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Jonathon Conte Changed Us
Remembering a friend who ended his own life.
Six years ago from yesterday, May 9, 2016, my friend Jonathon Conte ended his own life. I met Jonathon working on my film American Circumcision. What began as an interview for my documentary became a friendship. I lived in the Bay Area at the time Jonathan was doing his activism. We spent time together. He came to my 25th birthday party.
Months before his death, Jonathon called me asking if it was possible to film a how-to video of all the activist techniques he knew. I said I could in the fall when I was back in the Bay Area preparing to launch the Kickstarter for my film. He became quiet and began talking about how he felt like nothing would ever change on this issue. I tried to cheer him up, telling him all the good things we could do. In retrospect, that was a mistake. I should have been with the sadness he felt, rather than try to draw him into the optimism I had. I didn’t get to record that video for him, because by the time fall came, he was dead.
If there is a recipe for suicide, it is these three beliefs:
They feel bad.
They are alone in this feeling.
Nothing will ever change.
The mistake people make when trying to help a suicidal person - the mistake that I made - was trying to change the first and third beliefs. Usually, people have a reason for their feelings, and people who feel bad have already tried lots of things to feel better. The second belief, whether or not that person is alone, is the only one we can actually change. We can’t control how others feel. We can’t always change the world. But we can be present with whatever is there. Looking back, I wonder if there was a way I could have been more present with Jonathon.
Of course, we didn’t know at the time. The Jonathon I remember was often a “happy warrior,” always doing the most work of any activist I knew. He seemed to have an indomitable work ethic when it came to speaking to people about the issue that mattered most to him. In retrospect, this activism came with a shadow. The happy warrior aspect of Jonathon was a protector to another part, deeply harmed by circumcision and the inability of others to accept him for who he was. In his constant activism, he may have been searching for someone to be with those feelings in a way the world he came from could not.
If Jonathon believed anything other than that he could change the world, he was wrong. He did change the world. He changed us. He changed every person he came in contact with. Living in the Bay Area, I would meet people who understood the work I was doing or what I was feeling because they’d met and talked to Jonathon. Personal relationships and conversations I had were easier because of his influence. My life was better because he was in it. I know I’m not the only one. He changed us with his presence. Then, he changed us with his absence. He continues to change people, every time they learn his story. I just wish Jonathon could have seen that while he was still here.