Bad Romance: Writers and Suicide
Author: Victoria Brownworth
August 13, 2014
It goes against the grain of our very DNA. We are hard-wired to survive. Our autonomic reflexes tell us, live, breathe, run, live. For God’s sake, live.
Sometimes our brains rewire themselves. Sometimes pain outdistances DNA. Sometimes we want to die. Sometimes dying is not the threat, but the promise.
Whenever someone famous kills themselves, my emotions jangle. How tragic. What a loss. Then: If they were forced to killed themselves, then who could blame them?
Depressed people think this way. And suicide is as much in my DNA as that hard-wiring to survive. It could be inherited–depression runs in my family on both sides and there have been, sadly, a few suicides and even more attempted suicides. Or it could be just my own brain.
But for anyone–writer or not–who has battled depression, suicide is always both the thing one tries to avoid and the promise one makes to one’s self. You can drive your car into the river in the middle of the night when no one else will be around once you finish this book.
Suicide is the opt-out clause for crushing, irrevocable, unacceptable pain, be that pain physical or emotional or, as it is for most people suffering from depression, both.
I was lying in bed at 4 pm in a Xanax-induced stupor when I first heard about Robin Williams’ suicide on NPR. I’d been awake for maybe 36 hours, possibly more. (Insomnia and depression are partners, their friend suicide lives nearby.) I was tired beyond imagining, as I hadn’t slept more than ten hours, total, in the past week. I’d been trying to sleep. Now I lay there, listening to the radio, tears seeping from my closed eyes. Poor bastard, I thought. I hope it stopped the pain. I wondered fleetingly how someone so relentlessly entertaining could commit suicide. But only fleetingly. Because really, I knew.
As I listened to the news report–sketchy, as he’d only been found an hour or so earlier, Los Angeles time–a poem began to recite itself in my head.
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
‘Lady Lazarus’ by Sylvia Plath, everybody’s go-to suicide poet. Did she feature in Robin Williams’ iconic Dead Poet’s Society? I couldn’t recall.
Later, I would see the tweets and posts on social media about suicide. All the people who never had a day of depression in their lives. All those people who think when they say, “I’m so depressed–I really wanted to [go to that concert, meet so-and-so for dinner, whatever mundane thing that got missed]” that is actual depression. All those people tweeting about how it’s always the people who don’t talk about suicide who kill themselves. All those people blaming the family for not paying attention. All those people saying how selfish it is.
Oh my god–you have no idea what you’re talking about. No. Idea.
In Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, his 1990 memoir of his own catastrophic depression, Pulitzer Prize winner William Styron wrote, “Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self –to the mediating intellect–as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.”
Robin Williams experienced it in its extreme mode.
Tuesday it was revealed that Williams had tried to slice his wrists with a pocket knife which was found near his body, but it didn’t work. He hanged himself with his belt. Hanged himself with his belt.
Like a prisoner in a cell.
Like Plath suggests in the next lines of ‘Lady Lazarus’:
It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical
Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
That knocks me out.
Plath, like most people who kill themselves, had attempted suicide several times before she was successful. Waking up when you expect to be dead is not the relief non-suicidal people imagine.
In his award-winning book, The Noonday Sun: An Atlas of Depression, gay writer Andrew Solomon describes this: “When you are depressed, the past and future are absorbed entirely by the present moment, as in the world of a three-year-old. You cannot remember a time when you felt better, at least not clearly; and you certainly cannot imagine a future time when you will.
Williams talked about suicide all the time, apparently, just like many people who never ultimately do kill themselves, which is why the myth that people who do talk about suicide a lot are just being emotionally manipulative of the people around them and won’t actually do it. (Which is not to say those people aren’t out there, too, of course.)
There are no rules for suicide or attempted suicide. Depression over-rides rules–any and every. There’s no one too rich or too poor, too young or too old to commit suicide. We talk all the time about teen suicide but in reality, as the Centers for Disease Control statistics on suicide reveal, teenagers have the lowest rate of suicide. Williams fell into the key demographic–45 to 64 years old–where nearly a third of all suicides fall. Startlingly, the next most common age group for suicide is 85 and older.
At 45, Anne Sexton was in that top demographic. The Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet had lunch with poet Maxine Kumin, her best friend of twenty years, went over galleys of her next book of poems with Kumin, drove home and gassed herself in the garage, the engine running in her car.
Plath wrote about suicide and the presumed release of dying non-stop. She was 30 when she stuck her head in the oven. Her youthful suicide became a dark romance for depressed young women everywhere, especially writers. When I discovered Plath’s poetry in high school, it became a romance for me as well. I had already tried to kill myself twice by then, the first time when I was eight. Plath wasn’t my mentor, she was my muse.
I was–am–hardly the only writer to suffer from life-long depression, which I was first diagnosed with at the age of nine after my first failed suicide attempt, failed only because I was found in time.
Writers have had a long, contentious, volatile romance with suicide. I searched them out in high school and then college, when my first book of poetry–grim and suicidal–was published. Like many depressed adolescents, I sought out fellow travelers: I needed validation that there were others who felt, as Anne Sexton described it, the “unnameable lust.” I needed to know others might have a packet of fresh razor blades, blue with the shiny silver edges, nestled in tissue paper in a purse or pocket.
It wasn’t difficult to find suicidal writers, failed or successful. Writers have been killing themselves since Seneca drank poison and slit open his veins in 65 AD.
The young gay poet Thomas Chatterton, was only 17 in 1770 when he poisoned himself with arsenic–the same age as I was when I watched the skin open like a liquid flower on my wrist and then my inner arm and the blood course out onto the same bathroom floor where my grandfather had taken a butcher knife and sliced both his arms and his throat when I was 12.
Other writers sustained me as well: the French poets, Verlaine and Rimbaud, with their relentless love affair with each other and death. By 14 I could recite Verlaine in English and French. His poetry, his gay longings, still flood back,
Les sanglots longs
Blessent mon coeur
Exquisitely, succinctly representative of depression, even in its perfect rhyme and scan.
Rilke’s waves of depression manifested in quotes like this, waiting for new generations of depressed writers to discover: “The only sadness that are dangerous and unhealthy are the ones that we carry around in public in order to drown them out with the noise; like diseases that are treated superficially and foolishly, they just withdraw and after a short interval break out again all, the more terribly; and gather inside us and are life, are life that is unlived, rejected, lost, life that we can die of.”
Life that we can die of.
And then there was Anne Sexton.
In her poem ‘Wanting to Die,’ Sexton speaks frankly of the dailiness of crushing depression and the love affair with death:”Since you ask, most days I cannot remember./I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage./Then the almost unnameable lust returns.”
Where Plath had been provocative and taunting, daring the reader to challenge her perspective on life and death with vivid, almost violent imagery, Sexton was matter of fact:
Even then I have nothing against life.
I know well the grass blades you mention,
the furniture you have placed under the sun.
But suicides have a special language.
Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
They never ask why build.
Sexton, like Plath, talked incessantly about suicide and had won the Pulitzer for her book of poems on the topic, Live and Die. The pain of her depression was as terrible as it was exacting. She was 45 when she killed herself. It was her ninth attempt. She left that lunch with Kumin, went home, put on her mother’s old fur coat, took off her rings, poured herself a glass of vodka, locked herself in her garage and turned on the car.
Did she get the idea of gassing herself from Plath? Or had she just run through all the other choices and been unsuccessful, like Williams discarded the knife and took off his belt? Sexton had finally, as she had written in “Wanting to Die,” managed “to empty my breath from its bad prison.”
Like Sexton, Plath, myself and many other women writers, Virginia Woolf had suffered from depression since childhood. Her magnificent volumes of letters and diaries detail not just the fabulous intellectual world in which she was a major player during the Bloomsbury era, but her severe migraines and her spiraling depressions that often sent her to bed for long stretches. Woolf was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century, so one can only imagine her prolificity had she not suffered from depression.
On March 28, 1941, Woolf put on her coat, filled the pockets with stones, and walked into the Ouse River near her house. Her body was not recovered until April 18, 1941. She had drowned. She was 59.
In her suicide note, left for her husband Leonard Woolf, she wrote, in part, “Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.”
It’s a theme repeated in many suicide notes–that it is the best choice, that it is the only way out, that there are no other options. Robin Williams’ note has not been released by police, but it was mentioned at the press conference on August 12. We can intuit what it said.
As William Styron writes in Visible Darkness, “The madness of depression is, generally speaking, the antithesis of violence. It is a storm indeed, but a storm of murk. Soon evident are the slowed-down responses, near paralysis, psychic energy throttled back close to zero. Ultimately, the body is affected and feels sapped, drained.”
It is often very hard to write because it is often very hard to function at all. And for people driven to write, as most writers are, that derailment can be as painful as if one were actually in a train tossed from the tracks. Suicide proffers a welcome respite from that pain.
Styron describes it: “The pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come–not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute. If there is mild relief, one knows that it is only temporary; more pain will follow. It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul.”
In her 2009 book Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin, lesbian journalist Norah Vincent takes an immersion journey to three different mental health facilities. She goes in on the verge of a breakdown after having spent a year living as a man for her book Self-Made Man, due to the stress of having to reject her femaleness for a year.
She comes out at the end of Voluntary Madness, healed, but not after a roller-coaster of disturbing experiences, including going off her meds and considering suicide. Vincent writes, “I thought I was on my game. And then there I was thinking about where I could buy a gun. A gun seems best. I am a maimed animal. Perhaps I can hire a hit man. I will tip him very well to take a clean shot.”
It’s not hyperbole. It’s not journalist effect. It’s the compelling surety one has when depression floods in, that the only way out is to accept the consequence of drowning and allow yourself to go under. And the gun? It is by far the weapon of choice for suicides; 55 percent of suicides use a gun.
In October 2012, Lindsay Abrams reported for The Atlantic that writers were twice as likely to commit suicide as other people.
Leading with a quote from E.L. Doctorow in the Paris Review, “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia,” Abrams detailed a Swedish study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.
Conducted at the Karolinska Institute of 1.2 million patients with schizo-affective disorder, depression, anxiety syndrome, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, autism, ADHD, anorexia and suicide, the study linked these mental illnesses with employment in “creative” occupations.
Abrams wrote, “When the researchers looked specifically at authors, they found that they are over-represented among people with schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety syndrome, and substance abuse problems. Authors were also almost twice as likely to commit suicide as the general population.”
So it’s official: writers kill themselves more than other people.
There are many to note–actually far too many to note. Wikipedia lists over 100. Among them are the very famous and those famous for their suicides. There are also, unsurprisingly, gay and lesbian writers for whom their sexual orientation was in painful tandem with their depression.
Like Woolf, Ernest Hemingway was among the most influential writers of the 20th century. The Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner was 61 when he shot himself to death with his favorite shotgun. Two of his siblings, Ursula and Leicester, also committed suicide. Like Styron, who was on his way to Paris to receive the prestigious Prix mondial Cino Del Duca (Cino Del Duca World Prize) when he had his catastrophic bout of depression, Hemingway’s career was still in full flower. Only a few months earlier he had written to a friend how well his writing was going.
The same was true for MacArthur Fellow and 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist (posthumous) David Foster Wallace, who was 46 when he hanged himself in 2008 after battling depression for decades. Wallace had undergone electroconvulsive therapy. His suicide was after his anti-depressants ceased to work. Yet he never ceased to write.
Conversely, John Kennedy Toole, 31, despondent over his inability to get his novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, published, ran a garden hose from the exhaust pipe into his car and gassed himself to death.
Two of the most important chroniclers of World War II, Jerzy Kosinski and Primo Levi, survived the Holocaust only to commit suicide decades later due to decades of crushing depression.
Karin Boye, the Swedish lesbian editor, poet and translator of T.S. Eliot and other poets, killed herself three days after Virginia Woolf’s body was found. One of her novels, Crisis, details a woman’s religious conflicts with her lesbianism.
The suicide of Yukio Mishima in 1970 catapulted his work to popular international fame. The wildly prolific Mishima had been short-listed for the Nobel Prize twice prior to his suicide by ritual seppuku (evisceration with a sword).
Mishima is one of many literary male suicides who had conflicts with their sexual orientation. Although married, Mishima was known to frequent gay bars. After his death, another Japanese writer, Jiro Fukoshima, published letters between the two charting their affair. Mishima’s children sued Fukoshima, citing violation of their father’s privacy.
There were eras that would have seemed to embrace the gayness of writers. Paris in the 1920s had been a hub of myriad gay and lesbian writers and artists. Hart Crane was a leading light of American modernist poetry, a frequent contributor to Dorothy Parker’s Algonquin round table and a not-so-closeted gay man. Crane was close friends with Harry and Caresse Crosby, owners of Black Sun Press, which published many of the major poets of the era. The Crosbys spent most of their time in Paris and environs and Crane was a frequent visitor.
In 1929, the Crosbys invited Crane to work on his next book at their home in the South of France. When Crane returned from there to Paris, Crosby wrote in his journal, “Hart C. back from Marseilles where he slept with his thirty sailors and he began again to drink Cutty Sark.”
Conflicts with police, a beating and an arrest sent Crane into a depression and Crosby paid his legal fees and for his passage home to the U.S. Back in the U.S., Crane was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, yet his depression continued to deepen. He went to Mexico where he attempted a heterosexual relationship with Peggy Cowley, wife of his friend and writer Malcolm Cowley (who was himself bisexual). It was Crane’s one foray into heterosexuality, but he couldn’t sustain it, drawn back to men almost immediately.
On his way home to New York from Mexico, Crane was beaten by one of the ship’s crew after suggesting they have sex. The next morning, Crane threw himself overboard, into the Gulf of Mexico. His body was never recovered.
Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright William Inge was one of the most popular American dramatists of the 1950s. At his centenniary in 2013, four of his previously unproduced gay-themed plays The Boys in the Basement, The Tiny Closet, The Killing and The Love Death were produced in Kansas, where he lived the majority of his life.
It’s difficult to imagine why Inge, who had written some of the more provocative plays, like Picnic, Come Back Little Sheba and Bus Stop, about the claustrophobic nature of Midwestern life and how it stifled sexuality, could not find a way out of his own conflicts with his gayness other than to kill himself the same way Sexton and Toole did–gassing in the car. Yet at 59, despite vast success as a playwright and screenwriter when his plays went on to become award-winning films, depression hounded him–to death.
It’s hard to imagine that by 1996, when May Ayim, the Afro-German lesbian poet threw herself off the roof of a building in Berlin, that the impact of homophobia could be as harsh as it was when Crane and Inge killed themselves. And yet Ayim, whose name had been noted with that of Audre Lorde, was in that space that Solomon describes: “It is not pleasant to experience decay, to find yourself exposed to the ravages of an almost daily rain, and to know that you are turning into something feeble, that more and more of you will blow off with the first strong wind, making you less and less.”
Ayim got out of the hospital and killed herself.
Sarah Kane, a spectacular, cutting-edge, incredibly successful British playwright known for her utilization of violence, gay couples and war imagery, couldn’t wait to get out of the hospital to kill herself. She hanged herself by her shoelaces in the bathroom while she was committed to London’s King’s College Hospital in 1999. She was 28.
Not long before she killed herself–having attempted suicide several times–she said in an interview,“Many people feel depression is about emptiness, but actually it’s about being so full that everything cancels itself out. You can’t have faith without doubt, and what are you left with when you can’t have love without hate?”
One colleague said Kane “talked about suicide all the time–so much so that it became a joke.”
Not a joke.
What would be her final play, Crave, ends with a suicide. In an interview about the play Kane said, “Some people seem to find release at the end of it, but I think it’s only the release of death. In my other plays it was the release of deciding to go on living despite the fact that it’s terrible.”
One suicide that stunned me more than any was that of Iris Chang. I remember hearing the news early one morning and just being incredibly shocked. I thought she was one of the most together journalists in my lifetime. Traveling and speaking about her work constantly. Driven, focused, compelling.
Then Chang, who had written three very pivotal histories of the Chinese in less than a decade, shot herself through the mouth with a revolver. It was a decade ago. She’d pulled her car over to the side of the road while traveling for her most recent book.
Chang’s suicide affected me deeply. Though she was a decade younger than I, our journalistic careers had followed similar paths until she turned to writing history full-time. Her New York Times best-selling book The Rape of Nanking remains one of the most affecting histories I have ever read. Her final book, The Chinese in America, is masterful and damning. In it she wrote, “The America of today would not be the same America without the achievements of its ethnic Chinese. Scratch the surface of every American celebrity of Chinese heritage and you will find that, no matter how stellar their achievements, no matter how great their contribution to U.S. society, virtually all of them have had their identities questioned at one point or another.”
We use the term “triggering” now to describe the kind of violence she (and I and to a degree, Vincent) wrote about. It’s difficult work to do–covering the stories of mayhem. It proved too hard for Chang. She’d suffered from depression for some time and was taking two very strong psychotropic drugs at the time of her suicide. She also was suffering from severe insomnia, which I can attest, having been hospitalized for it in the past, can drive you insane.
It drove her insane. Styron writes that the disruptions in the brain caused by depression also cause metabolic disruptions–hence the insomnia.
Chang wrote a series of notes before she shot herself to death, which are declarative of just how violent depression can be for the depressed person.
As the San Francisco Chronicle reported after her death (she lived in the Bay Area), the notes were revelatory. Dated November 8, 2004, each was titled, “Statement of Iris Chang.”
The first read: “I promise to get up and get out of the house every morning. I will stop by to visit my parents then go for a long walk. I will follow the doctor’s orders for medications. I promise not to hurt myself. I promise not to visit Web sites that talk about suicide.”
Another note read,
When you believe you have a future, you think in terms of generations and years. When you do not, you live not just by the day, but by the minute. It is far better that you remember me as I was, in my heyday as a best-selling author, than the wild-eyed wreck who returned from Louisville… Each breath is becoming difficult for me to take–the anxiety can be compared to drowning in an open sea. I know that my actions will transfer some of this pain to others, indeed those who love me the most. Please forgive me.
Solomon writes that forgiveness may be hard-won. “People forgive, but it is best not to stir things up to the point at which forgiveness is required. When you are depressed, you need the love of other people, and yet depression fosters actions that destroy that love. Depressed people often stick pins into their own life rafts.”
Dorothy Parker, who attempted suicide several times and spoke about it often, wrote out her frustration with her own depression in her darkly ironic poem ‘Resumé’:
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.
You might as well live.
In the end it is the survivors one must listen to. Solomon, who has an excellent TED talk on depression, advises“Listen to the people who love you. Believe that they are worth living for even when you don’t believe it. Seek out the memories depression takes away and project them into the future. Be brave; be strong; take your pills. Exercise because it’s good for you even if every step weighs a thousand pounds. Eat when food itself disgusts you. Reason with yourself when you have lost your reason.”
And hang onto whatever feels permanent and real. Jeanette Winterson said that “Art saved me. It got me through my depression and self-loathing, back to a place of innocence.” But she also suggests a way out that is not suicide: “If you continually write and read yourself as a fiction, you can change what’s crushing you.”
What I do know, all these years away from adolescence, but still treading the deep waters of depression, is to steer clear of those who have a romance with death. I can still love Plath and Sexton, Rimbaud and Verlaine, but from afar. I have to keep them at a distance. The lure of that “unnameable lust” Sexton captured so perfectly never goes away. And as Solomon writes, “The people who succeed despite depression do three things. First, they seek an understanding of what’s happening. They accept that this is a permanent situation. And then they have to transcend their experience and grow from it and put themselves out into the world of real people.”
I would add that they–we–can’t flirt with the oven or the locked garage, the one-more-sleeping-pill-should-do-it or the websites with instructions. We must focus on the things that bring us closer to life, not further away.
Poetry could lure me to the edge of the abyss I was already far too close to; so too can it pull me back to life. It’s not enough, of course–one can’t avoid treatment and self-awareness–but beauty and message remain sustaining and when we can reach for them, as Solomon suggests we do, they can prop us up, if only for a moment or two or twenty.
Mark Doty, one of my favorite gay poets, perfectly describes how we must associate ourselves with others, keep ourselves on an even keel, don’t isolate–all the things the mental health people are warning us to be wary of, now, in the wake of Williams’ suicide.
In his poem, ‘A Display of Mackerel,’ (reprinted here from the Poetry Foundation), Doty describes how to keep one’s head above water:
They lie in parallel rows,
on ice, head to tail,
each a foot of luminosity
barred with black bands,
which divide the scales’
like seams of lead
in a Tiffany window.
prismatics: think abalone,
the wildly rainbowed
mirror of a soapbubble sphere,
think sun on gasoline.
Splendor, and splendor,
and not a one in any way
distinguished from the other
—nothing about them
of individuality. Instead
they’re all exact expressions
of the one soul,
each a perfect fulfilment
of heaven’s template,
mackerel essence. As if,
after a lifetime arriving
at this enameling, the jeweler’s
made uncountable examples,
each as intricate
in its oily fabulation
as the one before
Suppose we could iridesce,
like these, and lose ourselves
entirely in the universe
of shimmer—would you want
to be yourself only,
to be lost? They’d prefer,
plainly, to be flashing participants,
multitudinous. Even now
they seem to be bolting
forward, heedless of stasis.
They don’t care they’re dead
and nearly frozen,
just as, presumably,
they didn’t care that they were living:
all, all for all,
the rainbowed school
and its acres of brilliant classrooms,
in which no verb is singular,
or every one is. How happy they seem,
even on ice, to be together, selfless,
which is the price of gleaming.
There is a place, between the gleaming and the razor’s edge. That is the place we seek, as Solomon illumines in The Noonday Demon:
The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality and my life, as I write this, is vital even when sad. I may wake up sometime next year without my mind again; it is not likely to stick around all the time. Meanwhile, however, I have discovered what I would have to call a soul, a part of myself I could never have imagined until one day, seven years ago, when hell came to pay me a surprise visit. It’s a precious discovery. Almost every day I feel momentary flashes of hopelessness and wonder every time whether I am slipping. For a petrifying instant here and there, a lightning-quick flash, I want a car to run me over…I hate these feelings, but I know that they have driven me to look deeper at life, to find and cling to reasons for living, I cannot find it in me to regret entirely the course my life has taken. Every day, I choose, sometimes gamely, and sometimes against the moment’s reason, to be alive. Is that not a rare joy?
Alive. Rare. Joy. The price of gleaming.