Professor Green On How His Dad’s Suicide Shaped Him And Why Men Need To Redefine Feelings Of Inadequacy
Stephen Manderson aka Professor Green and I belong to a special club.
I’m not talking about Shoreditch House, which is where we are initially meant to meet before the location of our interview moves to his house in South East London.
This is the kind of club no one wants to join; no one wants to be a member of.
It’s the club where regrets and lost words whisper to each other, where love and deep grief hold hands, where closure is never found, where remembrance meets the morning sun every day, no matter the number of years that have passed.
Our membership is bought by the death of a loved one by suicide.
Manderson lost his father seven years ago, I lost my husband six months ago – both died the same way, and we both carried our loved ones into the church with our own hands.
A pinch of winter is in the air when I meet Manderson, at the foot of the park opposite his house. Arthur, his dog, is waggling with excitement and the first words he utters are: “Are you okay with dogs? He looks big but he’s a softie.”
I tell him my husband used to have a beautiful big-bummed mastiff-boxer cross Daisy, so all is fine in the dog department.
The week before our meeting, the media was thick with interviews following the airing of the BBC3 documentary about his father Peter’s death, ‘Professor Green: Suicide and Me’.
Much was made of Manderson’s appearance on ‘Newsnight,’ where he cried on national TV – from commentary pieces about how more men needed to cry in public to make it ‘less strange’ to applauding his ability to display raw emotion.
Without necessarily meaning to, by opening up and talking about male vulnerability and one of the most taboo subjects in society – suicide – Manderson has captured the mood of a nation around masculinity.
Men are in crisis. And if we can put aside the constant comparison with women and who has it worse (both genders have different sets of problems), we may finally arrive at a solution because it is extremely hard to argue with the statistics.
Not only are 90% of prisoners are men, indicating that there are very real problems with how the modern man is coping with and interpreting masculinity, but they are also picking themselves off at an alarming rate. The biggest cause of death for men under the age of 45 in Britain is suicide.
When we are sat in Manderson’s kitchen at a long, rough-hewn wooden table that seems built for Sunday roasts and lazy lunches, I ask him about how it felt for him to be seen crying on television, both on Newsnight and the documentary.
“The first day I went out after the documentary and people came up to me, I felt I had to say ‘oh thanks, but that’s not how I am all the time’ and there was still that bit of machoism. But the day after, I was cool with it.
“It is (about) people seeing a vulnerable side. You look at all the archetypal male superhero stories, even Superman, Spiderman and a huge part of their story is vulnerability. Why can’t we take from that? They are superhuman and our idea of a ‘proper’ man is someone who doesn’t show that. I think we need to redefine our role in society and change that feeling of inadequacy.”
Crying, he says, is not something he does much of. In the documentary, however, he couldn’t avoid it, “and there was a camera on me”.
“I thought, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to be honest,” he continues. “There were times when I probably could have held it together but who was I holding it together for? It wasn’t helping me to do that.”
You get the sense that when he needs to defend his home or his family, Manderson could be quite fierce, but in person, he is polite and soft-spoken. That isn’t the only surprise – as he’s married to Millie Mackintosh from ‘Made In Chelsea’ fame, I expected him to be living in a Fulham townhouse, not south of the river.
But, after spending an hour with him, it’s clear Manderson needs this type of space – whether it’s having a quiet park to walk Arthur, spending time doing up the house they both love or just hanging out with his wife.
Plus, he already tried Chelsea and unsurprisingly, it wasn’t for him.
Stephen Manderson and wife Millie Mackintosh
His home suggests stability, calm and quiet. You wonder how much of this is a reaction to his own upbringing – his parents weren’t in his life very much.
They had him very young – his mother was only 16 when she gave birth and she left him in the care of her mother – Nanny Pat – and his great-grandmother Edie. His father went on to marry another woman, Jackie, and became an intermittent presence in his son’s life.
Despite being estranged from his father at the time of his passing, Peter’s death in 2008 affected him greatly. They hadn’t spoken properly in years and the last conversation they did have ended badly after Manderson lost his temper with his dad.
Although a big part of dealing with suicide is also dealing with regret and guilt, Manderson made peace with his last words: “I had good reason to be angry at him”.
Manderson describes his relationship with the documentary as “one of the weirdest things in the world”, although he is immensely appreciative of the impact.
“On one hand, I’m proud of getting through it, I’m happy with the effect it has had, the noise it has made, the dialogue it has opened up, but it was a horrible time for me. There were times when I questioned myself – there were times when I asked myself why I was doing this.”
He was surprised by how much making the documentary took out of him; these days he is trying to reset his compass by doing the things that make him feel centred: gym, therapy and making music.
Whether it was as a result of his own fractured childhood or his personality, Manderson suffers from anxiety and has done since he was a kid. Part of making the documentary also meant he had to do battle with that, even if it meant he felt vulnerable himself.
“Life is difficult when you’re a kid – whether you’re missing a parent for this reason or that reason – my mental health problems started as a child. I thought I had a tummy ache but I didn’t know how to say I was anxious, because that’s what that was.
“They stuffed cameras down my neck looking for what was wrong with my stomach when actually it was just anxiety. I still get those knots now, and sometimes I wake up with it. It’s like if I don’t feel like that, I wonder ‘where is it, where has that feeling gone?’
“Mental health can develop with some people but for others, it’s how we’re wired. We all deal with things differently and some of us are less equipped to deal with things.”
One question he has been asked a lot is whether he’s worried that what happened to his father, might happen to him.
“(When I heard my dad died) I went through the whole spectrum within about two minutes. I punched a wall, screaming, crying – why would he do this, all this anger, he’s so selfish and how could he take this opportunity away from me, and when it landed on me, I realised I was thinking about myself.
“Then I realised how selfish I was being by thinking he had been selfish because then I thought oh my god, what was he going through to do what he did. And then came: I want to know what he was going through, and then I realised, no I don’t.
“Because the only way I could understand was by being in that position and that is not somewhere that I ever want to be.”
Talking about his father’s suicide wasn’t new territory for Manderson, but the documentary covered new ground for him personally. He spoke to people he hadn’t talked to about it before, one of Peter’s friends and had his first indepth conversation with Nanny Pat who raised him, about it.
“The last time I saw him,” says Manderson, “it was my 18th birthday and I was with my girlfriend at the time and my mates, and we were playing computer. I did what you do – I didn’t pay him much attention.
“Not in a rude way but it was like a ‘hey Dad, how are you doing?’ I think that was the first time he met Sarah, my then-girlfriend. I don’t remember what we spoke about, I don’t remember anything beyond just seeing him and then he went.”
Despite the estrangement and rocky relationship with Peter’s widow Jackie (who claimed he was using his father’s death to promote himself), he went to the morgue to see his father, and carried him into church.
“There was no question that my dad loved me. He wasn’t a great father but I remember the times I spent with him and if they weren’t what they were, I wouldn’t give a fuck. This wouldn’t have affected me at all. But I loved him.”
Through his journey for the documentary, he found out a lot about his dad’s personal history that went some way to explaining why he took his own life.
People described Peter as a fairly easy chap, happy even. But while doing some digging, Manderson found that wasn’t the case.
“He was not happy.
“There was so much trauma going on in his life and he never had the chance to take any of that weight off his shoulders, and he never sought that opportunity.”
The trauma Manderson refers to is largely around Peter’s childhood.
Talking about his father’s upbringing, he says: “(There were) eight people in a two-bedroom flat, until it became seven when his mum left. And his dad had to feed the other kids so he ended up in a home.
“So there was no maternal bond there for him, he suffered abandonment as a child, which affects you emotionally. He lost his brother who was his rock – Stephen, my namesake who left a daughter who also passed away when she was 20.
“Two years before he took his life his brother David hung himself. That sowed the seed, and the year before that he lost his sister to leukaemia. God knows what stresses he had going on in his own life.”
One of Peter’s friends Manderson did manage to speak to, Ken – interestingly said that he just didn’t want to ask Peter too much. “Blokes don’t talk,” he said in the documentary.
In the search for answers around why men have a much higher suicide rate than women, it constantly comes back to this.
The narrow vision of masculinity pushed by society, how men subsequently feel when viewing themselves through this lens, and their inability to talk about the struggles and inadequacies they feel as a result of it.
Some – in fact, a lot – view suicide as selfish, cowardly even. I never viewed my husband’s death as selfish or cowardly, but I did wonder if he had any idea how much grief and sadness he left behind.
It is hard not to be angry at the emotional debris, but further reading led me to the understanding that for a lot of people – men specifically – they believe they are doing the best thing by their loved ones. That they are no longer a burden, and no longer have to agonise over the men society wants them to be versus the men they actually are.
“His decision was his decision,” says Manderson about his father, “and maybe that was his way of taking some control back. I think in a weird sense, there’s almost a nobility in that for some people. But just the thought that, for him, it was the only way out? I just feel for him so much.
“He may have always been going that way but I never had the chance to talk to him about any of it. But he may never have told me anything about how grew up. Along with everything else that was going on in his life.”
No matter what age you are, death breaks, shapes and re-moulds you whether you like it or not. Call it the effect of being happily married, dog-walking or good therapy, but Manderson is at a point where he can appreciate how he changed his life as a consequence.
“I don’t know how I had the sensibility to do this but I stopped smoking weed. I had done so since I was 11 and this happened when I was 24, so that’s 13 years of doing something. I stopped because I didn’t want any crutches. I wanted to just go through what I had to go through.
“There were no positives but it made me a hell of a lot more self aware and I began to turn my life around.”
When he was a boy, Peter’s intermittent presence in his life made him a lot more “sensitive” than he thinks he otherwise would have been.
“It took a long time to find my feet in the world. I was brought up by my grandmother who taught me to walk away from fights. Sometimes I didn’t, when I didn’t I sometimes went further than I should’ve because I felt I had to overcompensate to prove (myself).
“It gave me all of those questions: am I a man? It left a big question mark. Because on one hand I was taught to empathise and be sensitive and all of these qualities I got from being raised by a woman but on the other hand I felt like ‘I wasn’t strong enough, I’m weak’.
“As a kid to try and rationalise it is impossible. It’s easy to see why that anxiety developed.”
One of Manderson’s hopes, with the documentary, was that it would help younger boys. “I’m probably not as cool as I was two or three years ago. But – kids will watch and it’s important to get (them) to care a little bit more for themselves and each other.”
At the moment, there is a movement to helping and supporting boys and young men. Scouts, for instance, is doing a lot to raise awareness around mental illness and partnered with Mind for a campaign called A Million Hands.
But for adult men, resources are limited and getting movement around prevention is costing time and lives.
Manderson questions quite strongly, why it is taking so long considering the stats around male suicide have been high for quite some time.
“Why isn’t there anything being done? Do people just take it as natural selection? And questions that violent need to be brought up.
“Because if people say ‘of course it’s not that’ then what is it? Because it has been going on for a long time.”
In ‘Suicide And Me’, we are introduced to The Maytree, a wonderful charity that helps suicidal people in a ‘non-medical setting.’ It sounds like a fantastic initiative, and according to Manderson there is a phenomenal survival rate (“I think they have had 1,012 people in the time they’ve been open and only eight have gone on to take their lives”) but there is only one of them.
“When you think about those numbers in comparison – not to say that treatment is right for everyone because people get to a suicidal point for different reasons – but that’s an incredibly efficient set up,” he says.
Even the idea of prevention is a tricky one. “(When we talk about prevention) we’re again making it about us. And it’s hard because our perspective is through our eyes; it’s really difficult to be subjective.
“(You can ask) could I have saved him but it’s not about you. It’s about that person and what they are going through.”
Although Millie isn’t at home, you can feel her influence and presence in the house. I ask him whether he talks to her a bit more about his dad and how he’s coping, something he said he didn’t do much of before the documentary.
“I talk more about how I’m feeling. After ‘Newsnight’, the first thing I did in the morning was an interview with Five Live and it was a whole day. I’d been building myself up a bit because I knew everyone was going to see it and I’d have to deal with the response.
“And I came out and I said to her: ‘You know what, when I come home, I just need some company.’ It still took a lot for me to ask, but I did it. I talk to her a lot about how I feel and where I’m at but it’s not… her job to fix anything.
Stephen and Millie on their wedding day
“I never ask her to solve my problems. If I tell her I’m down, it’s not ‘make me happy’. It’s ‘can we go and walk the dog’. It’s not like it is with my therapist. They have an understanding of how things work.”
While therapy is something that men, in particular, can be cagey about – frightened, even, that their workplace might find out, Manderson advocates it with enthusiasm.
“It’s less a coping mechanism and more a way of living life. The first time I sat down with Linda (my therapist) she said, let’s just start at the beginning. She asked what it was like at home and I told her about my Nan. And I told her she used to get picked up at 4am by her guvnor to clean the banks, and then she’d come home and then go out to work again.
“I started crying. I didn’t realise this stuff had any bearing on me but deep down I love my Nan and I hate that she had to go through all of that and it was partly because of me. Because she had to look after her mum and me, one of her kid’s children. Where was her life? It was spent looking after other people and it was hugely upsetting.
“And who is there to ask those questions?”
Who, indeed? And if those questions are being asked, do men feel comfortable enough to answer them honestly?
Whatever Manderson takes away from this – a better understanding of his father, closure around his own upbringing or a heightened sense of what he requires to be happy and peaceful – his documentary has had an unquestionable impact in speeding up the conversation around men and the crisis of suicide.
As Arthur licks my hand for the last time underneath the table, I ask him what he makes of it.
He looks thoughtful.
“The good thing about it currently (is that) it seems like there has been this wave of consciousness. It really does feel like things are at a point where they can begin to change.
“I’d be scared to say they are already changing but actually it feels like we might be at the tipping point.”