AN ARTICLE IN ATLANTIC.COM BEARS THE DISCONCERTING TITLE: “WRITERS ARE TWICE AS LIKELY TO COMMIT SUICIDE!”
I was very tempted not to comment on this piece by Lindsay Abrams (October 19 212) but then decided it would be cowardly not to. After all, I am endeavoring to give you some insight into the mindset of this particular writer, and the topic of suicide is one I’m all too familiar with, and not overly fond of thinking about; though, of course I do.
I used to think that suicide was rare. I was brought up a Catholic (I no longer practice) and that religion teaches that the ultimate sin is that of despair – essentially abandoning all hope – and that, in such a context, suicide is a truly terrible thing.
As I have aged; and, unfortunately, have acquired considerable direct experience of suicide – though I have never attempted the act myself – I have become much more understanding and sympathetic. First of all, the principle reason why people kill themselves is normally because of illness in general. Secondly, there is a major connection with mental illness in particular. In the first case the decision is rational, because when you know you are going to die anyway – and probably in great pain - why not chose the time and the place, and die with dignity? Secondly, where mental illness is concerned, people, by definition, are not fully in control of their faculties. There are other reasons too, including despair after losing a loved one, but again one could argue that “the balance of the mind was disturbed.”
Overall, I have become much more understanding of such tragedies, and tolerant of them. Indeed, I often feel: There, but for the grace of God, go I. Yes, I may not be a practicing Catholic these days, but an upbringing by Benedictine monks is not something that simply vanishes; and it is a beautiful expression of some of our finer feelings: Empathy, compassion and humanity.
When I found the hanging victim – and presumed suicide – that led to my writing GAMES OF THE HANGMAN I was badly shaken initially. Then a feeling of enormous sadness suffused me. Later, when a policeman cut the rope, and the head and upper half of the body fell into my arms – and it was a pretty grizzly sight – a deep sense of compassion gripped me, and I just want to hold him and bring him back to life again. It was not to be. Instead, after some moments, we laid the lifeless body down on the leaves and covered it with a blanket. Subsequently, there wasn’t much of an investigation – there rarely is where suicide is the assumption – and that lack haunted me, and drove me to write the book.
Before and since then, I have lost more family members, friends and acquaintances through suicide than I really care to contemplate.
The research quoted in the Atlantic article was Sweden’s Karolinska Institute and was based upon census data representing 1.2 million people. The findings substantiated the popular notion that creativity and mental illness are linked (though one could also argue that, all too often, the actions of creative people are merely deemed to indicate mental illness). The control in this study, by the way was “accountant” – presumably the very definition of normalcy!
Since the term “writer” covers a multitude – for instance there is a huge difference between a salaried journalist and the insecure financial life of a writer of creative fiction – the article goes on to nail my area with the clear statement: “Authors were almost twice as likely to commit suicide as the general population.” Hmm! Hard to dodge that one.
I guess I could argue that since the research seems to have been based upon Swedes, a notoriously moody lot who over-tax their alcohol, that it doesn’t apply to me.
Instead, I shall merely say, that as far as I am concerned, the rewards of writing far out-weigh the risks of being in such a category; and that some of the company of authors I am in, is remarkably distinguished.