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.

Suicidal: Why We Kill Ourselves is psychologist and science journalist Jesse Bering’s contribution to this body of literature, and like most of it, the book is a mixed bag. Bering interviews scientists who work on or around suicide and applies their tools to individual cases as he goes. Toward the end, he reflects on religious and philosophical prohibitions against suicide before siding, not without some inner conflict, with the going-on-living position.

Much like The Final Months, the book is interesting when you’re learning about individuals: famous writers, various anonymous interviewees, suicide-themed message boards, a teenage girl’s diary written in the months before she jumped off a building. Bering also writes about his own struggle with suicidal impulses. And, as in The Final Months, the analysis is less compelling than the stories. One scientist Bering interviews thinks suicide might be an evolutionary adaptation: When you sense you’re a net drain on the species, you hit the kill switch. Another scientist, the social psychologist Roy Baumeister, has developed a six-stage model of the suicidal personality, having noticed that suicidal people tend to be self-centered (in a neutral sense of the term), suffer from “unpleasantly sharp self-awareness,” and think in strict binaries. Still other researchers run text analysis programs on the communications of suicidal people to see what sorts of linguistic patterns emerge.

Evolutionary adaptation theory aside, this last method of approach and the results it generates fit well enough with the kind of people who leave these written testimonies behind. “We are each given a life. We’re supposed to live it. I don’t. It’s as simple as that,” writes Vic, the teenage girl who jumps off her apartment building. That statement immediately calls to mind Anne Sexton’s line that “life is lovely, but I CAN’T LIVE IT.… I’m not a part. I’m not a member. I’m frozen.” But while social media means that more people leave behind a textual self, suicide still emerges as the particular malady of the intelligent and self-aware. People who kill themselves for material reasons are alluded to—and, in fact, almost killing oneself out of fear of poverty more or less describes Bering’s own situation—but not dwelt on.

To some extent, this is because discussions of suicide have an uneasy relationship with the acknowledgment of visible suffering. “Why do we kill ourselves?” is one question. “Why shouldn’t we?” is another, and, if on the whole suicide is something you’d like to prevent, maybe worth asking. The harder life self-evidently is for a suicidal person, the harder it is to maintain that we’re going to help him (and it’s usually a him) go on living. (Relevantly, Bering, like most writers on this topic, makes a point of excluding assisted suicide from this conversation altogether.) Suicide, neutrally viewed, is just one choice among the many we do or don’t make. On the other hand, we do usually have a way of judging the wisdom of our choices and can ask these questions without necessarily invoking a moral code.

Bering’s own position could be fairly summarized this way: No moral opprobrium attaches to the act, people should be free to choose, but, on the whole, you’d rather they stuck around. Religious prohibitions against suicide are not to be taken seriously, but neither are philosophical arguments for it. His epiphany comes while he is taking care of a chimpanzee: Noticing that chimpanzees and humans both have knuckles, he realizes that “nothing matters.” Nothing matters, so don’t kill yourself.

Nihilism won’t work for everybody, but there are other reasons one can summon: Maybe people love you, maybe you’ll cause more suicides, maybe you’ll regret it in some counterfactual sense. Toward the end of the book Bering revisits a well-worn anecdote, ubiquitous in suicide literature, from a New Yorker story about the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the most popular suicide destinations in the world. A man claims he’s walking to the bridge and that if anyone smiles at him, he won’t jump. He jumps; presumably no one smiled at him. 

 Like the story of Kitty Genovese, a woman who was supposedly stabbed to death in full view of thirty-eight people who couldn’t be bothered to phone the police, the Golden Gate story is a morality tale about indifference. Of course one ought to intervene to stop a murder, and perhaps even smile at strangers. But subsequent reporting revealed that Genovese’s murder didn’t exactly play out the way it had been described. (Actually, the police were called but never showed up.) Certainly, Bering’s own experience of being suicidal at the peak of his own success belies the idea that things here are as simple as a smile. But after all the work Bering does, this is where he chooses to end the book. Smile. You never know who’s watching.

The reasons to go on living sketched out above—you might be missed, you might affect others, you don’t know what’ll happen tomorrow—are, yes, unsatisfying. There is a reason underlying them, however, that people are reluctant to articulate, and it goes like this: Our lives don’t belong to us. We can’t use them as a ransom to extract smiles; we can’t dispose of them when they become intolerable. And so, one’s reason to continue living isn’t because life might get better or because nothing matters. It’s nothing more and nothing less than not owning yourself at all, to the point where the idea of ownership itself becomes questionable.

Otherwise, suicide is quite clearly something we might all reasonably and justifiably resort to: What could be more horrifying than forcing somebody to live against his or her will? Carving out an exception for assisted suicide is one nod to the principle of self-determination that’s at stake here: OK, we don’t want you to kill yourself, but in certain circumstances we wouldn’t much want to stay alive either, so go ahead. However, once you acknowledge that suicide is in some sense a right, the truth is that this distinction is almost impossible to maintain, and countries in which euthanasia has become normal end up euthanizing people for conditions such as depression or even a bad breakup. In one such case in Belgium, meticulously detailed in The New Yorker, an otherwise healthy woman in her sixties who had broken up with her boyfriend was euthanized. The doctor commented that the patient had “wanted to do one decent thing in her life, and that is to die in a decent way, because the rest of her life was such a horrible mess.”

Either you get to get off the ride or you don’t; it is, oddly enough, as simple as that. And if you don’t get to get off, then it’s really not about suicide, or not just about suicide. This observation isn’t particularly original—Émile Durkheim made it back in 1897. The strength of religious, familial, and civic structures in everyday life (not on the level of individual conviction) was what kept suicide rates low (unless the scale tipped too far—then people would kill themselves, but with social encouragement). But however you slice it, even short and miserable lives aren’t at anyone’s disposal. Or, well, they aren’t if you want society. 

Bering refers to this argument, in his discussion of religious prohibitions against suicide, as the “intellectual theft” argument: God owns you, you don’t, don’t steal from God. Property and ownership themselves are strange concepts to apply to this question, since the statement that our lives aren’t really our own has implications beyond suicide. A whole number of things turn out not to be ours—our money, for instance. Thomas Aquinas, Bering’s representative of the “intellectual theft” view, bases his argument not on ownership precisely, but on usurpation of authority, writing that “the passage from this life to another and happier one is subject not to man’s free-will but to the power of God.” Durkheim himself works both sides of this argument, stressing that there’s nothing about religion that couldn’t be duplicated by other institutions, acknowledging that our moral dignity is “no longer the property”—that idea again—“of the city-state,” and concluding that the suicide taboo has to be maintained because the belief that “violent destruction of a human life revolts us as a sacrilege” is just about the only common societal belief people have. Probably one needn’t be religious to construct a satisfying argument against suicide; but such an argument might have to involve property in its more concrete manifestations. And even a very clever argument does not have the force of a social institution.

In any case, you may or may not be able to get to this conclusion without a deus ex machina. But, certainly, if you don’t reach it, you can’t get to society. You’re stuck, as the saying goes, with individuals and families. Good luck.

Of course, we are, in a sense, already stuck there. Many of the people profiled in The Final Months are defined by their loneliness. They aren’t wealthy; they aren’t smart. They’re involved in their communities to varying levels, but in the end, self-determination is all they have, the new mutation of that belief in human moral dignity Durkheim singles out as the only binding sentiment left. If you want to stand up and be counted, if you want to make your mark, if you just want to have existed, the truth is that suicide isn’t a bad option. The surge of angry, destructive suicides of late—commonly called “mass shootings”—also speaks to this isolated self that can exist only in destruction, and to the level of unreality the people at the other end of this self-determination assume.

If your life is a disaster, on the other hand, suicide also seems like a reasonable choice: You’ll stop bothering other people, who can’t help you anyway. The woman whose life was a “horrible mess” just wanted to stop affecting other people. If her doctor had told her that, in that particular matter, she had nothing like a choice, perhaps she would have lived a life that continued to be difficult and in some ways a mystery to her. Instead, he agreed with her that she was doing the decent thing, and killed her.

The pity is that, when it comes to the reasons and incentives for choosing to die, these people aren’t really wrong. The greater pity is that they could be. But building the kind of society where nobody falls through the cracks requires more than a book, or a book review, or a smile, or a hotline number. It requires much more—so much more that it might be just about beyond imagining, at least for us, who are so much individuals that the thickest connection we can imagine is that one stranger could smile in the direction of another and that this unintended, omni-directed amiability could sustain, for a minute or two, a society of two, who really have no way to tell a story about how to get from “I” to “we.”