Vincent van Gogh – Suicide, Homicide, or Misadventure?
I recently read an article about researchers discovering the location that artist Vincent van Gogh painted his last work. I decided to re-post an earlier blog I wrote on just that topic.
The research for my book, Deadly Provenance, took me places I never expected to go. To the dark recesses of the brain, its power over the body, and all that could possibly go wrong with that relationship. How did I get there?
For my premise, I needed a painting that was plundered by the Nazis during World War II and never recovered. There were many. I chose Vincent van Gogh’s “Still Life: Vase With Oleanders” because he’s one of my favorite artists and one whose life touched my heart as much as his art.
I’ve had one of those giant coffee-table books of his artwork for years. I wanted to know more and the most comprehensive, well-written and beautifully poignant account I highly recommend is a book by two Pulitzer prize-winning authors: Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, called Van Gogh The Life:
The book is astonishing in its breadth of research from Vincent’s history, family ties, relationships, such as they were. But their conclusions about how Vincent died simply blew me away. Only this is certain. On July 27, 1890, Vincent sustained a gunshot wound to the abdomen. He stumbled back from his painting foray to the Ravoux Inn, his residence, in a town twenty miles north of Paris – Auvers, France. Thirty hours later he was dead.
No forensics was available, no gun was ever found. The bullet was never removed from his body. His painting supplies were never recovered. The location of the shooting was never verified. There were, supposedly, no eye-witnesses. When Vincent was asked by the police if he wanted to commit suicide, his answer was a vague. “Yes, I believe so.” When they reminded him suicide was a crime, he said, “Do not accuse anyone. It is I who wanted to kill myself.”
Why do the authors make a case against suicide? They believe Vincent wanted to die and actually welcomed death. Here are the points they make:
The bullet trajectory was oblique and from further away than Vincent’s arm could reach.
If he were indeed painting in the wheat field, as suggested, it would have been too far and difficult to return to the Inn with a bullet to his gut.
The gun and art equipment were never located.
He left no suicide note and he was a prolific writer.
Rather than go into details here, and there are many convincing ones, I urge you to read the book, at the very least the Appendix, where the authors make their case against suicide.
So who might have shot Vincent, either accidentally or on purpose? There were, apparently, in this little town two or more teenagers who enjoyed tormenting the artist, who, unlike, the fiery and handsome Kirk Douglas, was a rail-thin, emaciated and dirty wretch with a bad temper.
A bit more is known now about Vincent’s personality “disorder” and it is suspected that, with family history and symptoms that prompted bizarre, dramatic behavior, the diagnosis of temporal lobe epilepsy is a viable possibility.
An interesting side note: As I was writing this (rather long, sorry) blog I realized there were stunning similarities between Vincent’s symptoms and a young woman in a book I’ve since read entitled “Brain on Fire – My Month of Madness:” https://www.amazon.com/Brain-Fire-My-Month-Madness/dp/1451621388/ref=sr_1_2?crid=1XIWTN2WM6DHG&dchild=1&keywords=brain+on+fire+paperback&qid=1597014725&sprefix=brain+on+fire%2Caps%2C167&sr=8-2
A mystery to ponder.
In my role as Science Center director some years ago, my staff and I were tasked with developing a high-tech exhibition on smoking. Rather, a powerful way to demonstrate the dangers of smoking on the human body. In my research, I came across myriad forms of propaganda about smoking through advertising, first in magazines and newspapers, later on radio and television. One of the more prevalent means of marketing “smoking,” however, began in the thirties and forties (and continues today) in the movies.
Hollywood has always glamorized smoking (think Humphrey Bogart or James Dean) and, no doubt, perpetuated the myth that smoking was cool. As I dug deeper into this phenomenon, I found that Hollywood was very reluctant to cut smoking out of their movies, long after they knew the dangers. For one thing, cigarette companies paid the studios to “show” their product. (You’d see a pack of Marlboro on a side table.) For another, they felt it added to the glamor of the characters. Note: On-screen smoking in PG-13 films has doubled since 2010.
Hollywood has done us a disservice by minimizing or ignoring the dangers of smoking by displaying it in the movies. Making the practice “all right.” But what about history? As I watch the stories in the news about the tearing down of monuments, statues, and flags, I wondered about this very thing. What role does Hollywood play?
I wrote a novel about the Civil War. (Aha! Fiction writers may share the blame with Hollywood in perpetuating historical inaccuracies. A blog for another time.) In my research, I read fiction, non-fiction and, of course, indulged in movies about the subject. The Ken Burns series and book, The Civil War, epitomizes to me the true story, with accurate narrative and real photographs.
Armed with my research, I could watch Gone With the Wind and recognize the many inaccuracies of the film. But then there was the movie, Gettysburg. Reasonably accurate, I did notice one thing that stood out. The southern characters like Generals James Longstreet, Lewis Armistead, and Robert E. Lee were made very sympathetic and likeable. (Although I had my misgivings about General George Pickett. I didn’t like the actor!)
The point here is that when Hollywood displays characters as sympathetic, eloquent gentlemen, it is hard for the viewer to make the connection to historical treachery. Let’s not forget, these generals were committing treason. They fought against the union to preserve their way of life, a life that defended and preserved the practice of slavery.
Perhaps it would do writers well to think about the consequences of their portrayals of characters and events in their books and scripts. Are we doing a disservice to future generations by changing history for dramatic effect?
Yes, the title is correct. Rather than “write what you know,” I believe you should ”know what you write.”
I’m a native New Yorker, transplanted to the West Coast (and now in New England.) In my early writing classes I was told, “write what you know.” What did that mean? I couldn’t write about Alabama or Vancouver because I wasn’t from there?
When I was sixteen, I was strolling through Manhattan, minding my own business. I came across a group of tourists looking up and pointing, shooting pictures at something in the sky. What was it? I looked up and realized they were photographing a tall building. Big deal. So I walked to the building in question and saw a plaque that read Empire State Building. Aha. This was the famous Empire State Building.
I lived in NYC but didn’t even appreciate what was around me. On the other hand, when I moved to San Diego, I scouted out every attraction, neighborhood, restaurant, park and beach within the first two months. I knew San Diego better than San Diegans and often surprised them with my knowledge. My point is that growing up in or living in a place is not necessarily “knowing” a place.
In other blogs I talked about the importance of research. Here is a perfect place for it. You don’t need to set a story in the place you grew up in (not that there’s anything wrong with that.) You can set a story anywhere you like, but, and I repeat, but, you must visit that place to make it authentic.
An example from my upcoming book, Deadly Provenance: “They drove on the Avenue de la Grande Armée, right up to and around the Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs Elyseés to the Place de la Concorde with the tall obelisk at its center. Henri then turned left into a steady stream of traffic on the Rue de Rivoli, made a dizzying series of rights and lefts and wound up on a narrow alley way called Rue des Pretres-Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, which Maggie did not even attempt to pronounce. He pulled the Peugeot onto the sidewalk in front of a tiny building with glass front: Le Relais du Louvre, their hotel.”
I’ve never lived in Paris, but I have visited a number of times. Can you tell?
If you’re writing about a fictional town, you can have fictional streets and neighborhoods, fictional bars and fictional buildings. But if you’re writing about a real city, you need to make it authentic, by visiting. Maps on the Internet can help, but places change, restaurants close, old houses are torn down and replaced by condos. You must see it first-hand. This is especially important if you want to appeal to readers who actually live there. They will call you on your mistakes.
A dilemma I encountered when writing about Washington, D.C., during the Civil War, was how did it look back then? First of all it was called Washington City, an important note that would have bollixed up everything, had I gotten it wrong. Since I couldn’t transport myself back to Washington City in 1860 (darn), I lucked out when I chanced upon a book called “A Guide to Civil War Washington.” Thank you author, Stephen M. Forman! In this little gem were maps of the different areas in the District, including street names and famous attractions like Ford’s Theatre. Without this book, I would have had to research maps of the time and spent lots of hours at the Library of Congress, if I could get special permission. Whew.
One caveat about the benefit of actually living in the place you’re writing about is that you will know the “locals” better. Their habits, peculiarities, popular night spots, and idiosyncrasies of speech. But this is a post for another time.
For now, “write what you know” is not bad advice. “Know what you write” might be better.
Years ago I saw a terrific IMAX film called To the Limit. In it was a scene I never forgot. A champion downhill skier was sitting on top of a mountain, skis and poles by her side. Her eyes were closed and she was moving her arms and upper body as if she were skiing downhill. She was picturing the course with its turns and moguls as she traveled down the mountain in her mind. She was teaching her brain to prepare for those bumps and curves by visualizing the course over and over. Something similar to muscle memory ie: when you play an instrument and your fingers seem to move on their own, almost apart from your brain.
This visualization technique is crucial in writing. Close your eyes. Picture the scene you’re about to compose. Perhaps it’s a cop getting ready to interview a suspect. From Val McDermid’s The Torment of Others, visualize Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan:
“Carol stared through the two-way mirror at the man in the interview room. Ronald Edmund Alexander looked nothing like the popular image of a pedophile. He wasn’t shifty or sweaty. He wasn’t dirty or sleazy. He looked exactly like a middle manager who lived in the suburbs with a wife and two children. There was no dirty raincoat, just an off-the-peg suit, an unassuming charcoal grey. Pale blue shirt, burgundy tie with a thin grey stripe. Neat haircut, no vain attempt to hide the way he was thinning on top.”
Picture the room and a man seated there through the glass. Visualize the suspect, very possibly a child molester, and feel Carol’s frustration at his very ordinariness, the exact antithesis of what she expects a monster to look like. Could she be wrong? Are we being misled by his description?
Follow Harry Bosch in Michael Connelly’s Reversal, when he makes a trip to Fryman Canyon Park, an unexpected natural enclave above the madness of LA.
“Fryman was a rugged, inclined park with steep trails and flat-surface parking and observation area on top and just off Mulholland. Bosch had been there before on cases and was familiar with its expanse. He pulled to a stop with his car pointing north and the view of the San Fernando Valley spread before him. The air was pretty clear and the vista stretched all the way across the valley to the San Gabriel Mountains. The brutal week of storms that had ended January had cleared the skies out and the smog was only now climbing back into the valley’s bowl.”
Harry has been here before and is familiar with the area, its quirky smog patterns and unpredictable weather. Now, so are you.
Visualization is more than “description.” It’s about engaging the senses (see an earlier blog I wrote about this) to get a visceral feel for the scene. Picture a brown leather couch sitting atop a Persian rug in front of a teak coffee table. Now give the couch history–every crack in the leather represents a different house it has lived in or a different person who curled up on its soft hide. It was loved, it was beaten, it was ruined. Even a couch can have personality. What does it say about its owners?
Visualize a woman. She’s not just a blond in a blue dress, wearing high heels and red lipstick. She’s a woman, teetering outside a motel room, black roots showing through the teased mass, blue dress torn at her hem, lipstick smeared like a clown. Picture her. There . . . there she is. You can see her clearly. You know her.
Write your scenes as if they were movies. Let us see what’s happening through your words. You’re the director. Direct.
Mystery writers have a tough decision: how to kill their fictional victims. There are far too many ways to murder to mention here. (If you want unusual methods, watch Criminal Minds or Supernatural.) I’ll mention one way that was based on a sad but true story.
One of the more gruesome aspects to my research for The Triangle Murders was learning about defenestration. This nasty means of murder is the act of throwing someone out the window or from a high place. The term comes from two centuries-old incidents in Prague. The first in 1419 when seven town officials were thrown from the Town Hall, no doubt precipitating the Hussite War. The second in 1618, when two Imperial governors and their secretary were thrown from Prague Castle, sparking the Thirty Years War. The latter was referred to as the Defenestration of Prague.
Now, while there’s something appealing about throwing political officials out of the window, remember that when they hit the ground the results are quite grim.
Falling as a cause of death can be very effective. There are two ways a person can fall. A vertical “controlled” fall is when the person lands upright and feet-first. An “uncontrolled” fall is when some other part of the body hits the ground first ie: head or back. Not pretty.
The vertical fall is survivable up to about 100 feet, but an uncontrolled fall can be fatal at very short distances such as from a stepladder. With a controlled fall, the initial energy transmits through the feet and legs and spares vital organs. The uncontrolled fall, however, can cause massive internal and head injuries.
146 people, mostly young women, died at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, in New York City, on March 25, 1911. Many chose jumping out the ninth-story windows to escape the raging fire. Safety nets were ineffective and bodies crashed right through them. Strictly speaking, defenestration was not the cause of death because they were not pushed out the windows. However, the result was the same. Death by impact on a hard surface.
Unrecognizable bodies lay on the sidewalk along Greene Street, together with hoses, fire rescue nets, and part of a wagon. All were drenched by the tons of water used to contain and extinguish the fire. Photographer: Brown Brothers, March 25, 1911. Photo courtesy of Kheel Center, Cornell University, http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/
I use defenestration as the actual cause of death in another book Pure Lies. It’s a clean way to murder (no blood on your hands) and allows easy escape for the killer. There is the problem, however, of actually shoving someone who might be bigger and heavier than you out the window.
But that’s a story for another blog. Ideas welcome.