On January 22, 1987, Robert Budd Dwyer was filmed committing suicide. He was Pennsylvania’s Treasurer. He had been tried and convicted of bribery and was scheduled to be sentenced on January 23. He called a press conference, read a statement proclaiming his innocence, then shot himself in the head. He did this in front of five network cameras.
Many stations, such as WCAU and KDKA, aired only a portion of the footage. WHTM-TV, however, showed the suicide unedited. This is how I and my son, who was four, saw it on the noontime news.
We didn’t want to see it, but we did. There was a snowstorm, so I had the news on for the weather. Instead we saw a man remove a gun from a manilla folder, place the barrel in his mouth, and pull the trigger.
For a moment after it happened, I didn’t move. Then I switched off the television. The way I did it was sudden and violent, as if I were trying to erase the previous few seconds through physical force.
What was that? my son said.
I tried to smile. I’m sorry, kiddo, I said. It was a scary movie. I didn’t know it would be on. It wasn’t real, I said, and I jiggled my son’s arm.
I didn’t like it, he said. I didn’t like it, Mom, he said.
And I said, I know, kiddo. I said, But you can forget about it now. It was just make-believe. It wasn’t real.
Then I told him I needed to use the bathroom, which was true, and I would be back in a second. In the bathroom I threw up. I sat on the toilet and evacuated my bowels. When I was finished, I fell to my knees on the bathmat outside the shower stall and prayed. Dear God, I prayed. Please give me the nightmares my son is going to have. Please give them to me. I squeezed my eyes shut until all I saw was red. Please give them to me, God. Please.
It took a minute for my eyes to clear and the puffiness under them to fade. I washed my hands, and when I returned to the kitchen, my son showed me that he had finished his sandwich.
He didn’t have nightmares that night or the night after or any night that week. Neither did I. After a few days, I wondered where in the world the nightmares had gone and who was having them.