This Sunday, May 24, folks on the West Coast will raise a hullabaloo rivaling the gaudy pageant that last year enveloped Lady Liberty. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge, foghorns will blare and cannons boom as vintage airplanes fly over the 1.7-mile span and fleets of naval and pleasure craft sail underneath. The Golden Gate is, of course, an architectural marvel—the third-longest suspension bridge in the world. It is also a complex symbol. For most of us, it is the Western gateway to America, a stirring evocation of the American Dream. For some, however, the bridge has exerted a sinister allure as the final marker on the road of broken dreams, a place to end it all. According to Oakland psychologist Richard Seiden, the bridge is “a romantic symbol with all the folklore of a lover’s leap or a hanging tree.” In the last 50 years more than 1,200 people are thought to have tried to kill themselves by leaping. In fact, the Golden Gate has acquired a sorrowful reputation as the world’s leading venue for suicide. The bridge is under constant camera surveillance, but all that stands between the jumper’s self-destructive impulses and death is a 2½-foot-high railing. “It’s been suggested,” says Dr. Seiden, “that the bridge is something like having a loaded gun in your living room—It’s right there waiting. “According to Seiden, the Coast Guardsmen who sweep the waters beneath the bridge paint tiny human figures on the side of their craft each time they fish a body out of the water, much the way World War II pilots noted the enemy planes they had downed. A few of the figures, the survivors, have halos over them. Through the years only 19 people have lived through the 249-foot plunge off the bridge. One of the haloed few was Kenneth Baldwin.
He woke on the morning of Aug. 21, 1985, with the certainty that he would be dead by nightfall. It was another routine scorcher in California’s San Joaquin Valley, where Kenneth Baldwin lived with his wife, Ellen, both then 28, and their 3-year-old daughter, Catherine. Ken and Ellen had both grown up in the Valley. They liked its dry heat, flat terrain and rural flavor—so much so that just three years earlier they’d bought their first home, on Almond Blossom Lane in the farming community of Tracy, about 60 miles southeast of San Francisco. Ellen was a graphic designer at nearby Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a site for nuclear weapons research. Ken, a $15,000-a-year computer draftsman, worked in an architectural firm 30 miles away in Stockton. Parents, house owners and a dual career couple, the Baldwins seemed in perfect sync with their times, yet their marriage was divided by a secret. Though he could never bring himself to tell Ellen, Ken was being crushed by a tightening sense of despair.
As the couple walked out to their cars that morning, Baldwin told his wife that he planned to work overtime and would be unable to pick Catherine up from the baby-sitter.
What Kenneth Baldwin really planned to do was kill himself.
“I had been thinking about suicide for some time,” says Ken. “But I don’t really know why, on that day, I decided to jump from the bridge. I had been depressed about work for months. I was afraid I was going to be fired. Ellen had supported the family for two years while I went to school to learn drafting. She had really sacrificed for me, and I was going to let her down. I felt incredible pressure. In school I had gotten good grades, but out in the real world I felt I couldn’t cut it. Or worse, that my family couldn’t depend on me.
“I really believed that killing myself would be an act of love for my family. I imagined Ellen marrying someone who was very responsible, a man who could always make the mortgage payments. But I have to admit that part of my desire to die was selfish. I was in such pain, such anguish, I wanted it to stop. I wanted to escape.”
Baldwin chose the Golden Gate Bridge because “it wasn’t messy” like some other forms of suicide. “I heard the current in the bay was so strong the bodies were often swept out to sea and sometimes never found. I found that reassuring. I didn’t want my family going through a funeral. I just wanted them to forget me, to let me go.” And there was something familiar about the bridge. As a boy, he had occasionally walked across it with his parents, even spit over its side with school chums.
On that day, Baldwin drove to work but never arrived at his office. “I was confident I was going to jump,” he says. “But I think I wanted to give myself one more chance to do something normal like drive to work, just to see if it would break me out of the depression. But the closer I got to work, the more I wanted to jump.” Last minute hesitation is common among those drawn to the bridge for self-destruction. Suicide prevention officials say they log more hotline calls from a pay phone at the bridge’s toll plaza than from any phone in the country.
Baldwin never stopped the car on the 90-minute journey. “I just headed for the bridge,” he says. Elated that he had finally made up his mind to die, he turned up the radio full blast and sang along with the tunes. The music went out of him, however, when he got out of his car and actually stood on the bridge. He was attacked by misgivings. “I kept thinking of my wife and daughter. I loved them deeply. And I wondered what it would feel like to hit the water. I realized it might hurt. I didn’t want to fall on top of a boat. I didn’t want anyone standing near me when I jumped. I felt I had been treated badly, and I wanted to tell the world how I felt. No one really noticed me. Well, they were going to notice me now. Suddenly, there were many things to consider….”
Baldwin counted to 10 but couldn’t jump. When he reached 10 the second time, he glanced briefly across the bay at the city of San Francisco and went over the side. “I remember my hands leaving the railing, the sensation of falling. I instantly realized I had made a mistake. I can’t tell you how frightening that was. I didn’t want to die. Yet here I was heading for certain death. There was nothing I could do about it. I was falling feet first with my legs pulled under me a little. Before I hit, I blacked out from fear, I guess.”
After falling for three seconds, Baldwin smashed into the water at 75 mph. The impact subjected parts of his body to pressures of 15,000 pounds per square inch, a power often likened to that of a speeding car hitting a brick wall. Jumpers generally suffer massive internal injuries, but Baldwin’s buttocks and thighs absorbed the worst of the shock. He came to under water, wondering briefly whether he was alive or dead. “When I surfaced I instinctively started swimming and yelling for help,” he says. “I remember shouting, ‘Help me! Help me!’ God, I was happy to be alive.”
Rescued by the Coast Guard, Baldwin arrived at Letterman Army Medical Center fully conscious, apologetic and suffering slightly from exposure; he had a bruised lung and a cracked rib.
The damage to his marriage was more severe. When Ellen was first told her husband had leaped from the bridge, she laughed, believing it was a joke. Then she went into shock. “I didn’t know what to think,” says Ellen. “Generally, when you’ve been married for a while, you think you know your partner. Kenny always comes across as a fun-loving, outgoing guy. And I thought we were the perfect family. His suicide attempt took me completely by surprise. I knew he was unhappy about work. But who is so unhappy that they would kill themselves?”
Ellen felt confused, guilty, angry. At one point, she considered leaving Ken. Both have since been helped by psychological counseling and therapy, but rebuilding trust has not been easy.
“Even today I wonder if Kenny is telling me the truth,” says his wife. Still, Ken is learning to be more open, more willing to confess and share his fears. A few weeks ago, for example, Ken, who has found a new drafting job, was worried once more that his boss had found him wanting and was going to get rid of him. Says Ken: “The fear tormented me every day. In fact, I felt so sure this would happen that my productivity actually started to slip. I went to Ellen and told her I thought I was going to get fired and was depressed about it. Her response was, ‘So what? You’ll get another job. We’ll work it out.’ That really put things into perspective for me. She was right, of course. Life would go on.”
Recently Baldwin heard about another person who jumped off the bridge and survived. He says he was really rooting for her and was saddened when he learned that she had died from her injuries. He says he wished he had been able to talk to her before she made her leap, to tell her his own story, to tell her that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. And that the Golden Gate, as alluring as it seems, is merely a way of getting from San Francisco to Marin County, and nowhere else.