Saturday, February 14, 2015

On Writing About Suicide

This week's New Yorker has an article about suicide that I personally found to be a compelling read. At one time, about 25 years ago, my brother and I discussed the possibility of writing a book on this topic. We had both felt wounded by more than one suicide close to us, though none as intimate as a brother, sister, mother or father... but close enough to want to talk about the topic. He's a Ph.D. psychologist and I a writer. We went so far as to outline it in order to assemble a book proposal, but the whole of it got scrapped when my pastor asked what I thought about Dr. Kervorkian and doctor assisted suicide. This topic was ascending in the news and I didn't have an answer. To gain an understanding I managed to get an assignment from Larry Fortner, founding editor of The Senior Reporter, to write about ethical issues in terminal health care, not from a soapbox position but as a journalist.

The working title for our book, if I recall correctly, was To Heal Broken Wings, based on a Newsweek article whose premise was that suicide doesn't solve problems, it only lays them on the broken wings of those around them. Beyond that, I didn't really have much to add, and am now grateful the project was never attempted.

It's possible that we were interested in somehow bringing resolution in our own minds to the internal unsettledness we both felt. That's why Philip Connors' New Yorker piece so captured my attention: On Writing About Suicide and Not Finding Catharsis. The article opens like this:

My brother died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound nearly twenty years ago. One thing that I learned fairly quickly is that if you want to bring any conversation to an abrupt and awkward halt, you can hardly do better than to mention the fact that your brother died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Every time it came up, I heard the same refrain, over and over: I’m so sorry.

It's possible that a lot of writers are attempting to manufacture a catharsis of some kind in order to purge themselves of the pent up pain, confusion and angst, whether from personal failures or intimate loss. In the case of suicide, there is the additional guilt of wondering whether there was something one could have done. Connors, however, doesn't see writing about suicide in this light.

But the kind of writing that speaks most deeply to me requires a kind of ruthlessness and control that are antithetical to catharsis for the creator, if not the reader. To be asked if my writing is a form of catharsis annoys me, because it annexes the territory of literature under the flag of therapy.

All this to say that Connors' article is insightful and articulate. And I wanted to share it.

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