My Parasocial Relationship with a (most likely) Dead Man
Manic Street Preachers, circa 1993
Content Warning: Mentions and discussion of depression, self harm, substance abuse, and suicide.
My favorite album of all time is The Holy Bible by the Manic Street Preachers. When I first listened to it about a year ago, I was completely in awe of what I was hearing. Relentlessly political, suffocatingly honest, energized by its own misery; as far as I was concerned this album was the most striking artistic statement of the 90s, probably of all time. Embedded in nearly every song is an acute agony, a near hour-long scream of pain that ultimately went unanswered. With song titles like “Of Walking Abortion,” “Archives of Pain” and “ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit’sworldwouldfallapart,” at a first glance anyone can tell that this wasn’t the feel good hit album of the summer. Even now, over 20 years following its debut, the rest of the band, who are still together and touring, hardly ever play any of these songs live. The crushing atmosphere of the album might be its point, but it can become unbearable. It can be a difficult experience to sit through if you’re really paying attention to the lyrics. It also has a new layer of tragedy if you’re aware of what happened to the guy who wrote a majority of the album.
Just about 6 months after the release of the album, on February 1st 1995, lyricist Richey Edwards would be spotted leaving his hotel room in London, and then never seen again. His car was found abandoned beside the Severn bridge, a locally notorious suicide spot. He’s been legally declared dead since 2008, but no evidence of his body (alive or otherwise) has been found. It has been 27 years and counting since the last verified sighting of him, most people can guess what happened. The Holy Bible would be Richey Edwards’ last creative work, barring some of his lyrics being used posthumously.
Almost overnight, I became absolutely obsessed with understanding Edwards. Why I thought I had the best insight into this random guy’s life, I couldn’t tell you. I wanted to understand what kind of person would write something like The Holy Bible. What experiences or knowledge would lead someone to create a masterpiece and then completely disappear? In hindsight, I think that I resonated with the loneliness and general despair Edwards portrayed. He was honest about just how much pain he was in, almost uncomfortably so. It didn’t feel forced because it clearly was a huge part of how he saw and interacted with the world. Edwards didn’t use his mental illness as a brand, or to prove that he was interesting and relatable. It was all authentic, in some cases even theatrical. He made me feel inspired. This was someone who was able to take all of his anxieties and despair and create something with it. If someone who was just as broken as me, if not more, could take their negative feelings and turn it into art, maybe I could too. Of course, it’s best if you conveniently ignore that he would never overcome any of his anxieties or despair.
Richey Edwards, circa 1992
I needed to hold onto that inspiration as best as I could. I didn’t exactly relate to everything he said, but I really wanted to, and I was committed. I spent hours of my free time looking at archived interviews, reading manifesto after manifesto. I read at least 15 of his favorite books and bought 30 more. I only listened to the four albums he had a part in creating on repeat, for seven whole months.
At one point I read American Psycho, Lolita and a book about a group of car crash survivors who start fetishizing their own accidents, back to back in only a handful of weeks; so I could start relating to his creative inspirations, I guess. I did not come out unscathed. After reading a handful of Edwards’ favorite books and fully immersing myself into the repeating themes of human suffering, aimless depression and, frankly, bizarre sexual undertones, I can say that I did start to see the world differently. Mostly that I quickly started losing hope in the world.
On one hand, it was nice for me to think about how all the negative thoughts and feelings weren’t unique to me. On the other hand, with every bit of connection I felt to Edwards, a small part of me was reminded that he never found a way out of his misery. At best, he completely abandoned his life to hopefully move on to something quieter and happier. At worst, he’s dead and has been for quite some time.
For seven months, I became the most dedicated method actor for a starring role in a movie that doesn’t exist. I tried to do everything in my power to succumb to pure anguish, as to hopefully reach a complete breaking point. What was I going to do at this breaking point? I don’t know. Why did I feel the need to do this? I don’t know. These goals I’d set for myself, unsurprisingly, lead me into the worst depressive episode I’ve had in my life. If not for the fact that I put my own personality on hold to try to become someone else, but also because that other person was extremely mentally ill.
(I will be keeping this vague, I want to try to keep this as light as I can. If you are interested in the specifics, you can look it up on your own time.)
Edwards had a very public record of self harm, disordered eating, alcoholism, as well as your garden variety depression and suicidal ideation. I already had a few of those problems, some of the others never really occurred to me. That didn’t stop me, in fact, I decided to take on as many of the same personal demons, or at least as many as I could fit into my life somewhat comfortably. I transformed myself into an unmedicated, violently pessimistic, borderline alcoholic, bundle of angst that was vaguely in the shape of a person, almost completely by choice. (I say almost because as much as it was my choice to do this, I don’t believe these are the actions of someone who is mentally stable.)
Starting in mimicry then devolving into self-destruction, I eventually got what I wanted. I think on some level, I understood more about Edwards than I probably ever needed to. I was depressed, I was angry, and I was mostly unwilling to change. I had a stockpile of negative energy with nowhere to channel it, except for back at myself. I submerged myself in bleak nihilism and unending self-hatred, and then couldn’t believe that I was starting to drown.
I would never reach my breaking point. I got close a few times, but I never truly crumbled. Unlike Edwards, I managed to stop myself. Truthfully, I just got exhausted. If you wake up every day for half a year and try to make yourself as unhappy as possible, it will start to work. My world was gray and cold. I had no one, and I more or less wanted it that way. I had no hope, and I didn’t care.
One of the main reasons I stopped falling headfirst down this rabbit hole was because I had literally no internet access for the whole summer. I had no way of cataloging just how much worse I could get, or finding new pieces of information to copy, and in time I lost interest in being a tragedy factory. Luckily, within that time, I was surrounded by a good support system and was able to piece myself back together. Some parts of me are worse off than before I started all of this, but I made it out. I don’t know where I’d be now if the circumstances were any different.
When I think back to this period in my life, a lot of it is a blur. I don’t remember much of anything, except how empty I was. I didn’t learn anything, I didn’t write a magnum opus about the human condition, or have any epiphanies. I was just sad.
There is no moral to this story. I don’t even really know why I did the things I did, or how I managed to do so for over half a year. No one forced me to. I could’ve stopped at any moment, but I was transfixed. A smarter writer could say that there might be a lesson in here about how misery turns a massive profit, or how the tortured artist trope should be phased out of existence, or maybe just don’t be an idiot and subject yourself to an aesthetic breed of psychological torture. But I really wouldn’t know. Some parts of me still feel stuck in that mindset. Maybe they always will be.
I still think that The Holy Bible is one of the best albums of all time, even if I have trouble listening to it now. I still think that Richey Edwards was a very talented artist, I just have no desire to sympathize with him anymore.
Stream The Holy Bible — specifically the 20th anniversary U.S. version remasters, if you’re able — by Manic Street Preachers