A Life-Changing Moment

Martha Bebinger is a reporter for WBUR, a professor of journalism at Harvard’s Extension School, a former Harvard Nieman Fellow, and a mother of three. But beneath her accomplished and composed demeanor resides a tragedy. Her father killed himself when she was 17.

“He shot himself with a pistol. He was in a hotel room—a mile-and-a-half from our house in San Antonio, Texas,” she said on a winter evening in a hallway outside her classroom in Cambridge, MA. It wasn’t the first time. He’d tried it twice before unsuccessfully. His diagnosis was schizophrenia although there were no hallucinations–just an inability to control his moods and unpredictable behavior. “I never knew who I was going to encounter,” Bebinger, 51, said of her father who was a civil servant at the Kelly Air Force Base. He tried medication, therapy, and was in and out of psychiatric hospitals but nothing seemed to help, she said.

“I don’t fault my father, he didn’t have the life he wanted,” said Bebinger who has close-cropped grey hair and multiple ear piercings, said. She had just arrived home on that day 34 years ago from her church group’s ski trip. She was in the kitchen when her mother got the call from the police. She listened to the phone conversation and watched as her mother wrote the news of her father’s suicide on the kitchen chalkboard. As the oldest of the four children, she then had to tell her younger brother, 11, who was at a friend’s house.

Bebinger, a resident of Brookline, now has children of her own–one biological and two adopted. Whenever she records her father’s suicide on her biological son’s medical history forms it raises a red flag. “There are assumptions made about my son, 13, and he gets extra attention.”

Bebinger said she doesn’t think about her father’s suicide daily. “But it does feel a part of the undercurrent—part of the fabric of how I see the world–it ripples in ways I can’t believe,” she said.

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