In February 2005 actor Ian Belknap got a Valentine's Day card from his mother. Inside was what he calls a "Freudian goulash of items": a check for $200 and a copy of his father's death certificate. It was the first specific information he'd ever gotten about his father's suicide 20 years earlier at the age of 40.
Two years before his dad died, Belknap had received sketchy information about another violent family death: his paternal grandfather had been murdered in his own garage, stabbed in the head with pruning shears, then bludgeoned. Belknap was in college at the time. "Basically the story of my grandfather is . . . I get a phone call, I go to my room and play 'People Who Died' by the Jim Carroll Band as loud as I can, and then I don't ask for any further information for 20 years," he says. "Growing up in Amherst, Massachusetts, the familial style was 'It happened, and we must never speak of it.'" Instead he increased the amount of drugs and alcohol he was already using to stave off the suicidal thoughts he'd been harboring since adolescence.
When Belknap got word 20 months later that his father had killed himself, he became convinced he'd inherited an "encoded kill switch," some sort of family curse. "It was this superstitious, ridiculous thing of being in a race with him," he says. "If that's a model for success, death when you're 40, then I had to shoot for 35." He almost made it. His wife--Hallie Gordon, director of Steppenwolf's Arts Exchange Program--says that when she met him in 1987, in an acting class at the New School in New York, "he was going to die by drinking.
"He used to run out into traffic," Gordon says. "In Manhattan."
"Hammered," Belknap adds. "That's a salient detail."
"And for some reason, you lied to me about when your dad died. You said it was like when you were 16."
"Well, to be fair, I wasn't lying just to you. I was lying to everyone. If I said it happened long ago, it was far away."
"I remember we were at this party," she says. "You had a broken foot, but the cast was put on wrong and it got infected. You were such a loser. So you're up on the roof, up there with your broken, infected leg, totally drunk, and someone comes to get me and says, 'Ian's about to jump off the roof.' And there you were, teetering on the edge." He calls it "your typical after-school-special cry-for-help version of the suicidal impulse. But in a few years the switch got thrown from 'Oh, look at my pain, look how horrible I feel' to pretty seriously intending to kill myself."
By the spring of 1994 Belknap was ready. He and Gordon had broken up, but he called her one night at 3 AM and asked, "Should I do it now or later?" Gordon said, "What are you talking about?" He replied, "Just answer me," and she said to do it later, then called his mother and brother to say she couldn't deal with him anymore. The hysterical family telephone calls Belknap received made him realize his life was out of control.
"For me to have gotten to this bleak place was terrifying, in light of my knowledge of the consequences of suicide," he says. "I knew what it would do to the people left behind. That was the wake-up call, a tiny moment of grace I was afforded." He got into a program and off booze and drugs. Then he says he began "becoming estimable by doing small, estimable things. Make your bed. Show up for work. All the small good things, to borrow from Raymond Carver."
It took a year and a half of small good things before Gordon agreed to take him back. They were married in 1997. When they had their first child in 2001, Belknap says, "I became focused on what I would leave for my children." By the time his mother's morbid valentine arrived, he was ready to start examining the "rancid clusterfuck" of his past. "I was approaching the age when dad chose to end it all. So I thought, if I don't want to become him, I better come up with a theory as to what he was." His first attempt was Wide Open Beaver Shot of My Heart, a monologue that manages to make his own past and his family's hilarious. His grandmother, he says, "had a face like a lopsided stack of boiled potatoes. She had a laugh like percolating whiskey." And on what it's like to live as the son of a suicide: "It is a huge hurdle for me not to regard all human endeavor, and I mean every interaction, as a cheap, tawdry, flashy, stupid, wasteful sham, arising in desperation and culminating in nothing." The show opened last September at Prop Thtr, and he's remounting it starting April 27 as part of the Neo-Futurists' annual "Neo-Solo" series, the same week that he's turning 40.
Belknap started work on his monologue by getting copies of all the police reports, newspaper clippings, and medical findings he could. "I had done enough--not to get all Dr. Phil--'personal growing' to be better prepared to deal with whatever I found," he says. He learned that on December 3, 1986, his father, Peter Belknap, pulled his 1976 Dodge Charger off the highway just outside the Fort McDowell Indian Reservation near Phoenix, Arizona. He attached a hose to the tailpipe, tied up his dog outside the car, fed the hose through the back window, got back in, and polished off a bottle of wine while waiting to die. Belknap found out his father had left a note, in which he donated his "reusable organs" to "those who might need them on the McDowell Reservation," asked that his dog be given to a good home, and lamented the general callousness of American society. He didn't direct a single word to either of his two sons.
It wasn't a surprising end for a guy Belknap now believes suffered not only from alcoholism but from mental illness. He'd left his wife and kids in 1975, when Belknap was nine. "He had no business trying to raise a family in the first place," Belknap says. "He was all drugs and wanderlust." Despite Belknap's decade of "personal growing," staring at the facts of his father's suicide was terrifying. "The whole time I'm thinking, my dad was 40 when he killed himself, and here I am, here I am, right now. On the surface it's irrational. But when it's made flesh, it galls you."
Looking into the murder of his grandfather, Preston Belknap, was even more galling. Belknap learned from the 150-page police report that his alcoholic grandmother, Kathryn, said she found her husband lying in their Sarasota garage in a pool of blood a minute or two after he'd gone to check on a mysterious noise. But nothing was taken from the garage, nothing was out of place, and no unexplained footprints were found. Kathryn told detectives that she'd knelt down next to her husband before paramedics arrived, yet only her feet were bloody. Most bizarre, she said that perhaps her husband hadn't cried out when he was attacked because he didn't want to upset her. Within hours of the murder, the lead detective asked a doctor if a small, frail 78-year-old woman like Kathryn could have shattered Preston's skull.
No charges were ever filed. But the reports made Belknap wonder what other tendencies he'd inherited. "I've never been a violent person," he says. "Even in my deepest drinking I wasn't a fighter, I was a passer outer. But I do worry that I will snap one day."
Belknap envisions Wide Open Beaver Shot of My Heart as part of a larger project, a family memoir he's working on with his brother, a musician and graduate student in New York. He no longer defines success as an early death. Right after his first child was born, "I was lying with my two-week-old on my chest, and I had this overpowering sense that I was just a point in time connecting back to my dad and grandfather and the whole sick legacy. It was a moment of visceral understanding that I'm a puny pebble in the scheme, that I'm basically a shepherd to get my son to a prosperous and happy adulthood."
Wide Open Beaver Shot of My Heart
When: Through 5/6: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM
Where: Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland
Price: $10-$15, "pay what you can" Thursday
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.