The rest of us were regular undergrads, students in our early 20s who'd gone to college right after high school, but Joe wasn't. He was a good 10 years older than us and had come back to school to try again for a degree. It wasn't that he wasn't smart. He was very smart. He'd read more than all of us put together, more than even some of our professors, but he had never had an easy time of anything. We didn't know a lot about his past. From things he said we knew that he had lived in Paris for a while, been with a guy, and now was being helped along financially by an aunt. We knew from how he was with us that he was kind and funny and generous. He drank buckets of Coke and smoked packs and packs of Pall Mall filterless cigarettes.
After I had settled into my new place, Joe came down to see me. We stayed up late in the little room I was renting and we talked. I had a kid's bed, the room had been a kid's room once, and there was just enough room on the floor for Joe to lie on the pile of blankets and sleeping bags and camping mats we had pulled together to be the "guest bed." Joe no longer sounded worried, the way he had for a while, about what he was going to do after all of us graduated. He sounded a way I hadn't heard him before. He sounded calm.
A few weeks later he was dead.
I got the call from one of our friends and took the bus back up that night. Everyone was upset, but no one was really surprised.
When I was able to think about it later, I wondered if Joe had come to tell me good-bye. I asked some of his family and our other friends, and everybody said that whenever they had seen Joe in his last couple of months, he'd seemed like he had turned a corner, like he was happy.
If Joe had ended his life in a century prior to ours, the church and the state would have been much more powerful than they are today in prescribing how one should regard his death. History of Suicide, by George Minois, describes the evolution of attitudes to self-murder in the West since classical times. This 1995 study, recently translated from the French by Lydia G. Cochrane, is crisp and scholarly, as concerned with the demographics of class, age, and gender as it is with the religious, moral, and legal issues raised by suicide. Though some of the material overlaps, it's a very different book from A. Alvarez's 1971 The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. Alvarez's book opens with a prologue about the suicide of his friend and fellow poet, Sylvia Plath. It ends with an account of Alvarez's own failed suicide attempt and how his life changed after it. Alvarez looks at how suicide is depicted in literature and the high rate of suicide or death impulses in creative people. This stance is inherently Romantic, of course, and occasionally sounds like a whiny defense of some kind of sensitive, artistic, suicidal elite. Then again, Alvarez is writing about writers, people who overdramatize and exaggerate their fucked-up lives in order to tell a story.
The people who tell their stories in Waking Up Alive: The Descent, the Suicide Attempt, and the Return to Life, by Richard Heckler, a psychologist, aren't self-selected artists. They are folks who have tried, like someone in the U.S. does every minute, to kill themselves. They are people who came very close, but not quite close enough, to dying of the eighth-leading cause for everyone--third-leading cause for adolescents and young adults--of death in this country. The stories these people tell of wanting to do themselves in are scary. The stories they tell of waking up alive after trying to die, of feeling something like hope or grace, or like they've been given a miraculous second chance, and wanting it, are moving. The stories they tell of feeling like they've failed, again, at dying, are horrible.
As long as people have been dying, they've been dying by their own hands. Minois and Alvarez both talk about the idea of the "honorable" self-death among upper-class people in ancient Greece. Socrates, though he didn't argue as strongly for suicide as did the Stoics, for whom life and death were equivalent in value, or the Epicureans, for whom life was about pleasure, drank his hemlock cheerfully. Plato and his cronies were very big on moderation and argued that when life itself, because of illness or great anguish or constraint, became immoderate, suicide was a rational way out.
But that was only if your life was legally your own, if you were a free man. If you were a slave, you were somebody else's property, and killing yourself was destroying that other person's property, a crime. Poor people didn't get to debate the finer points of philosophy and order out for hemlock. They killed themselves for less dignified reasons, like poverty and despair, and in less dignified ways, by hanging, drowning, jumping off a cliff.
Then Christianity came along and told slaves that, though their bodies might be owned by their earthly human masters, their souls were their very own and could live in heaven eternally with their God. On the one hand this allowed Christian converts to have some kind of private, spiritual dignity while being poor and enslaved. On the other hand it allowed them to think that if dying was the way to get to heaven, why not die soon? This way of thinking, along with a desire to profess their radical faith in dire circumstances, made early Christians crazy about death. After all, the founder of their faith had gone willingly to his death. The first few centuries of Christianity became the Golden Age of Martyrdom. In the late fourth century, Augustine, partly to put a damper on the Donatists--an avidly suicidal Heaven's Gate-style cult--argued that life is the gift of God and it is a sin to kill yourself. After Augustine, a Christian who attempted suicide would be excommunicated; the body of a successful suicide could not be buried in sacred ground.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Catholic church regarded self-murder as a mortal sin against God. The bodies of some suicides had stakes driven through their hearts, like vampires, or were buried at busy crossroads to confuse the dead spirit who might want to come back to haunt the living. The possessions of a suicide, and those of his family, were taken away. Some people regarded suicide as the result of possession by the devil and, reasoning that anyone associated with the possessed was tainted, ostracized surviving family members. Others regarded suicide as a result of an inheritable madness. But everybody thought the souls of suicides went to hell.
During the Renaissance, humanist thinkers reconsidered Greek ideas about choosing to die. In the most famous dramatic monologue ever written, Hamlet's "To be or not to be," a guy wonders whether he should continue to live in the nasty world or off himself. The 1770 suicide of the marvelous boy, Cobain-like English poet Thomas Chatterton, gave rise to some copycat suicides. But the self-murder of Goethe's fictional character Werther made suicide a fad among sensitive Romantic types. In our own anxious century, Albert Camus wrote, in The Myth of Sisyphus, "There is but only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide."
Even if suicide is the only serious philosophical problem of our or any age, it doesn't seem to me to be primarily a philosophical problem. I don't think Joe killed himself as an outcome of or as a means by which to explore a philosophical problem. I think he killed himself because he wanted out of his life.
The times I thought seriously about killing myself, which I'm glad to say were a while ago, I wasn't thinking about philosophy. I wasn't thinking about religion or heaven or even guilt-tripping anyone with a "see how awful you were to me!"-type suicide note. I simply needed to stop living my shithole of a life. My plans were to do it quietly and make it look like an accident.
Now I tend to think about those times in medical terms like "self-destructive behavior," "mental illness," "psychotic break." But I wonder if those are just new words for what used to be called stoic rationalism, Christian martyrdom, despair, or the Romantic malady. Certainly, as Minois and Alvarez recount so ably, different cultures provide different contexts for and ascribe different meanings to the death of anyone by her own hand. The people who told Heckler about their suicide attempts had different reasons for wanting to die. What they had in common was their desire to die and the fact that they were not able to.
I can't get away from the fact that Joe was able to. I still get sad that Joe is dead. I miss him. But I don't think of his suicide as a "tragedy" or "terrible mistake" or "cry for help." Joe wasn't dumb. I believe he knew what he was doing. I believe he made a conscious, defensible, utterly private decision.
Maybe I am trying to tell this story because Joe can't. But maybe I'm really telling it for me. I do not know the end of his story, so I have to imagine it. So I imagine it being not so bad. I try to remember a sudden calm in him, and that he had tried to say, in his own way, good-bye. I tell myself he was trying to put an end to his misery. I hope he did.