Amy Butcher on Suicide, Psychosis and Her Memoir, Visiting Hours

One night just before college graduation, Amy Butcher's close friend Kevin met her for a drink and walked her home. It was just a one-block walk on a warm night in sleepy Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, but he insisted, and she let him see her to her door. Then he went home and stabbed his girlfriend 27 times.

He'd suffered a psychotic break. That was the conclusion reached by three independent mental-health evaluations in the months leading to his plea, a time during which Butcher kept up correspondence, trying to understand. She explores the same themes in her memoir Visiting Hours, and if it doesn't come to any definite conclusions, it does make for a compelling read. 

Butcher will talk about her book at Tattered Cover Colfax at 7 p.m. tonight; in advance of her appearance, we caught up with Butcher to talk about her story, dealing with depression and writing for the right reasons.

Westword: How did you come to write this book?

Amy Butcher: So the book is a memoir that is about this crime that happened: I had a very good friend in college who, about a month before graduation in our senior year, walked me home and – it took me two years to learn this, but he suffered a psychotic break – and two hours later murdered his on-again, off-again girlfriend, and immediately called the police, told them he didn't mean to do it, he didn't remember it, and then waited for them outside. For the eighteen months before he accepted a plea deal I wrote him once a month and visited him as much as my schedule would permit; I went to Iowa that fall. He couldn’t really talk about it during that time, since the case was still pending, but once he accepted that plea deal all that info became public record.

They did three different mental health evaluations on him, and they all said the same thing: that he didn’t know what he was doing, he couldn’t tell right from wrong. What happened was that he had actually been trying to take his own life, and she went over there to try to stop him. He was holding a knife to his neck, and she tried to physically intervene, and that’s how it happened.

I started writing about it at Iowa, and I had a lot of people — my mentors and various readers — saying, hey, stuff like this happens all the time, and it's interesting in a sensational way, but what does it mean? How and why does it connect with you so deeply emotionally? What is there to this beyond this horrific crime?
And what did you find out?

I come to it kind of as a coming-of-age overnight. One of the things that Kevin and I both had in common was a sheltered, privileged lifestyle. Our school was this small liberal arts school in a small town in Pennsylvania where nothing ever happened. It was the site of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, of course, but that felt so far away – there’s ghost tours, stuff like that, but it's far, far in the past. Everything felt so safe and idyllic, and then, all of a sudden, violence.

This is one of those things there's no making sense of. I mean, when I learned he had been trying to take his own life, it kind of made more sense – he had tried to take his life a year before it happened – but it still didn't make sense. He was such a close friend, someone who had had the compassion and care to want to walk me home in this super-safe town, and then.... It's horrifying. That you could have something so traumatic that you just disconnect – the psychotic break, it’s kind of terrifying to think about.

The book also deals with the stigmatization of mental illness in this country. A lot of teenagers suffer from depression and suicidal ideation, and there’s no way to talk about it, it’s something that’s so taboo and stigmatized. When I was a teenager I was really depressed, and I had had thoughts of suicide, and it turns out this is really common. Fourteen to 24 is the highest demographic of people struggling with suicidal ideation.

But at the time, it wasn’t something that I felt I could talk to Kevin about — like we felt as his friends that it was our job just to distract him and keep him occupied. We couldn't talk about it, even to offer some empathy, like, "Hey, I've been there." So how can we talk about this? I think it’s something that we need to learn about instead of sweeping it under the rug, which is what I felt I did.

So how do you approach that? What could we, as people or as a society, be doing better?

For me it seems like a lot of systems failed him. It’s easy to have this sense of guilt, to put the blame on us for not knowing how to cope with what had happened to him. But there were a couple of things. After he attempted suicide, he was sent away to a hospital for evaluation, and he returned to campus five days later. He’s living off-campus in an apartment, and all of us felt uncomfortable talking about it, and there was no requirement for him to get help, so it was basically like a five-day checkup and then he was on his own. That's the thing about depression, is that you feel utterly by yourself. It's something I was familiar with, and I know how alienating and isolating that can feel — like you can't talk to your peers about something, and these are the people you're surrounded by. My hope is that the book addresses that, that it makes it easier somehow to have these conversations.

Amy Butcher will be at the Tattered Cover Colfax at 7 p.m. Monday, July 20 to discuss and sign Visiting Hours. Find more information here.

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Jef Otte
Contact: Jef Otte