The Evening of Life   /   Fall 2018   /    Book Reviews

The Life You Take Won’t Be Your Own

B.D. McClay

Hope and Despair of Angel Ganivet (1865–98) (detail), 1977, by Eduardo Arroyo (b. 1937); Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris, France/Bridgeman Images; © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Suicide fascinates even as it retains an aura of conversational taboo.

In 1981, Eli Robins, a professor of psychiatry, published a book called The Final Months, which contained brief profiles of every known suicide in the St. Louis, Missouri, area from 1956 to 1957. Robins wrote the book to sort through the stories of the dead for patterns, but his critical analysis is tedious compared to the vignettes themselves: the veteran “described by his wife as having been nervous and inadequate all his life,” the woman in her forties who “had made at least two attempts to kill herself before her successful suicide,” and my personal favorite, a thirty-seven-year-old man who, among other achievements, “had married five women, lived with one other for nine years without marrying her, [and] fathered eight children, none of whom he supported.” Others, immigrants who had no intimates or whose English skills were poor, left behind no one who could really describe them.

From schlocky dramas to moody highbrow literature, suicide fascinates even as it retains an aura of conversational taboo. The not-unfounded fear that talking about suicide creates more suicides governs the conversation about the act and the art that depicts it. Silence still reigns on the obituary page, where the only indication you’re likely to receive that somebody’s death was a suicide—unless the dead person is a celebrity—is a pointed lack of information. Given this fear of consequences, one is tempted to ask (as innocently as possible) if why people kill themselves is less of a mystery than why people don’t. Professors of political philosophy don’t seem to spend all their time fretting that someone might overhear them and try to overthrow a government, though perhaps they should.

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