The Taste of Hemlock
Time, June 12, 1972


by James A. Wechsler 160 pages; Norton; $5.95.

by A. Alvarez
299 pages; Random House; $7.95.

by Jacques Choron
182 pages; Scribners; $7.95.

by Paul W. Pretzel
251 pages; Abingdon Press; $5.95.

IN THE PAST 15 YEARS, something called suicidology has flourished in the U.S. as never before. Many good studies and much bad prose have resulted. Since 1957, for instance, more than 1,200 books on suicide have appeared. Most of them are technical, widely unread, prepared by (and for) sociologists, psychologists and suicidologists working in the 300 suicide-prevention centers now operating round the country. This spring, however, along with a flow of popular articles and television shows on self-destruction, a number of books have been published, all more or less aimed at the general public. Suicide, in fact, seems about to join teen-age druggery and air pollution as one of the glum preoccupations of the decade.

This sort of attention, it may be argued, is perfectly healthy. Suicide, after all, used to be punished by driving a stake through the heart of the victim (ex post facto). It is still to some extent a shame-shrouded topic. And if the 20th century has taken anything on faith it is the belief that talking about how sick you are is a step toward recovery.

Yet one is hard put to read these four very different books without some misgivings. For if the root reasons for suicide remain murky, among the likely contributory causes is the power of personal example, as well as what might be called sheer morbid faddishness. The more people hear suicide discussed as an honorable solution to the pangs of living, the more people—given other stresses—are likely to try it. It is statistically true that if anyone in a child's close-knit world commits suicide, the child's chances of eventually doing the same thing increase by as much as 75%.

Beside such rude behavioral correlations, rarefied debate about whether suicide is justified or not, as well as neo-Stoical huffing about the inalienable right of alienated man to do himself in, seems frivolous. As these books show, suicidology at first seems an almost abstract subject full of piquant and possibly significant details. Dentists, we learn, lead all professions in killing themselves—followed closely by psychiatrists. Women try suicide three times as often as men but fail much more often. April and May, not the dead of winter, are the crudest months; Hungary, not Sweden, has the world's highest national rate (29.8 per 100,000 people per year); divorced men are among the worst suicide risks. The accumulation of suicide theory and statistics, though, does little finally to illuminate what British Poet-Critic A. Alvarez refers to as the "shabby, confused, agonized crisis which is the common reality of suicide." And that reality does not seem an appropriate subject either for cocktail-party chatter or for purely literary exploitation. It is more like cancer, a mysterious plague that cries out not for philosophy but for a palliative.

Those who think otherwise might start by reading In a Darkness. James Wechsler is a columnist and one of the top editors of the New York Post. His book is a personal memoir about his son Michael, who killed himself at age 26 after years of sporadically crippling melancholy officially diagnosed as schizophrenia. Wechsler is remarkably persuasive in his main purpose, which is to report—partly as a warning to others who may go that way themselves—the hopeless wanderings he and his wife and Michael took in the deserts of Freudian analysis before the end came.

Gobbled Pills. A succession of psychiatrists (clinically designated as Dr. First, Dr. Second, and so on, through Dr. Eighth) disagreed about treatment—alternately consigning Michael to incarceration or declaring him on the mend. Their consistent effect was to make scapegoats of the parents, cutting them away from the boy so they could neither help nor comfort him. The book's title, In a Darkness, remains an accurate description both of those who eventually kill themselves and of those around them who love them yet fail to help.

By contrast, A. Alvarez's book holds promise of cutting closer to the bone. Creative writers who attempt or contemplate suicide, Alvarez suggests, are likely to bear more eloquent witness than mere unlettered melancholiacs. Accordingly The Savage God begins and ends with an intimate look at two suicides, one successful (if that is the word), one not. The first is the death of Sylvia Plath in the winter of 1962. Alvarez, then as now poetry editor of the London Observer, was a friend of the lady's during her final months, and he describes, in confessional though sometimes disingenuous detail, meetings, at which she showed him some of her last poems. The second case is Alvarez's own suicide attempt, which he rather coyly refrains from mentioning until the final chapter of the book. Two years before Plath, he tried to do away with himself by gobbling (his verb) 45 sleeping pills.

Today nearly everyone is willing to admit that some people are better off dead. But Sylvia Plath was a better than pretty, more than brilliant young woman with two children whom she loved, and an extraordinary talent. Alvarez makes skillful use of her story, not merely to launch his book with a charge of emotion but to explore a basic Freudian concept of suicide as aggression against others—in Plath's case her dead father—turned against oneself.

Alvarez's closing account of his own suicide attempt serves little purpose, beyond proving that he, too, is a member of the club. He recalls how his parents used to talk of putting their heads in the oven and adds that for years he went around repeating "Iwishiweredead" to himself. But why? And how did he feel as the final, slow, nightmarish slide toward darkness took hold of him in his 31st year? Did he do anything so prosaic as hide the pills in those spare moments of common sense when he wondered, as he must have wondered, what effect his death would have on his small child? For all we learn, Alvarez might just as well be a tongue-tied stockbroker. The only flash of revelation comes after his recovery. He speaks of the source of his earlier despair as a prolonged adolescent expectation of life. Afterward he realized that he was simply and undramatically unhappy: "I had accepted that there weren't ever going to be any answers, even in death."

Coals to Newcastle

Daniel Defoe was once put in the stocks in 18th century London for writing a treatise against the political power of the church. He promptly penned a poem about the experience and had it hawked in the very street where he was taking his punishment. A similar entrepreneurial taint clouds Alvarez's effort. He makes a fine brisk guide to changing historic attitudes toward suicide: Roman Stoics practiced it gladly; romantic poets preached it madly; the early Christians pursued de facto suicide by avidly seeking martyrdom, until in A.D. 412 Saint Augustine declared the act a mortal sin. Alvarez also offers a fascinating chronicle of literary figures who espoused, contemplated or tried suicide—Montaigne, John Donne, Cowper, Thomas Chatterton, Dostoevsky, and so on up to Hart Crane and Ernest Hemingway. It is only toward the end that one realizes Alvarez is thesis pushing, that the book is as much apologia as inquiry. His questionable message: the 20th century is the age of death. But, Alvarez argues, because mankind is only numbly aware of this, the risky purpose of the creative writer must now be to force his audience "to recognize and accept imaginatively . . . not the facts of life but the facts of death and violence: absurd, random, gratuitous, unjustified." This mission may be regarded as carrying coals to Newcastle. Alvarez, however, clearly feels quietly (and personally) Promethean about it all.

After Alvarez it is almost a pleasure to turn to something as thematically underwrought as German-trained Philosopher Jacques Choron's dry survey course in suicidology. Whether or not this is the age of death, Choron points out, the U.S. suicide rate has not increased for more than 20 years. (Since World War II it has hovered near eleven per 100,000 population each year.) Though suicide is listed as the tenth largest killer in the U.S., even that fact is misleading since it accounts for only 1% of all yearly deaths. Choron spent years working in suicide-prevention centers. Like Suicide Counselor Paul Pretzel, he takes some pride in the fact that the suicide rate has lately been reduced in the highest category—people from 60 to 65. (Hope, says the proverb, makes a good breakfast but a poor supper.) Just the same, Choron feels that suicide should be made easier in a few cases, most notably as a sort of self-inflicted euthanasia for the hopelessly sick or incapacitated.

The assigning of absolute internal or external causes for suicide—from sheer loneliness to Freud's famous death wish—founders on the mysterious (and miraculous) fact that under similar stresses some people kill themselves and some do not. Counselors like Pretzel naturally worry less about absolutes and man's right to die than they do about the necessary conspiracy of the living to help one another carry on. An estimated 90% of attempted suicides who are saved by prevention centers are pitifully grateful afterward.

How to Do It

Pretzel also reports that only 15% of the 9,000 calls that each year come into the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center (one of the nation's oldest) are rated high risk. The judgment depends on a number of things, among them age, economic and marital status. Not surprisingly, the single are more likely to go through with it than the married, the childless more likely than those with children. Also important for friends and counselors, says Pretzel, is a quick estimate of how strong the caller's death wish is. A rough measure is how specific a means he has chosen, how deadly it is, and how easy to get hold of. Out of squeamishness, out of refusal to believe the threat, out of plain fear that it might touch things off, few people will ask a threatened suicide one key question that must be asked: "How do you plan to kill yourself?"  If he has not yet made up his mind exactly how, says Pretzel, the immediate risk is small.

One shift in the suicidal pattern that only Choron considers is the recent rise of such deaths among teenagers. Drugs and cultural dislocation seem handy enough explanations. But the fact stirs the question of how in youth, the heart first acquires a residual trust in life strong enough to carry it through later hardship.

As a 19th century man glumly opening the door on the 20th, Freud once wrote: "The moment one inquires about the sense or value of life, one is sick."

True enough. But especially in the 20th century, how is man to ignore the pain and wisdom symbolically acquired by all that foolishness in the Garden of Eden? Sociologists and psychologists tend to assume that fewer people who belong to an organized religion kill themselves, not because they possess a spiritual strength but simply because they belong to a community, which helps allay loneliness. The view is probably wrong. As formal religions have declined, the compulsive human need to believe that life has meaning has created replacement religions, none of them, so far, more than marginally adequate. In Marxism, the hope of heaven is replaced by an imagined time when the state shall wither away. Existentialism is nothing less than the bare assertion that the meaninglessness of life is what gives it meaning, and in fact makes life worth living. That is what Camus meant in The Myth of Sisyphus when he wrote, "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide." Camus decided to live, in the teeth of what he took to be cosmic absurdity. Weaker men often do not.

Their collective suicides are cries for an escape from the self that does not lead to darkness.