TV's First Ever Live Suicide
“We suffer at our sense of loss, we are frightened by her rage, we are guilty in the face of her rejection, we are hurt by her choice of isolation and we are confused by her message.”
So began the eulogy of Christine Chubbuck, the 29-year-old news reporter who had just become the first ever person to commit suicide live on air.
A journalist at news station WXLT-TV, Christine had – three weeks earlier – asked her boss permission to do a piece on suicide. He had agreed, and Christine had begun to do her research. She visited police, to discuss different methods of suicide, and she began to write the script for what she was going to say.
A week before the news piece was due to run, she joked with one of her colleagues that she should kill herself live on air. As he would later tell the Washington Post, “I just changed the subject. That was just too sick a joke for me.”
And how could he have guessed that Christine wasn’t joking? She was liked well enough by her colleagues, and although she was often self-deprecating, always refusing compliments and often brusque, no one had any idea that she was suicidal.
No one outside of her family, at least. Christine had attempted to overdose in 1970, but fearing that she’d be fired if her employers knew – and hoping that her depression was behind her – her mother had chosen not to inform WXLT-TV of this.
But Christine’s depression wasn’t behind her. At almost 30-years-old she had only ever been on a handful of dates. She was a virgin, with not many friends, and a health problem meant that she had only a couple of years of fertility left. After Christine’s death, her mother would look back and remark that “her suicide was simply because her personal life was not enough”.
On the 15th July, 1974, Christine informed her colleagues that she was going to read from a script that morning – something she had never done before. Live on air, she covered three news stories, and then began to talk about a shooting that had occurred at a local restaurant the day before. The footage from the restaurant jammed, but Christine was nonplussed. She shrugged, turned to the camera and said:
“In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’, and in living color, you are going to see another first — attempted suicide.”
She pulled a gun out of a shopping bag she had concealed behind the desk, and shot herself, still live on air, behind her right ear. Viewers saw her long, dark hair blow from her face, and her fall violently forward. Then the screen cut to black. Some called the police. Others thought it wasn’t real. But it was. Christine Chubbuck’s had just become the world’s first televised suicide.
She was rushed to hospital, and died that evening.
Going through the script she had been reading from, news director Mike Simmons would later find that Christine had scripted the entire thing. Not only the moment in which she’d shoot herself, she had also written the newscast to be read by another journalist, reporting on her suicide later that day.
It seemed that Christine wanted her death to be sensationalized – to be seen. She had requested that her segment be taped that morning – at least as her brothers thought, because she imagined that the tape of her death would be shown on every news channel. It wasn’t, and in a particular type of irony, no copy of that tape exists today.
In fact. Christine’s story had almost passed into urban legend, but two films – both screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival – have examined the days leading to her death. ‘Christine’, starring Rebecca Hall, and ‘Kate Plays Christine’, starring Kate Lyn Sheil, both look at the reasons Christine chose to kill herself, and – in particular, why she chose to do it so publicly.
Some thought it was a protest at her news station’s tendency to focus on stories involving blood and guts, other thought that she just wanted her 15 minutes of fame. Mike Simmons theory is perhaps the most poignant:
“I think it was a last cry for recognition to all the people she had helped, reached out to and who hadn’t reached back out. She was saying, ‘I was here, not just Sarasota, but I was here, world.'”
Sources: The Washington Post