It is not that Linkin Park’s 2000 album Hybrid Theory sounded so little like that which came before it, and it is not that there was only one real copy that my pals and I passed around like a secret until we each burned our own copy and scrawled some shitty art on the blank CD face, and it is not that those copies rattled around at the top of the rotation in our car’s center consoles for a whole winter and then a summer and then another winter after that, and it is not that it felt for a moment like the tree shook and from it dropped an album that was made for our wretched and perpetually heartbroken generation.
It is, perhaps, that Chester Bennington had a voice that sounded like a knife crying out with the delight and agony of being sharpened. It is that the first words on Hybrid Theory are “Why does it feel like night today?” in the song “Papercut,” and then the chorus says, “It’s like a whirlwind inside of my head,” and it was a whirlwind inside of my own. It is that my pals maybe made it through a year or two that they might not have otherwise because Linkin Park, and specifically Bennington, kicked in the door to our respective darknesses not to spark a light, but to sit with us for a while.
It feels empty to say this, but I don’t want to think about Chester Bennington’s departure only in terms of songs, or albums. I think about Bennington first in terms of presence — vocal presence, sure — but also what he allowed others to see in him.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the artist who chooses to make themselves a mirror. It is brave work, and it should be hailed as such. The work of allowing people to see bits of their pain in your own pain is often thankless but needed labor — labor that takes on a heavier weight as the platform of an artist grows. But even if you are able to make a map out of your grief and trauma with the chart of a generous mapmaker, it doesn’t mean the mapmaker has figured their own way out of whatever maze their trauma has trapped them in. There is a difference between the work of not wanting others to die and the work that comes with keeping yourself alive.
I want to say that I hate the thing we do where we talk about suicide in terms of winning and losing: a person either beating their demons or losing to them. It boils down an ongoing struggle into a simple binary, to be celebrated and mourned — as if every day survived on the edge of anything isn’t simply gearing up for another day to survive and another day after that. And Chester Bennington was a survivor, of many things: sexual abuse as a child, violent bullying as a skinny high school student — things that he said pushed him to years of drug and alcohol addiction. And I believe survival of this — no matter how long — is a type of heroism.
I believe that any of us who faces trauma and still survives is heroic, even if we aren’t keeping anyone else alive but ourselves. But I don’t like to think of anyone who gives in to whatever they imagine waits on the other side of suffering as someone who has lost. We have lost them, sure. But who does it serve to create a narrative where there is a scoreboard for our pain and how we navigate the vastness of it? Death is the action — the end result, of course. But I have known people who didn’t want to die as much as they wanted to stop feeling a desire for death. A world without that always-hovering cloud. And I don’t think of those who are departed as people who lost, and when we frame these grand and nuanced battles as absolutes — with the “strong” people surviving and sometimes suffering and the “weak” people falling into the arms of absence — it does an injustice to the true machinery of the brain, of the body, of the heart, of anything responsible for keeping us here on the days we don’t want to be.
Chester Bennington is gone and I’m really fucked up about it because I could have been gone. Because people I love could have been gone if not for what he offered up about himself and his survival. There is no good way to talk about a person who kept you alive dying from what they could no longer endure. I have not wanted to die for a long time, but years ago, when I did, I looked for anyone who could offer me a lifeline out, and Bennington was one of the many arms reaching into that dark well, not to pull me out, but perhaps to hold my hand for a while.
I was alerted to the news because suicide hotline numbers were filling social media again. That’s how I knew something was wrong. I understand this action: Someone dies of something and people want to prevent it in their own corners of the world. After a high-profile suicide, I have, in my own circles, promised people that I would be there to talk to them if they needed to talk, or be there for them in the yawning mouth of their own darkness. And I don’t doubt that this helps, and is needed. But I am also thinking about how there is no one thing that will keep a person alive when they no longer want to be. Whatever engine pushes a person towards death is made up of a lot of parts that are not always singing to each other, or not always singing at the same pitch or volume. Chester Bennington was a whole, brilliant, successful person and a survivor. But that which he survived still sat on top of and underneath his skin. There is no fix for that, no matter how many of us want to see one.
Bennington sang “Hallelujah” at Chris Cornell’s funeral this past May, and so now all of the best versions of that song were sung by dead men. Cohen. Buckley. Bennington. It’s a song that echoes best through a person who no longer exists, it seems. Yesterday, July 20, would have been Chris Cornell’s 53rd birthday, had he not hanged himself in a Detroit hotel room nearly two months ago. Cornell was both a friend and a hero to Bennington, someone who was also a one-of-a-kind vocalist and a partner in struggle — in addiction, in depression. In the audio of Bennington singing at Cornell’s funeral, there are birds chirping, accenting the small silences. And I know I said that I didn’t want to make this essay about songs, but to hear this audio on the day Bennington hanged himself in California is shattering. His voice in the audio sounds weary, but still beautiful. A blade left to dull, but a blade nonetheless. I don’t know what tipped the scales for him yesterday, but it didn’t begin there.
I don’t want to sound distant and cynical. I think what I liked about Linkin Park’s music when I needed it most was that there was no promise of anything getting better. None of us can promise that for another person — and we certainly can’t promise it for ourselves. To hear someone else fighting against that reality makes the reality a little less harsh. When I see people talking about how Linkin Park’s music — specifically their lyrics — did a lot for them, it was by way of adjacency. It helped, of course, that Bennington sang like he meant every word to the core, twisting his body during live shows as if he were forcing something out of himself, or jumping up and down on stage like he was trying to shake something loose that had gotten ahold of him. Chester Bennington was unafraid to make it all look like work, because living is work. To say this is hard instead of this will surely get better.
Chester, this is hard. This is work, Chester. And I’m up to it today. I might not be up to it always, but I’m up to it today. I’m up to it now because you were up to it for so long and I hope there was some mercy in knowing what you did. Chester, there are people still living because you lived.
If you or someone you know is going through a rough time, feeling depressed, or thinking about self-harm, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at
1-800-273-8255 or visit its website here.
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, writer, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His first collection of poems, The Crown Ain't Worth Much, was released by Button Poetry in 2016. His first essay collection, They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, is forthcoming from Two Dollar Radio in November.