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« What Would Hegel Do? [by Jerome Sala] | Main | Les Keiter: "He beat the ball . . ." »

April 16, 2009


Stacey - this is such an important post. Thank you for it.

A couple of years ago, a student committed suicide at Goucher. He hung himself from a tree in the residential quad, and when the students came out to go to class the next morning, they found him there.

It was very difficult for everyone. Of course, we talked about the warning signs and what one should do if a friend exhibited them. But your post also illuminates the point that sometimes, people cannot be stopped. Sometimes, many times, maybe even most times, they can be, but when a person is determined (as Bob in your story was), there may nothing anyone can do.

I think that is important to recognize. This is not to say don't try to help; it's just that sometimes, afterwards, when survivors are left with their guilt and their second-guessing, it's important to honestly ask if truly, there was anything that realistically could have stopped the person. It sounds as if everyone who knew Bob tried to help him, but he was bound on his path and nothing was going to deter him.

Suicide is an act of enormous hostility. (I'm not speaking of someone who kills himself when faced with a terminal illness like end-stage cancer, of course.) That the illness of depression can take someone who is compassionate and loving toward others and twist his or her thinking so much that perhaps they do not see the pain they will inflict on those who love them, or don't care about it, or think it is justified, speaks to its severity. And our treatment of the mentally ill in this country is appalling.

As for poets - there are lots of studies done about artists and depression. I am no expert. But I do think there is some cultural romanticization of the doomed poet, dying young by his or her own hand because the world is too cruel to the sensitive genius, the tender artist. Look at the mythos around poets like Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Berryman...And the other thing about poets' suicides is - how often they leave behind a tableau for others to find - the ultimate image! Plath with her head in the oven; Sexton naked under her mother's fur coat; Berryman waving "like the German ace/in a silent film" before jumping off the bridge; Digges at the bottom of a stadium; Liam in his office, suicide note on the desk. It reminds me of the movie "Dinner at Eight," when John Barrymore's character, a washed-up actor, arranges the lighting on his face just so before he turns on the gas, so that those who find him are met with an indelible and poignant image. There is something profoundly selfish and cruel in this.

I am truly sorry if what I say hurts anyone, and of course, I am not the least objective about this topic. But I feel compelled to say it - as a survivor who lost a friend to suicide, as a poet, as a human being.

Yes, I agree with this. A cousin of mine jumped in front of a train in January. Her leap was carefully planned. She left notes and apologies. She was an artist, a beautiful woman, an activist and more. I can't even begin to imagine how her mother and father are dealing with this loss. I think of it a lot as spring breaks, as each holiday passes.

But I also wonder. I grew up hearing my mother describe her favorite cousin, Billy, who also jumped in front a a train. There was, it seemed to me, an aura of wonder and respect for his suicide. As a child I imagined the nerve it would take to leap. I would stand by the train tracks and wonder what it would be like . . .
I think I imagined it as somehow romantic. I remember my sisters and I talking about it, and the awe we felt.

Then, as I grew up, I watched my best friend's mom struggle She would become suicidal, year after year. After a while I knew the signs, even the small signs. I could feel it like a static in the air in their home. I saw her terrible sadness, her despair, something too much to carry alone. It wasn't romantic. It was terrifying.

And I saw how her family would never allow her to be alone.

I have no answers. I don't know if there are any. But I sometimes think there is a kind of myth of depression and suicide, or a fantasy, that is unlike the reality . . . And that doesn't take into account the actual nightmare that is enacted.

These thoughtful, serious musings on this difficult subject are very valuable to have. Thank you, Nin, LO, and Stacey.

A serious and honest discussion about suicide should not leave alcohol and drugs as a footnote. They comprise, more often than not, the answer. That it must be deeper than that? Well, it's not. Death is ALWAYS the consequence of taking alcohol and drugs more seriously than life. But that simplicity is a death knell for the suicide sheik of literary mythology. My contempt is for drugs and alcohol and the taboos of mental health, not Digges or any life that has been supplanted by those hells.

Thank you for these thoughtful comments Laura, Nin, David, and Aaron. Suicide is so complicated and, to those who have never considered it, mysterious. After Liam Rector committed suicide a couple of years ago one friend remarked that for some, life is so painful that committing suicide is like jumping out of a burning building. I try to keep this in mind. I've read elsewhere that those who have survived a jump from the Golden Gate bridge regretted the action from the moment they jumped. Suicide prevention advocates argue that since suicide is often an impulsive act, the numbers can be reduced by removing the means (erecting barriers on bridges, removing guns from homes). The numbers seem to support this: see Tad Friend's excellent piece, JUMPERS (the New Yorker, October 13, 2003)for more on the barriers on bridges. I lived for a time, in my youth, with a depressed man who had a (licensed) gun and during a fragile time had to hide it. That was quite scary. Aaron's point is an excellent one too because I know that many can see their doctors and therapists for years without ever being asked about their drinking and drug habits. It's alarming.
Lately, I've been remembering Frank O'Hara's journal entry argument in favor of living: "Something wonderful may happen" he writes, which seems to me as good a reason as any to go on in spite of overwhelming despair.

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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