On Wednesday, March 2, 2016, Aubrey McClendon died when his car ran headlong into the side of an overpass. McClendon had just been indicted by a federal grand jury the day before on charges of conspiring to rig bids for oil and gas leases over a period of years as former CEO and founder of Chesapeake Energy Corp. This indictment is historically unprecedented, representing a serious a violation of federal anti-trust laws (if true). Was the timing of his death on the heels of this indictment just a coincidence? Perhaps.
But here is what we know about suicide in a culture of honor. In an honor culture, reputation is everything. A man’s social life revolves around building and defending a reputation for being tough, strong, and brave, for not taking any disrespect from anyone without a fight, whether that disrespect is deserved or not. It’s formulaic in old westerns for someone (typically the bad guy) to ask, “Are you callin’ me a liar?” right before a gunfight is initiated. It doesn’t really matter that he did just tell a lie. The important thing now is that he has been accused of lying, and that accusation cannot be tolerated. The accusation itself is disrespectful, and all forms of disrespect must be answered. Either the accusation must be publically withdrawn by the one who made it, or someone is going to get physically assaulted. That’s the way it works in an honor culture. It’s what everyone, more or less, expects.
What happens when an accusation is of such magnitude, such proportion, and is made in such a way that it cannot simply be withdrawn by an individual who the accused challenges? What happens when a person’s reputation has been so tarnished that he or she fears it cannot ever be cleansed of the stain of disrespect, of dishonor? What happens when a person in an honor culture feels that his or her very existence becomes a burden – literally or figuratively – on loved ones? Research shows that when this occurs in an honor culture, people who feel this way are at a heightened risk of committing suicide. Furthermore, the methods that people choose for doing so tend to be particularly violent and dramatic in honor cultures, as noted before in this blog. As I describe in my upcoming book on the dynamics of honor ideology in the US (Honor Bound: How a Cultural Ideal Has Shaped the American Psyche), the elevated risk of suicide in honor-oriented parts of the US is particularly pronounced for older white men.
Witnesses to McClendon’s car crash claim that his car appeared to swerve into the overpass before his car burst into flames. Can we say for certain that McClendon killed himself as a result of the very public federal indictment, which could result in years of federal prison time if he were ever to be convicted of the charges? Can we diagnose his state of mind after the fact of his death? No, we cannot, unless a suicide note is uncovered that reveals his state of mind directly. But so far, the facts look terribly suspicious.