Sometime after Jonathan Davis died, a man approached his mother at a service of remembrance for those who had passed. The man held a baby in his arms. “If it weren’t for Jon I would be dead,” the man told the grieving mother, “and this baby would never have been born.”
Such was the impact of the life of the late Jonathan Davis. Then — and now.
A dearly beloved son
Jonathan Douglas Davis was born to Jane and Martin Davis of Charlottesville, Va., a nurse and a librarian who met while taking a class at the University of Virginia. Martin was working in the library and Jane was finishing her B.S. in nursing. Like so many of their generation, education was important, something to be sought and valued. Raised during the 1930s, the Davises owned that special perspective credited to that Greatest Generation. “We worked hard, and we saved,” Jane says. “We didn’t do things that a lot of people do. We started our marriage on a bicycle, not on two cars.”
When Jonathan came along in 1958, the Davises became parents who devoted their lives to raising their only child, a son who never disappointed them. “He was a dearly, dearly beloved child. A good boy, a sweet boy, just an all around nice guy,” Jane remembers. “And he had a wicked sense of humor.” An original and quick sense of humor, Martin adds: “In discussing the Swiss Army Knife, I asked ten-year-old Jon what the Coast Guard calls its official knife? ‘A Coast Guard Cutter’ was his instant and surprising reply.” Martin smiles, thinking about how Jonathan was especially attuned to language and nuance — subtleties that often surprised people.
Jonathan’s natural aptitudes included people. Jane recalls her son’s extraordinary sensitivity. He was acutely aware of nonverbal cues, Martin adds. Such a perceptive nature would eventually lead to a career in clinical psychology. Jane tells of a time during the 1960s, when Jonathan was only seven or eight years old. He had gone swimming at a local pool club that barred blacks. Afterward, he told his mother unequivocally that he would not go there again. “I was proud of him,” she says. Jane wasn’t surprised though — Jonathan had a strong sense of justice. As a small child, he had scolded her for taking the paper cup that came with a fountain drink she had bought. Jane assured her young son that the paper cup was part of the price for the soda.
“I worried that I’d made him too sensitive,” Jane says. But as she looks back, it is clear that his sensitivity, compassion, and sense of justice would be keys to his later success as a counselor. His intuition about people was his strength and talent — and it was the great gift he gave to those around him.
An avid learner
From early on, Jonathan was an exceptional but non-traditional learner, Martin says. Whatever subject he took a shine to, he pursued with enormous determination to learn everything he could about it. He was drawn to the offbeat, the eclectic — subjects as varied as knives, cats, ethnic cooking, music, and great American tattoo artists, long before tattoos went mainstream. Such eclecticism was indicative of his intelligence — and his depth.
“When he first attempted to play the guitar,” Martin wrote in a posthumous tribute to his son, “I bought him a good book on the subject. He never looked at it. Rather he watched other guitarists play, practiced the same techniques himself until he had mastered them, and then improvised around them until he had made the techniques his own.”
Given such a desire to learn and blessed with an intuitive understanding of people, it is not surprising that Jonathan Davis chose to study psychology, a subject introduced to him by a high school teacher and probably reinforced by the fact that his father, a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, had majored in psychology as well.
In the fall of 1977, Jonathan enrolled at James Madison University. Although initially he wasn’t excited about it, Jane remembers, laughing. “He thought it was [in] a little country town with a lot of grits.” Humanity, Jon had decided by then, was divided into three categories, “jocks, grits, and freaks.” He always gravitated to those who were different. But he made friends easily, while he honed his intellect, delving deep into the study of psychology. “He learned to love JMU — and he loved the master’s program,” Jane says. “The faculty is student-oriented and you get more contact time with good professors,” Martin says. “I think Jonathan felt that way….He got a lot of respect from the faculty there.”
Lennis Echterling, professor of psychology and director of the counseling program, remembers that Jonathan had a strong interest in issues related to counseling and therapy and got involved with projects with Jack Presbury, another JMU psychology professor. “I would often come by and interrupt them as they were engaged in some great philosophical discussion,” Echterling says. “It was clear to me that when I came in I was interrupting some high level intellectual discussions. They were very much enjoying how their ideas would sparkle.”
After earning his undergraduate and master’s degrees in psychology at JMU, Jonathan was accepted into the prestigious “ Derner Institute” of Adelphi University to study for his Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Even with a Ph.D. under his belt, though, he continued taking courses. His father asked him why: “Aren’t you ready to just relax now and practice psychology?”
“No,” Martin recalls him saying, “I want to get all the knowledge and skills.”
A special insight
Jane and Martin Davis are the kind of parents who believe that children are not things to be molded but people to be unfolded. And as they watched their son unfold, they saw him become a man gifted with a special insight — and an insatiable curiosity — for people. This innate understanding of people marked his life and career.
The teenage Jonathan explored music — as most teens do — and played in bands. But despite his peers’ initial assessment that he didn’t play well enough to own a Stratocaster, Jonathan proved them wrong. He worked until he mastered it, Martin remembers. Of course, Jane also played a part. She was the only mom who let the boys play in the house, she says, grinning — her generosity evinced by gouges in the living room floor where electric guitars thwanged and a refrigerator-sized amplifier boomed. And Martin had a motorcycle that he let 12- year-old Jon ride around the backyard — “and, of course, every kid in the neighborhood wanted to ride, too,” Jane adds. These were concessions that Jonathan understood and appreciated. While his friends were impressed with fancy house and cars, Jonathan understood — and voiced to his parents — that their embrace of his personal ambitions was far more important.
As a Ph.D. student, Jonathan cultivated a deep interest in people afflicted with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, choosing that as the focus of his doctoral research. He interviewed survivors of the Bataan Death March to learn all he could about the kinds of experiences that trigger PTSD and about the resilience that allows people to survive them and even thrive. Once again, Jonathan was ahead of his time. PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, as it is now termed, had not yet caught the public’s full attention.
Everything Jonathan did inched him further along that continuum of understanding people and their motivations. Between degrees, he worked as an attendant at Western State Hospital and as an alcohol counselor. He even did a stint driving a taxicab — a moving classroom of human experience.
A common struggle
Beginning in his 20s, Jane remembers, Jonathan became to experience bouts of depression, a mental condition that placed him in a large group of the population. Sometimes termed “the common cold of mental illness,” clinical depression is a serious, ordinary, and yet not-fully-understood condition that impacts hundreds of thousands of people every year.
According to Echterling, clinical depression increases the risk of suicide eight fold. Few are immune, however, demographic groups have different degrees of risk. “The highest risk by age is elderly, and especially men over 65, and in particular white men over 65,” he says. For women, “suicide rates stay pretty low and overall their rates are typically three to five times less than for men.”
Discovering the hidden secrets of the more than 30,000 suicides annually in the U.S. is a laborious process, yet research and scholarly dissection of a common mental illness like depression, as well as the sometimes-precipitated tragic outcome, is an important avenue for psychologists to explore. Medical autopsies look for the physical causes of death — the “how,” Echterling says, “but the psychological autopsy is to explore the ‘why.’ It means going back to interview loved ones and getting a sense of what were the precipitating events that were going on at the time. Was there a note left behind? Or were there other indications that would suggest a higher risk for suicide? Have they had previous attempts? So when they’ve done those kind of psychological autopsies in detail, what they’ve found is that 90 percent of the completed suicides have involved some issue with a psychological disorder.”
He also points out that while teenagers have a higher risk of attempted suicides, their “success” rate is much lower than the general population. The implications of this kind of increased understanding of suicide and trauma, including PTSD, are enormous and have led to changes in clinical psychology’s approach. Echterling, who prepares clinical counselors for the field, explains one example: the need for a positive approach…
…Now there are programs to take the positive attitude with teens. When I was a teen, we would watch these scary movies about drinking and driving. And we know they were ineffective. They were scary, but they didn’t change behavior. What has been effective is campaigns like ‘friends don’t let friends drive drunk.’ That’s a positive contribution instead of trying to scare somebody which is a poor motivator … You look at what you can do to promote life. And so that leads into ‘friends don’t let friends suffer alone’ if they talk about things like death or suicide or depression….. It’s a way of using adolescence as a resource, and treating it like a resource, not something to scare, but instead, you have something to contribute to this community. You’re an important part, vitally, to be a link between someone in desperate need to receive the help that could make a difference, helping prevent suicide and promote happier life, so that’s how many of the prevention programs now are advocating for positive steps that people can be doing … in preventing suicide.
A profound shock
No matter how much one is loved or how supportive family and friends may be, sometimes people slip away.
In 1997, apparently, Jonathan’s personal battle with depression ramped up. After receiving his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Derner in February, Jonathan was accepted into a prestigious post-doctoral program in psychoanalysis at New York City’s Williams Alanson White Institute, reputed to be one of the most prominent and respected psychoanalytic training and treatment centers in the world.
And Jonathan was engaged to be married.
Although Jane and Martin knew their son had struggled with depression off and on, no one, not even his fianceé, understood the depth of that struggle. Jane doesn’t know if Jonathan had ever been officially diagnosed with clinical depression, but she knows that he had been prescribed anti-depressive medication. She knows, too, that he was surrounded by friends and family who would have known the signs. “They had all just said to relax and be cool. But nobody ever sat him down for a serious talk.” With this, Jane also raises a cautionary flag: No one, even those most knowledgeable in the field of psychology, is immune. “My wish,” she says, “is that psychologists and other health professionals will take a good look at themselves and at each other and know that suicide is a possibility in themselves.”
“In June, they came down here [to Virginia]. They were very happy,” Jane remembers. “We were very happy because Jonathan had worried us off and on over the years. And we thought, ok, Jon is ok. He has this beautiful girl, and they’re going to get married.”
By all measures, it was a happy year.
And then on July 25, Jonathan slipped out of their lives. Martin wrote, “His death came as a profound shock to everyone who knew him.”
At the time of his death, Jonathan was working with mentally ill substance abusers. They were the kind of people who might make any mother nervous, Jane admits. “But after he died, I got a whole lot of scratchy notes, on torn up legal pads…..His clients had written things…..like ‘Dear Jon, I’m going to try so hard to stay clean because I know you want me to.’ ‘You have done so much to make me try to turn around my life.’ One client had brought him a string art, which she had made. That really touched my heart.”
These people weren’t stereotypes, Jane knows, “these were real human beings that my son loved — and they loved him.” Characteristic of Jonathan’s deep compassion, they would later learn that he had stopped taking his medication, Jane says, “because he didn’t want to dull his sensitivity to his patients.”
Legacy from tragedy
If he were living today, Jonathan Davis would be immensely proud of his parents. The couple has survived what Echterling calls “one of the worst traumas I can think of — to lose a child.” They have tapped into a kind of resilience that has allowed them to move ahead and to turn their personal tragedy into a kind of victory over it. Psychologists call it “counterfactual reasoning.” It is the ability to look beyond tragedy and find something positive. And it is exactly the kind of response their counselor son would have hoped for his parents.
“Pain is very people oriented,” Martin says. “I cried a lot,” Jane says, “ And I talked about him a lot.” She also sought solace in a local support group, the same kind that Jonathan might have led. “When Jon was a little boy,” she remembers, “I thought that he was the most precious child on earth, and I loved him more than anybody else ever loved their child. And then when he died, I thought, ‘my pain is worse than anyone else on earth has ever felt.’ And when I started going to Compassionate Friends, it was so apparent that everybody there loved their children the same way I did.”
The Davises found the kind of comfort their own son might have offered. Counselors, Echterling says, become extraordinarily skilled in helping people identify and hang onto those counterfactuals.
From their resilience and a desire to see Jonathan’s life continue in some way, Jane and Martin established the Jonathan Douglas Davis Memorial Scholarship. Every year it is awarded to a degree seeking graduate student enrolled in JMU’s Department of Graduate Psychology and Counseling who has a particular interest in suicide prevention. More recently, the scholarship has expanded to include students interested in Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Perhaps reflecting the Davises’ Depression-era can-do attitude, the scholarship is designed to spark tangible, practical results. For those reviewing the scholarship applications, Echterling says, “The focus becomes ‘What would they do with that?’ …. They not only have good intentions, but they have a plan.”
Such was the story of recipient Lisa Ellison (‘12M), herself touched by her own brother’s suicide. “She wanted [her project] to be something meaningful for survivors, families and friends, who’d lost somebody,” Echterling says. She organized an Out of the Darkness Walk, a campus-wide event that supports networking for survivors, understanding of suicide, and funds research into suicide prevention. After Ellison graduated, the annual campus walk continued. Last year’s walk drew some 300 walkers and raised more than $16,000 to fund research and education programs through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Echterling says.
“We often ignore all of the contributions of people who may end their lives with suicide,” says Echterling. “They aren’t just suicide [victims]. They’re human beings with all sorts of wonderful positive qualities and contributions that enrich people’s lives.”
This is Jonathan Davis. The impact of his life goes on, and in a strange and immensely sad irony, it continues to grow, spreading out like a river that meets the sea. It endures through the lives of the hundreds of people he touched as a student, a friend, a counselor — and as a son. His life is multiplied through the lives of students whose careers will be enhanced through the memorial scholarship — and through the lives of people those students, in turn, will themselves touch.
Finding a kind of eternity
Jane and Martin are comfortable with the concept of death. They lived it when Jonathan died. It is not a stranger to them, and they choose to see it as an end with an opportunity. It’s why Jane can jokingly pose for the photographer, asking if that will work for her own obituary. No one lives forever. Even — someday — the baby offered as comfort to the grieving mother by Jonathan’s friend, a man he counseled through AA. Thinking about her own childhood in Roanoke, Va., Jane remembers a modest house that has now been torn down, on property that has been sold. Like people depart, the house is gone. But the land remains — much like the ground of Jonathan Davis’ life, a life well spent before it ended too soon. And much like seeds that survive an inferno — the kind of painful inferno the Davises know — Jonathan’s legacy will continue to grow in the fertile soil of higher education.
For Jane and Martin, there are more sweet memories than sad ones. Like a trip to New York City, a place Jonathan loved, where he took his parents to dinner at a nice restaurant and treated them to an off-Broadway Tennessee Williams play. Jonathan was good to people. He was good to his parents, his friends.
“There is an old Native American or Mexican saying that someone truly dies the last time someone says his name,” Jane says. One hundred years from now, she knows Jonathan will be remembered. Students passing through JMU’s Department of Psychology will see his portrait on the wall, and many will open letters informing them they are the fortunate recipients of a generous scholarship.
“They can read [about Jonathan] and know about him, and there will be some student — hopefully a bunch of students — all wanting to win this prize because it will go up, up, up. And so they would have … thought a lot about Jonathan and about suicide and hopefully suicide consciousness will have grown a lot more. People who have tried it, persons whose loved ones have tried it will come out of the closet and talk about it.”
Martin and Jane Davis have found a kind of eternity in establishing the Jonathan Douglas Davis Memorial Scholarship. For generations to come, their beloved son’s legacy will continue to support scholars whose research will untangle suicide and uncover secrets about the psychology of suicide prevention.
And Jonathan’s name will continue to be spoken.