We read a bit about suicide last week in the Faces of Death course.
(and it’s Homicide this week—one of the cheerier parts of the course…)
As a sociologist, the go-to source on this topic is an easy pick, made still easier by my own intellectual trajectory. Durkeim’s study Suicide remains, more than 125 years from its publication, a formidable and foundational work in social science theorizing and empirical research.
The book had its start in Durkheim’s concern that the suicide rate in his native France was on the rise in the late 1800s. He therefore set about trying to investigate possible causes. He was also endeavoring to establish sociology as a proper science, a competitor to psychology with superior methods of explaining at least some questions of human behavior.
It is a brilliant book, superbly argued and deftly written. It used to be the case that just about everyone who took a university course in sociology would have to read a selection from it or from his equally important book on the division of labor. I fear that is no longer a rule, as I constantly now run into majors in my department who do not know anything substantive about his work.
I also have them watch a film, The Bridge, that looks at the Golden Gate Bridge as a site that attracts a certain significant number of suicide attempts every year. It is a powerful and haunting document. The filmmaker just set up a camera overlooking the bridge and left it there for some weeks. He caught a number of deaths on film as a result, and then did biographical digging into the lives and situations of the victims.
Like many of us, I have some personal history with this topic as well, but for all sorts of reasons I do not share any of that with students.
There are several suicides in my family’s history, two very close to me, and other attempts that did not achieve the lethal end.
In early 1991, just prior to entering graduate school that fall, I passed through what I imagine would be clinically classified as a significant depression and came as close as I ever have to taking my own life. I was in the process of tumbling out of a failed relationship, feeling estranged from everyone in my family and nearly all my friends, and increasingly troubled by the suspicion that my life was a failure and a shambles. I had come back to the city of my birth with my tail between my legs after an effort to live an artistic life on the West Coast decidedly did not pan out, and the only thing sustaining me at the time was the relationship that then collapsed before my eyes within a few months of my return.
I was at that time in the age group for which suicide is the second leading cause of death. Thinking about suicide or making concrete plans to carry it out is much more common than you likely think. Every year, millions of Americans do this.
As far away as it is now, I can still recall distinct moments from that late winter, sitting in the twilight in my apartment, writing up my plans for how it should go in a little notebook. Where and how to get essential materials, what to write in good-bye notes and where to deliver them, tying up loose ends and achieving closure. For about a week, I existed in this state, during which I felt every hour of every day that the end was imminent, requiring only the frenzied act of will that I was certain would come. In a certain twisted sense, I have never felt freer than during that week, unburdened as I suddenly was of all responsibility, though I’ve also never felt as despairing and utterly without hope.
Something led me to speak on the phone with an emergency hotline counselor, but I thought it a mistake almost immediately. I felt in speaking with her as though I were talking about someone other than myself, very distanced and respectful of the nature of the decision that this person who was not me had made, merely desirous of letting someone else know about it in case there was anything to be done.
I thought I would hang up a dozen times during the call, but for some reason I didn’t. Nothing that was said to me in that brief conversation produced any interest in altering my plans. In fact, I remember thinking something along these lines: “What a piteous interaction this is. This nice person so clearly wants to be of help, is motivated by goodness, seems to be a genuinely kind human being, and yet everything she is saying is so ludicrously unsuited to the task, so hopelessly powerless to heal anything, it cannot possibly change my mind.” I felt bad in talking to her, seeing how unprepared she was to have any chance of performing the work she intended, feeling as though I had let her down too in not allowing her to complete her assignment. I was sure that it was no fault of hers or of her training. The game was rigged; no words spoken by any person armed with any theory or knowledge could do the trick. This was destined to be. I had read enough of the self-justifications of poets and artists dead by their own hands to construct a starkly elaborate philosophical framework on which to hang the tapestry of my own auto-destruction.
I saw myself as someone high on a mountain somewhere, perched in a precarious position, barely holding on, trying to call down to people in the valley below, those dwellers below trying to help me safely descend, and the distance just being too great for us even to clearly hear one another. Why was I calling to them, if I did not desire to be saved? Perhaps only to announce to them the reasons why, and even that failing.
To this day, I still don’t understand how I came out of it. Perhaps the words of the person at the suicide hotline did some work without my awareness, or perhaps some other event, something minute and seemingly inconsequential at the time, that I have long since forgotten was the catalyst for the shift.
One day, wholly unexpectedly, I awoke and the world just stopped being black, and I realized I wanted to live. I shredded the plans, and I have never revisited that place again, in now more than 30 years. Why it didn’t happen is a total mystery to me.
There is a man in The Bridge who jumped and survived. It always chills me to hear him describe his experience. As soon as his feet left the bridge, he says, he knew he’d made a mistake and wanted to be back on the ledge overlooking the water. To have another chance. But it was too late. Miraculously, he survived, though at the cost of catastrophic injuries that left him unable to walk.
Every time I see the film, I wonder how many of the others had the same thought as they leapt but took that thought with them to the bottom of the bay.