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A matter of life and death: writing about suicide

New York-based academic and poet Jennifer Michael Hecht’s latest book makes a plea to people tempted by suicide. She implores them to stay.

It all started when two of Jennifer’s friends killed themselves within a year and a half of each other. This prompted her to write a blog post on The Best American Poetry, which the Boston Globe obtained permission to re-publish. Her piece, essentially an open-letter telling those in despair to hold on, drew a massive response. This encouraged Jennifer to review the statements she had made that had been based on what she had learned through her work as a historian and researcher.

A year’s worth of research later, she was ready to come out again, convinced that the issue was one of great moral concern. Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, was the result.

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The inevitable question asked by someone who themselves are being asked to reject their urge towards suicide is why. ‘Why should I stay?’ To that, Jennifer has a two-pronged secular argument.

The first of these strands is that we owe it to society. Death by our own hand has a greater impact than we might realise, and the statistics play this out: knowing someone who has committed suicide is a major risk factor for suicide. We see it when reports arise of suicide clusters.

The second strand of Jennifer’s argument is that we owe it to our future selves to stay alive. That our feelings and circumstances change, and we change in different phases of our lives, and we shouldn’t deny ourselves the experience of that future possibility.

In arguing against suicide and exploring its history and compiling great thinkers’ views on the subject – from Plato to Foucault – Jennifer knew she was walking into fraught territory.

‘I knew I was doing something controversial, and yes, it was frightening,’ she says. Referring to Stay as her seventh book, she adds, ‘But it’s not my first rodeo.’

In fact, Jennifer treaded more carefully with one of her previous books than she did with Stay. Or perhaps that’s unsurprising – Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson discussed the history of religious doubt and past and present attempts to find meaning in life absent of religion.

‘Writing Doubt: A History was also asking people to rethink history in a big way, and there too the response I got was very big,’ Jennifer says. ‘And I think I was even more careful in Doubt – I was more afraid of an angry response.’

It would be normal to assume that anyone trying to influence societal thought on an act that many see as one that is not up for debate would draw vocal opposition. As Jennifer describes in Stay, prior to the 19th century the prevailing view – fuelled largely by religious sentiment – had been that suicide is morally wrong. With the Enlightenment era came the idea that suicide is and should be wholly an autonomous decision – and this idea has retained currency in modern day thinking.

But Jennifer has dared to counter this notion. In her book she states: “It is an intellectual and moral mistake to see the idea of suicide as an open choice that each of us is free to make. […] It seems right to ask each other to survive, to stay on this side of the guardrail.”

In speaking to me, she adds, ‘Is it really a matter of autonomy to start arguing yourself and other people into the grave? Is that what we want to see as autonomy?’

Although Jennifer is unapologetic about her belief that suicide is morally wrong, she assures her readers that she does not judge or blame those who have attempted suicide or gone through with it. She proposes that those who have rejected suicide should be honoured and praised.

Jennifer is also not seeking to force her views on others or tell them what to do.

‘I was careful to try to reach people in a way where I was asking them to make their own decision as [Albert] Camus did,’ she says.

‘I see the history of a lot of different social behaviours to be things that had to move only with a whole society; [things] that weren’t really something that most people would be able to rethink on their own. I was offering the tools for us to start to step back and rethink them.’

Talking to Jennifer, it’s clear that her motive is to help people who are in despair, and to help those who struggle to provide a sufficient answer when their loved ones ask them that painful question of ‘Why?’

Her intentions have been borne out in the hugely positive response she says she has received – from emails to comments to letters. She told me stories about the people who had written to her – such as a mother who was worried about her son. This mother took a copy of the Boston Globe piece and slipped it under her son’s door.

‘In the beginning I think people were responding especially to my willingness to talk about it and my praise of people for staying alive,’ Jennifer says. ‘I [also] got emails from people who were writing specifically to say, “Thank you for helping me to ask someone to stay”. They hadn’t quite seen you could even just ask right out.’

***

One of the reasons why suicide is considered a taboo topic of discussion, and why the media is so careful in its reporting of it, is because exposure to real or fictional accounts of suicide has been shown to influence some susceptible people to take their own lives.

Jennifer is fully cognisant of this, and discusses it in her book, exploring common examples such as Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther which spawned a rash of copycat suicides – some of whom had a copy of Goethe’s book on them when they died. But, as Jennifer also asserts in Stay, the influence works both ways.

‘People are afraid to talk about it; they think talking about it will make it happen,’ she says. ‘And the truth is, bad talk does lead to suicide but good talk can work in the other direction dramatically – we have studies for that too.’

Jennifer’s vision for her book and its arguments is that they will act as a conceptual barrier against suicide – much in the way that physical barriers erected at common suicide spots work.

‘I do think that it’s very hard to know someone who does it without thinking that there was another choice. And the bottom line for me is no one should die without having heard the historical arguments.’

***

We finished our conversation by talking about the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, who was condemned to death by the Athenian government. In the room where he spent his final moments, Socrates was surrounded by his friends and students. As he takes the poison that will end his life, he forbids his companions from doing as he is doing, unless they too are coerced by law.

Jennifer tells me in a confiding tone that we know that Socrates could have probably escaped, that in choosing instead to drink the hemlock it indicated some willingness on his part to do so.

Laughing, she says, ‘I know it seems cheeky to question Socrates, but indeed I do.’

‘In my poetry book, I even have a poem that imagines that a swarm of bees comes into that last room, and Socrates ends up going home and living out his life. And I just sort of sit with that a little bit.’

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Article published in the May 2014 edition of ACTWrite magazine, by the ACT Writers Centre.

Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It is published by Yale University Press.

Visit Jennifer Michael Hecht’s website at www.jennifermichaelhecht.com

ACTWrite_May cover

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