Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Suicide and Celebrity

Michael Gerson of WaPo:

Americans, always fascinated by celebrity suicides, have a number of recent excuses for sympathetic voyeurism. Andrew Koenig, 41-year-old son of actor Walter Koenig, hanged himself in a Vancouver park after leaving a despondent note. Days later, Michael Blosil, the 18-year-old son of singer Marie Osmond, jumped from his eighth-floor apartment after writing that his depression had left him feeling friendless.

A few years ago, Brad Delp, lead singer for the band Boston, killed himself after writing, "I am a lonely soul." South Korean supermodel Daul Kim wrote before her suicide last year, "The more I gain, the more lonely it is. . . . I know I'm like a ghost."

But it is the peculiar cruelty of hopelessness and severe depression that they attack insight and perspective. People can experience themselves as someone they hate and cannot escape, except by shedding the self. In "The Savage God: A Study of Suicide," A. Alvarez argues, "The logic of suicide is different. It is like the unanswerable logic of a nightmare, or like the science-fiction fantasy of being projected suddenly into another dimension: Everything makes sense and follows its own strict rules; yet, at the same time, everything is also different, perverted, upside down. Once a man decides to take his own life he enters a shut-off, impregnable but wholly convincing world where every detail fits and each incident reinforces his decision."
Students (most of us, really) have a hard time understanding this because of the seeming irrationality of the act, but to the despondent person, in the throes of suicidal ideation, taking your life seems 100% rational. And once viewed as such, virtually impossible to stop.

But we can certainly try.
Walter Koenig's message following his son's death is apt: "For those families who have members who they fear are susceptible to this kind of behavior, don't ignore it, don't rationalize it, extend a hand."
UPDATE: I forgot to mention yesterday, but on the topic of suicide, if you did not catch the Tuesday edition of Frontline, "The Suicide Tourist," you need to. A few weeks ago in 1101 I showed students a short clip on Jack Kevorkian and assisted suicide, but this one-hour documentary, from Academy-Award winning director John Ziritsky ("Just Another Missing Kid"), is one of the most powerful films I've ever seen on the subject.

Given our aging population, the millions of retiring Baby Boomers, and the entire health care debate raging in the country at the moment, the film addresses the one substantial question we never get around to debating: at what point does life become unlivable? And a corollary might be, should the terminally ill have the right to end their lives in a dignified manner?

UPDATE II: In response to the question, how much does assisted suicide occur in the U.S.: Washington State and Oregon, both of whom allow physician-assisted suicide, released their annual reports yesterday. Washington claims 36 persons died of assisted suicide in 2009 while Oregon reported 59 persons.

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