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A haunted Burt Bacharach revisits autistic daughter’s suicide in soul-baring new memoir
Question of the Day
NEW YORK - Burt Bacharach knew writing a memoir would be emotional — not because of his never-heard backstage tales or his tumultuous marriages. He knew that being honest would force him to come to terms with the death of his daughter.
“It was very tough because I had to revisit what that period was and go deeper into it,” he said of his daughter Nikki’s premature birth, years of emotional issues, and eventual suicide at the age of 40.
The 84-year old award-winning music composer of such classics as “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” the Oscar-winning “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” and The Carpenters’ “(They Long to Be) Close to You” understood that baring his deep, dark secrets was essential to his recently released autobiography, “Anyone Who Had a Heart: My Life and Music” (Harper).
The idea for a memoir came long before Nikki’s death in 2007. Mr. Bacharach had Nikki with former wife Angie Dickinson, best known for her role on the seventies drama “Police Woman.”
“[Nikki] was one-pound, 10 ounces at birth, you should know the deck is stacked against you then,” Mr. Bacharach said.
According to Mr. Bacharach, she grew up with emotional issues, which he later found out was an undiagnosed case of Asperger’s syndrome. (The autism spectrum disorder is a relatively new diagnosis.)
“Nobody said she’s got Asperger’s or she’s got autism. [They said] she’s just got behavior things,” he said.
But after suffering for so long, he never imagined she would actually kill herself.
“It’s like the boy who cried wolf. Somebody who says, ‘I can’t stand it. The helicopters are making too much noise, and the gardeners and the blowers are making too much noise, and if they don’t stop I’m going to kill myself,’” he said, his voice cracking. “And you hear that enough and you know it’s never gonna happen, and then one day she just goes and kills herself.”
She committed suicide in her southern California apartment.
“When she did kill herself she did it alone, Textbook 101. Bag over her head. Alone. Kind of brave I guess for somebody who was scared of so many things, and [she] left a note to me.”
He later realized that the signs were always there, but he’d thought that the strong relationship she had with her mother would prevent it from ever happening.
“They had a very connected, symbiotic relationship,” he said, adding, “We all did everything we could. I did what I thought would be the right thing and it wasn’t the right thing, and I was just trying to get her better.”
Mr. Bacharach was referring to the painful decision to send her away to a special school. He feels he made the decision because Nikki was not properly diagnosed. Because Nikki spent some time away from her mother, he feels she always held that against him.
“There was always that resentment that I kind of imprisoned her,” he said. “I wish somebody would have just said, ‘You’re not going to heal her, let her be.’”
Asperger’s syndrome is a pervasive developmental disorder on the autism spectrum. People with Asperger’s often have high intelligence and vast knowledge on narrow subjects but lack social skills.
With his family struggles hidden from the world, Mr. Bacharach continued to make great music.
“I was always able to alleviate the noise, some of the noise with what was going on with Nikki becoming a Sikh, or whatever, because I would go to my music. ... It was during that time I scored ‘What’s New Pussycat,’ I scored the first ‘Casino Royale.’ I would get engrossed in my music because there’s no other way for me.”
And while he continues to make music (he has an upcoming project for a musical with Elvis Costello), Mr. Bacharach is still haunted by her death. When they discovered the body, Nikki had left him a note.
“I know exactly what’s in the note. I never read the note. I never will,” Mr. Bacharach said as his voice cracked. “There is no need to read it. I already know what she said.”
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