The Remembrance Project: John Rooney

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Early in John Rooney’s career, he dreamed of curing Legionnaire’s Disease, and maybe even the leukemia that had caused his mother’s death when he was 13. He became a geneticist, a patent attorney, an ethicist, a medical school anatomy teacher–and was convinced to the depths of his research-driven, education-loving soul that science was the solution to both human and societal illness.

“My husband John was the only true Renaissance man I’ve ever met,” his widow Jill remembers. “He was able to move very easily from science to law, he played classical guitar. He was also just so funny.” It was mostly a dry, subtle humor, “although he did have a good, he loved slapstick. I watched him once literally slide out of the chair watching Jim Carrey.”

John met Jill on a blind date in Concord and they married 9 months later during a rare October Nor’easter.  “It was pretty much a done deal the first night. I just loved him. I just loved him,” Jill recalls.
His intellectual resume was already long, and the life that preceded it had been just as diverse. By the age of 5, he was an entrepreneur, riding the subway from Berkeley California into San Francisco’s Chinatown, buying cheap fireworks, and carrying them back to his neighborhood to resell at profit.

“And when he was 8, he would go down to the bowling alley with all the drunks, and they would pay him to write down their scores,” Jill recounts. “So he’d be there till like 12, 1 o’clock on a weeknight, making money down at the bowling alley.”

He was quirky and creative in childhood; blonde and accomplished on their first date. But he was also hovering between illumination and a growing lightlessness. On their first wedding anniversary, Jill came home with a cake to find him dismantling their staircase with a hammer—neighbors one floor above, he felt certain, had been mocking him.

He’d worked in Big Pharma research, but somehow, the right combination of medications were never found—in part because of his insistence on his own expertise. Over the next three years, depressions were followed by rages and paranoia. Jobs were lost, job interviews cancelled, or worse, unsuccessful. The man of science began to view himself as blameworthy.

Professor Rooney would have argued that mental illness is never caused by personal failure. But John the patient believed differently. There followed a series of what he and his wife called “little practices”—impermanent deaths, when he over-medicated himself into somnolence. Then, on February 27, 2014, after e-mailing his wife from another room in their Bradford apartment, he over-medicated himself beyond saving.

“He wanted to be useful,” Jill remembers. “He thought of things in terms of how much use can something be. How much use can I be?”

He was 49 years old when he died.


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