I learned yesterday that one of my favorite students had committed suicide. As far as I knew, she had continued on from her Bachelor’s to a graduate program. I don’t think she managed to be admitted into the university of first choice, but she had settled into a program that would prepare her to be a professional editor. She seemed to “have it together”. While I was aware that she suffered from severe insomnia and was on medication, I had supposed that the problem had been brought under control. She had a boyfriend of whom she spoke with much warmth, so I wouldn’t have imagined her to be agonizingly lonely and isolated. She was not unattractive, though the average male these days would likely have been drawn neither by her looks at first glance nor by her quiet, retiring manner.
The person who broke the news to me explained that the girl was bipolar, as if that accounted for everything. My informant was almost in tears, and I’m certainly not criticizing her individually; but I’m a little vexed when someone hands down the bipolar diagnosis as being sufficient reason for tragedies like this. We can resist, we can fight—all of us can. A genetic or hormonal predisposition to gloom means only that some have to fight harder than others.
I couldn’t help but recall, as well, that our victim had been enrolled in that class about which I’ve written so many times—the one whose members (well, three or four of them) howled at me when I once remarked, “I guess the homework assignments drove them to suicide,” in an effort to wave away my irritation at certain frequently absent students. I have always made clear (including when the incident happened) that I was NOT joking about suicide, but rather about the lack of commitment in this group; and I have since stressed, upon reflection, that I view the manner in which my remarks were received by the loud few as willful, wanton belligerence. If I say, “I’m out of ammunition,” am I showing insensitivity to the school children slaughtered at Parkland? If I say, “I’m kind of spacey today,” does someone whose sibling died of a drug overdose have a grievance against me?
But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I was indeed joking about suicide. Why shouldn’t I, or why shouldn’t anyone? Why should the word “suicide” only be whispered, and always with fear and awe, as if she were some ancient goddess from the dark side like Hecate or the Erinyes? Why should not Suicide be scorned and derided like the opportunistic, cowardly assassin that she is? At the end of The Haunting—original version, directed by Robert Wise—Richard Johnson’s character subdues a murderous poltergeist by openly, mockingly laughing at her. Why should not Suicide be shown the same degree of respect… which is to say, none at all?
When I was suicidal in my mid-twenties (as I, too, enjoyed the delights of graduate school), I fought my way out of the haunted house by observing to myself how melodramatic I was being, and how stupid and cowardly an exit by way of The Pit would be. I can hear one of my detractors from two years ago right now: “Well, that’s fine for you—but it doesn’t mean that other people feel that way.” No… and your style of “sensitivity” doesn’t mean, either, that you’ve shown more mercy or saved more lives than I have by refusing to venerate the dark goddess. What if you have actually contributed to the problem by inducing those around you to bow before spirits from hell? Are you so sure that you haven’t?
Personally, I am convinced that such “sensitivity” is somewhat implicated in the suicide epidemic. Suicide has become an Event, perhaps the Ultimate Event (in a society that has no other use for the metaphysical or the supernatural). It is the dramatic exit always accessible to people whose lives otherwise have no drama and attract no notice. I’m not suggesting that the friend we lost last week was such a one: if her insomnia had returned, that alone may have driven her over the edge (or that and the useless medications so freely and heavily prescribed by “professionals”). Yet even under such horrible torment, perhaps she would have held out if the shame of suicide were still prominently etched in everyone’s soul. Feeling shame before certain acts is healthy. It can protect us from catastrophe. Now that we’ve decided that shame is “judgmental” and “lacks compassion”, our brothers and sisters have a diminished power of resistance which makes them easy prey for the spiritual parasites gnawing the human psyche.
But that doesn’t really matter, of course: the only thing that really matters is for you, generation of hair-trigger outrage, to make clear to the world—and yourselves—that you are morally superior beings. Gee, what great friends you must all make! What comfort the despairing must find in you!
Rest in peace, S.B.