New feature at Pacific Standard:
In March 1979, a 24-year-old Californian named Kenneth Nally took an overdose of his antidepressant medication, Elavil, and waited to die. Unconscious, he was found by his parents and rushed to a San Fernando Valley hospital, where he had his stomach pumped. A doctor recommended to Kenneth’s parents, Walter and Maria Nally, that they commit their son to a mental institution, but Kenneth and his father balked at the idea. Instead, Kenneth accepted an invitation to stay at the home of his pastor.
For many religious families, such a development might have been a relief. But Walter and Maria were Roman Catholic, and Kenneth no longer was. While an undergraduate at the University of California-Los Angeles, Kenneth had begun to attend Grace Community Church, the largest Protestant congregation in Los Angeles. Its founder was John MacArthur, who remains a titan in American conservative Christianity—famous for prolific writings, a radio program, and a fierce commitment to Calvinism, the austere branch of Protestantism that emphasizes predestination and salvation by grace alone.
Kenneth ended up spending six days at MacArthur’s house. During that time, he read the Bible, listened to tapes of MacArthur’s sermons, and helped to take care of the MacArthur family’s children. Then he returned to his parents’ home. A week later, Kenneth and his parents got into an argument about religion, and Kenneth left for a friend’s apartment in Burbank. There, he entered a closet, put a shotgun to his head, and pulled the trigger. All he left by way of a suicide note was a piece of paper with verses of scripture written on it.
In their grief, the Nallys began looking into the sort of help Kenneth had been receiving at Grace. It was a form of Christian therapy known as biblical counseling.