Tuesday, September 13, 2011

sui caedere - another suicide watch, another time

Behold me then, a man happy and in good health, hiding the rope in order not to hang myself to the rafters of the room where every night I went to sleep alone [...]
                                                                                                    – Tolstoy

I forced myself to go and write the other night. I say forced because all I can bring myself to do these days is run, literally and figuratively. I find myself intolerable, most of the time. I can't be with myself.

I don't know that I am actually suicidal. I think I am probably just desperate. Maybe. I don't know what I'm talking about anymore: I long for an old love who never loved me; I long for redemption, only it doesn't exist; mostly what I want is a string of good, old-fashioned, transformative, violent, drunken punk shows.

I was going to tell a story about a suicide attempt of mine, and a park, and a suburban bedroom. But then I remembered the line from Tolstoy quoted above. When I googled it, I came across a book from the 1960s called Traitor Within. I couldn't put it down. It's probably not the smartest thing for me to spend the evening alone reading about suicide and suicidal culture. But I found it irresistible.

I fell asleep before I could I finish it. And I dreamed of death and dying and autonomy. And the next morning as the media frenzied over the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, all I could think of was the narratives we always seem to leave out, the one's like this one Chris Hedges mentions here.  He says:
The images of the “jumpers” proved too gruesome for the TV networks. Even before the towers collapsed, the falling men and women were censored from live broadcasts. Isolated pictures appeared the next day in papers, including The New York Times, and then were banished. The mass suicide, one of the most pivotal and important elements in the narrative of 9/11, was expunged. It remains expunged from public consciousness.
What about these images, these deaths, needed to be repressed? These suicides did not, according to Hedges, fit into the narrative that the nation required at the time. What the nation wanted was stories of heroism and self-sacrifice, unity and national pride; not a reminder of the inevitable reality that, at some point, we will all be faced with the choice of how we die, no longer how we live.

Another way to describe this is that what the state and it's related institutions demanded were stories about respect for authority, not stories about the radically personal and terrible choices faced by those men and women who threw themselves from the tops of burning buildings – in sequence, alone and in pairs.

Historically, ending one's own life has been viewed with more or less contempt by Western cultures, based, in large part, on the character of authority at that moment in time. And this makes a kind of sense. A conservative social order that emphasizes the connectedness and inter-responsibility of its members will view suicide in a much more negative light than one that values self-determination and autonomy. Or, to put it another way, if authority rests in the vestments and body of the church and king (and later in the state and its institutions), then your individual body is their property and it is their right to torture and kill you, not yours.

The suppression of these narratives of tumbling bodies and horrific impacts mirrors our own indecisiveness when it comes to the community and autonomy we wish for ourselves. This isn't an either/ or situation. As I have repeated ad nauseum, we are (that is, we exist as human) only in relation to each other – to language and power and will... . But we also seek and want some sense of our own individual agency in the world. That is to say that we want to belong, and we want to be free to choose our own lives. And when faced with the monstrosity of some situations (whether personal tragedy, or intolerable social and cultural barbarity like that of post 9/11 America), sometimes that choice comes down to how we die.

I started writing this post with the intention of telling a story about a suicide attempt of mine that I survived accidentally; an attempt filled with desperation, tragedy, warmth, and humor. But a more sinister humor reminded me of another suicide narrative from my past.

A few years ago, for reasons that are publicly unexplained, an older couple close to my family, Manfred and Margarita Kopp, killed themselves. It was ruled a murder-suicide by police. They didn't leave a note explaining their actions.

When I was growing up, Manfred taught me to sail. Margarita tried to teach me piano. Their son, who found their bodies, taught to me to slap box. They were a lovely and remarkable couple. And while I can never presume to know what went through their minds that afternoon, I can imagine. Manfred had been very ill with Parkinson's for quite a while. And as I watch my own father suffer with that same disease, and see the unbearable pain he is in today, I can imagine what lead to the deaths of these two family friends.

It is only conjecture on my part. But I imagine Margarita shooting her husband and then herself because of an immense love, sadness and desire to end his suffering. It is tragic. It is also a final, beautiful gesture.  [In this love, I am reminded of the story of the Japanese Princess Pu who died cradled in her lover's arm instead of being forced to marry the prince she did not love.]

It was my suffering father's humor that reminded me of the Kopp's murder-suicide the other day. He has had Parkinson's for many years. And a recent surgery for nerve damage has left him in debilitating and constant pain. It's entirely unclear how much is mechanical (pressure on the nerves, inflamation, etc.) and how much is a neurological result of the Parkinson's. No one seems entirely sure. The hope is that a slow recovery will bring him back to manageable levels of pain, the pain merely associated with Parkinson's. In the meantime he responds to mine and my mother's looks of concern with gallows humor. “Don't get any ideas,” he likes to say. “I'm still in good spirits.”

I have some sense of what this is like for my mom. I cared for a sick partner as well. And watching someone you love suffer is terrible, at best. And while you might think that it offers some kind of existential redemption, mostly it just hurts. Today I find myself leaving the room in order to spare my father my tears, just like I did a little over a year ago with my former partner. She got better; her cancer is in remission and she seems happy and full of life. He will likely get a little better. But Parkinson's doesn't go away, and at this point we just don't know what the rest of his life will be like.

There is still hope that it will be a long and meaningful life.

A while ago, a close friend of mine came to talk to me about my suicidal inclinations. He said, bluntly, “I have no doubt that you will kill yourself someday. Just not now.” He meant that I loved my life too much: art, pathos, girls, dancing, beer, friends, bikes... . I doubt that any or all of those are reasons to live. But, when looking at the tears well up in my dad's eyes when he tries to sit up and eat, the thought of taking my own life becomes unimaginable... for now.


  1. I think perhaps I'll crawl inside your mind and hide between your beautiful/scary/charming/dark/sublime thoughts and memories.

    Just for a moment.

  2. Are you lost in there? No blog posts, your facebook went missing, and I do feel a little weird- possessed.

  3. I knew the Kopps for many years as we both sailed in Knoxville area. I was totally shocked at the terrible news, but your suggested explanation gave me some small amount of calm to my distress. I left the area 20 years ago and am no longer in touch with any of my old sailing friends. They were wonderful people and shepherded my husband and I on several new-to-us sailing adventures. We always respected them and I always looked forward to seeing them. I did not know he had been ill.
    Elaine Bradford Moore

    1. Thanks for your comment. I often think of them and that terrible choice...