A close friend of mine, a warm and lovely girl whom I first knew during our college days in the early 1970s, committed suicide in 2004. She was one of the most level-headed people I knew in college, someone I could count on for sensible advice. She did the act in the most dramatic fashion imaginable. During her spring break from teaching at a small-town college, she drove from her home to a reservoir and set herself on fire. Passing motorists spotted the flames and called the police.
A few days later, two brief newspaper articles about the incident appeared, one in the town where she was teaching, and the other in her original hometown. One of the articles listed her many accomplishments: master’s degree in teaching and doctorate in education; college professor for twelve years; founder and first dean of the graduate program; chair of the Rank and Tenure Committee; Sunday school teacher and ordained deacon at her church; aunt to seven nieces and nephews. The other article was much more terse, sticking to the facts. A police officer explained, “Apparently the victim drove to a remote place, dumped a can of gasoline on herself and lit herself on fire.” The woman was described as someone with a history of mental problems who was seeing a caseworker.
Nothing about the girl I knew would have led me to believe that that she was capable of such an act. In college she was a political rebel in a small way, a Young Republican in a sea of Democrats. That put her in the minority, but it hardly made her a freak. As an educator, she expressed opposition to the “no child left behind” system that was in force during much of her career. But again, that hardly made her a unique crusader. If her self-immolation was supposed to make a political point or some other big impression, it failed spectacularly.
Her family set up an online memorial to celebrate her life and call attention to the scourge of suicide. Sadly, her former students barely responded. Probably the consensus was that she let them down. At the point around mid-semester when she left them, many must have felt abandoned as they tried to finish theses or prepare for graduation and subsequent job searches. Not that she intended to hurt them, but the few eulogies I read struck me as weak.
Why, then, did she do it, and why did she choose that method? I’m aware there are often hereditary components to depression. She told me once about a grandfather of hers, a Presbyterian minister, who succumbed to the disease. In view of that, her return to the church relatively late in life seem a little ominous. There had been a previous breakdown three years before, requiring hospitalization. That might have created obstacles to purchasing a firearm.
I can tell from my blog-reading that many people are dealing with depression and anxiety, as well as more clearly diagnosed conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. It’s a constant struggle, yet no one has to suffer alone. Many full and productive lives are being lived in spite of, or maybe even because of, these issues. The compassion for others that tough times can produce is in itself a worthy life skill.
Self-destructive behavior among writers is a fairly common phenomenon. For example, the poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton became acquainted in 1958, while auditing a course in poetry writing at Boston University. Both had attempted suicide in the past, and would succeed in the future. After class, they often went out for martinis with another poet, George Starbuck, who was rumored to be having an affair with Sexton. Their conversations reportedly centered around their flirtations with death, and the restrictions imposed by marriage, especially on women. Plath was married to the British poet Ted Hughes, a more accomplished writer than she was at that time. Plath did not yet have children, but intended to. Sexton, four years older, represented what Plath wanted to be … a successful poet who was also raising a family.
When Plath committed suicide in 1963, Sexton wrote a poem eulogizing her friend. Later, she flippantly called the act “a good career move.” True, Plath’s bitter end eventually stimulated interest in The Bell Jar, the autobiographical novel about her first suicide attempt, but she wasn’t around to enjoy it. The novel trashed the very people who had done the most to help her through that crisis. Her children benefited financially from her posthumous success, but they didn’t have their mother. In fact, her act exposed them to a “wicked stepmother” figure, the woman Hughes had been seeing and who sparked the rage that was evident in Plath’s final poems. That woman eventually committed suicide as well, taking her young child with her. Sexton herself followed in 1974, as if determined to duplicate that “good career move.”
Plath didn’t aspire to become a poster child for depressive writers, but that was how it turned out. When she was at her happiest, as when she first met Ted Hughes while studying at Cambridge University, she declared her intention to become a joyous, life-affirming writer. Within weeks, she determined to marry him and transform him into her vision of the best man he could be. In a letter to her mother, she declared, “ … having been on the other side of life like Lazarus, I know that my whole being shall be one song of affirmation and love all my life long. I shall praise the lord and the crooked creatures he has made. My life shall be a constant finding of new ways and words in which to do this … my whole life will be a saying of poems and a loving of people and giving of my best fiber to them.”
If her desperate act was a good career move, it was a terrible life move. It darkens and stains every eulogy she inspires. The same can be said for Sexton, whose daughters, far from remembering her lovingly, accused her of abusing them. Plath’s son, Nicholas Hughes, a noted marine biologist, killed himself in 2009. Suicide does not enhance a legacy, or enrich someone’s story. It is as destructive to those left behind as to the perpetrator.