How to Stop an Angry Man from Killing People

Tomorrow I will get on a plane and fly to Austin, TX for a week. I’ll be staying with some friends from high school and joining in the city-wide celebration of Spring Break for Geeks, aka SXSW Interactive. I did this last year and it was an extraordinary event… but one person made it extra special: the homicidal drunk rocker who sat next to me on the flight there.

I didn’t blog this story publicly when it happened because it was too close to the event. But now it’s “that time of year” again, and I’m starting to feel nostalgic for my angry seatmate. And I think enough time has passed that the story can be told.

So here’s what happened….

I had just boarded my flight to Austin and was quietly celebrating the fact that I had an empty seat beside me. The doors to the airplane were closing and we were getting ready for takeoff. That’s when I saw him — pushing his way onto the airplane at the last minute. He was wearing sunglasses and his dirty hair was pushed forward on his face. With his dirty tan coat, hard suitcase, and pinstripe pants, he looked like a 70’s rockstar. He was walking recklessly close to the person in front of him and whacked my shoulder hard with his suitcase as he passed by. All of the window and aisle seats were taken, and the flight attended asked him to choose a middle seat. He did a quick scan of the people around him, locked eyes with the bald girl in the black leather jacket, pointed to the seat beside me, and said, “I’m sitting there.”

I broke the ice by asking what time zone Texas was in, and he quickly became kind and friendly. Twitchy, though. A little nervous and angry about something. Depressed. He got to talking and some mentioned family issues, and then quickly added that he didn’t want to talk about them. But he wanted to talk, so I put on my best “attentive listener” face.

Within an hour, I learned that he was flying to Austin to kill his brother-in-law and then kill himself. But not in so many words. He tip-toed around it, giving references to the Godfather and shooting me knowing looks. His brother-in-law was his “best friend in the whole word,” but the dude was mistreating his sister and threatening to leave her, and my airplane buddy didn’t tolerate people messing with his family. He repeated Godfather allusions over and over, and told me he “might not be long for this world.” He was conflicted. He didn’t know what to do. “There’s no rulebook for these sorts of things,” he mumbled. I accepted this information the same way I would if he had just told me he was an accountant.

He was a musician (hence the rockstar look), so we started talking about music. I asked lots of questions about what he was passionate about, what his sister was passionate about, what his brother-in-law was passionate about, and what his family was like. He talked and talked and talked. He loved them all dearly and started getting sentimental. He told that he found salvation in Jesus Christ but that he hated organized religion. “Jesus was the original punk rocker,” he told me. (Again: the same face I’d give an accountant.)

Eventually he paused and started thanking me for listening. Most of his friends were dead, he said. I was being so nice. He was surprised.

He referred to the flight attendants as “waitresses” and mentioned he’d “been sitting here with an empty glass for over an hour.” They were curt with him when he asked them for things, and I felt bad for the guy. When I went to the lavatory, they stopped me and ask how I was “holding up.” From the looks on their faces, I could tell they’d been laughing at him from the back of the plane. I mentioned he’d been drinking, but that he was being good, and that I’d let them know if he did anything uncool. I appreciated that I was being watched out for.

Rocker and I got personal. I talked about some of the harder experiences I’d had in my life, including some points where I was suicidal. I talked about my family, my spirituality, and some of the tools I’ve used to work through things. He told me he liked me and politely asked if I was straight. Conveniently, I could tell him I wasn’t.

I could tell he was starting to trust me, so I dealt out some direct questions in my best non-judgemental voice. “So, when are you planning on killing yourself?” “When are you going to confront your brother-in-law?” “What’s your plan for killing him?”

He looked conflicted. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know what to do.” He told me he liked himself, that his family likes him, and that I seemed to like him. That was six people who liked him, he said. That was a lot.

He asked if he could email me some of his music, and I gave him my business card card. This included my email and phone number. I chose to do this for the same reason that I chose not to call the police as soon as I stepped off the plane: I believed he was changing his mind.

At the end of the flight, we said our goodbyes, and he kissed my hand and thanked me. As I walked toward the door of the plane, I turned around with a sudden afterthought: “Hey, don’t kill yourself while I’m in Austin, okay?

He paused and looked like he was taking the request seriously. “Okay,” he said with a nod. “I’ll wait.”

“Thanks!” I smiled at him. “See ya later!”

I spent the week checking the local Austin news for murders and suicides and saw nothing.

A month later, I called the number he gave me and asked his voicemail how he was doing. He returned the call a few days later and left this message (which I transcribed on the spot):

“Hey Sarah. Uh, yeah, it was good to hear from you. Thank you for calling me, and thank you for listening to me and talking to me on that, on that flight. As screwed up as it was, it was just really cool to have someone there to listen to me and talk to me and stuff. You’re a really cool person. I made it. I made it out. I made it through. Didn’t hurt anybody, that I know of, and, uh didn’t hurt myself, that I know of, significantly. I’m back home and feel more alive. Death brings forth new life, you know, and that’s kinda how it is. I hope it went well for you, out there, for your event and everything. Yeah, you can give me a call back anytime you want. Thanks again for being so cool. And, uh, talk to you later.”

So that’s the story of my flight to SXSW07. No flight since then has lived up to it, and I still think of him every time I board a plane.

And it just occurred to me… throughout that flight, he kept raising a skeptical eyebrow at me and saying, “You’re going to write this story, aren’t you?”

All I said to him was, “Maybe. But probably not anytime soon.”

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23 Responses to “How to Stop an Angry Man from Killing People”

  1. nancy white Says:

    I’m glad you tweeted about this post. Fantastic story about being a caring human being. Thank you for being that person that day on that airplane.

  2. sarah Says:

    Thanks, Nancy. I appreciate that, and I’m glad you’re watching the twitter feed.

  3. JPhilipson Says:

    Wow…some people are crazy…

    saw this via twitter :-)

  4. sarah Says:

    “some people are crazy…”

    Yep.

    And some people are angry, lonely, and desperate.

    I think there’s a difference.

  5. marisa Says:

    wow ~ this resonates for so many reasons ~ thank you for writing this amazing story ~ you are quite a lovely human being and great writer ~ so glad you’re in my twitter-feed!

  6. George Says:

    Well played, Sarah. Well played.

  7. schmutzie Says:

    Thank you for being that man’s listening ear. Often, that’s all people need, and so many don’t have it.

  8. Emma Says:

    “I think there‚Äôs a difference.”

    So now I’m curious – here you chose to draw the line in a different place than other people, to see this guy as another human in pain and risk a heart connection.

    So what to you is the difference between “crazy” and “angry, lonely, and desperate”?

    PS Beautiful story. =)

  9. sarah Says:

    Emma — Good question. “Crazy” is a tough word. I use it to describe myself more than I should — usually when I’m trying to do more work than is possible or when I’m emotionally unpredictable. So I don’t have a solid meaning for it.

    But the distinction I drew above was in response to the JPhilipson’s use of “crazy,” which sounded like a dismissive statement about this man’s character in general. I think I was listening to this person’s crazy circumstances, not this person’s crazy self.

    I also think this person was reasonable. He was hurting and had malicious intentions, but his sense of reality hadn’t wandered so far away that it couldn’t be pulled back in with a conversation. There are far less reasonable people in the world.

  10. Emma Says:

    Yeah, it sounds like you were able to see that he wasn’t so far gone that your effort to connect would be lost.

    For me I guess that even people who are “unreasonable” are so because of the same reasons that make people angry, lonely, and desperate – they’ve just been there long enough to lose their grip on “reason”. I think though that the same things help – forming a human connection, compassion. It just takes longer and is more trying on the person reaching out.

  11. Nancy Says:

    A Great Easter story about new life. Thank you Sarah! You were a good minister.

    Rev Mom

  12. moya Says:

    this is a really touching story, sarah. i wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t had you to sit next to…?

  13. christopher carfi Says:

    sdopp +1

  14. UpsideUp Says:

    Wow. What a story. (Followed you here from twitter.) And what a storyteller you are. And what an amazing kind listener you are. Rocker was lucky to meet you, and I feel lucky to have read about it.

  15. Fivestar Says:

    You’re Awesome!

  16. motherbumper Says:

    Isn’t it amazing what listening and focusing will do. You are amazing, most wouldn’t have taken the time.

  17. Karen Sugarpants Says:

    What an amazing story. Thank goodness for people like you. I’m so glad it turned out in the end.

  18. Severe Says:

    If ah was on tha fence, tryin ta decide if ah liked Sarah er nawt, this post would’ve pushed me ovah intae tha “yes” field.

    Since ahm already thar, this will just hafta earn you brownie points, which ahm sure will eventually be redeemable fer sumthang werthwhile. Great story. Have a blast in TX!

  19. Thomas Says:

    Nice one, Sarah. I’m in awe of you.

  20. sarah Says:

    These comments are making me blush like nobody’s business. Thank you, guys.

    (p.s. I’m in Austin safely, and experienced no homicidal maniacs on my way there. Just a love-struck Mormon and a friendly video game developer. All is well in the world.)

  21. gwfrink3 Says:

    That save-life (with the risk-taking conversation), preserve-dignity (with the time-lapse before reporting) and followup (phone call) plus no name-calling does put you in a very nice league indeed.

  22. sydtek Says:

    sarah,
    i met you at the little technology panel they filmed in the city a few weeks back. hope its cool that i’m following you on twitter and poking around your blog. i loved this story!
    I am a big believer that we all have brilliant sanity that just needs to be invited out. in our culture where attention has become a high priced commodity, and “expert” attention deemed superior, we to easily fall between the cracks and lose ordinary connections with people.
    i like the details about the flight attendants– how they’d been laughing about him, and also how they checked in with you too. i work as a caregiver for people with disabilities and mental diagnoses. It is so vital in my work to see the humanity in people, and not see them as their pathology. I believe that open kind attention is medicine, perhaps the best kind of medicine. I honor that you weren’t afraid to be with this man even when everybody else found him “difficult”. How cool. be well!

  23. sarah Says:

    Thank you, sydtek. It’s great to hear from you again, and you’re absolutely right — it’s about humanity over pathology.