Don in Nebraska asks: After seeing the data on your father’s blood pressure, cholesterol, and PSA values, all of which were abnormally high, doesn’t it beg the question of why didn’t your father act on these indicators and control his own health? To let his health decline to the point where his life was in danger, and, then use the poor health as a reason to end his life, seems out of character from a person who was so good at managing his life.
Susan Stern: Dear Don, my father was very disciplined about trying to live healthfully, but his medical problems were complicated. He didn’t drink, smoke or take drugs. When he was diagnosed with high blood pressure and high cholesterol, he switched to a low-fat, low-salt diet. He was very disciplined about it. In the 1970s, he tried to take medication to lower his cholesterol, but it was ineffective and made him feel ill, according to my mother. He was allergic to the medicine to lower his blood pressure, but eventually began taking it along with medicine to control the allergy. He was always physically active. I am unaware of any way to prevent prostate cancer; the cause of prostate cancer is unknown. My father’s course of action on the prostate cancer — to decline treatment given his age, other health problems and the often-slow growth of prostate cancer (as they say, “more men die with prostate cancer than of prostate cancer”) is not uncommon. Perhaps that is not the decision you would make. But the point of “The Self-Made Man” is that my father thought he had, as he would have put it, “earned the right” to make his own decisions. His family thought so, too.
Martin in New York asks: Do you think that your father’s decision was strongly influenced not necessarily by his health but by the frustration of seeing his dream of a solar grid totally ignored? I share his passion for solar and also his frustration — hence, as your mother said, “the fire went out of his belly” — I could fully empathize with that feeling and could that have been what pushed him to make that choice — his dream failed?
Stern: Dear Martin, no, I don’t think my father killed himself because he was depressed over not realizing his dreams in the solar industry. As I said in “The Self-Made Man,” Bob had gotten out of the solar industry nine years before he died. He had been working on a new type of hearing aid and on non-invasive medical diagnostic tools in the years before he died. Bob was always very upbeat and forward-looking. I think he took his life because he feared he was headed into a prolonged decline and death that would cause suffering for him and his family.
Joanne in Pennsylvania asks: Why did you come to believe that a biographical reminiscence would be the best way to deal, at least in public, with your father’s suicide and his reasons for it? And were you at all concerned about being too close to the story?
Stern: Dear Joanne, I feel that I’ve dealt with my father’s suicide privately, alone and with my family, and we are at peace with it. I didn’t need to make “The Self-Made Man” as therapy or catharsis. I made the film because I thought the questions my father raised were important for a wide audience. My father was far from alone. Since making the film, I have been contacted by many people whose loved ones have had similar suicides or ‘hastened deaths.’ I don’t think one can be “too close” to a story. There are simply different points of view from which stories can be told. In this case, I was a participant, and that colored my story; in my 30-year career as a journalist and filmmaker, I have often been an outsider, and that, too, colored my story.