chris did not much care for her employer, Robert Nelson. While she loved her job, really loved it, she was still heard to complain on more than one occasion about the way Nelson ran the station. At the time of her death she was earning only $5000 a year. Nelson tended to hire people who were willing to work for less over more talented people who expected to be paid what they were worth.
She was also known to throw tantrums at work. Two recent events are related in an article about her death. The first comes from a week before her death. When she objected to a bouquet of plastic flowers that had been placed in the interview set. In front of the state politician she was about to interview, she threw the flowers across the studio screaming, "I won't have these damned things in my studio!" Later that week she had a terrible fight with the news director when one of her stories was cut in favor of a "blood and guts" story about a shooting.
These two statements, even taken in conjunction, are not really enough. She had her share of frustrations at work, as do we all, but as her mother relayed in an interview later that evening, "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."
It is in her personal life that we begin to approach genuine motivations. The summer before, Chris had had an ovary removed. She was advised by the doctors that if she planned to have children it would have to be within the next few years. Given that she was approaching 30 years of age and was still a virgin, this had to have been difficult to take.
In her last several months she had had very few dates. She had invited a few men to dinner only to be stood up. Her mother estimated later that she had had maybe 25 dates since she went off to college. No relationship had ever gone farther than two dates.
A few months before, she confided to her close friend Andrea Kirby, the station's sports reporter, that she had a tremendous crush on George Ryan, the stock reporter on the local news. She believed that "Gorgeous George" was the solution to her problems. On his 30th birthday, in late June of that year, she went to George with a cake. Later, at a press party, she made it a little clearer to George that she was available. He turned her down. Chris would later learn that George and Andrea had been seeing each other.
With no real close friends (Andrea had been hired by a bigger station in Baltimore and would soon be going on to bigger and better things), no real love interest or even good prospects, and rapidly approaching her 30th birthday she was a spinster and she was rather depressed by it.
"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."- Peg Chubbuck
I first stumbled across a one line description of Chris, a blurb about her being the first person to commit suicide on live television. As is natural for the writers here, I then checked to see if she was noded. There was a nodeshell but no article. Since then I've developed a strange affinity for this woman who died a few years before I was born. I've been touched by the details of her story, disturbed by the description of her death. The more I think about her the more I find myself wanting to say things like 'senseless,' 'tragic,' and 'too soon.'
The article from which I learned much of her story opens with a rather more detailed description of her last moments than I was capable of providing. As disturbing as it is, I feel the hardest quote comes much later in the article, "Though virtually no one seemed shocked by the fact that Christine Chubbuck decided to take her own life, there were many who were stunned by the method she used to take it."
no one seemed shocked that she took her own life
Jean Reed relates, "She told me that she had tried to kill herself four years ago with pills. She said she'd had a hard life... She talked about her suicide attempt a lot."
A month or more before her death she told the news director, Mike Simmons, that she wanted to do a film piece on suicide. When he gave her the go ahead, she phoned the local police department to discuss methods of suicide with an officer there. She was advised that the best method involved a .38 caliber pistol, "wadcutter" slugs that disintegrate in the body and that the gun should be pointed at the lower back of the head, not the temple. She would later follow his advice to the letter.
Just a week before she died she mentioned to the night news editor, Rob Smith, that she had purchased a gun. When he asked her what it was for she responded, "Well, I thought it would be a nifty idea if I went on the air live and just blew myself away." She followed this shocking statement with a laugh and he changed the subject, not caring for her "sick joke."
Just two days before she took her own life she told her brother Greg that she was terribly depressed, didn't think she could cope with life much more and that she was thinking of killing herself. When he asked if she'd like to talk about it she said they could talk tomorrow. Both her brothers and her mother were rather casual in the interview about the way Chris discussed suicide. "It was a recurrent conversation. In times of real downness it seemed to her a real solution for escape. We gave it credence." "We thought it possible because there wasn't anything in her life." "We didn't ignore it."
While in the Navy, in one of the most stressful schools in the armed forces, we had monthly classes on suicide awareness/prevention. I recall two significant pieces from those classes, they have stuck with me these last ten years. The first thing they told us was that most suicide attempts are cries for help. The person does not really want to die, they will talk about suicide before "attempting" it. For this person, any suicide attempt is more likely to result in injury and alarm than in death. The second thing they told us was that if someone really intended to kill themselves there would likely be little warning and they would succeed the first time.
Given Chris Chubbuck's story I have to wonder, were they just telling us that to offset any guilt we might feel over the death of a classmate? There can be no doubt that Chris intended to kill herself. She planned her death and carried it out according to the plan. On her desk was the story she'd written for that evening's program; her suicide, including a description of the attempt, how she'd been rushed to the hospital and was now in critical condition. That she referred to her suicide as an attempt, say those who knew her, is just a sign of her professionalism. She left the door open for an unexpected result.
There were signs though, more than enough. That is what disturbs me so much about this story, about her death. I can't help but feel that it was in so many ways preventable.
"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." - R. Thomas Beason, from his elegy
The main source for this writeup was an article by Sally Quinn, originally published in The Washington Post.