Jonathan Aurthur, 56; Wrote Book on Son’s Suicide, Later Took His Own Life

Times Staff Writer

In a harrowing 2002 book, Jonathan Aurthur chronicled his son Charley’s long struggle with mental illness and his suicidal leap, at 23, from Lincoln Boulevard into the morning rush-hour traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway.

Eleven days after Charley’s death on Nov. 1, 1996, Aurthur visited the overpass, peered down at the traffic and walked away feeling oddly liberated. "[Charley’s] terrible affliction and suffering had imprisoned him but it had also imprisoned me,” he wrote, “and now both of us were free.”

Aurthur did not remain free, however. The longtime wetlands advocate, who friends said was despondent over mounting debt, his son’s suicide and the reelection of President Bush, leaped to his death from a 500-foot cliff in the Angeles National Forest. A search-and-rescue team found his battered body Nov. 29, after he had been missing since Nov. 22. He was 56.

Friends called it a tragic, unexpected end for a complex man who had spent years grappling with his son’s death and advocating for treatment for depressed young people.

“It’s just so shocking,” said Jennifer Lewis, a longtime family friend who had dated Charley and remained friends with his family. “He studied [suicide] extensively. He knew all the statistics. It was a very big interest to him, deep and profound.”


Aurthur was highly intellectual, Lewis said, although he never completed college. He was also physical, working out for hours at Gold’s Gym in Venice. Friends described him as a go-getter who injected himself into the cause of restoring the Ballona Wetlands near Playa Vista, a development he had heatedly opposed. One recent Saturday, the stocky Aurthur spent hours working alongside other volunteers, pulling out nonnative plants and cleaning up debris.

“He was an amazing volunteer,” said Tom Francis, executive director of the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to acquiring, restoring and preserving the Ballona Wetlands ecosystem. “He has been one of the most outstanding people with interim restoration of the wetlands. He even lobbied Sacramento on behalf of the wetlands.”

Despite his outgoing activism, friends said, Aurthur carried the burden of his son’s death and his inability, in the end, to save him.

An intelligent, handsome young man who played piano and wrote poetry, Charley was 18 when he experienced his first psychotic episode while on a camping trip to Yosemite after his freshman year of college. Driving home on a mountain road, he closed his eyes and took his hands off the wheel of the family car -- in an effort, he would later say, to hand himself over completely to a “god consciousness.”

The car flipped over twice and landed in a ditch, totaled, but Charley walked away without a scratch. Three years later, he stabbed himself in the heart with a Swiss army knife, but again miraculously survived. Twice he attempted suicide by taking pills and slashing his wrists.

After Charley jumped to his death, Aurthur quit working as a copy editor and proofreader for a trade magazine publisher to research a book, “The Angel and the Dragon: A Father’s Search for Answers to His Son’s Mental Illness and Suicide,” published in 2002.

In it, he revealed the family’s efforts to find the right treatment for the troubled young man, and he quoted many of the thoughts and poems from the 10 spiral notebooks that made up Charley’s record of adolescence and young adulthood.

In retrospect, Aurthur assessed his own futile efforts to find appropriate help for his son, who in his last years endured repeated manic breaks, hospitalizations, depressions and failed medication regimens that left him exhausted.

“No one was able to help him bolster his internal resources and counterattack,” Aurthur wrote, “so finally, I think, he may have seen that the only way to gain control over a life in which he had become a mere spectator was to end it.”

Friends expressed shock that Jonathan Aurthur would take his own life, given his strong dedication to activism, his passion for life and the knowledge about suicide and its effect on families that he gleaned while working on the book about his son.

Aurthur had been unable to find work for several years and, friends said, was depressed about his mounting credit card debt. Most recently, he had been writing a historical science fiction novel about the effects of environmental degradation on the world’s food supply.

After Charley wrecked the family car, Aurthur never bought another one. He was known for riding his mountain bike around the city, often while sporting a yellow raincoat. A friend had recently lent him a vehicle so that he could more easily look for work.

It was that 1987 Plymouth that Aurthur drove Nov. 22 to Highway 39 above Azusa Canyon in the Angeles National Forest. Three days later, the car was found blocking the access road to a nearby dam. Inside, sheriff’s personnel found a note reading: “I jumped near the entrance to the dam.”

An initial search turned up nothing, but on Nov. 29 searchers found Aurthur’s body on rocky ground amid shrubbery in or near the San Gabriel River. He had plunged about 500 feet, sustaining massive head injuries and fractures.

Tom Rankin of Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center in Culver City, which offers a program for friends and relatives of people who die by suicide, said each person who commits suicide leaves behind about six “survivors.” Those survivors are “certainly at increased risk for suicide” themselves, he said.

“We had so many resources available to Jonathan if he had been able to reach out,” Rankin said.

Jonathan Aurthur was born in New York City on June 15, 1948. He was the son of the late Robert Alan Aurthur and Virginia Aurthur, former residents of East Hampton, Long Island. His father, a television and film screenwriter who was coauthor and producer of the 1979 film “All That Jazz,” died of lung cancer, also at 56.

Aurthur attended St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., and UCLA, where he studied film. From the late 1960s through the early 1980s, he worked as a community organizer and documentary filmmaker. His ex-wife, Elinor, said they met in 1969 at a planning meeting for a group seeking to prevent the overdevelopment of Venice. Together, they got involved in Los Angeles Newsreel, a group that produced and showed political documentary films about the Black Panthers, Vietnam and Cuba.

Known for his leftist leanings, Aurthur also edited a journal of political theory called Appeal to Reason and wrote a book on political economy called “Socialism in the Soviet Union.”

In a 2001 paper, he criticized the city and state governments for providing hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to Playa Vista even though its developers were providing what he considered a paltry amount of truly affordable family housing.

He is survived by his daughter, Jenny; a brother, Tim; and two sisters, Gretchen and Kate. Donations in Aurthur’s memory may be made to the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, Box 5623, Playa del Rey, CA 90296.

The trust plans to hold a memorial at 10 a.m. today along the Ballona Creek bike path just east of Lincoln Boulevard. The family has scheduled a memorial service for 6 p.m. Sunday at Unitarian Universalist Community Church, 1260 18th St., Santa Monica.