When I read in The New Yorker that the Golden Gate Bridge was the most popular suicide magnet in the world, I could not stop thinking about what someone must be going through as they walked from the parking lot on either side to some spot in the middle and climbed over the rail. It seemed like the darkest corner of the human mind.
I was reminded of the painting by Pieter Breughel, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. In the corner of the painting, a pair of legs disappears into the water with a splash so small it is hardly noticed by the other people in the picture, much less by someone in the museum.
Having watched the World Trade Center collapse from my window, I imagined that the people who jump from the Golden Gate Bridge must be trying to escape their own inferno.
I had worked in the movie business for most of my adult life, but the closest I had come to actually “making” a movie was sitting behind a desk or in a folding chair on set. My relationship to suicide has been casual and distant – like most people the idea had crossed my mind only fleetingly; my middle name was given to me after a great uncle who had committed suicide. My relationship to the precarious nature of life and the pain of tragic loss has been intense and familial. I believed I was sensitive to suffering.
What made the suicides at the Golden Gate Bridge so unusual is that they took place in broad daylight, in front of people at a busy place – whereas most suicides take place in extreme privacy, in locked studies, dorm rooms, garages, barns, closets, motel bathrooms. Did these people want to be seen? Why? Did they evidence their intentions as they walked onto the bridge? Could one tell that they were already in some liminal state, almost gone? What must this walk from one end of the bridge toward the center be like?
In short order, I flew to San Francisco, tried to find locations from which to film the Golden Gate Bridge, learned how to use mini-dv cameras, placed ads for crew, obtained permits. The production structure took shape: we would film the bridge for an entire year, every daylight moment, with a pair of cameras at each of two vantage points. One camera would be fixed, at wide angle to record the bridge and the water beneath it, as if it were a postcard. The operator simply had to change tapes every hour and press record. The other camera was fitted with an extreme telephoto lens – strong enough to see individual people as they walked across the bridge. The bridge was more than a mile long, filled with tourists, joggers, and bikers, often obscured by weather. So the camera operator had to make choices, use whatever instincts he or she possessed to try to determine who might climb over the rail.
From the start, it was clear that we needed to establish a set of guidelines about when we were simply to observe and when should intervene. After one day, we understood that if someone was walking alone, if he or she looked sad, lingered too long at one spot, paced back and forth – this made them logical subjects to be filmed but did not mean we should call the police to take them away. There were simply many too many people who fit this description. We decided that if someone set down a bag or briefcase or removed shoes or a wallet – warning signs we knew, from the article in The New Yorker, that the Bridge Patrols paid attention to – or if someone made a real move to climb onto or over the rail, that trying to save a life was more important than getting footage. The Bridge Office was put on all of our cell phone speed dials.
In the first two months, we watched countless pedestrians cross the bridge. Our logbooks are quite sad in and of themselves. “Man walking alone, black jacket.” “Young man standing at rail for a long time. Alone.” “Woman in hooded sweatshirt, maybe crying.” We saw no one jump though our telephoto lens, but we knew when someone had. Flares were thrown into the current; Coast Guard boats came racing from their docks; small emergency vehicles redirected traffic on the bridge; patrolmen leaned over scouring the water for a body. Back in the office, we reviewed our wide-angle footage and found the splashes.
I met frequently with the Coroner of Marin County, where the bodies of the jumpers were taken. He had the unenviable task of notifying the families of the deceased, and the incredible ability to do so with both great comfort and honesty. Marin is the placid commuter community outside the city. Not so many people actually die there. It is only because of the location of the Coast Guard station on the Marin side of the bay that so skews the suicide statistics and directs these bodies to his attention, even though the bridge seems much more rightfully San Franciscan. But perhaps there is a grace in this, in that the Coroner of Marin is much more available, more of hand-holder than his urban counterpart. And when he thought it was appropriate, he provided me access to autopsy reports and inquiries, and even asked families if they wished to participate in my project or wrote them letters of introduction on my behalf.
I had a lot of time to contemplate when I was sitting behind the camera, in every kind of weather imaginable, within a few hundred yards of one of the worlds’ greatest sites of Nature and Man’s majesty side by side. I thought if I stared at the Golden Gate Bridge long enough, I might crack its code, understand its fatal beauty. It is often undeniably stunning, awe inspiring – but the Bridge’s most striking power is its ability to seemingly erase time. Within moments of a death, it’s like it never happened. Things return to normal, just like in Breughel’s painting.
I thought if I watched enough people, I would be able to spot the outward manifestations of their interior demons. My crew and I followed thousands of people with the cameras. I saw the first man actually climb onto the rail and jump. I am not sure to this day why I filmed him. He looked like he was enjoying a spring day. He was wearing a track suit and sneakers. He walked briskly as if getting some exercise. He talked on his cell phone. He laughed heartily. And then he put down his phone as I called the Bridge Police. He sat on the rail for a few seconds. He crossed himself. And then he jumped. In retrospect I told myself that I must have seen something, some clue–but what?
I filmed another man for 90 minutes. It was a picture-perfect day – sunny and warm. There were many tourists walking on the bridge, even picnicking in the grassy area near my camera. He had very long black hair that whipped in front of his face. He was very tall. He walked in fits and starts, stopping at the little art deco balconies as if to take in the panoramic views of the bay. He completed a full crossing of the bridge, like a great many tourists do, and walked off the north end towards a little rest area. About 15 minutes later he crossed the bridge walking southbound, making a round trip. He walked more quickly, as if he had had enough sightseeing, but he let his hair blow into his eyes, made less effort to push it back in place. He touched the cables. He walked back to one of the balconies. He seemed to be reading something, a ticket perhaps. It was almost noon. He hopped onto the rail, sitting on it facing the traffic and the ocean beyond. And then he stood up and then he fell back. I have reviewed my footage over and over; not for one minute, one second, one frame, did he do anything that met our guidelines for a call to the authorities. The Bridge Patrols never approached him. Still his presence on the bridge made me anxious – but then there was hardly a day when we didn’t think we might be filming someone who was going to jump.
In all of my interviews, I searched to see if these people who had committed suicide had dropped hints, left clues. Many had gone to great lengths to conceal their intentions, but almost all had made mention of suicide, sought help, confided. Even when their plans were in plain sight, they were almost impossible to see. Those moments of clarity appeared as if in a dream, in hindsight. Those left behind were always playing things back in rewind.
I wanted to make a film about the human spirit in crisis, that showed but did not judge. I wanted to open people’s eyes. I wanted to make people look harder at the world around them, at the relationships that they treasure and the people they are somehow entrusted to care for. In the course of our year at the Golden Gate Bridge, I came to care in a way for all of the people who walked out onto it. We helped to save several lives – our calls pointed the patrolmen to people who had climbed over the rail and were standing on the ledge. We were unable to help others. This is profoundly and inescapably disturbing.
I wanted to punctuate the debate about the suicide barrier at the bridge: the bridge authorities need to care about everyone on their bridge, not just the people they think are worthy. I don’t know how many lives a suicide barrier would save but one life would be a start.
In the United States there are almost twice as many suicides each year than homicides. While homicides are a nightly recitation on the local news, suicides are rarely mentioned. I wanted to open a much larger and much needed debate about suicide and mental illness.