‘A World That Didn’t Have Time:’ Hermosa Beach’s David Sliff seemed capable of anything. But his struggle with depression ultimately proved too much to handle.
by Ryan McDonald
David Sliff’s mornings often began with a dog jumping on his bed. His mother Kathy would pass by his room and toss a dog treat on Sliff’s covers. The family golden retriever, Sam, would bolt from his position, curled up at the foot of Sliff’s bed, in pursuit of the treat. It was a friendly way of forcing the late-sleeping Sliff to wake up and join the world.
Sliff, born and raised in Hermosa Beach, took his own life Saturday, Dec. 30, at the age of 23. Friends and family recall Sliff as a rare mix: brilliant and compassionate, talented but humble. They also, however, acknowledge his struggle with depression. His death leaves the many South Bay residents he touched attempting to make sense of how a person with so many gifts could struggle to fit in with the world. Sliff’s death is a tragedy whose exodos will persist because it refuses to provide the closure of easy answers.
Although he came out as gay a decade ago, and faced the social backlash to be expected of oughts-era teenagers, he had the strength of character to carve out an identity for himself. His sister Morgan recalled a story about a holiday season several years ago in which Sliff received a set of soaps during a White Elephant gift exchange. The soaps bore the brand of “Duke Cannon,” a fictional, uber-masculine figure who, in a series of “Most Interesting Man in the World”-style boasts on the soap’s wrapper, eschewed vegetables, soft garments and other frailties. Sliff, at the time of opening the gift, had just polished off a veggie burger, and was wearing a scarf. Along with everyone else, Sliff laughed easily at the irony.
The stereotype of the tortured genius also does not quite fit the mercurial Sliff. He favored difficult music and visual art, and his online contributions of photos he took and songs he recorded reveal a person who saw beauty that the less-observant might miss. But he could also be quick to puncture the pretensions of his like-minded friends with an acerbic witticism. (Once, while walking in New York City during the sudden onset of a blizzard, Sliff and his companions sought shelter in an obscure museum. According to a story Morgan pieced together from the friends, they feigned serendipitous awe at the art; Sliff wryly suggested hitting the cafeteria.)
“That’s why we loved David. He was always there with the zingers,” said Lucas Johnson, a friend.
The days since his death have not made finding answers any simpler. Friends have dropped by the family home to commiserate. Along with sharing in the pain of his loss and joy of his memory, they have spoken of the David they knew. The effect is water-muddying, but also complementary: Sliff was a person whose memory means enough for people to have a stake in it.
The through line that remains is that of a decent, hyper-intelligent person who was also painfully self-aware — someone for whom the cloak of depression was especially difficult to shake off. His arc was neither gradual descent nor dizzying plunge, but is instead described by the mysterious waverings of a mind turned against itself.
“He would tell me, ‘I’m a white kid from suburbia. I was never abused, never molested. I have everything I need. I have every opportunity, and I don’t know why I’m depressed,’” Kathy said.
‘The Things that Mattered’
David Taylor Sliff was the youngest and, his mother said, the happiest of her three children.
His room, in adolescence and as an adult, looked out at the tennis courts and baseball diamond of Hermosa’s Clark Field, where he played Little League baseball. The modern condos that now line the east side of Bard Street were, when he grew up, modest duplexes with long, sloping driveways that opened to the east toward Valley Drive. These provided daredevil skateboarding hills for Sliff and other neighborhood kids.
From an early age, Sliff was constantly picking up one of the 60 or so guitars that his father Jim, an accomplished musician, kept around. Sliff seemed to learn the guitar “by osmosis,” Jim said.
In a pattern that would repeat through his life, music became a way for Sliff to bond with others. When Sliff was 9, Jim took him to the National Association of Music Merchants show, an annual trade-gathering for the music industry at the Anaheim Convention Center. Sliff proudly sported a badge from guitar maker Fender, which got him into various special booths, Jim recalled. While there, Sliff met Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, a guitarist who played with Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers. That night, at a Fender party at the Hollywood Guitar Center, Baxter recognized the young Sliff from across the room, and called him over for an impromptu jam session with just the two of them.
“I ended up just being transportation. David ended up being friends with everybody,” Jim recalled with a laugh.
While Morgan took on the role of protective big sister, Sliff and his brother Mike, who is 13 years older, began connecting as Sliff got a bit older, especially over music. Mike brought Sliff along to shows, and introduced him to new bands. He also taught Sliff how to use a camera.
Mike, family members said, helped cultivate some of his brother’s deepest passions. For his part, Mike said, the distance in age did not prevent them from becoming close.
“We shared photography, playing guitar, bands. I’d take him to shows to see bands I was in, or bands my friends were in,” Mike said.
Along with his musical talents, Sliff was also a promising student who excelled at math and science. From a young age, Kathy said, teachers often sat him next to students who struggled so that he could help them. His parents said that, as news of his passing reached the community, parents of children Sliff went to school with have called to say how much they remember him helping their sons and daughters.
By his teenage years, this precociousness translated into a conscious rejection of vapid popular culture, and an affinity with outsiders and the misunderstood. He rejected fancy clothes, Kathy recalled, and had a desire to let people “come as they are.”
“He was quiet and shy, and a non-pretentious type of person. Someone with a big head probably wouldn’t get to know David very well. But if the person were genuine and honest and caring, he would want to be around that person. And he had such an endearing face and smile. I know I’m his mom, but I would find myself stepping outside myself and saying, ‘What a neat guy, that probably attracts really neat people to him,’” Kathy said.
Like countless introspective souls before him, Sliff was drawn to New York City. At 19, he decided to move there after visiting friends. He found a job he loved in a coffee shop, but wound up in a bedbug-infested apartment, and moved home a short time later.
Sliff’s family remembers him as especially positive following his return from New York. He enrolled at Santa Monica College. He planned to study physics, and was set on using his degree to make the world a better place. Morgan recalled that he was particularly moved by animals and ecology.
“He was selfless, and had a sense of the things that mattered. I would say, ‘Oh hey, do you want to help me with this thing for my environmental club?’ Then he would get serious for a moment and say, ‘Yes, we need to do that,’” Morgan said.
He got jobs in various places throughout the South Bay, including Ralphs, the Source, and Pita Pit before being hired at Peet’s Coffee in Manhattan Beach in 2015. While working at Peet’s, he could sniff out kindred spirits, and would strike up conversations about live music or dusty corners of mathematics with regular customers.
Frank Mendoza last saw Sliff on Saturday afternoon, only hours before he passed away. Mendoza was hired at Peet’s Coffee about the same time Sliff was. He had just moved from Chicago, and knew no one in the South Bay, apart from his girlfriend. He and Sliff went through training together and became close friends. They would often check out a new restaurant or live music after closing the shop.
As he was about to leave on Saturday, Sliff gave Mendoza a tight hug, and told him, “I love you, so so much.” Mendoza said he hugged him back and told Sliff “I love you too, so very much.”
‘Keep it in your heart’
One of the cruellest ends of suicide is the way it forces the people impacted to play detective. They mentally scroll through time spent with the victim and search for meaning in tiny gestures, wondering about hints they might have missed. In Sliff’s case, nothing so clear as a should-have-known appears to exist. His intelligence, independent streak, and his openness about his own depression made it difficult to distinguish between warning signs and eccentricities.
“We knew that David has struggled with depression for years, and we wanted to help him. We hoped he would find what he needed. We were concerned, but we never thought it would come to this,” Kathy said.
Morgan said her younger brother became observably more withdrawn about a year ago. But she and others acknowledge that Sliff was always rarely verbose; his father said it was not unusual for them to spend hours together and say fewer than 50 words. Sliff, those who knew him said, had the ability to communicate a lot without saying much.
“I keep coming back to that Duke Kahanamoku quote: ‘Don’t talk — keep it in your heart.’ David just kept the things for him, with him,” Morgan said.
Mike said he began to grow worried when his younger brother began throwing out some of his belongings. But Sliff often blurred the line between minimalist and ascetic. He had given away many of his clothes in the past, and wore little besides a rotation of plain, white t-shirts. He also once spent more than a year sleeping on the floor instead of a mattress. (One thinks of the stories of monks who slept in coffins.)
After earning straight A’s with a difficult curriculum of math and physics classes, Sliff had dropped out of school in the spring of 2016. Despite his success, he described feeling overwhelmed by his classes, and said the depression made it difficult to focus. He told his mom that he often found himself reading the same textbook pages over and over.
But he continued to sign up for ambitious course loads, including registering for classes in the term that began Jan. 2.
“Every time I came over, he seemed to be on his computer or hunched over a book studying,” Mike recalled.
Mendoza, who has struggled with depression himself, said that Sliff appeared mildly ill on the day of their final embrace, but he did not think it was cause for concern. Sliff was transparent about depression, and they often discussed medications and psychology, something Sliff also did with his family. It is only now, Mendoza said, that he realizes that the hug was Sliff’s version of a proper goodbye.
“We didn’t feel like we really belonged in a world that didn’t have time for sensitive, meek people like us,” Mendoza said.
Although Mendoza felt he and Sliff shared an “exhaustion from the disgustingness in the world,” Sliff’s innate goodness sometimes seemed enough to shield him from life’s slings and arrows. His father recalled that, after a bad reaction to a shot, Sliff took him to the Emergency Room on three separate occasions. When a nagging injury made it painful to stand for extended periods of time, Sliff volunteered to do his father’s grocery shopping. Even little things like watering the plants or taking care of Sam, the family dog, seemed to light up Sliff’s “innate sense of duty.”
“He responded to being needed. If you came to him with anything, he would be there,” said Johnson, his friend.
In this spirit, Sliff had sought out some of the paid lab internships that were available through SMC. But he was not selected, which his mom said hit him hard.
“He wanted to be part of that. Not just for the logical reason of offsetting tuition: He wanted the community of scientists around him,” Kathy said. Getting “engaged with a cause,” would have helped him, she said.
As consuming as depression can be, Sliff’s promising life and gentle spirit reveal that his demise was not a foregone conclusion. In lieu of flowers at Sliff’s funeral, his family is asking for donations to the Trevor Project, a 24-hour, confidential suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth. They hope that, in death, Sliff can remove the stigma from a disease that is too rarely discussed and almost never understood.
“It wasn’t that he ever just gave up. He worked really hard at it. And then it was too much for him,” Kathy said.
Services for David Taylor Sliff will be held Saturday, Jan. 20, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Palos Verdes Golf Club, 3301 Via Campesina, Palos Verdes Estates. All are welcome to attend.