Meet Gabe Nathan, motorist, activist, and Herbie the Love Bug enthusiast.
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Gabe Nathan was just “a little emo kid” when he and his Aunt Rena first watched The Love Bug, a 1969 Disney movie about a Volkswagen Beetle named Herbie with a mind and heart of his own.
“And it just took my life in a different trajectory,” Nathan said. “I have no idea who I’d be today if I’d never seen that film.”
Nathan’s passion for The Love Bug rivals that of any Star Wars fan boy or Middle Earth fan girl. He knows every character, every actor, and every bit of obscure trivia.
In 2017, at the suggestion of his extremely supportive wife, the 39-year-old Wynnewood resident even bought his own 1963 VW Beetle, which he modified to look like Herbie.
Despondent by what the couple felt was a growing spirit of nastiness after President Donald Trump’s election, they hoped Herbie would drive some sweetness into their lives.
Nathan even started an Instagram account for his Herbie adventures under the handle @Lovebugtrumpshate.
“I’m not saying Donald Trump caused my depression, so let’s just get that out there now, OK? But things were really bad in our house at that point,” he said. “I guess the bottom line is, we really got Herbie to help us feel a little bit better ... and then almost immediately, it started becoming about other people.”
First came the smiles, then the waves, the thumbs-up, and the honks. This little car, it seemed, had the power to make people happy, to break them out of their daily existence, if just for a moment.
“You see people in their cars going crazy and it just feels so wonderful,” Nathan said.
Herbie forced Nathan out of his daily existence, too. Strangers began to talk to him about the first time they saw The Love Bug at a drive-in or about how they used to fall asleep in the tiny luggage compartment in their family’s VW.
Often, the conversations turned to Nathan’s job as editor in chief of OC87 Recovery Diaries, a website about mental health empowerment. He’d tell people about his job before that, too, working at a psychiatric hospital where he facilitated groups on the inpatient unit.
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Nathan even began telling strangers about his own mental health struggles with depression and anxiety, and strangers started telling him how they struggled too.
Seeing how Herbie facilitated these conversations, Nathan became purposeful about his advocacy. He put a large “Drive Out SUICIDE” decal on his back window, along with the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. (It’s fitting, Nathan said, given that Herbie is “the only car in motion picture history that tries to take his own life,” by attempting to drive off a bridge.)
“People take pictures of it and they post it on social media and they are doing my work for me,” Nathan said. “They are spreading awareness of the lifeline and they’re sharing that word — suicide — that we’re so afraid to say, just putting it out there, and it’s wonderful.”
Nathan has found that people want to talk about suicide and mental health, but they don’t know how or are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Herbie makes it a little less scary.
“It’s like people are in these little eggshells and all you have to do is tap, tap, tap — and this car does that,” he said.
Now, whenever Nathan gets behind the wheel — which is nearly every day — he greets Herbie with one, simple phrase: “Let’s go to work."
Nathan wants to break down suicide and mental health stigma, in part because he felt like those topics were off-limits growing up. He never knew his Aunt Rena — the one he first watched The Love Bug with all those years ago — had chronic paranoid schizophrenia until she took her own life when Nathan was in his 20s.
“There’s this fear of talking about hard things. ... It was just not done,” Nathan, now a father of two, said. “But I know what the price and penalty is of silence, stigma, and shame, and I am not interested in concealment.”
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In May, Nathan took an East Coast road trip with Herbie to raise suicide awareness, taking along four GoPro cameras to film his conversations and adventures. He hopes to show his Herbie film at local theaters next year.
“He’s a little car doing a little thing that has the potential to do bigger things, and that’s what I love about him," Nathan said.
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