WRITING ABOUT SUICIDE IN FICTION

WRITING ABOUT SUICIDE IN FICTION

America has been rocked by the sudden deaths by their own hands of two celebrities, Anthony Bourdin and Kate Spade. Neither seemed a likely candidate for suicide. Both were accomplished, talented professionals who appeared be enjoying life to its fullest. These tragedies came a little less than four years after that of Robin Williams, a brilliant and  infectiously humorous man at the bottom of anyone’s list of potential suicides.

We do not understand much about the mental illness that precipitates suicide. We have fixed notions about its cause, and wealthy, successful  people displaying no outward signs of distress fall far outside our concept of a person at risk. 

We expect a seriously depressed person, one who is sad, confused, and pushed to the edge. The problem is that it’s not necessarily obvious.

Most of us look for a “rational” explanation for a suicide. Not necessarily something we ourselves would agree justifies ending one’s life, but some event or condition we can understand as a reason. A failed relationship, economic disaster, or an impending disgrace of some sort.  There are historical instances where people their own lives rather than be tortured or enslaved. These are not typical, and the far more likely cause is a long-standing and untreated mental or emotional  illness.

I’ve often wondered how many mass murderers carrying out their crimes with easy-to-obtain assault rifles were seeking “death by cop”; it’s hard to imagine that most of these killers didn’t realize the end result of their actions.

We as a society have an aversion to addressing unpleasant and disturbing subjects,  preferring to sweep them under the rug. Thus, we have not offered anything close to the level of services needed to reduce this epidemic of suicides in America, with the rate growing each year.

We must do better.

How suicide has been treated in my writing

I have written three short stories in the past year where characters took their own lives. None of them were similar to the situations of Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade or Robin Williams. The past few days have caused me to reflect on how I and other authors handle the subject.

In Survivors,  posted on this blog, a character in a post-apocalyptic world takes her own life rather than deal with loneliness and loss. This echoes the conventional view that suicide can be prompted by some horrific event, and  that even rational, well-adjusted people may elect to end their life rather than live in a helpless situation. Not everyone would do the same, but it is often seen as a rational option. (I don’t think it is).  Of course, because a character takes an action does not signal the author’s approval.

In Life, Death and Bruce Springsteen, also featured on this blog, a character perpetually threatens suicide as a means of gaining attention. This is a humorous story, and it was well-received. In retrospect, I  ask myself if I was unintentionally making light of a serious matter and adding to the problem. I have decided that this is not the case. Fiction authors write about the world around them, and in that world, there are  manipulative people who behave as  my character. The story does raise questions about how to respond to threats of suicide. But when all is said and done, to paraphrase Freud “sometimes a story is just a story”. Not all fiction is intended to deliver a message or instruct us on how to live.

Having said all that, I am certain that at this very moment I would not post the same story; the pain of losing two talented and beloved figures is too great at this time. I would wait until readers had time to come to terms with our losses. But people cannot forego laughter, and authors cannot stop writing about the world. It is not fiction writing that is prompting this plague.

There is a third short story I wrote late last year, where  suicide follows a series of tragic  and compounding miscalculations. Once again, it suggests that we can really discern a possibly rational reason for someone taking their own life.  I will eventually post that story. 

When I was earning my MA in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University many decades ago, one of the stories included in my thesis was about a nurse whose fiance had committed suicide. During a conversation with a cab driver she ponders whether her commitment to her profession caused her to ignore his needs and  signals he may have been sending. This, from the mind of a twenty-something, took a more nuanced and scientific view of the issue than most of us take today.  One of the best ways to reduce suicide is to take heed when we sense someone is troubled, and not to presume everything will be fine. Persuading such people to obtain professional help is the very best thing we can do for them. 

Above photos, left to right: Robin Williams (www.fwweekly.com;  Kate Spade (howldo.com); Anthony Bourdain (Roger Friedman’s Showbiz 411).

So how should fiction writers handle suicide?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer. It depends upon the genre, the writer’s goals, the underlying nature of the story, the author’s voice, the writing style, and of course, the author’s creative spark.

The best thing an author can do is to inject their own feelings and experiences about suicide into their work. Sadly, I have known several individuals who took their own lives. Every one was painful, every one  unjustified from any standpoint, and every one of them could have been prevented.

Authors can accomplish a great deal by just telling the story. That is  true in all fiction, and there is  no reason why it should be different when writing about suicide. If you are writing a story where no one saw a suicide coming, tell that story. If there were signs that were ignored, or unsuccessful attempts at intervention, write about it. Let all of the characters be who you want them to be, who you know they should be; don’t soften or harden them to suit the fact of a suicide. In other words, show it as it really is and how it really plays out in your soul. There may be characters who are culpable, others who are innocent of any blame. There will be characters  sincere in their grief and others just going through the motions. Tell the story as you would any other tale. If it is well-written and honest, your readers will see it all. 

What Can We Do To Help?

The reality is that while we can be sympathetic listeners, and provide support and comfort to those in distress, unless one is an experienced mental health professional, this is out of their league. 

Persuading people at risk to seek professional help is the best course of action. Don’t hesitate to give them the number of the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, and in those rare instances where you have good reason to believe suicide is a serious possibility, and they won’t call don’t hesitate to call them yourself.

The Phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255

http://suicidepreventionlifeline.org

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