The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano
By JOSHUA SEFTEL
Afraid of dying? Don’t be. Over a period of three years, I stood by my friend’s side while he became homeless and obese, got disfiguring plastic surgery, had a stroke, became an alcoholic, and got busted for insider trading. Then I watched him die — seven different ways. And, truthfully, it may have been the best thing that’s ever happened to us.
The experience became a story of middle-aged angst, and a test case in how to tame it. It’s one few of us avoid; for me, it began in 2009, when my father passed away. As the grieving and pain receded, a new kind of fear crept into my 41-year-old mind. It came in the form of insomnia, fueled by the realization that — although I didn’t know how, or when — I was going to die.
Then I ran into Phil Toledano, an old friend and a prominent Manhattan photographer. Phil, too, had just lost his father, and was suffering from similar anxiety. He said, “I want to know what’s going to happen to me ... in the future.” And then he set out to find the answers.
It started subtly enough, with DNA tests and consultations with fortunetellers. Then he upped the ante: He had a makeup artist use prosthetics to transform him into a character in any number of fatalistic fantasies, so that Phil could live out and actually photograph himself experiencing every possible future he could imagine.
When I interviewed Phil’s wife, Carla, she was deeply worried that this exercise, and its attendant fixation on death, would make him depressed.
But Phil continued. For three more years. I watched dozens of new characters emerge, and the couple’s dining room table filled with 8x10 glossies of Phil in various stages of horrific decay.
But it somehow became an extreme form of exposure therapy. Instead of tucking them away as most of us do, Phil faced his fears — really, all of our fears — head-on. He made them tangible, cataloged them, examined them. And he began to feel better.
Last year, he declared, “I’m done with the project.” When I talked with Carla about it, she said, “Phil has changed. In a good way.”
Sure, it could just be a case of three years passing and time healing wounds. But I can’t help wondering if it might be good to stare at our greatest fears, to study our darkest possible futures.
After all, if we’re going to worry, why not take a peek at exactly what we’re worried about?