Monday, October 23, 2017

In honor of Rod, a brother who took his own life

Brothers on a Journey. Rod is in the front row to my right, with his arms crossed in front of him just like me.

For the past few years I have attended a men's group called "Brothers on a Journey" every Monday night at All Saint's Episcopal Church. This week we suffered a painful loss. One of our brothers committed suicide. He was a talented musician who played guitar and wrote lyrics for a punk rock band with the quirky name "The Urinals." As their website explains:

"With Rod's involvement [in 1998], the Urinals evolved into an animal with a similar skew but a different texture than what had come before. The minimalist lyrics (Leaving Train Falling James called them "punk haiku") were intact, the song structures continued to confound with their simplicity, and the tunes themselves regularly hewed to a length less than 150 seconds. What was different was Rod's contribution as a rock guitarist who knows his way around a good pop phrase and a distortion pedal.

John, Kevin, Rod Barker in 2001 (Photo by Kat)
"In October of 2003, the band released a CD of new material, WHAT IS REAL AND WHAT IS NOT. With this, the Urinals offered two statements: their alternate-universe debut album, and a 20-years-later follow-up to the 100 FLOWERS album. It proved that the band could both refuse to grow up and age gracefully.

"In May of 2005, the URINALS were flown to Beijing by the PRC to play at the week-long CHAOYANG INTERNATIONAL POP FESTIVAL. Upon their return, work began on an autobiography of the band (which continues to the time of this posting.) In October of 2005, Rod Barker left the band."

Since leaving the band, Rod's life became increasingly difficult and he went from job to job, barely making ends meet. The longest tenure was at the Huntington Library/Garden, where he worked for seven years. 

Several  years ago his  young niece was murdered. Rod couldn't handle the pain of her tragic death, succumbed to depression and attempted suicide. He spent a brief time in a mental institution, and lost all his possessions, including his musical instruments and all his CDs, music, etc. He lost everything that he cherished, and the pain of this loss was overwhelming.

He also suffered from physical ailments that kept him in constant pain, and our broken medical system didn't provide the care he needed. He received SSDI but not enough to cover his rent and food. He lived in fear of being evicted, and sometimes had to resort to asking friends for charity, which he found mortifying.

Our little band of brothers did all we could to support Rod. Some of us visited him, some brought him food, and others helped him with his paperwork.  We also provided him with emergency funds.

Despite our help, and words of encouragement, he felt hopeless. He felt that the only way out of his misery was to take his own life. He repeatedly asked us not to report him to the authorities because he feared going back to a mental institution more than he feared death. Death, for Rod, was the key to unlock his prison of guilt and despair. 

Rod was very critical of the psychiatric system. What he experienced when institutionalized felt punitive and emotionally destructive, not therapeutic. On the other hand, he deeply appreciated his therapist, whom he saw for twenty years. 

He also was outraged at the treatment he received from Social Security. After trying in vain to help him get the benefits he deserved, I went with Rod to the office of Congresswoman Judy Chu, to see if her intervention could facilitate the logjam. Chu's aide was very helpful, but Rod died before receiving the SSDI benefits he deserved.

I met with Rod every other week or so, and sent him an email this week when he didn't show up for our Monday's BOJ meeting.  When he didn't show up for his therapist appointment, she went to his apartment. When he didn't respond, she called the police, who broke into his apartment and found his body. 

Rod's death came as a painful blow to the Brothers. He left a note commending us, but many of us felt guilty or depressed. Could we, should we, have done more?

One member of our group is a hospice chaplain and grief counselor, and another is a therapist. They led our group in a grief session. We were assured that it was okay to express our feelings, no matter what they were: sadness, guilt, grief, bewilderment, or anger.

I was surprised to learn that several members of our group had considered suicide, and others had family members or friends who had killed themselves. We shared our feelings, which was very cathartic.

I am not a liberty to share what others said--we have a strict code of confidentiality--but I can say we celebrated Rod's positive traits--his amazing knowledge of music, his wide reading, his thoughtfulness and also his quirky sense of humor. His email moniker was "laffatdoom." I recall a time when he shared with me religious jokes, the most memorable being: "How do you make holy water?" Answer: "You boil the hell out of it."

I shared with the Brothers about my own experience with a woman who was suicidal and transformed my life. In my sophomore year at Boston University, I was in a bad way. Living in a slummy apartment, an impoverished student too poor to buy food much of the time, but somehow able to afford pot, I felt like a character out of a Dostoevsky novel. What kept me going was the idea that I was a poet in the making. On scraps of paper  I wrote poems I felt were in the mode of Rimbaud and Ginsberg and Ezra Pound, dead poets whom I deeply admired. When I heard about a famous living poet who was giving her first workshop at BU, I applied and was accepted. For the next two years, I was in her workshops, surrounded with some of the most gifted and neurotic poets in New England. My life was utterly changed. I rediscovered my purpose and became editor of BU's literary magazine. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to this poet who believed in me. Her name was Anne Sexton.

She was very happy to be teaching at BU. She loved her students and was at the peak of success, reciting poetry with a jazz band called "Her Kind." When I graduated, I met with her and said I wasn't sure what to do with the rest of my life. She said, "Why not be a poet?"

I felt (and still feel) immense gratitude to Anne for all she gave me. Three years after I graduated, she killed herself. Her death was an enormous blow, and I stopped writing poetry for a long time. I decided to become a teacher of literature, instead of writing it.

Rod had the soul of an artist. An artist whose life ended in tragedy, like so many other artists who live on the edge. Please hold him in your prayers.

For Rod

You were alone at the end,
Alone in your apartment,
Falling apart, feeling you had no part,
No future, no new start,
But you weren’t without friends,
Friends who cared,
If only you knew!

If only you were aware,
We were thinking of you.
A small circle of brothers,
Broken, yet together,
For whom you weren’t “the other”
But one of us, we felt your pain,
We believed in you—at least, we tried--
And now your loss reminds us we remain
To honor who you were inside.
Respecting your decision, and your sad story.
Even if we saw you differently,
Star dust, fallen from grace and glory,
Into a world that seemed to have no future,
Only a painful past, a relentless now,
A story that drove you
To do what you felt you had to do.

Your heart was broken,
yet still the gold shone through:
Your love of music, times of inspiration,
And your righteous indignation
at how the broken are mistreated…

Let’s remember not to judge or label
The mystery that is you and me
Caught in a web of eternity.
Brother, I wish you peace and
A mind that’s free and clear
Of all that seemed dark here.
Go in peace, my brother, go in peace.
May your soul find blessed release.

--Anthony Manousos, Oct 14, 2017


  1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful tribute. I loved Rod. Such a gentile soul.

  2. Rod was an old music friend from post punk circles, and I didn't know he went to All Saints as well. Presently in New York City and learning this sad news. Will light a candle for Rod at the SRF. Thank you for the loving tribute. I'm glad that Rod had you as a friend.

  3. Thank you so much for your post. I had known Rod since the early 80s. I saw him on and off throughout the years but we had lost touch. I'm grateful he had your group and the support you gave him. I wish I could have been there for him too. We all loved Rod and are so sad about this horrible loss.

  4. I am Rod’s niece and was his closest confidant. Thank you for the kind words and tribute to a great person and my an even better musician. I must correct one point in that he was found in his apartment by my father after not being heard from by friends in the brotherhood. I miss his laughter and the time we spent together.