Saturday, December 07, 2013


David Brooks published a column about suicide yesterday.

Brooks spends half the column dithering -- he tells us, in typical Brooksian fashion, that people who commit suicide "need an idea or story to bring them to the edge," and urges us to "attack the ideas and stories that seem to justify" suicide, but he never tells us what he thinks these ideas and stories are, or how he believes we might attack them. It's as if Brooks is just reverting to being Brooks, telling us that suicide depends on stories we tell ourselves the way he might tell us that our voting patterns or opinions of Obamacare depend on stories we tell ourselves, a clever-seeming bit of faux-wisdom that leaves Brooks feeling very pleased with himself.

Only near the end of the column do we get to the gist of what Brooks believes, and it's essentially that if you're in crushing emotional pain, you're a selfish pig unless you suck it up and go on living -- which may have a kernel of truth, but is one of the worst things I can imagine saying to a person living in a state of profound despair:
In her eloquent and affecting book "Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It," Jennifer Michael Hecht presents two big counterideas that she hopes people contemplating potential suicides will keep in their heads. Her first is that, "Suicide is delayed homicide." Suicides happen in clusters, with one person's suicide influencing the other's. If a parent commits suicide, his or her children are three times as likely to do so at some point in their lives....

Her second argument is that you owe it to your future self to live. A 1978 study tracked down 515 people who were stopped from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Decades later, Hecht writes, "94 percent of those who had tried to commit suicide on the bridge were still alive or had died of natural causes." Suicide is an act of chronological arrogance, the assumption that the impulse of the moment has a right to dictate the judgment of future decades.
I agree that some people who are suicidally depressed might spare themselves if they thought about the people their suicides affect. I also agree that people who set out to commit suicide and survive often carry on with their lives, grateful that their attempts ended in failaure. I wish more of our bridges had suicide barriers for this very reason. I think people who do suicide prevention work are on the side of the angels.

But "Suicide is an act of chronological arrogance"? What kind of person thinks of the deeply depressed and writes about "arrogance"? What the hell is wrong with Brooks?

To some extent, it's his source material. I haven't read Jennifer Michael Hecht's book, but she directs us to a sample of the book's contents, an article she published in The American Scholar on the subject of suicide among members of the military. She uses the story of Ajax's suicide in Ovid's Metamorphoses as a jumping-off point:
By and large, people kill themselves today for the same reasons Ajax does: because life can be disappointing, unfair, and painful, and we often respond by doing things that make us feel ashamed in the morning. The extent of the misery Ajax experiences is in large part because, as a great hero, he expects so much of himself. These days we expect a lot. We live in a culture that makes us all want to be special, and the math on that will never add up. We all feel terribly let down sometimes.
This makes suicide seem like a yuppie lifestyle choice -- or maybe I should say a Bobo lifestyle choice. This makes crushing depression seem like the ultimate White People Problem. No wonder Brooks likes Hecht's book.

Brooks writes:
I'd only add that the suicidal situation is an ironical situation. A person enters the situation amid feelings of powerlessness and despair, but once in the situation the potential suicide has the power to make a series of big points before the world. By deciding to live, a person in a suicidal situation can prove that life isn't just about racking up pleasure points; it is a vale of soul-making, and suffering can be turned into wisdom....
So on top of actually enduring suicidal depression, a suicidally depressed person has to shoulder the burden of persuading others not to spend their lives "racking up pleasure points"? Isn't that the job of David Brooks and other moral scolds?

Brooks continues:
That person can commit to live to redeem past mistakes. That person can show that we are not completely self-determining creatures, and do not have the right to choose when we end our participation in the common project of life.
Hecht associates suicide with "things that make us feel ashamed in the morning." Brooks sees surviving suicidal depression as a way of "redeem[ing] past mistakes." Does it occur to these people that the depression they're talking about is quite likely to have a source other than shame or guilt? Brooks tries to show off his research by quoting something the poet Anne Sexton wrote before her suicide (though Brooks didn't seem to know her name at first -- when the column first went online, he called her "Annie"). Here's part of how Sexton described her state of mind:
... to [be] behind a wall, watching everyone fit in where I can't, to talk behind a gray foggy wall, to live but ... to do it all wrong. ... I'm not a part. I'm not a member. I'm frozen.
For far too many depressed people, depression doesn't stem from an awareness of having made mistakes -- it stems from a feeling of being unable to endure one's own makeup. It stems from a feeling of not being built right. (In the case of returning soldiers, I imagine it can stem from a feeling of not being rebuilt right after a tour of duty in a combat zone.)


When Brooks scolds the suicidally depressed for acting out of a "chronological arrogance" that, in his view, leads them to believe "that the impulse of the moment has a right to dictate the judgment of future decades," he's ignoring the fact that we all act in ways that set us, more or less irrevocably, on certain courses. People drop out of school or get into bad marriages or settle into dead-end job paths. People party too much and let ambtions slip away, or maybe they waste a decade trying unsuccessfully to get a dissertation written. What we did years and decades ago may not drive us to despair, but many of us have at least mild regrets about choices we made years ago.

I suppose it's hard for Brooks to understand this, given the happy way his career was made:
... it was a piece of satire that changed his life. Senior year, William F. Buckley was coming to campus, so Brooks decided to write a parody of his memoir, Overdrive. Brooks attached a postscript: "Some would say I'm envious of Mr. Buckley. But if truth be known, I just want a job and have a peculiar way of asking. So how about it, Billy? Can you spare a dime?"

Buckley, it turned out, could. When he spoke at Chicago the next week, he paused mid-lecture and said, "David Brooks, if you're in the audience, I'd like to give you a job."
Brooks wasn't in the audience, but a year after he graduated, he got in touch with Buckley and asked about the offer. He became a National Review intern; since then, he really hasn't put a foot wrong, career-wise. I don't think he has any idea what life is like for people can't say the same thing about themselves.


And when Brooks wags his finger at the suicidal for regarding humans as "completely self-determining creatures," he forgets what we're all told, day in and day out, by his own ideological camp: that we all make our own breaks, that anyone can be rich and successful, that failure is always the result of an unwillingness to work hard. There's no racism or sexism or homophobia, there are no societal impediments to social mobility, there's no burden you can't overcome if you just put your nose to the grindstone. If we see ourselves as "completely self-determining creatures," maybe it's because Brooks's fellow conservatives tell us we should.


I don't want this to read as a defense of suicide. It's not. I'm just asking for more empathy for people who can't cope. I don't expect it from Brooks.


Mike said...

Incredible arrogance from Brooks. Not unexpected, but disappointing all the same. It takes a lot to make Ebenezer Scrooge sound compassionate, but I think this fits the bill.

Another factor in suicide in modern life is that people sometimes feel they have very little control over so much of their life that the only real choice they have is whether to continue living. There is a very real thing called "existential depression", where the basic problem of life is, well, life itself. Lack of control and lack of real connection are very strong feelings that can exacerbate the problem to the point of suicide.

Greg said...

Not to defend Brooks, but he is expressing an idea -- "Suicide is an arrogant choice" -- that I've heard repeatedly expressed while I wrestled with my own demons. And I think the self-help movement tends to enforce the "How dare you give up!" meme among people.

The idea of arrogant suicide puzzled me, because my temptations to suicide often came from feeling my seemingly locked-in weakness & alienation was a burden to people, and if I took myself out of the picture, then theoretically they wouldn't have to deal with that anymore. Whether that was true or not, the possibility that eliminating myself could be a kind of "win-win" deal for myself and others did cross my mind. Misguided thinking, one could say, but hardly arrogant.

Ten Bears said...

Very nicely done, Steve, very nicely done.

After long consideration I have come to the conclusion I have neither the courage nor the cowardice to take myself out. Moot though, in the generally accepted venicular, as the Brooks of this society are trying to kill me: ten below here last night, sleeping in my truck, no job, no jobs out there, no unemployment, no food stamps, no pension (401k lost eighty percent in o-eight), nothing. For forty-five years of work, tour of Viet Nam, three college degrees... nothing. Maybe I should go on the defense. What was Dick Cheney's 1%? A one percent chance of a threat warrents a violent response.

The thought: break out my well-oiled AR and start shooting white-dogs, and keep shooting white-dogs until the cops gun me down, has crossed my mind.

No fear.

Victor said...

It's not like the suicide is the only form of death.
We're all going to die, one way or the other.
ALL of us.

I'd prefer a quick and painless death, to wasting away physically from some disease, or losing your memories in old age.

Or, if you can't find a job, then becoming an economic burden on family and/or friends who are also probably already in difficult economic situations.

It's easy for a 'Master of the Universe' to lecture the people who live hard and cruel lives about suicide.

Maybe MotU Bobo's upset that if people commit suicide, THEY JUST WON'T SUFFER ENOUGH.

aimai said...

To me the interesting thing about Brooks is, at one and the sametime, the most uninteresting--that he can take any piece of research and misunderstand or misuse it regardless of its starting point or end point. Its like the guy has a fucking infallible lodestar to wrong. But its not wrong in a different way each time. In that he truly does have a compass--its always wrong in the same way.

Take suicide: its true that some kinds of people kill themselves impulsively or angrily--notably teens. But other people kill themselves, and we know it, for a lot of other reasons. Suicide is quite cultural--certain kinds of people in certain kinds of societies don't have any choice, really, about suicide and death can be the only way out for such people. They aren't necessarily to be understood as either irrational or spiteful or arrogant at all. You have to know a lot about someone's real life and their real prospects to know whether a suicide makes sense from any perspective. And its incredibly arrogant to dismiss a person's actual reasons and substitute your own interpretation in service to a ruthless ideology of contempt for people's independent choices.

And that, to me, is always the path Brooks is picking through the broken field of social science: a way to attack people he defines (however absurdly) as independent, free spirited, lacking in corporate or nationalistic rah rah, bohemians, atheists, hipsters. He transforms real people's real suffering--and no one can read about the majority of suicides and not see them as the product of suffering--into a late capitalist 'choice' and then excoriates people for making it.

Needless to say if you really wanted to help people not kill themselves you could choose to focus on the social world that enables or forces the "choice" on them--you could argue for blister packs for the kinds of pills commonly used by people to kill themselves, free and extensive mental health support systems, more residential beds, strict gun control, more of a social safety net, changes in rules relating to the medication available to the terminally ill or those in chronic pain. But all those take more than merely urging the individual to "buck up" and Brooks always, always, always avoids a societal/structuralist analysis which might cost wealthy people something. If you don't think people's lives are worth a 2 percent tax hike on the 1 percent just go ahead and say so, Brooksie, instead of pussy footing around trying to find a way to call people who have suicidal ideation "losers."

BH said...

I've not read this work of Hecht's, but I have read her "Doubt: A History", which I thought excellent. I'd be inclined to read this one myself for some context before accepting DB's precis of it. Then again, I wouldn't believe it if DB claimed 2 and 2 make 4.

Monty said...

Suicide isn't arrogant; it's selfish. Perhaps the most selfish act possible. That Brooks can't distinguish one from the other isn't all that surprising. It is, however, disgusting.

He has absolutely no conception of what truly crushing depression feels like. An awful, shallow person.

aimai said...

How can you argue that it is selfish--definitively? People kill themselves for all kinds of reasons. It might be harmful to other people but that doesn't make it selfish--a person might be trying to avoid other kinds of harm to those same people and simply values the sides of the equation differently than they do. For instance a person who struggles with depression and ends up being cared for by many other people--and this just happened to a friend of mine--might give up the struggle and believe that he is doing the best thing for those friends. A person who kills themself because they can't afford the necessities of life may believe that they are doing what they can to save their friends and family a burden. You simply can't state, a priori, that the act is selfish when the very question of the self and the self's relationship to other people is at issue. Some might argue--and I would--that a desire to keep someone alive against their wishes is quite selfish when pursued by, say, the children of someone on life support. In fact I just had this argument with my friend over her wish to keep her father alive on life support when her mother and sisters had decided otherwise.

Contra Brook's sargument that people who try to commit suicide are wrongfully deciding for their future selves it could also be argued that a person who determines, in advance, that some states are not worth living in (a vegetative state) is rightly choosing in advance for their future self while they can. How is *that* selfish?

Victor said...

It's selfish, aimai, because it deprives others of enjoying watching you die slowly, alone, hungry, and mentally and morally depleted and exhausted.

Not that they care.

Or, that they're necessarily watching.

But that, if they know there are people out there like that, in such abject misery, with no desire to live, it brings what little sense of joy they can muster to their ice-cold hearts.

Cirze said...

Like DB, right, Victor?

Precise description of this slice of the 1%.

Philo Vaihinger said...

Sort of the ultimate in assholehood, don't you think?

Somebody wants to kill himself and all you can think of to say is to bitch, bitch, bitch that it soooo fucking inconveniences somebody else?

Jesus Christ, if there was ever anything anyone ought to be able to do without getting fucking bitched at, it would be killing himself.

Examinator said...

Let's get real here, apart from the obvious, Brooks' perspective is valid if one starts from the assumption that suicide is a SIN (or other “Christian?” undercurrents that influence Western “cultures”), “morally” bad.
I use parenthesis above to highlight the clear biases involved in this opinion. None of the above are universal absolutes.
I have no doubt he views euthanasia as murder.

In my mind his story distinguishes its self by what it leaves out and the near absolute ignorance and certainly lack of experience dealing with those who consider suicide.

As a 20 year veteran in Volunteer Crisis intervention counselling (yes dealing with literally 1000's of suicide *threats*) his attitude would be more harmful than helpful to a potential suicider. While statistics are ok (ish) of academics and service delivery planners. BUT in the hands of politicians and armchair theorists or narrow minded spin agents they are like an automatic weapon in the hands of an untrained/ unstable psychopath at a kindergarten. In a nut shell he exudes the attitudes of arrogant asswipes that see the world in terms of almost imbecilic simplicity of linear absolutes it isn't that simple(istic)

The first thing that comes to mind is the definition of a ''suicide threat” some one who “says I’m going to commit suicide” someone who tell their analyst of feeling of this? Or perhaps some one with um …. Bipolar 1&2, schizophrenia and a myriad of other mental illnesses? The causes of which have more to do with genetic predispositions (hormone and brain chemical disorders). Any of the above simply can't be morally shamed or argued out of it. Of course let's not forget those who are terminally ill or those who are just had enough of life and want to end it. (my father in law living alone at 80+, after his wife died and he rapidly became frail needing a walker, had new colostomy bag. Refused to eat hid his medicine. After admitting him to hospital he “just gave up” (said the doctors) wouldn't co-operate... died. Suicide?). How about the 18yo who was severely injured in a sports accident and needed constant care admitted to an old folks home?
Then again there's the teenagers who top themselves … you pick the stated reasons But what what is only been recently studied their hormones were largely to blame for their hyper sensitivity leading to a sense of isolation et al.
After that there's the disappointment factor of the 50+

Examinator said...

Part 2
In MH experience suicides threats come in as many versions, intensity and causes as there are people.
Of the 1000's of 'threats' I spoke of I'd suggest that about 20% were real enough to be of real life threatening concern (requiring professional psychiatric intervention care/ treatment). In more cases than I care to count many calls... attempts were actually cries for help in a crisis. Treating the suicide threat as the reason for the call would have been counter-productive at best. So trying “Brooks'” approach would have increased the chances of the attempt. Often the mere person to talk to and suggest alternatives stops makes the threat go away.

Fact of life some calls were chilling in that the caller was or became calm, deliberate even speaking This often signalled the relief of having made the decision to do it …. no more emotional turmoil (father in law) Those who were calm up front often meant that they simply wanted to explain or tell someone.

As I said up front broad sweeping conclusions like Brooks' are just so much about their opinion in ignorance than anything else.

PS just in case you haven't guessed I am a medicated bipolar 1 (depressive) triggered after a series of traumatic events in my late teens and the genetic predisposition.. Diagnosed at 46. The relief was palpable. To me depression is like a recovering alcoholic's drinking we will never be cured it's genetic. We both remain one episode from the gutter for the rest of our lives.
Oh yes I have a majors in psychology and marketing.

Monty said...


I didn't argue that suicide is selfish; I stated it outright.

"You simply can't state, a priori, that the act is selfish when the very question of the self and the self's relationship to other people is at issue."

Why not? That is the crux, the core of my a priori claim. Per Steve M, "I agree that some people who are suicidally depressed might spare themselves if they thought about the people their suicides affect."

Spare themselves exactly what? The pain of their loved ones, while continuing to suffer?? Dead is dead; the only people who care about the dead are the living. What the fuck kind of ethical frame do you live in, aimai, where individuals should suffer the agony of their life so that their loved ones will feel less pain?

Stripped to its core, suicide is an utterly selfish act. Perhaps you inferred (from reading too much Ayn Rand bullshit) that selfishness is an evil quality, because everyone cares, in some remote or abstract sense, about everyone else because altruism! Bullshit. That's not how the human brain or mind works.

Does it ever occur to you that some people are better off dead? Hmm, that was poorly phrased...but I won't delete it.

"Some might argue--and I would--that a desire to keep someone alive against their wishes is quite selfish when pursued by, say, the children of someone on life support. In fact I just had this argument with my friend over her wish to keep her father alive on life support when her mother and sisters had decided otherwise."

That anecdote means nothing to me; far too distant. (Perhaps the inverse-square law applies to emotional energy)

You're extremely intelligent (and articulate) but you tend to over-emphasize the rational aspects of human behavior thru a philosophical lens while ignoring the underlying emotional content. If you have never felt the very real pull of suicide as a solution, I'm not certain we can ever agree on this issue.

I've recently heard it said that people tend to think like lawyers instead of scientists.

Jeff Oldham said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeff Oldham said...

I see many good comments that have been left here since I first read this post this morning, and though I almost never I reply, I have wanted to put something down here, because this is an issue I have first-hand experience with.

I once tried to kill myself, and I also knew someone who did kill themselves. Obviously the details aren't very important (except that I failed!), but after reading the above and some of the comments, one thing is clear to me about Mr. Brooks and others: they have never felt so terrible depressed and sad that they wanted to end themselves, and probably don't know anyone who has.

I'm not arguing that in order to have a legitimate perspective on suicide you need to have attempted it or know someone who has, but I think such an experience fosters empathy for a depressed state of mind, and I think there may be some small chance that what I have to say about it could be illuminating. I will do my best not to generalize and only talk about what I felt when I wanted to die.

What is difficult for a mentally healthy person to understand is the shear sense of shame and hopelessness such severe depression entails. Speaking for myself, I knew very well that what I was doing was selfish, and it isn't that I didn't care about that. Instead I just felt as though that with over 6 billion people on the planet it would certainly go on turning, and that while my act would upset a few of those people, I was a burden. I had no job, I lived alone, I had almost no social life, and was dependant financially upon my family. I truly felt as though they would get over my suicide, and after paying for the funeral they would come to be more fulfilled and happy without me than with me. And besides, my existence was so torturous, so utterly hopeless, and yes, so shameful, that I just couldn't go on. And I truly felt it was all my fault. The loss of my faith in God also contributed to this; I didn't feel I had anything to fear from death except the process of dying itself. In short, I couldn't think of any good reasons not to die.

Or so I believed at the time (the lack of faith remains with me, however). I will not defend my choices here, or the choices of anyone else, so judge away if you prefer, but the sort of depression that is that strong really clouds the thinking. What is selfish can become twisted into something noble in the mind, and to consider on top of this just how hard it is to feel any kind of joy or pleasure makes suicide look really attractive, especially if one doesn't believe in hell, and considering just how hellish our world is slowly becoming through chronic unemployment and environmental damage.

Anyway, my main point is to remind everyone that in the course of justice, none of should see salvation; we do pray for mercy, and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy. Everyone does selfish things sometimes, and in another's shoes, with another's thoughts, and all the attendant chemicals or lack thereof that cause the brain of a suicidal person to function (or not function), you might just want to commit suicide, too.

aimai said...

Thank you for that perspective, Jeff.

And Monty, you are probably not aware of it but your reply to me was, basically, incoherent and devoid of either logic, or philosophy, or humanity. I don't want you to think I'm ignoring it because of its brilliance. It was just so jaw droppingly moronic I can't be bothered to rebut it.

Arjay said...

Yes, Monty is incoherent and jaw droppingly moronic. I appreciate Examinator and Jeff's comments very much. Just speaking from personal experience with depression myself (hence, speaking to that as source of suicide). The two basic dead-solid facts of depression thinking are: it was mistake that you were born and the world would be better off without you. Now, Mr. Brooks (or Monty) lectures on .... whatever. I assure you, such lectures will be filtered through your depression, further proving you suck and should kill yourself. That's because you are not in a rational state of mind. You are depressed. How fucking stupid do you have to be to argue rationally against something that is inherently irrational? In other words, what Examinator said. This was just another example of Brooks seizing on an issue to flaunt his moral and intellectual superiority. Like Aimai says, it's automatic with him. Mostly it's harmless, but in the case of suicidally depressed people, it is harmful. Brooks et al will still proclaim their moral rightness (in sadness not in anger, of course). The only thing worth noting is the utter moral squalor and cosmic insularity (talk about selfish) of using suicide as a peg to hang any opinions on in the first place.