Melissa on John Kennedy Toole
A recent e-mail from Melissa Gray:
Hello. I'm working on a story about Ken Toole. I've conducted six hours of interviews with his biographer, people who knew him and his mother, and regular people who just love his book Confederacy of Dunces. I came across your web site while looking for additional information about him, and I take some issue with the assertion that he killed himself simply because he couldn't handle what life threw him, i.e., the rejection of the book.
Granted, there's not much out there on him, though there are now two biographies in the work. But what I've discovered from talking to all these folks is that the reasons for his suicide were much more complicated. Suicides rarely are about just one thing. Toole killed himself years after COD was finished, and true, he did shop it around and was rejected by several publishing houses. But there was more trouble going on in his life than this. Both parents were elderly and could be a bit kooky. His mother had a very strong personality and had made him the center of her life. She was extremely critical of his friends, and pretty much just wanted to keep him home, all to herself. Also, Ken bore the burdon of supporting himself and his parents on his income as a teacher. Ken was teaching five freshmen English classes at St.Mary's Dominican the year of his death and he was trying to finish his ph.d at Tulane. Add to this mix questions about his own sexuality and the rejection of his book, binge drinking, the beginnings of what could have been schizophrenia (he had started to hear voices and was becoming increasingly paranoid) a heated argument with his mother and a nervous breakdown, and there you have a recipe for suicide.
So, it's a myth that he killed himself because the book wasn't published. You may want to ammend the information on your website to reflect this. Ken was a lost soul to a certain extent...but to pigeonhole the reason for his death this way does him a disgrace. If not for the excessive responsibilities and demands placed on him by his mother and by himself, Toole probably could have handled the book's rejection, and preservered until it was eventually published. But if, indeed, he was becoming schizophrenic, then he really had no control over how he handled anything.
I am grateful for your letter. And I am glad that more people are finally turning their attention to Ken Toole--you included. It's good that more thorough research is being done, and I will definitely reconsider all of those points when working on the second edition of The Lost Soul Companion. Not much is known about Toole--at least not much has been printed about him. Dalt Wonk, a New Orleans-based writer, and some folks from the Times-Picayune were helpful to me. I showed them the final piece before it went to press, and they never challenged my assertions. I wish they had because clearly there is more to discuss. Even with the new information, it is all still very relevant to Lost Souls everywhere.
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