The Last Temptation of George Petrie

He was supposed to turn up dead. His friend, attorney Robert Roth, was supposed to wrap up his affairs. Now they've ended up mortal enemies.

At odd moments faint smells from the streets of Bangkok come back to George Petrie -- pollution from gasoline engines, meat roasting on spits, sweat, overripe fruit. Whether the fleeting odors have clung to his clothes and hair or whether they're purely remembered, Petrie can't tell. A pervading despair has distanced him from sensation. It's a cloudy summer morning in London, late July 1998, and his Qantas Airways flight from Thailand landed at Heathrow Airport about an hour ago. He's now on a bus to Gatwick Airport, where he'll catch a plane to Miami.

Tears are streaming down Petrie's ruddy face, leaving little tracks of vapor on his gold-rimmed glasses. He is sitting with a portable CD player on his lap, listening through headphones for the 10,000th time to Romanza, a recording by the celebrated Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli. For about four months now, he has found himself crying all the time; he doesn't even try to fight it anymore.

Petrie is vaguely aware of not wanting to go back to Miami, the town in which he lived for more than twelve years, where he owned a home, and had a good job and some good friends. In the past three months, he's lost everything -- his job, the house and car, and all but one or two friends, and now he even has doubts about them.

But this was something he planned. He's going to die in Bangkok, thousands of miles away from everyone and everything he's ever cared about. His family will never know his death wasn't accidental. The trip to Miami is only for a few days, to get some life insurance paperwork straightened out, and then he'll be back on the plane to Thailand. At least that's what he thinks. By now everything has become so surreal, it's almost as though he's just watching what happens, as if he were already dead. The beautiful music in his ears could be a magnificent farewell to the world, a requiem. But he would find it impossible to imagine that, in just a few days, he'd open his eyes to see a Catholic priest hovering over him, administering last rites. Nor could he imagine how much more bizarre his life would become after that.

Most people who knew George Petrie a year earlier would be surprised that this well-mannered, red-haired, 53-year-old Irish Catholic could be obsessed with darkly melodramatic thoughts in far-off exotic lands. Of medium height and slender build, he dresses neatly in classic attire: oxford shirts, khaki slacks, loafers. Petrie grew up in Boston in a middle-class family, the youngest of three children, and never married. His father was a shipping company executive, his mother a housewife; they're now retired and in ill health. The family was not particularly close. His brother is a retired career air force man; his sister, with whom he is in regular touch but who declined to be interviewed for this story, is an accountant and lives in Maine.

After graduating from high school in Boston, Petrie moved to Los Angeles to work as a sales manager for a regional telephone company, then to Colorado Springs for a job at another phone company. He accepted a severance package in 1986 after AT&T bought the regional service and started downsizing. Later that year he found a job in Miami. Petrie asked that the name of his Miami employer not be published because he is currently negotiating another severance package.

In early 1998 Petrie began to feel depressed about problems at work. He won't discuss the nature of his troubles, but says his demeanor never cracked; even as his emotional state worsened, he expressed none of it. He had never before suffered serious depression of any duration, but weeks passed, and this didn't let up. In the spring he began consulting a psychiatrist who diagnosed "major depressive disorder" and prescribed Prozac. Petrie, however, says he never filled the prescriptions. "Finally, when I went to a psychiatrist, things were so bad that I didn't feel there was any way out, even with antidepressant medication," he would recount several months later in a journal. "I was going to end my life."

In fact, he says now, he went to a psychiatrist only for help in carrying out his suicide plan. He needed a medical leave of absence from his job. He had devised an elaborate scenario in which he would overdose on pills and alcohol in a Third World country. Presumably, he reasoned, by the time local authorities found him and began attempts to contact his family, information about the cause of death would be muddled and it would look like an accidental overdose of sleeping pills or a heart attack. "I wanted to keep my family from embarrassment," Petrie reports, "to keep them as far away from it as possible and make sure they never knew it was suicide." His unsuspecting psychiatrist ordered a two-week leave, and he bought a plane ticket to Costa Rica, a country he'd visited before and greatly enjoyed.

That much of Petrie's suicide plan might have made some sense as an effort to protect his loved ones, but as events unfolded, one irrational decision led to another until delusion and reality seemed indistinguishable. Of course that's what mental illness is all about, something Petrie says he now understands. "I try to explain depression to people, but if you haven't gone through it, you can't imagine," he reports. "You think you can just say, 'Snap out of it.' You're as sad as you have ever possibly felt, and you just can't shake it. Someone could walk up to you and tell you you've won $60 million in the lotto, and you'd look at them and say, 'What can I do with that?' Your thought processes are completely twisted." The unhappy consequences of Petrie's twisted delusions have been concrete and continual, and they include an ugly legal dispute that shows no sign of quick or easy resolution.

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