Yesterday I received an email from a reader informing me that Jason Hairston, founder of Kuiu and the most prominent American hunter of the past few years, had killed himself at home in California. At that point in the evening rumors had evidently just begun to circulate, and my post from last fall concerning Kuiu’s stance on the public land debate was the third hit when one Google’d “Jason Hairston”, a fortuitous if passing piece of information to have drawn to my attention. Readership of that post spiked about 20 times normal yesterday, though the vicissitudes of internet buried the post deeply within a few hours. Today Kuiu confirmed that Mr. Hairston had died by his own hand, and their request to direct donations to a concussion-research foundation support but do not confirm speculation that football-related brain trauma played a role in Mr. Hairston’s troubles.
There are several things worth discussing about Mr. Hairston’s death, foremost of which is the ineffable nature of mental illness, and the deeply problematic nature of the concept itself. Jason’s mental illness is in retrospect tautological; in that he is assumed to have been mentally ill because he killed himself. It’s inside baseball, but the folks who called the shots on the DSM-V made a number of decisions which taken together moved sharply away from a more fluid and holistic conception of illness that would have taken cultural, social, and historical factors into account in a way western medicine has yet to fully embrace. None of which does anything to blunt the horror of a father and husband being driven to such depths that he would willingly leave those people behind.
Second, the western hunter writ large epitomizes two separate types of folks, both of whom (those living in Rocky Mountain states, older white men) are far more likely to attempt suicide than the general population, as well as a third type (gun owners) who are far more likely to succeed in killing themselves. I think there’s a lot to be said for the medical model of illness being to blame for the poor way to US deals with suicide as a public policy issue, but I think the culture of stoic self-reliance is even more to blame. Outside recently published a extended article coming from the other side of this same issue which is worth reading. Individuals in these settings are exposed to social contagion in a way no less significant than school or medical workers are exposed to microbial contagion. It would be useful if our academys and government moved to explicitly recognize such things, and most especially encouraged the general public to do the same.
Last, Hairston became notable in the last 3-4 years (with the presumptive rapid increase in his net worth) as the archetype of the successful American male in the social media age. His political support of Donald Trump seemed a logical result of his public persona, the large-in-all-ways alpha male who became wealthy solely through their own merit. He paid close to or over six figures each year to go on big name hunts (the extent to which these were written off via the company will surely remain unclear), was married to a blond ex-model, vacationed frequently in exotic locales, and had just enough high-end toys to communicate something without being showy. His instagram is now private, but even so it should serve as nothing short of a chilling reminder that outward success necessarily means nothing.
At the same time Hairston presented himself as a quintessentially modern father, something made incontrovertibly clear when he brought his ~10 year old son along on a big-$ California Desert Sheep hunt last fall. That he was able to parent and educate while eventually finding and shooting a rarified, crafty, record sheep was a formidable feat, something I had to respect. There is of course no question that Hairston’s family will miss him incalculably, and I think no real doubt that the world will miss him, too. For all of him I found odious pales today in comparison to the passion which allowed him to do so much, public and private.
I hope his death will be an edifying moment for at least certain parts of American culture, too. The age of Trump is seeing our country reach backwards for ways of securing happiness which were only ever functional for a few years, for a few people, if they ever worked at all. The US rode a wave of geographic fortune into the 20th century, Thomas Jefferson’s vision finished in Panama and Philippines by Theodore Roosevelt. We rode an intellectual wave into the 21st, the vestiges of free society (and systemic exploitation of select other cultures) built in the 1780s, along with FDR’s opportunism and the wave of refuge scientists he scooped up. With both of these having long since crested, run past our toes, and pulled back the sand as they receded, as a country we’re left with plenty of cultural space to stroll left or right to find out what we’ll do next. Fleshing it out would take a dissertation, but I think one could draw a line easily from tidewater meritocracy through manifest destiny to the self-made man. There is a vast extent to which this is smoke and mirrors, a thin edifice built on hidden and nasty framing. If in this case the personal can illuminate the historical and show us that simple merit and wealth do not simply buy happiness, we’ll all be better off.