Brother’s Keeper

Eric and Greg Kochman were athletic, well-liked high school students. So why did they kill themselves?

On the afternoon of Saturday, May 4, 2001, the nine-person cast of the Monadnock Regional High school production of Ordinary People gathered in the school auditorium in Swanzey, New Hampshire, for their first dress rehearsal. Opening night was only four days away, and the cast’s five boys and four girls were starting to feel the pressure. The mood was strained and occasionally hostile.

The problem, most everyone agreed, was an angry Greg Kochman, who played the lead role of Conrad, a suicidal teenager coping with the death of his older brother. Then a junior at Monadnock, Greg was in one of his moods. “He was so angry that week, and that day was the worst of it,” recalls Kristen Arrow, who played Conrad’s mother in the play. “He would just lash out at people for no reason. It was the first day that I had gotten really irritated at Greg.”

Still, there was no denying that Greg could act. And on Saturday, the broad-shouldered, brown-haired 17-year-old was acting even better than usual.

“Then I sit down and think about—things,” Greg, playing the role of Conrad, said. “Everything that hurts. And I cry. Inside, I’m burning up. Outside—all I can feel is the cold tile floor. And my chest feels so tight—it hurts—everything hurts—so I hold out my hand and close my eyes—and I slice, one quick cut, deep cut.”

Katharine DePew, who played Conrad’s therapist in the play, had never heard Greg say the lines so well. “He said it static, monotone, and it was the best he had ever done,” says DePew. “It was eerie.”

That’s because Ordinary People—based on the novel by Judith Guest, which was later made into an Academy Award-winning movie directed by Robert Redford—was supposed to be therapeutic for Greg. After all, Greg was, like Conrad, deeply depressed over the death of his popular and well-liked older brother. Like Conrad, Greg was seeing a therapist. Like Conrad, Greg had already tried to kill himself.

Theater, it seemed, was going to save him. “Greg loved the role of Conrad,” recalls Casey Gallagher, a friendly, demonstrative Monadnock senior who considered Greg his best friend. “He needed that role. He was acting out what he felt for his brother.”

♦♦♦

Still, the play didn’t make Greg any less sad. The day before Saturday’s dress rehearsal, he broke down crying in the school auditorium. Saturday wasn’t much better. “By the end of rehearsal,” recalls DePew, who is tall and gangly with long brown hair, “I just wanted to go somewhere a little more positive.”

That was nothing new for DePew, who was increasingly trying to build boundaries in a rocky relationship that had become exhausting. Their close friendship started because DePew had a crush on Greg, and though she says their relationship never included a serious romantic element, friends say they saw never-ending sexual tension between the two.

DePew—who is funny, emotionally intense, and brutally sarcastic—essentially became Greg’s unofficial therapist. “Greg expected me to be there twenty-four hours a day for him,” she says. “And I tried to be, but I also had to live my life, too.”

As she left the auditorium that Saturday, Greg, who was sitting in the first row, told her he loved her. “He had never said that to me before,” she says. “But I was so frustrated with everything, I just said ‘Bye’ and went to the parking lot to get my car.”

She drove her Honda Accord toward the auditorium’s entrance, where she intended to wait for cast member Kristen Arrow. Greg put his hands up for her to stop. When she did, he asked if he could call her.

“I told him that I probably wouldn’t be home, that I was going out and wouldn’t be back until late,” recalls DePew. “He said, ‘Please, can I just call you?’ I said, ‘I probably won’t be home, but sure, you can call.’ I was just pissed off.”

DePew and Arrow went to dinner by themselves, where they spent most of the meal complaining about Greg. Jordan Self and Gallagher, Greg’s best friends that year, thought about inviting Greg out with them but decided against it. “It was, like, ‘Okay, this is leave-Greg-alone time for a little while,’” says Self.

The boys went to a friend’s house, where they spent the night playing video games and doing doughnuts in their friend’s truck in a nearby field. As the boys headed back to Self’s house, they almost called Greg. “But we were both tired,” recalls Self. “We wanted to go home and make nachos.”

DePew dropped Arrow off at home at about ten, then headed north on Route 12. When she reached Monadnock Regional High School, she had a choice to make: she could go left, which would bring her to Greg’s house, or she could turn right and drive to her house in nearby Troy. “I put my blinker on and was about to go to Greg’s, but then I thought, ‘It’s kind of late—maybe I shouldn’t,’” she says. “I just drove home.”

Greg’s father, David, and his wife, Sandy, got home from dinner with friends at about 8:30. Greg’s 1994 Ford Escort wagon was in the driveway, but he wasn’t home. Greg was scheduled to work at 6 a.m. the next morning at the Colony Mill, a marketplace in Keene.

When David went into Greg’s room to wake him up the next morning, he found an empty bed. David walked downstairs and was about to call Jordan Self’s mother when he looked out the window and saw Greg sitting in a plastic lawn chair by the pool.

What David couldn’t see from the window—but what he would discover when he walked out back—was that this younger son, like his older son a year before, had fatally shot himself in the head.

♦♦♦

David Kochman is a short, athletic, 45-year-old man with curly black hair and a mustache. He is punctual, polite, friendly, and disciplined. When he laughs, which he does often and unexpectedly, his face scrunches up, his shoulders bob up and down, and his mouth emits rapid-fire chuckles. Until Eric’s death two years ago, he had never cried as an adult.

A man of habit, David rises early most mornings to exercise at Gold’s Gym, after which he works eight-hour days as a premium audit manager at Peerless Insurance in Keene, a ten-minute drive from his spacious home in a quiet, wooded area of Swanzey.

When his boys were young, David spent much of his free time shuttling them to and from soccer games, baseball games, and weight-lifting events. Both Eric and Greg loved sports, and they seemed intent on making their father proud.

“Eric would always call me at work and tell me to hurry home because he had a new soccer move to show me,” recalls David. “And when Greg was nine, I coached his soccer team, and I remember at one practice some of the other kids weren’t paying as much attention to me as they should. Greg, who was already pretty intense at that age, turned to the kids and said, ‘If my father tells you to run through a wall, your only question should be, which wall?’”

When David and his boys weren’t talking about sports, it’s a good bet they were discussing politics. David, Greg, and, to a lesser extent, Eric, were regulars at New Hampshire Republican fund-raisers and political dinners.

“Eric and Greg were always busy doing something,” says the boys’ mother, Rose, who lived with them until 1997, when she and David divorced. “It was nonstop.”   (continued on page 2)

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About Benoit Denizet-Lewis

Benoit Denizet-Lewis is an editor-at-large with The Good Men Project magazine, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, and the author of two books, including America Anonymous: Eight Addicts in Search of a Life.

Comments

  1. suzanne says:

    Wow. Great reporting and writing, Benoit. What a human tragedy. And somehow made even more poignant since Monadnock is the favorite mountain of Grover’s Corners in Wilder’s Our Town.

  2. David Wise says:

    Great piece. It seems they were wired the same and when one decided to end his life, the other was too grief-stricken to go on. Tragic.

  3. It’s what we mothers of unstable kids fear all the time. This is not a completely unusual case. The suicide rate for bipolar people is 1 in 5, for schizophrenics, 1 in 10. Knowing it’s almost impossible to prevent is the hardest thing of all.

    Thanks for writing about this, Benoit. It really brings the issue home.

  4. Benoit…that was really a poignant and terribly tragic story. I feel so bad for the parents. It’s not fair for people to blame the father for having a gun in the house. That kid was so overwhelmed with thoughts of suicide and depression he would have found some way to take his life. I’ve worked in a facility with suicidal kids. When they are obsessed with committing suicide they will find a way to do it. If there is no mental breakthrough with the kid, then it’s only a matter of time. It’s enough of a loss for the parents without having to feel guilty over the gun situation.
    L. Pye

  5. Ina Chadwick says:

    I finally got around to a lot of reading I’ve been putting off due to a family crisis, and i read this poignant, yet perfectly reported piece, with great intensity. Years ago, I reported on teen suicides for a local CT newspaper and the ignorance then—1983 or so—was astounding. The title of the article was “When Feelings Prove Fatal” But in those days no one completely understood the name and/or prevalence of bi-polar behavior, and other chemical risks for suicide, including congenital, self-induced or both. Unfortunately, in 1988 I learned too much about suicide when a dear friend drowned himself (not easy to do) in the backyard swimming pool. He was 40. He had been hiding his manias and depressions from his friends and his wife. She knew nothing of his past problems in another marriage. She had slammed out of the house and asked for a separation only hours before he took his life. With an unopened, recently filled RX of lithium in the kitchen and no note, he ended what apparently had been a long struggle with torment. And such a long deep hole of shame.

    How to deal with what one senses can happen, and how to proceed without blame if it does happen is one of the burdens the survivors of suicide push up hill everyday. Thank you, Benoit, for the facts that are deftly crafted into a story with pathos.

  6. A friend says:

    I am happy to see this piece edited from its original version, which still is floating around on the web. I was one of the girls who turned Greg down in the weeks before his death, and at the time when this story was being written, I refused to be interviewed. It’s been over nine years since we lost Greg, and I have thought of him every single day. Recently, I saw David (his and Eric’s dad) for the first time since Greg’s funeral, and it was the first time I was able to talk about Greg without having it turn to a discussion about this-horrible-thing-that-happened, but about him as a person, and the person he was before Eric died.

    I’m impressed with this piece – it gives a feel of my hometown, the people, our troubles, and the pervasive gossip but the inability to face feelings. What this piece is lacking, however, is the perspective which I’m embarrassed to say I wasn’t strong enough at the time to give – the perspective of the people who were close friends with Greg both before and after Eric’s death. You can hear hints of it in the interviews with his teammates and briefly in Kristen’s statement about his bad luck with girls, as well. A switch went off and he was a different person. In the years that had have passed, I have written my own piece about all of this and I introduced two characters – Old Greg and New Greg. As his friend, classmate, a girl he dated, and teammate before and after Eric’s death, I have to say the person he became was so uncomfortable and unsustainable and so unlike the person I knew him to be. Old Greg would have hated New Greg, and in my mind, I still like to think that it was Old Greg who made the decision to keep New Greg from completely taking over. We lost Greg the day we lost Eric.

    Thank you for keeping their story alive. I was one of those people who never took action to stop what was spiraling out of control and it’s taken 9 years to begin forgiving 16 year-old me for not doing more. Stories like this need to be told and can empower those who are witnessing friends and family in trouble to seek help.

    • Thanks for your insights. Hopefully your comments, and the piece as a whole, will give a broader understanding to mental health at such a precarious age.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    Some people’s troubles are so great they’re a black hole, swallowing everything their friends and coleagues can spare. And it makes no difference. There’s no reason to feel guilty for not having an infinite amount of time, attention, care, and competence.

  8. I just sent this note to my editor at The Good Men’s Project after reading your column here as I just sent him a column on my brother Erik yesterday: “OMG just read Brother’s Keeper on your site as I saw a post on my facebook thread from the page there..way too eerie…Eric a brother who commits suicide…brother’s keeper …my brother’s name is Erik and he attempted suicide as I say in my article and I have felt responsible …holy coincidence!”
    A tragic story, sad for everyone. I’ve been living with guilt for 30 years and my brother “lived”. I cannot imagine the guilt everyone in your story must be feeling no matter how they rationalize their decisions.
    Donald

  9. Allison Kay says:

    Having endured a two-year suicidal depression I feel compelled to respond to the tone of many of the comments. Unless you are terminally ill with a non-related illness, suicide is a tragic mistake. No matter how bad you feel, or what your reasons–wait. Suicide is nowhere near as inevitable as many of the commenters say. Tough it out. I don’t think you could get much worse off than I was, though this is not a competition! I couldn’t understand why anyone wanted to be alive. I thought my family would be better off without me dragging everyone down. I often did not think I could get through one more day. I was misdiagnosed and mis-treated. I gained 50 lbs in 2 months due to the meds, and wasn’t told that was why. Plus–really–my house burned down. But I never tried to kill myself because it was the one thing I had confidence that I could do successfully. Somewhere deep inside where I couldn’t even feel it, I wanted to live. So I waited. There’s no reason to rush it. Wait. Finally I got better. I am positive that almost everyone could be saved with enough care, in every sense of that word.

    • Allison,
      You and I have a lot in common. I too suffered a crushing depression. I spent a year planning my suicide, but I never attempted it because I had no intention of failing – and I needed to know there was aboslutely no other solution before taking that final step. That was more than half my life ago.

      But it is a mistake to assume that because you and I were able to survive, that everyone is able to ‘tough it out’ as we did. As you pointed out, somewhere deep inside we wanted to live. A friend of Greg’s said “we lost Greg the day we lost Eric”. I attended Greg’s funeral, and I think his father David might agree with that statement. I also saw that loss of will to live in my own father when my brother died. Sometimes there are tragedies that people can’t, or don’t want to, recover from.

  10. As a pharmacist, I was mostly appalled at the number of drugs this child was prescribed. Those are very heavy drugs and I can’t imagine putting a child on trazodone. Suicide is largely preventable, but I see this as a parental failure compounded by poor psychiatric care. People are so afraid to say “are you thinking about suicide? do you have a plan?” because they think it will give someone ideas. And while there is always the possibility that a suicidal person is committed enough to lie, most will be honest. And if a child’s sibling, parent, or close friend has committed suicide, there is an increased risk that they will follow suit. We have to be willing to have these uncomfortable conversations with our kids, because they are literally life-saving.

Trackbacks

  1. […] the positive side, this allows for some stellar reporting (the first issue included this harrowing  report of two teenage brothers who committed suicide), thoughtful writing (loved this account of a […]

  2. […]  Brother’s Keeper: Why did two high school students, brothers, commit suicide? […]

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