Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It

It’s a Wonderful Life is such a cheery movie, we forget that the main character, George Bailey, gets drunk, crashes his car into a tree, and is about to jump off a bridge when his guardian angel appears. Clarence famously shows George what his town of Bedford Falls would be like if he’d never been born. But imagine a different movie, in which George sees what happens in his town after he dies jumping off the bridge.

If the suicide rate in Bedford Falls held true to real-life statistics, it would rise. The town is small and George Bailey is well known and admired. In particular, his wife and children would be afflicted for years with suicidal thoughts and perhaps dreams that George was asking them to join him in death. One of the kids—let’s say his youngest daughter, Zuzu—might throw herself off a bridge when she reached middle age. (A suicide by a parent triples the likelihood of a child dying by suicide; think of Nicholas Hughes, the son of Sylvia Plath.) In this alternative version of the film, George sees the damage caused by his suicide—and also by his simple absence. Imagine Zuzu weeping over a broken love affair and Clarence holding George back as he thrashes around, wanting to jump across time and console her.

Now let’s say that Clarence also gives him a tour of his future if he chooses to live—a segue into the happy ending of the actual movie.

Jennifer Michael Hecht, a poet and historian of ideas, doesn’t reinvent Frank Capra’s movie, but she invites us, over and over, to engage in the kind of thought-experiment I describe above. Stay has a simple message: when you contemplate suicide, think about the harm you will do to others. Also think about the possibility of a future in which you can do good, and even be happy at times.

Hecht doesn’t address jihadists or people contemplating euthanasia. Her topic is despair, which she believes can strike us all. To arm ourselves, she urges us to absorb the arguments against suicide before desperation strikes, especially the chance that your suicide will inspire another. She quotes Les Miserables, in which one of Victor Hugo’s characters gives voice to the idea: “You want to die, I want that too, I who am speaking to you, but I don’t want to feel the ghosts of women wringing their hands around me… Suicide is restricted… As soon as it touches those next to you the name of suicide is murder.”

The premise here is that ideas make a difference at such times; it’s worth a try. Philosophers have much to say about the troubles we now bring to mental health professionals. Still, I wish Hecht had discussed the research on which arguments work best to dissuade people from killing themselves.

I believe that many people now stay alive for the sake of others.  One friend used to say to me, “I can’t do it as long as my parents are alive. I couldn’t do that to them.” Another has been saying for years that she doesn’t want to live but is determined “not to leave a mess.”

Hecht cites scientific evidence mainly in her chapter on contagion, where she points to a study of three television movies that included a suicide. Two that concentrated on the victim were followed by a suicide spike, but the third, which focused on the grieving parents, was not.

We urgently need to know the right message; the suicide rate has been escalating in the U.S. population for the past decade. Hecht and others argue persuasively that the U.S. military is now in the midst of a suicide epidemic. (The Pentagon counted 349 military deaths by suicide in 2012, up 16 percent from 2011.) For the general U.S. population, Hecht cites an estimate from suicide expert Alan Berman that each suicide directly affects six to thirty-two people. When researchers conducted a random poll and asked respondents whether he or she knew someone who had committed suicide in the past year, they found a sphere of influence of about 425 people per suicide, about 7 percent of the U.S. population.

That’s significant if we accept that suicide is contagious, and especially if we believe that anyone may be susceptible. It’s true that people kill themselves over disappointments in love and legal or financial troubles. However, Hecht may overstate her argument that we’re all in danger. Most people who try to kill themselves have a history of psychiatric disorders, including major depression, or addiction.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t save them or shouldn’t try. There are more than ten times as many attempts as deaths. When my partner, a depressed alcoholic, died in an intentional binge, many people told me that no one could have stopped him. “He’d just try again,” they said. In fact, many people who attempt suicide are saved and go on to lead good lives.

We hear so little about them. Instead, we hear about the toughest cases, like novelist David Foster Wallace, who killed himself in 2008. Wallace had all of the ingredients of a good life—success based on his talents, a seemingly happy marriage, devoted family, strong friendships, and a kind heart. Accounts of his generosity poured out after his death. Hecht frequently says (and quotes scholars who say) that service to others is a path to happiness. It didn’t work for Wallace. But he had been struggling with depression for decades. His medicines had begun to give him severe side-effects; in fact, fourteen months before he died, he and his doctor decided to end that treatment. Then he had electric-convulsive therapy. If you are in great pain and see no reason to think it will end—you’ve tried the available treatments—suicide from depression doesn’t seem so different from euthanasia.

Could reading Stay have saved David Foster Wallace? Probably not.

Now let’s listen to my friend K, who was locked in the bathroom with a big knife when she was saved at the last minute by a virtual posse of adoring friends and family.

I don’t think that reading a book about the philosophical arguments against suicide could be an effective deterrent. Maybe it would work for other, more rational people, but I experienced a fire in the brain (courtesy of William Styron) filled with anxiety and self-loathing, the pitter patter, or stinging, of every thought being about my deficits (I should have done this or that, I can’t, I’m defective, more defective than anyone I know, nobody understands, they can’t know how bad, stupid I really am, followed by despair). Every waking moment, I was writhing in my own skin. In that state, very clinically depressed, I couldn’t think rationally. No argument against it, except thinking of the havoc you will wreak if/when you commit suicide on people you love. I didn’t think about the contagion, just the fact that my mother and sister would be in unbelievable pain and despair, and that fact only multiplied my feelings of shame and guilt. Maybe if I had children, it would be a different story.

What did work for K was psychotherapy and medication—after friends broke down the door.

Still, I’m grateful to Hecht for writing Stay, if only because it taught me how common it is to dream that someone who died by suicide is asking you to join him. I’ve had that dream and it scared me.

I see Hecht’s arguments as a humanist case for embracing life, as armor against cynicism. And read just as a popular book on intellectual history, Stay is compassionate, clear, rich, and even funny, as when she points out that Romeo was pining for another woman before he met Juliet.

Her brief on the history: even the ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t believe in suicide from personal despair, though they admired suicide for the sake of principle. Later Western defenses of suicide were actually attacks on the religious prohibition against killing yourself.

On the anti-suicide side, Diderot, as one example, insists that every person is of some use to society, so dying willingly would violate our obligation to others. Diderot also sees an obligation to improve your own life. Immanuel Kant, who saw self-murder as “debasing humanity,” offers suicide as his first example of an act ruled out by the categorical imperative.

I was most moved by Hecht’s account of John Milton, who suffered in love and politics and went blind at age forty-four, wondering how he would continue to write. Interpreting his sonnet “On His Blindness,” Hecht writes: “When he thinks about how his eyesight is gone (how his days are spent) with half his life still to go, and when he thinks of his talent for writing buried in him because of his blindness, he wants to ask how he is supposed to do his work like this—it is day labor in the dark.”  (In Milton’s language: “day-labour, light denied.”)

How eloquently the phrase captures the burden of getting through each day when you’d rather be dead.   In the poem, “Patience” replies that we don’t get to choose our burden. Through Hecht’s lens, Milton is telling us that the “work of waiting through suicidal dark periods is heroic.”  And she reminds us again that we don’t know what the future will bring. Indeed, Milton had yet to write Paradise Lost.