Contemplating that final act
I met David Foster Wallace once, at a swanky party thrown by Harper’s Magazine. I got the invitation because I was on the masthead, and I happened to be in New York at the time. In Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Terminal, a Great American Songbook band played Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” while Lewis Lapham danced elegantly with Francine Prose.
We all drank champagne and felt special, but the self-consciously cool guys were hanging out in the two bars that overlook the spectacular concourse, with its ceiling of stargazing beauty. Dave Eggers and Jonathan Franzen were there, talking about Thomas Pynchon and William H. Gass. In contrast to everyone else, clad in dinner jackets or slick suits, Wallace was wearing what looked like sweatpants, his hair in a loose topknot.
I met Kate Spade once, too. It was at a glamorous dinner party thrown by Galen and Hilary Weston, at their beautiful house in midtown Toronto. There was an amazing Tony Scherman encaustic portrait of Hilary in the living room; Galen said he had commissioned it to make her look sexy, though he actually used saltier language. He also flirted a little bit too much with my partner, though maybe that was just his notion of British-inflected charm.
Spade and I sat next to each other at dinner, as Hilary summoned course after course with a buzzer that resembled a garage-door opener. I imagined it shocking the kitchen staff into action, like lab rats. We talked about why self-presentation matters so much to humans and why fashion, therefore, is never trivial. I told her I always recalled the scenes in Rear Window that referenced handbags.
I never met Anthony Bourdain.
I never met Robin Williams.
All four of these remarkable, famous, and successful people took their own lives, just as some 800,000 people do every year around the world.
G. K. Chesterton said of death by suicide that, unlike murder, which takes away just one life, the act destroys the entire world and all the lives in it. That sounds profound, but these days it strikes me as typical Chestertonian paradox, maybe too clever by half.
Apart from my very slight acquaintances with two late celebrities, I have known four not-famous people who died by suicide, including a former student and a former classmate. They say that such connections to suicide make someone statistically more likely to do the same. I don’t know about that. It’s true that Ludwig Wittgenstein wrestled with the issue — three of his siblings and one of his cousins died by their own hands — and it is reported that the great Austrian philosopher spent his entire life with what we would now call suicidal ideation. Yet he hung on. When he passed away at sixty-two in 1951, his last words were, “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” Two years later, the English version of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations was published and changed the world of thought forever.
Sylvia Plath died in 1963, when she put her head in a gas oven. I was born that same year.
For some reason, a long list of tragic self-made losses has stayed with me over the years: the philosopher Guy Debord, the writer and actor Spalding Gray, the gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, the musician Mark Linkous, the critic Mark Fisher, the actor Margot Kidder. And then there are the borderline cases of overdose and accident: Randall Jarrell, John Belushi, River Phoenix, Shannon Hoon, Heath Ledger, Dolores O’Riordan.
Camus said that suicide was the only truly pressing philosophical problem. I used to think that this might be true, and very deep, but lately I wonder. Hamlet asked the line we all learned in school: To be, or not to be? The answer is certainly a choice, no matter who and how old you are. And it is certainly an important question. But is it the question?
Evidence shows that the young are especially vulnerable. When Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther was published in 1774, the romantic tale of doomed first love rocketed the twenty-five-year-old author to literary fame. It also spawned a string of copycat suicides. Editions of the book were sometimes found at the scenes of death.
In 1997, there was a spike in suicides among young Japanese men, often in the financial sector. It was especially disturbing, for many observers, because of just how young they were. But, in fact, suicidal thoughts are common among young people, especially teenagers, who struggle more than any other cohort except white men over sixty-five.
When the Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain took his own life in 1994, there were widespread fears of a wave of imitators. Yes, some believe Cobain was murdered, but the note he left behind includes a telling Neil Young lyric: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
For a number of years, I taught a small first-year university course called “Ethics and Fiction.” Most of the novels and short stories on the syllabus we would call “existential,” and most feature self-inflicted demise. Then I realized a reading list full of Camus, Kafka, Plath, Julian Barnes, and Louis Begley was perhaps a risky venture. Was it wise to highlight mortal despair to a group of nineteen-year-olds fresh to a challenging new environment, with peer pressure and family expectations bearing down hard on their shoulders? I still teach the course, but I have altered the focus to other ethical issues: friendship, responsibility, sacrifice. But the other question remains: Is life worth it?
Whether we’re in the classroom or just living our lives, can we really even begin to fathom the experience of suicide? Ideation is not execution, as therapists like to say, and sometimes an attempt is performative, nothing more. I imagine many if not most people have had dark goodbye-cruel-world thoughts now and then. I know I have. But then there is no dire next move for most of us.
It’s not easy, for one thing. My own thoughts often turn to Dorothy Parker’s darkly comic poem “Resumé,” which says a lot if not everything about that:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
Yes, taking one’s own life is extremely hard. (For the record, hanging is the most common method, at 46 percent.)
When people are driven to end their own lives, unless in the face of terminal illness or suffering, we must assume that they are in a condition of severe distress. At the same time, we cannot begin to reckon with what is lost to “self-slaughter,” as Hamlet called it. What might David Foster Wallace have given the world of letters? Spade, the world of fashion? Bourdain, the world of culinary awareness? Williams, the world of comedy? I mention these four not simply because they were famous, and so their deaths met with wide public notice. It is also because they seemed — to outsiders, at least — so gifted and blessed. They appeared to have it all. What could go wrong in their lives? The final outcome proves that something obviously did.
This is the point where the typical interjection is something along these lines: Depression is a serious medical condition, like cancer or pneumonia. It is not merely the blues, or even Holly Golightly’s mean reds. It is qualitatively distinct. I am sure that this is true, under any valid definition of disease. But while cancer can certainly change one’s relationship to the world, depression is a condition that is about the world itself, about one’s place in it at all. Thus, its mere definition seems somehow to diminish or do a disservice to the existential quality of those impulses that might make us want to shuffle off.
For some, chronic and unbearable pain, from whatever cause, reaches a point where it cannot be endured. None of us can judge this. Whether physical or psychological, suffering grants one the last right of personal agency.
I was raised in the Catholic Church, where suicide is considered a sin. Your life, given by God, is not yours to throw away — though it is often considered available for sacrifice, in what sometimes turn out to be bad causes. Lack of hope or despair is an offence against the Holy Spirit. Self-slaughterers are traditionally buried outside the bounds of consecrated ground, and this practice has always struck me as the cruel world taking revenge on those who choose to say goodbye to it. Many both inside the church and out see the act as cowardly, an abdication of ethical connection and the gift of life. I have never been able to see it quite that clearly.
Not far from my house in Toronto is the Prince Edward Viaduct, that impressive spanning structure immortalized by Michael Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion. Since 2003, the bridge has sported a barrier, a series of cruciform metal posts supporting a fence of thin rods that prevents people from leaping to their deaths in the Don Valley forty metres below. They call it the Luminous Veil. Every time I pass this way, I feel that, despite aesthetic objections raised at the time, the fence is a kind of calming voice on the other end of a distress line: Wait, friends. Maybe think again. There may yet be something to live for. Evidence shows that lack of means prevents many potential deaths by suicide. It’s not all about brain chemistry. Moods can change. The world can brighten, at least for another day.
In Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, Walker Percy defined a category he called “the ex‑suicide.” He argued that this class of person was distinct from both the suicide and the suicide waiting for the right moment. What has happened to the former is all too obvious; what may happen to the latter is equally clear. The ex‑suicide, by contrast, “opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn’t have to.”
Once again, I used to find this distinction wise and thus somewhat comforting. I’m no longer so sure. Is there really such a big and obvious difference between the types? The ex‑suicide has supposedly approached the brink but then decided to retreat. But there are brinks everywhere — all around the threatened summit of existence. And we know that one decision, positive or negative, does not define a life. Suicide is not, ultimately, cowardice. It is despair.
It can be the most mundane things that bring us low. I think almost daily of the handsome actor George Sanders, famous for playing cads and English gentlemen, in everything from The Picture of Dorian Gray to All About Eve, and for being married to the vain and wayward Zsa Zsa Gabor. In 1972, while on set in Spain, he ended his span by swallowing five bottles of Nembutal. He left behind three notes, the most poignant of which said this: “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.”
Boredom may fetch us all in the end, I suppose, though that seems more sobering even than the imagined ends of wealthy celebrities and brilliant authors. Why does the world lose its lustre so dramatically, even for those blessed with fame and success? Is it loneliness or a feeling that there is no purpose to be found upon waking each morning? Can one simply become too tired to want to live another day?
We all know that life is hard, and that there is courage in every ordinary moment. The pandemic months have brought home just how much everyday routines, social contacts, and regular outings sustain us. We need things to look forward to, even if they are as basic as a baseball game, lunch with a friend, a shared smile on the street or subway, those casual exchanges with baristas and bartenders. Can it be any surprise that COVID‑19 lockdowns and other restrictions have wreaked havoc on our mental well-being?
Lockdown-related suicides are not precisely traceable, and they may even be trending downward. But at least a few studies suggest an increase in ideation, and there is much further evidence of increased anxiety and depression — two unfortunately reliable precursors to next steps.
One person I knew who died by suicide was the poet Rachel Wetzsteon. That was on Christmas Day in 2009. She also had it all, or so one might think. Degrees from Yale, Columbia, and Johns Hopkins. Work in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New Republic, and The Nation. Prizes, grants, volumes with prestigious publishers. Again, people will say depression, depression, as if a medical label can act as an explanation. It tortures me to think that such a gifted, brilliant, beautiful person should choose to depart from us. I do not believe, contra Chesterton, that she murdered the world in making this tragic decision. But I know that her decision left a hole in my heart that I cannot fill.
I think of another poet. We have never met, but she was close friends with Rachel. Her name is Jennifer Michael Hecht. The two did their doctorates together at Columbia, along with the writer Sarah Hannah, who also, sadly, died by suicide. Shortly after Rachel’s death, Jennifer posted an entry on a poetry website about her two friends. The words that remain in my mind and come to me almost daily are these: “Don’t kill yourself. Suffer here with us instead. We need you with us, we have not forgotten you, you are our hero. Stay.”
We are each other’s best suicide barriers, now and always. I’m not leaving until I have to. I hope you feel the same way. Just stay a little bit longer. We need you. I need you.