Searching For Why Anthony Bourdain Died Through His Books
I believe parents reach a rock bottom at some point, where they feel like they’ve failed their children and/or everyone in their life. That they’ve some how screwed up and can’t fix what they perceive they’ve messed up. It could be postpartum depression that percipates this feeling, or the pressure to be a good bread-winner, parent, and spouse getting to be too much to balance. For most mothers and fathers the feeling doesn’t reach the depths of paralyzing depression, but for some the feeling reaches the level of having ideations that it would be better if they die. But how could a parent commit suicide? How could they give up being a part of their children’s life? How could they not see that the feeling is temporary, that there’s joy to be had once it is resolved by asking for help and taking some quiet time to relax and regroup one’s thoughts.
Why am I writing about this? Well, it’s the one year mark of the date when the late accomplished writer, TV host, and former chef Anthony Bourdain took his life. Having been a fan and viewer since his first television show A Cook’s Tour, which premiered in 2002, late this March 2019 I was missing watching new episodes of his popular award-winning show Parts Unknown. It was the first time in sixteen years that I wouldn’t be seeing or hearing anything new from the funny, twisted, and soulful celebrity. There’s been no program as of yet that has come to replace what he brought to the world. Rick Steves is sweet but dull, Andrew Zimmern is frankly annoying, and W. Kamau Bell’s show doesn’t do creative, slightly inappropriate, edgy, off-the-wall, cinematic television like what Zero Point Zero, Bourdain’s production company created. None of them also have the charisma and pathos that makes you want to be their friend like Bourdain either. With Bourdain, if you are a fan you hung on his every word, whether spoken or on the page. He had a way with words that both could shock you, make you laugh, whisk you away, enlighten, and transport you. His writing always reminds me of a combination of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, Hunter S. Thompson. And he didn’t care about pleasing everyone which made him doubly likeable. As he said himself, “I’ve never minded pissing people off.” You wanted to hear his stories, you wanted to know everything about him, his recommendations and opinions held weight, he was like a God to some and family to others. He filled some human need that like umami is a combination of many things, like travel, adventure, the new, the unknown, the strange, the dark, the light, the far off the beaten path, the taboo, the funny, the human heart. He was reintroducing the idea of traveling as necessity, reteaching people how to not be a tourist, and really get immersed into people and place. He was a magician, his smoke and mirrors was the written word and television, a combination that made him a fixture in people’s hearts and minds.
Since that day we all learned he died, June 8, 2018, I’ve wanted to know why he took his life. Especially since he left a young daughter, named Ariane.
Why did Anthony Bourdain die? Was it his girlfriend Asia Argento? Reports say friends were concerned about him being in love with her. Was it mental illness? Was he secretly killed? Had he done something unforgiveably wrong? Did his two divorces make him feel like a failure? Was it fame? What drove him to the point of no return? Having only met him once at a book signing in 2008, all I can tell you from my interaction is that he is a great speaker but painfully shy when it came to the signing of books and interacting with fans.
There’s the news which has revealed 1) that Asia Argento did cheat on him, and 2) that he cheated on her too; 3) that he gave Argento money to pay off an actor who when underage she beded 4) that he was in a dark mood leading up to his death 5) and was exhausted from his travel and work schedule 6) he had significant amounts of alcohol in his system having drank significantly the night before he died.
His suicide caught his friends and family by surprise, and the rest of the world. We don’t know if he kept diaries or journals of his inner thoughts, but one avenue I thought to look for an answer, as to why he took his life was in the books he wrote.
On a side note, a documentary on Anthony Bourdain’s meteoric book success with Kitchen Confidential is a great resource for getting deep into who Tony was, where he came from, and how heady the rapid rise was for him between 2000-2001. The documentary is called Out of the Pan, Into the Fire by photographer Dmitri Kasterine. It was never released, but you can watch a condensed version if you purchase on iTunes the episode from season six of Bourdain’s old Travel Channel Show No Reservations, episode 18, entitled “Where It All Began.” If Kasterine ever releases that documentary, it’s sure to be overwhelmingly welcomed with open arms by the public.
I placed holds on the non-fiction books he wrote about his life and the world around him at the Tinley Park Public Library. It took me a few weeks to get them all but it took me a short time to get through them inspite of my busy life as a mom, wife, and business owner. Here is a list of the non-fiction book I read:
- Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. (2000)
- A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal. (2001)
- The Nasty Bits. (2006)
- No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach. (2007)
- Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook. (2010)
- Appetites: A Cookbook. (2016)
One thing that stook out from the books was how much the death of his father impacted him.
Second, he had dark interests such as crime and idolized criminals, outsiders, loners, and anything other that was deemed wrong by society.
Third, he once had a serious drug problem.
Four, he describes himself as a youth and for much of his adulthood as being a narcissistic, angry, ungrateful, and a whiner. Since kicking his drug problem he reformed and became nicer, thankful and very “Ina Garten.”
Fifth, his divorce from his first wife Nancy Putkoski made him suicidal; his words, not mine. He writes about this in Medium Raw (2010).
Sixth and most revealing of all, in The Nasty Bits (2006) he writes that the thought of committing suicide (by hanging himself with the cord of the in-flight telephone around his neck) on a plane when sandwiched between two very obese women brought him calm and got him through the flight. That’s an odd thing to get you through the flight I thought. Why not the thought of getting your destination and the good time you’ll be having there?
It’s not the first time he writes or speaks flippantly about death, murder, or suicide. Statements like, “One minute you’re on top of the world, and the next —like when you wish to light up a smoke at a bar and can’t—you’re wallowing in misery and self-pity, unable to decide between murder and suicide.” His way of describing things were sometimes for comic effect, to shock, and be edgy, but now in retrospect they suggest that maybe Bourdain wasn’t always just saying things to say them.
It’s well known that Bourdain liked dark subject matter, he was very open about it, and it was pervasive in everything he did. His famous chef’s whites had his self designed skull and knife logo imprinted on them; a nod to his love of pirates.
And have you seen the cover of Appetites (2016)?
I was looking for signs, anything to make sense of why Anthony Bourdain took his own life. I did find the same running themes of “the next book could tank, that the TV thing could come crashing down—this vida loca better last—or else I’m fucked.” This looking at the glass half empty lens that kept him always grateful and hardworking because in his opinion going back to the kitchen “It would break me.” Or the casual way he would drop words like alcoholism, depression, suicide, self-pity. If any of us looked back at what we said and wrote from the last half century of our lives we’d find things that repeat, tells about our character, and world view. With Bourdain you could say he was hinting at his own demise or was just using hyperbole. But overarchingly it was clear he had issues with self-esteem and that most of all he feared failing his daughter and the people he cared about most in the world. Feeling like a failure was familiar to him and the feeling of being a fraud, undeserving of his new life after having had forty-four years of a very off-track life that was not responsible or healthy. He was always trying to be better, to be good, to make up for everything he wasn’t or had been in the past. He was a good soul, but I fear too hard on himself to the point of nihilism and masochism. And worst of all he thought he was the problem. He wasn’t. He took himself out of the equation of his life, for his daughter? For what benefit? What did he feel would be made better by the lack of him? Maybe he couldn’t go on living with himself. Maybe he was so unhappy with himself. Why though, why? He had everything someone could wish for. His own mother said it, “He had everything.” Could it be depression was the reason? He told NBC Nightly News in 2014, “There was some dark genie inside me that I very much hesitate to call a disease that led me to dope.” He didn’t replace into drugs if you’re wondering. His toxology report indicated that there were no narcotics in his system, save for the trace of a nonnarcotic medicine in a therapeutic dose. People online I read said the “nonnarcotic medicine in a therapeutic dose” is code for an anti-depressant. Some theories from the comments I read online suggested that some new medication could have made him suicidal, and that it is not uncommon with some anti-depressant medication.
Something else that stands out to me are two episodes, one from his Food Network Show A Cook’s Tour and the first episode of his Travel Channel Show No Reservations. In one he plays dead in his hotel room, jokingly. The episode is entitled “Los Angeles, My Own Heart of Darkness” from Season 1, episode 17. Skip to the 1m47s mark to get to the almost prescient of his death segment of the episode.
In the other, he is in the hotel where Oscar Wilde killed himself.
His last episode set in Bhutan was remarkably dark, with death being a key subject and the whole atmosphere of the show being quite somber.
As film director Darren Aronofsky, who joined Bourdain on his trip to Bhutan, so aptly put it, “It seems ironic now that on our last day of shooting we performed a Bhutanese death ritual,” Aronofsky wrote for CNN. “We debated the fate of the country, the fate of the world. He was perplexed as to how mankind’s endless hunger to consume could be curtailed.”
From my investigation of his books I don’t know anymore than you why Anthony Bourdain died. Except I feel like there are traces that do suggest a disturbed sense of self. Maybe it was his perfectionism, feeling like it was best to go out on top. But still, why walk away from a charmed life? Is it possible to have too much? Suicide always ends up a mystery doesn’t it, even a suicide note doesn’t tell the whole story. The story of Anthony Bourdain will be told like that of a Hemmingway of travel, culture, food, and politics, with less overdone machoism and more punk rock. It has a sad ending but it’s chock full of great content that generations will enjoy like a time capsule of the world. His suicide I hope will not be what he is rememebered for, instead we should focus on the work he left behind. There will never be another Anthony Bourdain, but his influence I hope will pop up from time to time in the next generation of cooks, writers, film makers, and people of all walks of life. Seeing life through his lens was unique, and we need more people like him who told things from their perspective, their way.
The lesson to be learned for parents is, think twice before you think about taking yourself out of your children’s life. They need you more than you know. Don’t worry about how things are going to work out, focus on the now, and never feel like help is out of reach. Above all, don’t think that it’s too late for you. Anthony Bourdain changed his life around at 44, he found things late in life that no one could’ve imagined possible. You can turn your life around always if you believe in yourself. Believe in yourself for your children, teach them that they are worth living for.