Over the weekend, hip-hot artist Jasiri X posted this image on his twitter feed. It’s taken from the front page of the New York Daily News’ website. Note the screaming headline and the sympathetic caption: “Accused killer Dylann Roof had one chance at a stable family life — and his abusive dad ruined it for…
At this point, I don’t even know where to begin. I’ve written about this topic so many times – too many, really – that whatever I say now will be repetitive, and, most likely, will fall on deaf ears. But writing about it is helpful, in as much as I get it off my chest and I’m able to get on with my day without smashing things in rage. So, why not?
There’s an article on Grantland by Caleb Hannan that you’ve probably heard about. I became aware of it through Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation and writer of The Edge of Sports blog. Purportedly, Hannan’s article is about a putter invented by Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, but the story’s really about Dr. Vanderbilt’s personal life. She is – no, I’m sorry, was – a transgender woman who did not want to be outed. Hannan, not satisfied with writing about the golf club itself, decided to out her, for reasons known only to him.
And so she killed herself.
Over the past few days, I’ve tried to finish Hannan’s article, but I’ve been unable to. If you want to read a thorough critique of it, I recommend Maria Dahvana Headleys’ excellent piece, “Sinatra’s Cold is Contagious: Hostile Subjects, Vulnerable Sources & the Ethics of Outing”. One commenter described Headley’s critique as “sobering,” which it is. I would also call it devastating. It was also covered on Tuesday’s episode of #TWiBRadio.
I can’t add much to what Headley has to say about Hannan’s lurid and unnecessary outing of a transgender woman who was not prepared to be out, other than to say I agree with every single word Headley says. I can, however, offer some thoughts about the related issue – to-wit: Hannan’s glib response to Dr. Vanderbilt’s suicide:
Not long after she sent her [final] email, I got a call from a Pennsylvania phone number that I didn’t recognize. It was Dr. V’s ex-brother-in-law, who represented the closest I had gotten to finding someone who could tell me what she’d been like in her previous life. “Well, there’s one less con man in the world now,” he said. Even though he hated his former family member, this seemed like an especially cruel way to tell me that Dr. V had died. All he could tell me was what he knew — that it had been a suicide. A few weeks later a police report filled in the details.
That’s it? She killed herself, and her ex-brother-in-law had something “exceptionally cruel” to say about it?
This, you see, is something I know something about. Not “exceptionally cruel” comments so much, but suicide. Yes, about that I know quite a bit.
I’ve told the story many times. I won’t belabor it now. Roughly 23 years ago, in April 1991, my brother John lost his battle with mental illness. He couldn’t deal with it any longer, and so he checked out. In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (who likewise took his own life) observed that suicide is not about doing harm to yourself; it’s about putting an end to your suffering. And so, there you go. Brother John was gone.
But it’s not that simple, of course, because the impact on everybody else is, in some ways, worse than the impact on the person who takes his or her own life. For the survivors of suicide – because that’s what we are: survivors – the end of that person’s suffering is the beginning of ours. And this isn’t some sanctimonious bullshit either. I’m not saying my brother should have had to continue to suffer on my account. I’m just saying that there’s no way he could possibly have understood what he left us with. When he tried to make whatever life-vs-death calculation he made in those final hours, he couldn’t possibly have factored in the full shit-ton of human suffering he’d leave in his wake.
I bear him no grudge, but those are the facts.
But, so, the point is, that’s not something you drop glibly at the end of some titillating piece of writing that’s supposed to be about a goddamn golf club and ends up being a cruel, self-indulgent exposé of . . . of . . . of what, exactly?
Oh, yeah. And then she killed herself.
You don’t just drop that in the laps of all the unsuspecting survivors out there; of all of us who know that those words open the gates to a certain kind of hell that never goes entirely away.
You think I’m the only one who stumbles across casual references to suicide and feels that kind of chill? Guess again: Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in America. There were 38,684 suicides reported in 2010, meaning one person died by suicide every 14 minutes. That means tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people join the ranks of the survivors every year. Whether you’re aware of it it or not, it’s almost certain you know one. So every casual comment, every flip, unthinking joke or mere reference to suicide like it’s just a fact or a statistic – that affects someone, perhaps someone you know, in ways you probably don’t get. Unless, of course, you’ve been there, too.
So, what the hell am I trying to say, anyway? I guess it’s this: Whenever you write about suicide, you’re not just writing about a single incident. You’re not just writing about a single life, or a single death, or a single tragedy. Whether you know it or not, you’re writing about the pain millions of survivors feel, and they feel it – at least some of it, anyway; it does, of course, lessen with time – whenever they happen upon your story. There are no isolated suicides, because every time you write about one, you’re writing about a pain we all feel. And unless you’ve felt it too, you have no idea what you’re talking about.
If you can’t grasp that, you probably shouldn’t write about it in the first place.