Executive's Suicide in Perspective
by Tony Kontzer
When I read the news that Richard Egan, the "E" in EMC Corp., had taken his own life over the weekend, I was saddened--and curious, as I always I am when I see the word "suicide."
I wondered why a man who'd amassed such fortunes, built a billion-dollar tech company from scratch, and had the honor of serving as U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, would want to pull the plug on such a fortunate life. Then I learned that he was facing a long battle with terminal lung cancer, and it all made sense.
Even though someone in the U.S. dies by suicide once every 16 minutes, it remains an act shrouded in stigma. Consider that three days after reports broke that Egan had shot himself in the head rather than face a slow death by cancer, EMC still was standing by a press release stating that Egan died "after a long battle with cancer."
Every day, families all over the country similarly pretend that a family member died in some other, more dignified way.
Don't get me wrong, I completely understand why EMC has chosen to take the vague approach. There are a lot of associations with suicide that would only serve to cast a negative light on EMC. Not that Egan's suicide should reflect on EMC in any way, but it could definitely be bad for business. Still, that doesn't make me feel any better about EMC's quiet little exercise in denial, which effectively pulls the veil just a little further over suicide rather than taking advantage of an opportunity to provide a bit more understanding.
Now, you may be asking, why the heck is this tech blogger waxing philosophical about suicide? And to that, I have a two-part answer.
First, because Egan was a titan in the world of data storage, and thus has had an impact on IT shops all over the country, it behooves me to at least pause to consider the significance of his passing.
But more importantly, I've dealt with suicide intimately.
My first wife, Roxann, the mother of my 12-year-old son, Jackson, took her own life in April 2006. So, unlike the folks in EMC's PR department, when I see an opportunity to use my station in life to shed some light on a misunderstood issue, I take advantage of it.
To be fair, there are huge differences between Egan's suicide and Roxann's. Egan's actions sound to me like a clear-thinking decision from a man who'd lived a full life and wasn't willing to go out with a whimper. Conversely, my first wife was a middle-aged woman with no physical health issues and three kids still needing her guidance through life, but in the end, she was done in by a bad brain. And in that sense, she is the face of suicide. Or, more to the point, she's the face of mental illness and what it does to those who are unlucky enough to find themselves standing in its path.
But because she wasn't rich or well-known, Roxann's death went without notice beyond her family and friends. When someone of Egan's wealth and fame takes his own life, it's a chance to remind people that suicide is real--epidemic, really--and that it comes in all shapes and sizes. The billionaire technology executive. The mentally ill suburban mom. The jilted young lover who's lost his perspective. The middle-age father who can't take the pressure. Or--getting back to technology-related news--the teen-aged girl on MySpace badgered to the point of no return by the unscrupulous parent of a friend. Sometimes, it makes all the sense in the world, sometimes it makes less sense than anything you can imagine.
Yet, because of that word--suicide--all of these deaths end up dumped into the same bucket of misunderstanding.
So as you think about Egan's death, or Roxann's, or that of anyone else you've known who's chosen suicide for whatever reason, try to celebrate who they were in life, and be up front about how they died. In time, an amazing thing will happen: That stigma surrounding their deaths will just melt away.
For an interesting take on Egan's life, read this.