How Do You Make Art from an Envelope of Suicides?

Writer Ben Moorad's new performance series explores life and death through the real-life suicides his grandfather studied.

By Jason Buehrer October 11, 2016

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Dr Philip Moorad, the artist's grandfather. 

Image: Ben Moorad

For 12 years, starting in the 1940s, a doctor named Philip Moorad documented hundreds of suicides, all in and around the town of Newburgh, Connecticut. Dr. Moorad hoped to build a psychiatric career by picking away at the underlying causes—why had these people taken their own lives?—but after trying several different approaches, it seems he gave up on the endeavor.

Those hundreds of suicides now haunt Dr. Moorad's grandson, Portlander Ben Moorad. For the past decade, the younger Moorad—writer and co-founder of Write Around Portland, a local non-profit that sets up writing workshops for underrepresented groups—has read through his grandfather's files and data charts. These notes came with an envelope full of brittle newsprint clippings, and in the decades-old papers he found artistic inspiration, creating a series of performance pieces, From the Envelope of Suicides, based on his grandfather's research.

“He worked on it for 12 years,” Moorad says. “He never talked about it with anyone in the family. He never mentioned it later. I saw in his papers indications that he thought it was going to be his big thing, that he was going to help solve this problem.”

His grandfather never did solve that problem. But he did pass on his passion about these lost lives to his grandson, who spent a decade grappling with his grim inheritance.

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Dr Moorad's data chart. 

“I had the materials in my possession for about ten years,” Moorad says. “It kinda haunted me and I kept coming back to them. I thought it would be an essay and then a series of essays and then before I knew it, it had spiraled completely out of control. And I had about 1,200 pages of raw writing.”

Working with director Jonathan Walters of Hand2Mouth Theatre, Moorad created six unique performative readings profiling many of the people named in the research notes and articles. Unlike his grandfather, Moorad’s goal isn’t to solve—or for that matter, even explain—the underpinnings of suicide. Instead, he's looking for the value of life itself in these stories.

“I think that is one of the main problems with how we look at suicide," he says. "We tend to reduce their life to that one act. And then write them off as a suicide or try and analyze their life as a suicide. There was a whole life behind this one incident. A whole life that is impossible to read through this incident. But this incident gives you a window on to this whole other existence.”

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One of the clippings Ben Moorad inherited. 

His readings will be soundtracked live by local musician Wilson Vediner, with Moorad on stage presenting his living portraits, a bit like a live podcast.

Moorad—who works primarily in poetry—uses live readings as part of his writing process. It’s a way, he says, for him to get out of his head and connect with audiences. In addition to the six readings, the team will release eight podcasts with additional materials about the people featured in the show. His hope is to compile these stories into a book.

“That’s the ultimate form I would like to see it in,” says Moorad. “I’m a slow writer and I can agonize over a paragraph for a long time. I have been marinating in the stuff for years. I know the material. I just have to make some choices.”

From the Envelope of Suicides plays at the Shout House on Thursdays, Oct 13–Nov 17, with a unique performance each evening. Podcasts will be released the following Monday. Tickets available here.

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