What to say? UD‘s longtime readers know that her father – an eminent immunologist at NIH who had a good marriage and friends and four healthy kids – committed suicide when he was 58. Ever since that happened, she’s done a lot of thinking and reading and writing about the act, and these words by Elaine Ellis Thomas (her son Seth killed himself) convey a good deal of what UD has concluded about it.
Suicide brings on a very particular and peculiar kind of grief. The guilt and second-guessing and pure horror that someone could end one’s own life cause excruciating pain for family and friends. I have learned more about this than I care to know in the time since Seth died. Although we still know very little about John Miller’s tragic passing [Miller was a music instructor at Yale], I thought it might be helpful to share some of that hard-earned knowledge.
You could not have prevented it. Even if you think that you could have on that particular occasion, there is no guarantee that it would not have happened some other time. If you are wondering why you didn’t go with John or ask him to come over if he seemed out of sorts, don’t blame yourself. Seth’s roommate was in an adjoining room when he died. Having someone nearby made no difference at all.
If you’re trying to make rational sense of how something like this could happen to someone with such talent and such a bright future, you really can’t think about it rationally — there is no rational explanation. Normal people, those who are not sick in some way, do not kill themselves. Our most basic human instinct is for survival, so to cause one’s own demise subverts that in ways our healthy intellects can’t imagine.
If you’re thinking that John made a choice to end his life, I can’t agree. Whatever was tormenting him — depression, mental illness, some event that threw his mental wiring off kilter — that is what took him. As I said before, it isn’t a rational choice. Suicides are committed by people driven by a distorted mental and emotional reality. It isn’t really a choice.
I think a lot of people sensed these truths very strongly a couple of years ago when one of the goldenest of golden boys, Alan Krueger, killed himself at the age of 58 (same age as my father). Brilliant, handsome, courtly and kind, at the very top of his game, Krueger had it all – an Ivy League professorship, high-level positions in the federal government, a seemingly happy personal life, etc. Yet off he went, with not one of his many friends having had an inkling, as they tell it, that something was disastrously wrong inside his head.
Another thing UD has come to understand about suicide – there are several pretty clearly distinct kinds. We have already referred to two here – suicide among the young (Tommy Raskin), and suicide among the middle-aged (Krueger; my father). A third kind – suicide among the elderly – is the easiest to understand, it seems to me. Consider one such that I wrote about not long ago – my Northwestern University professor, Erich Heller. I gather, from reading about it, that Heller’s life sort of tapered to an end and he just got bored and lonely and sad. His younger life had been pretty heady, conducted among the literary and philosophical elite of Europe and America; in old age, with most of his friends dead and Heller frail, unwell, and pretty much alone, the whole existence thing must not have seemed much of a bargain. When things come to an end but you’re still sort of pointlessly hanging around, it can seem a little de trop to keep going through the (increasingly excruciating) motions.
I’ve written a lot, on this blog about universities, about student suicides. These may seem spontaneous, some sort of psychotic break, and can be dramatically – athletically! – enacted, reflecting in a final dark inversion the vitality and impulsivity of the young. But despite their seeming suddenness, most acts of suicide among the young are, as Camus wrote of all suicides, “prepared within the silence of the heart.” Many youthful suicides are carefully planned, and may feature rational, and very apologetic, suicide notes. Once people become, in Thomas’s words, “driven by a distorted mental and emotional reality,” their life becomes intense daily warfare between psychic pain that wants to kill them and doctors/pills/therapists/loved ones who want to save them. In notes like Raskin’s, which his parents released, the writer acknowledges, with what is left of his rational mind, that the war has been lost:
“He left us this farewell note on New Year’s Eve day: ‘Please forgive me. My illness won today. Please look after each other, the animals, and the global poor for me. All my love, Tommy.’”
Depression, to state what I guess is the obvious, kills most suicides. My father, diagnosed bipolar, died with a full load of anti-depressant medication in him, prescribed by a sympathetic and highly qualified psychiatrist. But the depression won that day. The symbolism of the end of the year spoke – insidiously whispered – to Tommy Raskin on his final day. Enough already. You’ve come to the very end.
The pathos of early life suicides lies in the irresistable thought that if somehow the lost could have just been – magically? – carried over the worst, if they could have been somehow sustained through the shocks to their sense of life as ongoing that they had to endure, they would have recovered and lived long lives. Heller we pity and understand; Krueger, like my father, presents as someone who was probably lucky to get 58 years, given what might well have been deep-lying, decades-long struggle against an immovably depressive disposition. But in the case of the young, like Tommy Raskin, I can’t help envisioning … I dunno… an Angels in America intervention that shields them until the storms abate.
Anyway. He was wise. See my headline. Hard to be a human. Ain’t it the truth.