Last October, a law school placement director friend of mine forwarded me an email with a juicy piece of big law gossip. A former associate at Sullivan & Cromwell had offed himself. He was 39.
The body was discovered beneath a highway bridge in Toronto. A few days earlier, it was revealed that since the mid-90’s, he and a co-conspirator made ten million dollars on an insider trading scheme. He’d stolen insider information from S&C, arriving early in the morning to dig through waste baskets, rifle partners’ desks and employ temporary word-processor codes to break into the computer system.
“You can’t make this shit up,” was my friend’s comment. “Wasn’t he from around your time?”
It took a minute to locate the face. Gil Cornblum. Jewish, a bit pudgy, with big round glasses. Gil, in that ridiculous little office two doors down from mine.
What was Gil like? Mild-mannered, pleasant, always smiling.
I should have known something was wrong.
The pieces fit together.
Gil kept weird hours. He used to chuckle that he liked to get in early so he didn’t have to stay late. It turned out he was in at 5 am, combing the firm for insider tips.
The lavish wedding, too. A mutual friend was invited up to Canada to watch Gil tie the knot, and was blown away.
As people do in these situations, I stopped for a moment to contemplate Gil’s death. His body was discovered at the bottom of a highway bridge. He was still breathing, according to the bits of news I found online.
So far as I could tell, that meant portly, lovable Gil Cornblum threw himself off a bridge on a Canadian highway in the middle of the night and lay on the bottom – of what? A rocky riverbed? – shattered and dying.
Suicide amounts to punishing whoever is supposed to take care of you because you feel their care is inadequate.
Certainly, the care we all received at S&C was inadequate, and we committed suicide a little each day just by staying there and putting ourselves through that abuse as our lives passed us by. Our slow suicide manifested in other ways as well. Most of us mistreated ourselves by neglecting our health, letting our friendships die off, ignoring our families, our hobbies, our lives.
Maybe insider trading was Gil’s grand suicidal gesture, his protest against the abuse he received. He put his entire life on the line, knowing he might well be caught, end up in jail and lose everything. He was playing Russian roulette, and maybe he knew he’d kill himself if he got caught.
And all for what? Money.
In psychotherapy, money is a surrogate for love, for security. We all felt insecure and unloved at S&C. Maybe insider trading and stolen money gave Gil a counter-balance. Maybe it was supposed to compensate for everything else missing in that pointless existence.
Were the rest of us so different? Weren’t we all trading our lives for money? No one would have been working in that hell hole if they hadn’t waved six-figure salaries in our faces.
The high suicide rate among lawyers isn’t hard to explain: you trade away your life for money and clutch at possessions to substitute for what’s missing. You’re already dying.
When it doesn’t work, and money fails to answer your needs, the rage overflows. You punish the world for denying you the care you crave.
End result? The ultimate victory through defeat. You take your own life.
Discharging unconscious anger feels good. It’s a primitive, simple pleasure. It’s also incredibly destructive. Gil – who seemed like a mild-mannered, pleasant Canadian – was probably high as a kite on the rage he was discharging by stealing millions of dollars right under those partners’ noses.
But his rage consumed the money and kept going. It finally consumed his life.
I remember Gil Cornblum as a nice guy. I can’t find it in me to come down on him too harshly for his crimes. I suppose he had to steal money to keep himself happy at a place as miserable as S&C. He was doing what he had to, to fill the emptiness we all felt working at that place.
Goodbye, Gil. I’m sorry that emptiness finally opened up wide enough to swallow you whole.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
I also heartily recommend my first book, an introduction to the concepts behind psychotherapy, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy