Tuesday, April 11, 2017

What Killed Charles Murphy?

He was wealthy and successful, working at one of New York’s important boutique investment firms. He had had his share of success but also a few failures. He had five children, two from his first and three from his second marriage. Living in a grandiose townhouse in New York, Charles Murphy seemed to have it all.

And yet, he was worried about money. He made millions every year and had over twenty million dollars in equity in his townhouse.

But then, on March 27, he went to work at Paulson and Co. in the morning. In the early afternoon he checked into the Sofitel New York Hotel, went up to his room on the twenty-fourth floor… and jumped.

Now, everyone wants to know why. Most especially because there seems to have been no reason. Or, at least, no reason that anyone could readily discern.

The Wall Street Journal report about Murphy’s suicide provides scant information. This might be because it does not make any sense. We learn that sometime last year he starting explaining to John Paulson that he had money worries. One notes that Paulson is a billionaire, one of those who knew enough to short mortgage backed securities in 2007 and 2008.

Strictly speaking, it did not make any sense. Paulson explained that the money worries were all in Murphy’s mind, a mystery that went with him to the grave.

Of course, this assumes that we are privy to all the facts. Yet, from the story, we do not know very many of the facts at all. A man making millions a year, who has over twenty million in equity in a seven story townhouse should not, normally, be worrying about paying private school tuition for his children.

Perhaps Murphy felt that he was a failure and that he would be worth more dead. On conversations during their walks in the park Paulson tried to tell his colleague that he had accomplished great things… even though he, like most other human beings, had suffered some setbacks.

According to the Journal, in a regrettable headline, the reason was that, despite Murphy's successes, happiness had eluded him. This nod to psychobabble is unfortunate. No one jumps out of a window because he feels that happiness has eluded him.

In the text of the article we read this:

Yet his concerns over maintaining the life he had created for himself, his wife, Annabella, and their three young sons consumed him. The very qualities that helped him build a fortune were no match for his fear of losing it.

Considering that Murphy’s fears had no real basis, friends and colleagues concluded that it was all in his mind.

The Journal reports:

“In his mind, he had worries,” said Belén Hormaeche, a close friend of Mr. Murphy and his wife. “But it was all in his mind.”

“The mind can play tricks with oneself, distorting reality,” Mr. Paulson said. “No matter how much those close to him tried to help, and no one tried more than Annabella, Charles could not see a path forward…his mind created a trap from which he couldn’t escape.”

This may or may not be true. It assumes that the friends were privy to all the facts. Besides, for all anyone knows, Murphy had a different kind of problem, one that he never confided in anyone. Perhaps he feared being exposed… for actions that had nothing to do with his career in finance. Was he being blackmailed for an indiscretion or even a criminal act… one that, had it been disclosed, would have ruined his career and his marriage.

All therapists know that patients often accept that it’s all in the mind because they prefer that explanation to dealing with the real problem. As for what might have been Murphy’s real problem, we are unlikely ever to hear about it. For all we know he jumped because he did not want anyone to know. Since he left this world looking his best, we may imagine that the alternative was looking his worst, being exposed, having his reputation destroyed, caused untold pain to his family. 

Murphy was clearly a brilliant financier. And yet, his personal behavior left a great deal to be desired. Working on a deal with the insurance titan, AIG, Murphy behaved badly and created a bad impression:

Some analysts said their conversations with Mr. Murphy amounted to lectures. A half-hour on the phone with Mr. Murphy was “29 minutes of Charles talking,” one said. People who challenged the AIG breakup recall being barraged by Mr. Murphy with an avalanche of facts and figures.

And also:

At an AIG investor meeting hosted by Mr. Hancock in November 2015, Mr. Murphy repeatedly interrupted Mr. Hancock as the chief executive tried to answer investors’ questions, some of the attendees said.

“Most investors are polite and deferential to management,” said former Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Josh Stirling. “He was definitely confrontational.”

Mr. Murphy was too abrasive.

In the best of circumstances Murphy seemed to have important character flaws. They did not prevent him from doing his job, but they certainly impacted his ability to get along with other people.

And then, last year Murphy’s mental health began to deteriorate. The Journal explains:

Around July of last year, some of Mr. Murphy’s friends and family saw a change. He looked tired. Instead of leading conversations, he was withdrawn, seemingly lost in thought.

Making even minor decisions, whether to go to the beach or take a walk, unsettled Mr. Murphy. His wife brought him to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with depression, prescribed medications and closely monitored him, friends said.

So, when Murphy fell ill his wife sent him to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist diagnosed depression and gave him some pills. The psychiatrist monitored him closely.

We can imagine that Murphy received the best medical care. Apparently, it was not good enough. We do not know whether or not he had a neurological workup and whether the condition might have had a more physiological cause. Since psychiatrists know the risks associated with anti-depressant medication, they know well to monitor their patients.

And yet, if the treatment was limited to making a diagnosis and prescribing a medication, is it possible that the psychiatrist could not get at what might have been a deeper problem, not so much in terms of a childhood trauma, but a present-day threat that Murphy might have seen no way to deal with.

Unfortunately, today’s psychiatrists are not trained to spend the time and to take the effort to do more than monitor a patient’s moods and ideation. More unfortunately, as most psychiatrists know, a patient who has chosen to take his life will sometimes show an improved mood.

The last thing Murphy is reported to have said, to the nanny over breakfast was: “I feel great.”

Was it because he had found a solution to a problem that he never told anyone about? We will never know.

3 comments:

sestamibi said...

Did he fear being exposed?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eli_M._Black

Then again, maybe it WAS depression . . .

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Porter_East

Shaun F said...

That incident reminded me of a story. A woman I used to know married a seasonal firefighter. He hung himself off a bridge out in the middle of nowhere. Later, she found out he had been having affairs in various parts of the continent and had possibly father a child out of wedlock. Pretty devastating. And the guy who suicided was heard to having said he "felt great" the day he ended it all.

JPL17 said...

Sadly, it sounds like "I feel great" means, "Yay, I finally found a way out".