By Thacher Schmid
The transformation of the “Suicide Bridge” would never have occurred if not for the unique qualities found in a single, fatefully located Portland family — a spark, a conscience, and champion.
It’s only halfway there, yet it may already be among the most successful suicide-prevention movements in U.S. history. Friends of the Vista Bridge believes its volunteers saved several lives since Spring 2013, when volunteers walked the bridge each night and morning. A temporary barrier went up on the bridge in September, and no one has jumped since — though at least two individuals have been brought down off the fence by emergency responders.
Anne Kahn was the spark. On January 22, 2013, she was in her parents’ shared offices directly beneath the Vista Bridge in SW Portland, coming back from the back room, where she went to find a sweater. Then she saw it — the body. 19-year-old Aris Donshae Bishop’s perfectly manicured fingernails, poking out from beneath a sheet. At 22, already a black belt and Art Institute of Portland student, she had a panic attack. She couldn’t, wouldn’t make sense of it. She just sobbed.
Anne’s parents suddenly saw the scene differently — through the eyes of youth.
“My mom had witnessed some of the jumping, and my dad has dealt with nine over the years, but when it struck my father’s daughter, I think that was really the spark that ignited the flame,” she said. “It just shook me up really badly. I was sobbing, I had never seen something so dramatic like that in front of my eyes, so I think that’s when we all started thinking about what to do next to take the initiative.”
A professional life coach, sympathetic listener and natural organizer, Bonnie Kahn was the conscience. Her gentle presence in the Friends of the Vista Bridge helped create a space for grief, for talking about a taboo, for taking action.
“My dad was like, ‘just look away, just ignore it,’” Anne Kahn said. “My mom was like, ‘No! We need to do something, we can’t just ignore it.’”
Then there was the champion. A literate man of surprisingly tall stature who references Edgar Allen Poe’s “imp of the perverse” and has seen lives take troubling paths in his own work, Ken Kahn’s leadership pushed the Friends movement over the top, helping it reach local politicians and national media. City Commissioner Steve Novick found $236,000 in emergency funds to fund the nine-foot metal fence that went up in September.
“If you have passion in your heart, people will get out of your way,” he told a group of 50 Friends of Vista Bridge volunteers during a celebration of the new temporary barriers. “I am extremely clear about what I want, and I know that you are too.”
“They’re very inspirational to me,” volunteer Susan Cech said of the family. “When you believe in something so deeply, and with such passion, you just keep moving forward, and you don’t back down and you stand your ground. They did it in a way that was kind, and thoughtful and considerate and tried to take into account everyone’s opinions.”
“A lot of times people think activism has this edge, this anger to it,” said Cech, a fifth-generation Oregonian and volunteer with the Trauma Intervention Program, a Portland/Vancouver nonprofit. “This wasn’t out of anger, I think it was out of … sadness.”
The group’s success was enough to melt a jaded lawyer’s heart.
“It really helped me dissolve a lot of cynicism,” Ken Kahn said. “Total strangers, to go out on the bridge at ungodly hours while all of us slept. They were willing to be there, in the event that someone went there to kill themselves. Where do you find people of that calibre? Everywhere, it turns out.”
Officially, its name is the Vista Avenue Viaduct, though locals have typically called it the Vista Bridge, or used its darker moniker, “Suicide Bridge.” It’s immortalized in local lore, with a blurb in Chuck Palahniuk’s cult classic city guidebook Refugees & Immigrants. It may be among the nation’s top suicide hotspots.
It’s little wonder local history buffs and neighbors have fought to maintain the bridge’s aesthetic. Not all the comments on the Friends of the Vista Bridge’s Facebook page are supportive, and some volunteers recalled opposition to the idea of a barrier at the local Goose Hollow Neighborhood Association.
“The community had been silent about this, the neighborhood had been silent, the city had accepted that one to three deaths from this were okay, but the complacency totaled up to 176 deaths,” Ken Kahn said.
As its name suggests — vista means “view” in Spanish — the Vista is gorgeous, a twelve-story-high, gothic arch with an amazing view of downtown and linked to some of the city’s most beautiful neighborhoods. According to the Oregon Herald, the 248-foot-long structure was designed by architect Fred Fowler and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. It connects to the highest elevation in the city proper, over 1,000 feet of elevation in the affluent West Hills.
Despite, or perhaps because of that beauty, since its construction in 1926 it’s seen at least 176 jump to their deaths onto the MAX tracks and busy SW Jefferson Street below. The true total is probably much higher, given the culture of silence that typically surrounds suicides in Portland and elsewhere. A recent Oregonian article notes that suicide rates in Portland went up notably in 2013, 55 and counting versus 39 in all of 2010. Oregon’s suicide rate is 35 percent higher than the national average.
The Friends of the Vista Bridge volunteers organized in shifts, walking the bridge from the wee hours until late morning. Trainings were given, partnerships formed with local organizations like Lines for Life and T.I.P.
Artist Alexander Rokoff painted a gorgeous work of the Vista Bridge which he’s selling for $45, while donating all proceeds to Friends of the Vista Bridge.
“Doing this project, I spent a lot of time under this bridge,” Rokoff said. “There’s two bridges going on here: one connects one side of the street to the other, the other connects heaven and earth.”
Talk to some of the volunteers, the ones who willingly took on the strenuous job of trying to intercede in the event someone appeared to be considering the unthinkable, and they’ll tell you it was actually an amazing experience: grief, love, life, death, learning and contemplation.
“There was a huge outflowing of gratitude towards me when I was on the bridge, it was very lovely,” said Carolyn Reznikoff. “People knew who I was by my vest, and what I was doing up there. They would often say, ‘Thank you so much. I could never do this, but I appreciate you’re doing it.’ … It just made everybody feel so much less hopeless.”
The fence now has padlocks all over it, left there by lovers. As the story goes, if a couple locks the lock together and throws away the key, the bond becomes unbreakable.
Reznikoff, a social worker by trade, said she felt a certain magic during her shifts on Suicide Bridge.
“One young man came up on his bicycle, I went up and talked to him a bit, because I didn’t like the way he looked. He indicated he did not want to talk to me, so I just kept an eye on him. He wrote all over the lamppost with black chalk, and he was crying, and I was really watching him closely because he was standing up. But he was okay as he left. I could really see him move through a process as he did it. He really was able to do some serious mourning.
“Another couple came up and they left a letter and I read it a few shifts later after it had been opened,” she continued. “[The writer] said that he was so sorry, he was afraid that his taunts about this man being homosexual had caused him to jump, and it had really caused him to reevaluate the way he treates people who are gay. That was really significant, I felt. The tragedy was still a tragedy, but it actually caused someone to reevaluate how they live in the world. That death was not without meaning.”
When people take their own lives, the details are what stay with you. It’s a macabre calculus, but one of the 2013 Vista Bridge jumpers actually sat down at a laptop and plotted out the probable velocity and force of impact, his longtime roommate and friend Christen McCurdy said.
That young man, whose name is being withheld at his family’s request, had been going through a tough time, McCurdy said: a death in the family, old debts catching up, rent checks bouncing, a chronic health problem. He had stopped taking medications.
Ironically, like so many others before him, he walked across another Portland bridge — the Hawthorne — on his early-morning route to the Vista Bridge.
“On the morning of May 13 I woke up and checked my email and … I had an email from [him],” McCurdy said. “It said ‘Important: Rent and other things.’ I thought it was just going to be about the financial situation at the house; both of us were struggling a bit financially. … It wasn’t until he gave instructions and he [wrote], ‘please call my boss’ that I realized what he was actually saying, that this was a suicide note.”
McCurdy called 9-1-1 and began pacing, “sobbing and shaking.” Then she saw the note from the Medical Examiner, and her heart sank. She called, was given the terrible news, collapsed on her couch.
“I really think this was an impulsive decision,” she said. “So I think putting up barriers was the right thing to do.” McCurdy has known six who have committed suicide, and recently started seeing a counselor to deal with her grief. “My feeling right now is we need to do everything: barriers, lifelines, volunteers, everything. It’s ridiculous, it’s out of control.”
One of the most salient yet surprisingly little-known statistics about suicide is that it’s twice as prevalent as homicide in this country.
It’s also preventable, at least to some extent. Research suggests what people in the helping fields like Cech, Reznikoff and I know: with timely intervention, the large majority of people who contemplate or suicide don’t follow through; killing oneself really can be a snap decision. So while it’s true a minority of suiciders are determined and will not be deterred, the idea of barriers like the new fences atop the Vista Bridge is about interrupting potential jumpers who get that notion. It’s based on social science.
Yet we as a society are still far from having anything like a healthy conversation about suicide; the whole subject continues to be enshrouded in secrecy.
“The fact that this has even been publicized is huge,” Susan Cech said. “Before the whole Vista Bridge thing, suicide was not even talked about in the news. It’s this kind of taboo subject, and the thought is, well, if you talk about it, you’re going to encourage someone to commit suicide.”
Despite the success of the Friends of the Vista Bridge collective, this year’s total is among the highest for the bridge, though still a fraction of the ghastly toll at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, or Aokigahara, Japan’s “Suicide Forest.”
Aris Bishop’s death came in January; tragically, the 19-year-old African-American had reportedly just become engaged. After her suicide, her mother Faith Bishop helped create a scholarship in her name at Metropolitan Learning Center, a K-12 school in NW Portland, to fund college.
Marina Hamblin-Rock’s June suicide was just as heartbreaking; the Westview highschooler and Beaverton resident was a tender 15. Her suicide may have been partially the result of cyberbullying, but it’s not clear if anything has or will come from a reported investigation by Washington County sheriff’s deputies. Hamblin-Rock’s mother Rachelle is a MAX driver who sounds her horn each time she passes under the bridge, according to one of the Friends of Vista Bridge volunteers. Attempts to contact Hamblin-Rock were unsuccessful.
Take a sip of life. No, seriously. Right where you sit, right now while you read, put down that cup of coffee or whatever, pause for a moment, straighten your spine and breathe deeply. Feel what it is to be alive. Wow. Pretty awesome, huh?
Now think of someone you love, someone close. A brother, sister, lover, partner, roommate, friend. Imagine this person’s life starts to fall apart; as the late great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe put it, things fall apart. Maybe she loses her job. Maybe his health deteriorates. A partner breaks it off. You start worrying.
And then one day you get that email, phone call, see it on social media, that he or she killed himself. In my brother Kyle’s case, it was a phone call, my parents calling from Milwaukee, 2300 miles away. He blew his mind out with Dad’s long-neglected duck hunting shotgun. My parents found him in the third floor bathroom of their house.
If you have never been through this, you’re fortunate, and you’re working a little harder to imagine right now. Suicide is a peculiar kind of tragedy, a special, unfocused pain. The death is not an accident, and that makes all the difference.
After five years of self-doubt and reflection, I have come to realize ways in which I let Kyle down, yet I don’t blame myself so much anymore. Sometimes, Kyle’s memory helps me separate important things (love) from less important things (money).
I have come to recognize that Kyle’s suicide was his choice, his responsibility. Blame is a stone soup, a vicious cycle. What I’m left with is: I’m lucky to have known him, because he was the kind of person who would say things that would bring a smile to your face days later. Even years later. I’m smiling right now, remembering his monkey mind.
“You’ve got problems,” Kyle used to tell me. With raised eyebrows, a knowing look.
Reznikoff, who has worked in hospices, was inspired to join the Friends group after learning her own tough lesson about suicide. She recalled a client who provided a subtle clue to a coming tragedy, one she said she was too “tone deaf” to grasp.
“He took care of his wife and when she died, he showed me that he was going to sprinkle her ashes and he was going to mix her ashes with a can of wildflower seeds that he had purchased. He was going to sprinkle them by their favorite fishing hole. I thought it was very romantic and very sweet. What I missed — and I’ve always regretted — was he had two cans of wildflowers.”
Two cans of wildflowers because he was planning to commit suicide.
Few suicide “hotspots” are as public as the Vista Bridge. Unlike a jump off one of Portland’s many other bridges into water, a Vista Bridge suicide hits hard surfaces 12 stories down, and the body is often seen by hundreds, trapped on packed MAX trains, passing cars.
Consider the air-sucking, highly-traumatic emotions that spread through family, friends, community, and do the math. That’s a hell of a lot of trauma spreading throughout the city. Trauma that in the long term will be mitigated if the Friends of the Vista Bridge is successful in raising $2.5 million necessary to fund a historically-appropriate barrier to replace the new temporary fence.
When, in Summer 2013, 50 Friends volunteers met at a picturesque home near the bridge to celebrate the raising of the temporary barrier and talk about the daunting task of raising an enormous amount of money, the afternoon was marked by smiles, congratulations, and plenty of tears and tissues.
Imagine a group gathered around a cozy living room, sprawling into the kitchen, sitting on the floor. Ken Kahn, holding court at center, Bonnie Kahn working the fringes like a pro. Alexander Rokoff exhibiting his painting in a side room filled with cookies, baked goods, non-alcoholic drinks.
Political it may have been, but it had much in common with a church or support group meeting.
“I met one young man [on the bridge] who had gone to West Point, quit, told his parents, they wouldn’t speak to him, and here he was on the bridge,” a woman recalled. “So this poor boy, I had no reason to think he was gonna harm himself, but we must have talked for 45 minutes or an hour. He said thank you for talking to me, you gave me a lot of good things to think about, it’s nice to know that somebody will still talk to me.”
“I had a monumental Friday when I found a note, we’d actually saved a life,” recalled a woman who later tried to intercede and stop a jumper, but failed. “And I had a very bad Monday where I wished the outcome could have been different.”
“I thought, maybe I could do some payback,” one man said. “My father committed suicide when I was 14. You have so many answers you never get. You never know why. I’m still searching, but I thought maybe I could help in some way.”
“I myself have considered jumping from the Vista Bridge [in the past],” said another man. “There are people in this community who will just throw their hands up.”
“I saw many groups and singles who were up there grieving, couples that were together, they were holding each other,” a woman said. “I thought they were lovers, I didn’t realize they were grieving.”
Not every story of walking the bridge was a sad one.
“I sat down and talked to this woman for half an hour,” one woman said. “After awhile I said, ‘So, are you thinking about suicide?’ She said, ‘No, I’m hungry. I’m going to go home and get some breakfast.’ And she left.”
“If it weren’t for my children, I wouldn’t be here because I would have gone over the rail in ’05,” another woman said. “My hair’s turned gray [volunteering], but I think I’ve kind of saved my own life in the process.”
She added a vignette about a Portland police officer. “Up comes a Portland cop, and he said, ‘Could you stay up here please, could you patrol the bridge for me?’ And I noticed, the saddest person I saw on the bridge that day was the cop.”
“I was really disappointed at the Goose Hollow [Neighborhood Association] meeting, where people voiced that they were more concerned about the appearance of the bridge and less concerned about people committing suicide,” a female volunteer said. “There are more people like you out there than there are those people who are more concerned about what the Vista Bridge would look like with a barrier.”
“Just being on that bridge, you may not know the lives you’ve saved,” a male volunteer who works with the Trauma Intervention Program said. “Having that barrier, the truth of the matter is that some people, that will be enough of a pause for them.”
“This project chose us,” Ken Kahn said at the end. “We had never been confronted with a situation where we were confronted with being activists. As a criminal defense lawyer, I am a cynical person by nature. I want you to know that you have been a salve in my heart. Thank you.”
Since the temporary barrier went up in September, Bonnie Kahn said, at least two individuals — one a 36-year-old veteran of the armed forces — have been talked down from the fence. Neither died. If saving lives is your yardstick, it’s working.
Unfortunately, the temporary fence can legally remain for no more than five years, hence there is real urgency for Friends of the Vista Bridge to take this to the next level and raise the $2.5 million for a permanent barrier.
If you want to contribute to the Friends of the Vista Bridge effort to build an aesthetically appropriate, long-term barrier for this beautiful, sad bridge, go to www.linesforlife.org/content/friends-vista-bridge.