Clark Adams: A Personal Memory
Talladega is a strange place. Famous mostly for its speedway and the movie Talladega Nights, which may have been inspired by the name, it’s an old Alabama town. It has a traditional town square with old brick buildings, slowly being emptied due to competition from the new WalMart. There is a nice old school for the deaf and blind, and an old auditorium where I once saw James Randi speak. South of town, past Quonset huts punctuated by cow flop and gas stations where old timers really do sit and talk all day, an unexceptional side road leads off past propane tanks, churches, and the homes of ministers who extort services from local businesses, saying “Give this one to God.” Then a miracle occurs. A five-pointed star on the side of the road marks a turn to Lake Hypatia, of the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the Alabama Freethought Society. A beautiful lake is surrounded by Freethought Hall, a library, a pavilion on the lake, and a monument to Atheists in Foxholes. It is there that I met my friend Clark Adams for the first and last times.
Clark and I go way back. In the days when giant reptiloids roamed the earth and 5 MHz was a fast clock, we communicated using a system called USENET. Clark moderated the alt.atheism.moderated newsgroup. He induced me to come to Lake Hypatia one year, when electronic communication was novel enough that those of us from the newsgroup wore name tags with our mail address. I spoke the next year, and it has become a tradition since then.
Clark was a self-identified conference junkie, attending half a dozen or more conferences each year. He spoke on many subject, though his favorite was Atheism and the Media. He was annual MC at the annual Fourth of July Advance at Lake Hypatia, and that is where his talents really lay. Freethought is full of prima donnas, and Clark worked best just below that level. He was a marvelous constructor of social networks. Given any two big names in freethought, the chances are that Clark had a finger in getting them together. Yet he was not an elitist and promoted and facilitated relatively unimportant people like me. He was self-deprecating, never acknowledging that he was generally the most important person in the room.
Clark was also a charter member of the board of the Internet Infidels and played a larger role in establishing that than is generally recognized. It was the story of Clark’s life to do more good than was acknowledged. As the newsgroup became obsolete, I focused my attention on that. Once, when I had a large hassle with the moderation and management a few years ago, Clark stepped in to calm the waters. In retrospect, I realize that I was right, and it was a mistake on his part. Ironically, the hassle arose from a conflict over the suicide prevention policy, which I felt in my bones was badly broken. I wish I hadn’t been right about that one, and I regret having allowed myself to be mollified by Clark and the psychologist who reassured me that everything was under control.
Anyone who ever rode while Clark was driving will not soon forget the experience. He was to the road much as Godzilla was to Tokyo. Clark drank more diet soda than anyone alive, and he ate enough boiled shrimp at the Chinese Buffet to keep several fisheries open. It has been said that he never drank alcohol, but I’ve seen him sip from a beer in his hand. Only sipped, though.
Clark never got hung up on whether one called oneself an atheist, agnostic, freethinker, secularist, or even Bright. He was an easy and comfortable friend and the kind of enemy that one cannot help but like despite the enmity.
His life with his family was not a particularly happy one. His brother is a fundamentalist, and his parents and other relatives at least believers. I met many of them at his memorial and found them friendly and respectful. One even bought a Lake Hypatia T-shirt to wear there. I even hugged his brother. After we spoke of Clark as our emotions moved us, one said to me that she had never attended a memorial with such an open outpouring of emotion. I explained that, as freethinkers, we said what we felt rather than what we felt was expected. One told me, in reference to what I said, that she liked my style. This still puzzles me, and I do not think that I had a style; I just said what I felt. Nevertheless, I found the family likeable, but clearly, an insider’s experience is different from an outsider’s.
Clark and I married on the same day of the same year, he to a wonderful girl, I to one who turned out not to be so wonderful. His marriage lasted far longer than mine, but it did end, though Clark didn’t go around telling people. I remember feeling incredibly happy that Clark had found someone so wonderful; he always seemed to remind me of myself in my early, lonely years. I know from personal experience how deep the scars of loneliness and sexual privation can run. I have healed myself, but Clark did not give himself the chance.
One week in May, 2007, Clark went to see one of his favorite comedians. He collected his materials, helium which he had researched on the web as a means of suicide and a delivery system, wrote his note, and ended his life.
Reactions to a suicide are generally of two kinds. First there is a feeling of shame and guilt, constant obsession with what one could have done and what signs one should have looked for. This is, of course, pointless and dangerous, but people do it anyway. Even more pointless and dangerous is the abreaction, which is to assert that nothing could have been done. This is frequently tainted by the Medical Model of psychiatry, which sociopathically reduces a man’s life to a soup of chemicals in the brain. Even worse is a third kind, common amongst freethinkers, opportunistically to use a suicide to argue for the right to end one’s life and the nobility of so doing. While there are many valid arguments for self-euthanasia, in this context it is ghoulish, pure and simple.
In fact, of course, there were abundant signs, but there’s no use in crying over spilt blood. We do have the capacity for reason, however, and we should think about such matters, not simply feel useless guilt and quickly turn to pseudoscientific denial to make ourselves feel better. All the psychiatrists will tell you to seek closure, which means a return to the status quo. The trouble with this is that Clark’s death shows that the status quo is broken.
Suicides are always tragic, but many are understandable. The old person with cancer who decides on a quiet death may even be supportable. The young person, full of hormones and separated from the family for the first time, is at least apprehensible.
Clark’s, however, is not. One can come up with reasons, but there exists no possibility whatsoever that, in a proper universe, a man like Clark would have killed himself. Therefore, the universe is not proper. QED.
Nietzsche advised against putting one’s trust in otherwordly hopes. As freethinkers, we should know this instinctively, but for some reason, we don’t. There is absolutely no reason why loneliness, despair, desperation, and self-loathing should exist at all. Nothing in the laws of physics requires it. We have these things only because we choose to have them and for no other reason. The other choice, the choice of happiness, is possible, and it is much more fun. As a culture, we are steeped in suffering, but culture is largely ignorable. Turn off your television set and go out and play pool or ride a roller coaster or get laid. People will be angry with you and try to get you down, but that’s their problem. Nietzsche again: “Truly, I did this and that for the suffering, but it seems to me I did better when I felt better joys.”
From Walt Kelley, we have met the enemy, and it is us. We can as easily be our own allies and friends with only the will to do so.