The Post-Modern Self   /   Spring 2017   /    The Post-modern Self

The Walking Wounded

Mary Townsend

Hotel Bedroom (detail), 1954, by Lucian Freud (1922–2011); Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada; © Lucian Freud Archive, Bridgeman Images.

A professor examines the phenomenon of college suicide.

When, in 1774, at the age of twenty-five, Goethe published the epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, the frenzied affection with which the youth of that age greeted it was at first a surprise and eventually a horror to the author. There were Werther china figurines, eau de Werther, a Werther breadbox. Napoleon himself called Goethe in to talk Werther-shop.11xDaniel Purdy, ed., Goethe Yearbook 17 (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2010), 9. But the more charming aspects of the fandom were part and parcel with this further phenomenon: the young men dressing up in their hero’s blue coat and yellow vest, leaping into rivers or blowing their brains out, book in hand.

Although we still speak of “the Werther effect,” we lack a novel on which to pin the rashes, contagions, clusters, and epidemics of suicides that take place now seemingly every year in the American educational system. These are occurring not only among the college-age youth, but even among sixteen-year-olds who find high school quite enough and wish for no more. Although these suicides form a small fraction of the total sua sponte deaths in the United States, suicide clusters usually involve people in their college years.22xRomeo Vitelli, “When Suicide Comes in Clusters,” Media Spotlight (blog), Psychology Today, August 28, 2012, Suicide takes place, too, among professors and adjuncts.33xJennifer Young, “Another Drowning in the Adjunct Pool,” The Offing, May 2, 2016, https://theoffingmag. com/dead-letter-office/another-drowning-in-the-adjunct-pool/. And though news coverage focuses on wealthier universities, the suicides are not limited to them.44xJulie Scelfo, “Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection,” New York Times, July 27, 2015, http://

For teachers like me, the details of these deaths often come thirdhand. Our information is mostly limited to official e-mails, which (if they mention death at all) often do not even name the dead; they certainly don’t give the cause. Yet while one simply never learns that much about what happened (it was only by accident, for instance, that I learned the first death of 2014 was a suicide by hanging), the volume on health services news gets turned right up. Various incarnations of daily, weekly, monthly e-mails from recently convened or amplified offices and sub-offices, offices you’ve never heard of, remind you of gym hours, point out new on-trend exercise classes or ever-farther-afield hiking trips, cheerfully advertise things such as “Massage Mondays” or new mindfulness classes; the e-mails attempt to be tactful about the expansion of the suicide hotline.

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