When I first heard the news of Robin Williams’ death, I rang off a litany of likely culprits: “Heart-attack? Aneurism? He did a lot of coke back in the day. Car accident..?” During the interlude between first newsflash until confirmation of intentional demise I was just hoping for it not to be suicide. But I wasn’t surprised when word came, because there was that palpable melancholy to Robin Williams. Something in the eyes, a shadow so obvious with hindsight. A deep ache that saturated his character in Good Will Hunting, made that famous scene with Will and the painting of the boat a performance that only a person who’d been lost in that sea could adequately translate.
When a celebrity dies by their own hand, each person who has lost someone to similar circumstances suffers their particular loss all over again, a proxy death. Bombarded by media coverage of the event, saturated in the word—suicide, suicide, suicide…
I had an open Word document that had been idling untouched for several weeks on my laptop. Just a note really—like the ever-growing collection of open-doc notes that I save as springboards to unrequited future essays. This particular document contained just nine words. A title—In Defense of Suicide—and three names: one a friend who drank himself to death, one a 20-year-old I’d known as a child, and the final entry the name of a young suicide victim I never knew, but yet cannot escape, as I now reside in a visceral proximity to his recent death.
It seems strange on first light that we say “victim”—as if the deceased hadn’t themselves pulled the trigger, tied the rope, took the pills, took the plunge. As if they were killed by some outside force. But maybe it is better to think this way, because so much of our sifting through the post-suicide ashes always seems to come back to judgment: assigning blame, finding the suicidal lacking in fortitude. This is uncharitable at best; at worst these judgments constitute a mean-spirited character assassination.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not trying to justify suicide, nor condoning the terminal act. I merely want to acknowledge that there is some pain—internal and invisible—that is too great to withstand, some suffering that is beyond management with psychology and medication.
What is the difference between the “suicide” victim and the dozens of 9/11 “jumpers”—those people who leapt out of the top floors of the Twin Towers, trapped by the fires raging below them? The relative quickness of the towers’ disintegration spared us all—those who died, those who watched—the additional agony of a slow-roasting death for those who hadn’t yet leapt. But we don’t consider the jumpers true “suicides,” their decision forever asterisked with “9/11,” because we have a simple, understandable explanation for their action. They were in unbearable agony, and any being facing that kind of suffering—steel-melting heat—will eventually do whatever it takes to escape the pain, just as the wolf gnaws through his own leg when caught in the brutal jaws of the steel trap.
No one questions the heart of those 9/11 jumpers, calls them weak or cowardly. Because we could see. We saw the smoke and the flame, we mentally calculated—even as we tried not to—the incredible heat emitted by a fire that size.
We understand the idea of terminal mercy—we put our failing pets “out of their misery,” rather than forcing them to suffer. We are still in the early stages of the ethical debate about assisted-suicide for dying humans, but we don’t debate the ethical need for relief—the end-of-life morphine drip is the distilled acknowledgement of our desire for a merciful, numbing caress on the descent into oblivion.
But in the suicide of the outwardly healthy—and particularly the young—we are quick to judge: they’re throwing it all away, they don’t understand that it gets better, they’re weak or naïve, or worst of all—selfish. How could they do that to us, the survivors? How can they put us through that suffering? But consider for a moment that though we can’t see the clear indications—burning building, hands waving desperate white flags out open windows—that the suicide victim is suffering a similar slow burn, a molten interior. Maybe they just want to get beyond that crucible by any means possible.
This is why the context of death becomes so important to us.
A good death.
A heroic death.
A common death.
A normal old-age death.
A bad death.
The drug overdose is a bad death. Phillip Seymour Hoffman with a syringe in his arm, Heath Ledger face down on a Brooklyn apartment floor.
Suicide is a bad death. If Kurt Kobain had died of an aneurysm. If Hunter S. Thompson had died of old age. If David Foster Wallace had died trying to save someone from a burning building. If Robin Williams had died of a heart attack.
We all, to some extent, fear death—whether we’re ready to acknowledge it yet or not. And for those of us who have thought at all about our own end, what many of us fear most is the possibility of a bad death. This I think is why we fear suicide—just as much as we fear HIV or Ebola. We fear the incurable unknown. We fear that the depression that drives the suicidal impulse might be communicable, that we might become infected with fatal melancholy. We fear that by openly talking about suicide, by acknowledging it any tone other than one of righteous judgment, we might plant the seed of acceptance. So we perpetuate a silence-based abstinence-only policy.
Particularly in the suicides of our rich and famous—those who “have it all” and have no “reason” to kill themselves—it is in these “bad deaths” that we most fear that unknown darkness. In the celebrity suicide we feel vulnerable to the onslaught of a lethal force that can’t be bargained with, an invading army that can’t be bought off with any worldly treasure.
We fear having to confront that dark impulse that nobody can possibly understand until they’ve been there—and we do not want to ever be there, we don’t ever want to know, because to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, the only ones who know are the ones who crossed that line and didn’t come back.
So we turn our gaze inward, as we can’t help but to do in the wake of our ritual communal grieving. And we look at ourselves in our scuffed mirrors and we fear the unknowable darkness of the celebrity suicide because we know that our own comparatively pedestrian joys—our only defensive bulwark—would surely be too fragile to withstand such weight.