Since I heard that Dr. Fredric Brandt died I've been angry about the bullying he endured, being portrayed as a sort of mad scientist in various media, most recently on the TV show, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. We've learned that Dr. Brandt suffered from depression. That surely was part of the tragic picture of his suicide on Easter and Passover weekend at his home in Florida. But to attribute his suicide to that disease would be an oversimplification. Let's go to more complex territory and look at the social disease called bullying as a contributing factor, and ask what's to be done in future so that the next victim of social stoning doesn't choose suicide as a way out. Let's have the tricky debate at the intersection of free speech and abusive speech. We've been there before, in the painful aftermath of other tragedies, most relevant here the teen suicides resulting from cyber-bullying and schoolyard shaming.
I met Dr. Brandt in the late '90s when I was beauty director at Town & Country Magazine well before I "needed" his incredible artistry. He was a brilliant dermatologist, a sensitive soul and a captivatingly different person. A true original. His skin may have been thinner than some, but does that explain his taking his own life? His face may have shown the evidence of his experimentation with Botox and fillers on himself, but does that justify the ridicule? I get the free-speech argument, and yes, he put himself in the public space where one becomes a sitting target. Fair game? He wasn't exactly a public figure, not like an actor or a politician, so let's not talk about ridicule being the price of admission here.
I can't help thinking of the clash between notions of tolerance in our society, for which we so often pat ourselves on the back, and our compulsive fascination and heartless criticism of "misfits", aka the bravely idiosyncratic and original. I'm not laughing with the comedians who have exercised their free speech so freely and nor am I blaming them. I'm grieving the loss of -- not just my adored dermatologist but a lovely, generous person, a widely beloved man who wore kilts to the office and hummed Sinatra while he worked on his patients and helped them all to feel good about themselves. He was brave to express his originality so openly rather than to conform.
I'd be a hypocrite if I pretended I haven't enjoyed the skewering treatment wreaked on seemingly thicker-skinned personalities out there. I'm a loyal fan of those TV shows and media columnists. I'll enjoy the humor a little less now. It's a gray area, to be sure. But if bullying causes its victims extreme torment and pain, shouldn't there be a fail-safe mechanism in place, some policy, some recourse for those who need it? If anti-bullying rules and regulations have been put in place to protect young people in schools and on social media, oughtn't they apply here? Or are the grown-up "misfits" among us on their own -- fair game?
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