If, as UD assumes, Karen Pletz killed herself (background here), she will represent one significant category of suicides, a category that UD describes simply as people who have boxed themselves in. These people aren’t mentally ill (that’s another category – clinical depressives); rather, they have, for various reasons, accumulated more bad stuff in their lives than they can handle. They can’t take the pressure. They want out. A. Alvarez describes this suicide, or suicide attempt, as “a terrible but utterly natural reaction to the strained, narrow, unnatural necessities we sometimes create for ourselves.”

Some in this group, like Pletz, are facing massive lawsuits and possible imprisonment; others (Bernard Madoff’s son, and the two other suicides directly linked to Madoff) cannot survive the shame and rage they feel at having been associated — even at a large remove — with evil. Some are imprisoned criminals — jailhouse suicides are pretty common. Some are political prisoners. Some are, say, alcoholics who despair of ever overcoming their alcoholism. The common thread is a belief that further efforts are futile, and that death is preferable to the life you see stretching before you.

Of course depression may be part of the mental world of many of these people; but they tend not to have spent years in therapy and on anti-depressants. They’re not strong candidates for suicide, the way people who have a settled despondency, with stints in clinics and several prior suicide attempts, may be.

When we think of suicide, it’s this melancholic group we tend to picture, which makes sense, since they represent a much larger number than the boxed themselves ins. The melancholics tend to develop, over time, the affectless, listless, disposition, and the thoroughly bleak thought-world, of classic depression. David Foster Wallace both embodied, and, in Infinite Jest, wrote brilliantly about this condition.


University student suicides, about which UD mainly writes, are usually something else again. Many seem what the experts call impulsive rather than premeditated suicides:

[The] tendency toward impulsivity is especially common among young people … In a 2001 University of Houston study of 153 survivors of nearly lethal attempts between the ages of 13 and 34, only 13 percent reported having contemplated their act for eight hours or longer. To the contrary, 70 percent set the interval between deciding to kill themselves and acting at less than an hour, including an astonishing 24 percent who pegged the interval at less than five minutes.

In the story “Paul’s Case,” Willa Cather imagines the last thought of a young impulsive suicide:

As he fell, the folly of his haste occurred to him with merciless clearness, the vastness of what he had left undone.

On this blog I’ve covered suicides of young women who suddenly threw themselves out of buildings because they’d had an argument with their father or been dumped by their boyfriend. I’ve written about Sam Roweis, a brilliant, sociable, madly successful NYU professor who jumped off of his balcony during a fight with his wife. Some suicides, as Camus wrote, are “prepared within the silence of the heart” – but not these.

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4 Responses to “Suicidology”

  1. dmf Says:

    most people wrestling with suicide do not want to die, they just don’t want to, often can’t bear to, keep living the way that they are and can see no other exit. We need to do a better job talking to young people (maybe as early as high school) about how hard life can be (and for most of us at some point or another has been) and certainly literary illustrations may also be of some use.

  2. Mike S. Says:

    To be fair, all those examples categorized as impulsive were necessarily unsuccessful attempts… Those events could very well be the first go round for persons who will later fit the following description:
    “people who have a settled despondency, with stints in clinics and several prior suicide attempts”

    The underlying idea of different processes being at work in different age groups is interesting, but I remain unconvinced in the face of limited data.

    The extremely short times given between decision and action provide another knock against claims that such violence is able to be predicted w/o a high rate of false positives. Whenever some kid self-annihilates at college, local administration officials predictably point to the availability of mental heath services on their campus (“we did everything we could”). Equally predictable is the plea to students “if you think someone around you is on the edge, speak up!”

    The Huston study points to the limitations of what can be achieved along those lines. Universities ought to stop feeding the notion that they can protect the students from all harms, not just on this issue but on many others as well. That unrealistic expectation is bound to cause problems.

  3. Farah Says:

    Not a specialist in this but I believe the evidence suggests that impulsive suicides *can* be reduced simply by reducing the opportunities: when Bristol finally put proper barriers on Clifton suspension bridge, the number of suicides in the city declined dramatically.

  4. University Diaries » Jack, a UD reader, tells UD that… Says:

    […] UD, who thinks here of the very similar suicide of Karen Pletz, Shakespearean is not quite right. These two suicides are the type UD calls boxed-in. People have […]

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