Whatever you think you know about Ernest Hemingway, most of what you know or believe you know — and I mean 99% of it — has to do with his persona or celebrity or some facet of his life other than what he actually wrote. That’s true whether you’re a perspicacious academic, an inveterate reader or a militant blogger with an axe to grind for or against.
This post is not about any of that. It is also not about Ernest Hemingway the writer. It is, instead, a post about Ernest Hemingway as a physical being, and as such broaches a narrative that runs at cross purposes to the exploitation, condemnation or exultation of Hemingway as a consciousness. While this post is thus incidental to the objectives of almost anyone who has ever commented about Hemingway as an artist or entertainer, it may yet be central to understanding Hemingway as a man, as opposed to a man’s man.
Most people know that Ernest Hemingway killed himself. If you did not know that prior to stumbling on this post, you do now by virtue of both the headline and this sentence. Many people know that Hemingway shot himself in the head with a shotgun. Some people know that his father committed suicide with a revolver in the same way. That is all true. Because Ernest Hemingway was a celebrity, however, his suicide triggered an outsized desire — if not a cultural need — to frame that act in the context of his life and work, to say nothing of spawning the usual mindless attempts to ascribe a single motive to his decision.
Having thought about storytelling for a long time I have come of late to conclude that such deliberative efforts are not born of the rational mind, which purports to be the agent of concerns about motive, but the narrative mind. It is the intrinsic storyteller in each of us which seeks — if not needs — to make sense of events, particularly when the weight of evidence makes clear that chaos does exist, and that we, at times, are its embodiment. It is because of this instinct, whether you ever paid much attention to Hemingway or not, that today you still likely hold some belief — some plausible cause and effect in your own mind — which explains why Hemingway did what he did over fifty long years ago.
The Narrative Fallacy and Head Injury
The problem with this narrative instinct is that it presumes two conditions which are almost always unmet. First, that the facts we require in order to arrive at the correct conclusion are always in evidence. Second, that we are coherent in the way we reach conclusions across narratives. (That is, that our narratives about the world and how it works not only make sense on a case-by-case basis, but make sense when compared to each other.)
With regard to the former error, you can see it in action when watching or reading almost any biography about Hemingway. Invariably, depending on the length of the work, authorial omissions and assertions are made which support whatever overarching thesis or narrative is being put forward. Chief among the assertions and omissions central to Hemingway’s later years include his alcohol use and abuse, yet that habit is rarely discussed medically in terms of how long-term alcohol consumption may have predisposed him not only to a rash act in a particular moment, but to a host of chronic health issues which may have precipitated that same act apart from any bout of drinking. Rather than pointing to physiological damage as the underlying cause, alcohol is seen at most as an enabler of his suicide, leaving a tantalizing psychological mystery to be resolved by your trusted guide, who then nobly ferrets dispositive clues from Hemingway’s writings and exploits.
With regard to the latter error, by chance over this past weekend the sport of boxing (or, more accurately, mixed martial arts), which Hemingway not only enjoyed but extolled, ritually demonstrated the convergence of incoherent narratives. Specifically, a celebrated female fighter bludgeoned another female fighter senseless in only a matter of moments, thus fulfilling the brutal narrative ascribed to the celebrated fighter’s prowess as an athletic combatant. That celebrating such a victory is incoherent should be obvious in light of widespread coverage regarding the brain damage done to athletes in the sport of professional football, yet even at this late date the press and citizenry seem to have no problem bifurcating concern on a sport-by-sport basis. Where such physical trauma was, only a few years ago, unabashadly sold by the NFL, it is now acknowledged that euphemisms like being put to sleep or having your bell rung (with its obvious boxing association) are descriptions of brain injury. It is also now known as a medical fact, and was known long before in boxing circles, that recurrent brain injury, primarily in the form of concussions, can lead to long-term health consequences, including the diagnosis of CTE.
While the NFL has been frantically changing rules covering on-field violence over the past few years to keep its sport legally viable, and doing everything possible to distract the public and press from the fact that it purveys what in any other business would be a series of criminal acts, the NFL has also been struggling with a string of highly publicized accounts of violence against women. Included in those cases were not only the murder of a woman by an NFL player, but an NFL player caught on tape punching a woman and knocking her unconscious. That violence against women should no longer be tolerated — after it was institutionally ignored by the NFL for decades — has slowly crept into the minds of the money junkies who run the NFL, if only as a hedge against reduced profits. Yet over the weekend we were still treated to a woman being knocked unconscious as entertainment, and to her objectively evident brain injury being described euphemistically by the incoherent, co-dependent press as being ‘dropped’ or ‘put to sleep’.
While some women may feel empowered by the fact that a woman can do just as much damage to the body of another woman as any man, it’s likely that some of the people tuning into a culturally sanctioned all-female fight are doing so expressly to enjoy violence being perpetrated against a woman, regardless of the gender of the perpetrator. As for the press, despite growing awareness of short-term and long-term damage from concussions, it is still not uncommon to see bloviating members of the sports media wax conscientious about the pain and suffering caused by blows to the head in football, then turn around in the next segment and enthusiastically look forward to watching one boxer put another boxer ‘to sleep,’ even though the means of anesthesia necessarily involves head trauma.
Underscoring the degree of institutionalized incoherence that still remains in professional football, the NFL kicks off the 2015-2016 season this upcoming weekend with inductions into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. One of this year’s inductees, Junior Seau, will be honored posthumously, because two years after retiring from the NFL he put a gun to his chest and killed himself. Having played for twenty years at a caliber and level of intensity few men reach in their prime, Seau apparently chose that method of death because he believed he was suffering from CTE and wanted to preserve his brain for study. (Subsequent study did in fact document CTE.)
Prior to his death Seau requested that his daughter speak on his behalf if he died before being named to the Hall of Fame. The Hall denied that request based on its own recent ruling that posthumous inductees would not be allowed to have family members speak for them. That the rule was adopted only five years ago, subsequent to documentation of CTE as an agent of behavioral and degenerative health issues among professional football players, only makes the Hall’s ruling (and rule change) seem all the more callous.
(After writing the initial draft of this post, and in response to outcry from the public, the NFL Hall of Fame announced that Seau’s daughter would still not be allowed to speak on behalf of her own dead father, as he himself wished, but that she would be allowed to be interviewed at the unveiling of his bust. It should also be noted that the NFL and the Hall of Fame both take great pains to publicize the fact that they are completely separate legal entities, much as the toady press asserts that it is independent from the NFL even though it often relies on the NFL for the lion’s share of its revenue, reporting and prestige.)
While the NFL continues to expose itself as a fundamentally corrupt entertainment cabal with no moral compass and a penchant for character assassination at the highest levels, it’s worth standing back from the incoherence of a sport that maims and in some cases causes the deaths of its employees to consider a simple fact, which happens to be the same fact that has reduced boxing and mixed-martial arts to peripheral sports in which the biggest star is a women who inflicts brain damage on other women. If you subject any human being to repeated blows to the head, that damage is going to have a traumatic effect in the moment, and chronic, long-lasting and potentially fatal consequences down the line.
Hemingway and Head Injury
You probably know that Ernest Hemingway lived a knockabout life. He reveled in risk and in testing his courage — a trait he famously described as having grace under pressure. While the image of a brawling Hemingway fits neatly with his authored works and carefully stage-managed persona, it’s worth remembering that brawling involves, among other things, blows to the head. And even a cursory analysis of Hemingway’s life shows that he was subjected to significantly more head trauma than the average individual.
One of Hemingway’s great passions was boxing, which he pursued in high school. As you probably know, even if you are gifted, a certain percentage of any time in a boxing ring is devoted to being hit in the head. Upon graduation, and determined to seek out adventure, at the age of eighteen Hemingway volunteered for the Red Cross and served as an ambulance driver in Italy, where he was subsequently wounded.
On the night of July 8, 1918, Hemingway was struck by an Austrian mortar shell while handing out chocolate to Italian soldiers in a dugout. The blow knocked him unconscious and buried him in the earth of the dugout; fragments of shell entered his right foot and his knee and struck his thighs, scalp and hand. Two Italian soldiers standing between Hemingway and the shell’s point of impact were not so lucky, however: one was killed instantly and another had both his legs blown off and died soon afterwards.
Given the force of the blast, the clear evidence of concussion, and his subsequent six-month hospitalization, it’s not hard to imagine that the trauma inflicted on Hemingway’s brain in that single instance would have qualified for a variety of serious diagnoses in the modern age. Included among them may have been what is now called TBI, which is also known to cause CTE. (During the First World War, and for a long time thereafter, including the Spanish Civil War, TBI was called shell shock. It is now known to be a common but often featureless source of physical injury during wartime, including, most recently, damage done to combatants and civilians by IED’s in Iraq and Afghanistan.)
While there is still a great deal that is not known about concussion, there seems to be no medical dispute that prior concussions predispose patients to further brain trauma. One concussion may be recoverable, but repeated head trauma — such as that experienced by football players, boxers, mixed martial artists and soldiers in wartime — greatly increases the risk of long-term physical and mental illness.
In that context Hemingway’s infatuation with boxing, both prior and subsequent to his six-month hospitalization from a mortar blast, may have caused or predisposed him to a variety of brain injuries, including TBI and CTE. Importantly in that regard, Hemingway’s interest in boxing was life-long:
Hemingway’s love for boxing was unmatched by his other passions, and he even had a boxing ring built in the backyard of his Key West home, right next to the pool, so that he could spar with guests. Hemingway often dedicated his time not spent writing in Key West to boxing, even refereeing matches at the local arena.
While no one knows the total number of blows to the head that Hemingway took in the boxing ring, or anywhere else, it’s fair to conclude that he took a significant number, and considerably more than the average individual. It’s also fair to conclude that each successive blow posed greater and greater risk to Hemingway for the onset of brain damage, as well as greater vulnerability to subsequent head trauma.
When the following chain of events are recounted they’re usually couched in macho-ironic language that Hemingway himself probably would have appreciated. What you will rarely see, however, is an exploration of the effect that those events may have had on Hemingway’s long-term health, and specifically his eventual suicide. In any health context, however, it seems eminently germane that in 1954 Ernest Hemingway survived back-to-back plane crashes in Africa.
In 1954, while in Africa, Hemingway was almost fatally injured in two successive plane crashes. He chartered a sightseeing flight over the Belgian Congo as a Christmas present to Mary. On their way to photograph Murchison Falls from the air, the plane struck an abandoned utility pole and “crash landed in heavy brush”. Hemingway’s injuries included a head wound, while Mary broke two ribs. The next day, attempting to reach medical care in Entebbe, they boarded a second plane that exploded at take-off, with Hemingway suffering burns and another concussion, this one serious enough to cause leaking of cerebral fluid. They eventually arrived in Entebbe to find reporters covering the story of Hemingway’s death. He briefed the reporters and spent the next few weeks recuperating and reading his erroneous obituaries. Despite his injuries, Hemingway accompanied Patrick and his wife on a planned fishing expedition in February, but pain caused him to be irascible and difficult to get along with. When a bushfire broke out, he was again injured, sustaining second degree burns on his legs, front torso, lips, left hand and right forearm. Months later in Venice, Mary reported to friends the full extent of Hemingway’s injuries: two cracked discs, a kidney and liver rupture, a dislocated shoulder and a broken skull. The accidents may have precipitated the physical deterioration that was to follow. After the plane crashes, Hemingway, who had been “a thinly controlled alcoholic throughout much of his life, drank more heavily than usual to combat the pain of his injuries.”
Along with erroneous reports about Hemingway’s death there were equally erroneous reports describing minimal injuries. Eventually the extent of the injuries would come out, and even six months later they were significant enough to keep Hemingway from traveling to Sweden to accept his Nobel Prize for The Old Man and the Sea. Seven years later, in 1961, Ernest Hemingway killed himself.
Whatever factors may have led to his decision, in the context of modern medicine it seems relevant if not obligatory to consider the impact that head trauma may have had on Hemingway’s brain health, which may also have factored into attempts to self-medicate with alcohol. In the context of the time, it’s equally evident that neither Hemingway himself, his loved ones, nor any of the professionals overseeing his care would have had any reason to suspect TBI or CTE as a factor in any personality changes or erratic or self-destructive behavior. Quite the contrary, given both his own mythology and prevalent assumptions about aging and alcoholism at the time, it’s quite possible that all relevant health factors were believed to be accounted for.
What is beyond dispute is that marked changes did take place:
Was Hemingway’s suicide influenced by what we now know to be TBI or CTE? Since there is no surviving brain matter that question cannot be answered to a medical certainty, but the circumstantial case is overwhelming in the affirmative. Even assuming that Hemingway suffered no more blows to the head than those recounted above, the fact that both major and repeated head traumas occurred throughout his life all but guarantees some cumulative effect. If, in his later diminished capacity he felt that his father’s suicide laid a course for him to follow, yet in following that course he also presaged the behavior a half-century later of Junior Seau and other professional football players who have committed suicide, including players who have also been diagnosed with CTE on autopsy — to say nothing of emulating all of the soldiers and civilians who may have committed suicide throughout history as a result of brain trauma — it seems eminently possible if not likely that Hemingway’s suicide was the result of head injury.
Head Injury as Narrative
As a theory I think the idea has morbid merit. My interest in raising the possibility that Hemingway’s suicide was the result of TBI or CTE is not, however, merely conjectural. As a larger-than-life character in Western if not world history, Hemingway was defined by narratives in his authored works and in the way he lived his life. Because he took his own life he left a legacy that echoes not only throughout the literary world and greater culture, but still, today, in the minds of some individuals who may themselves be struggling, including members of his own family. Given the lengths to which many people — including highly educated healthcare professionals who should know better — have gone to twist Hemingway’s life and death to fit their own tenuous beliefs about everything from repression to identity, and that such speculation remains commonplace, I think it’s worth reconsidering his final, fatal act in light of new medical knowledge.
Human beings emulate each other. It’s an instinct more than a nod to education as a cerebral process, meaning it tends to come to the fore when we’re in trouble or unsure about what to do. We emulate our heroes, we emulate the exploits of people in our family and culture, and when we get in a jam we emulate people who solved the same problem we’re facing one way or the other.
Because of advances in medical science, the surviving children, relatives and friends of professional football players who have killed themselves in recent years are probably less likely to imitate that act because they now correctly attribute that act to brain trauma from playing that sport. Unfortunately, because people do not think about Hemingway’s suicide in a similar context, tragic-romantic associations and conjectural psychobabble continues to hold sway — and that, in turn, might predispose someone to draw injurious parallels when they are wrestling with torment.
Whatever you think about Ernest Hemingway’s writing, life or celebrity, it seems undeniable that subjecting any brain to repeated trauma is a bad idea. In considering Hemingway’s suicide from the perspective of head injury we not only gain some visibility into the murky dynamics that may have driven him to act, we distance that decision from the minds of people who may be in pain and looking for answers. Maybe there is no way to heal a brain that has been insulted by repeated physical trauma, but just knowing you don’t have that history may allow you to see your troubles for what they are, and allow you to endure until you can get help. While it is impossible to conclude with any certainty that Hemingway’s suicide was the result of TBI or CTE, there is not only no justification for ruling that possibility out, I do not believe there is currently a more compelling coherent theory supported by both medicine and the facts in evidence.
— Mark Barrett