Friday, May 23, 2008

Jonathan Kellerman

I just discovered (thanks to a newspaper clipping from my mom) that Jonathan Kellerman was 24 when he got his Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Hmm, maybe I, too, can make tons of money writing psychological thrillers in about 20 years.

I haven't read all that many of his books, but Devil's Waltz is one of my personal favorites. A very interesting look at Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy. Perhaps this summer I can read more of his others. I like psychological suspense and true crime; they're like my equivalent to hard working people who read trashy romances for relaxation.

I also just got my Evolutionary Biology packet for DemiDec, so I think most of my reading for a while will come from those 130 pages of joy and fun.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Suicide: Bravery or Cowardice?

I have come across the topic of suicide in terms of cowardice or bravery a number of times, and it is always controversial. It has even come up over the breakfast table with my relatives (I'm guessing this is something that only happens in my family...)

Nobody can ever agree in my household, in online forums where I have discussed it, or in the numerous literary sources in which I have seen it disputed. I have heard a lot of good arguments on both sides in terms of facing the element of the unknown in death, skipping out on your family and friends, causing yourself pain and suffering, being afraid to do something about your problems, etc. (I don't have my quote book with my right now, but I've written down some good quotes on the topic in there, so I'll have to come back and add those later.)

I would be really interested in hearing what readers have to say on this topic. I posted a poll on the sidebar, so please vote, but more than that comment here and let me know what you think and why.

Gender, Age, Ethnicity, and Methods

I have noticed that women seem to commit suicide more often than men in the books and movies I have come across. Women do attempt suicide a lot more in actuality, but as far as the number of fatal (completed) suicides that occur annually, there are more men by far. (Check out interesting stats on suicide rates here, here, and here, and a billion other places that you can find on your own if still interested.)

Further, the elderly have an extremely high rate of suicide, but I don' think I've come across a single thing that has shown an elderly individual killing themselves. I'm most interested in adolescence, so I might seek that out to some extend. But if anybody has ever read a book or seen a movie (of the fictional variety) that portrays elderly suicide, I would be very interested in hearing about it.

I believe every single character I read about who committed suicide was Caucasian. Statistically, that makes sense as the rate of suicide for whites is much higher than nonwhites, but again if anybody comes across something depicting suicide of a minority, I am always interested in recommendations.

As far as methods go, I think I've seen a strangely high number of people committing suicide by cutting/stabbing themselves. Granted, the stats I typically look at are for the US, but I think Europe and Australia are pretty similar from the little I have seen of those. And the top three methods are almost always firearms, then suffocation, then poisoning. Hard to tell exactly how in line the fiction is with the stats without breaking down the numbers exactly, but I think it is safe to say that hanging and overdosing are represented far more than firearm usage. I suppose they look a little less graphic in films?

Overall, though, I have been really impressed with the diversity of perspectives out there, the amount of things I have had the opportunity to read and watch in the past six weeks, and how impressed I have been with most of it. I think I said before that I was really skeptical going in that there would be too much glorifying and romanticizing, but in general the perspective has been rather cautionary. I wish that there was more media showing positive portrayals of psychological help, as usually it is made out to be awful bordering on useless, but I think that is also changing over time as the stigma is starting to decrease a tiny bit. (The HBO show In Treatment looks like an interesting perspective on that, and is something I would like to watch more of when the DVD goes down in price a lot.) Feel free to keep offering suggestions if you come across something you think I'd like! I'm just about ready to head into summer and work more on evolutionary biology stuff than this, but only a couple months away from starting grad school where I'll be back in the midst of it.

Robin Williams Triple Feature--What Dreams May Come

A love story between a doctor (Chris) and an artist (Annie) takes a terrible turn when the two lose their son and daughter in a car accident, followed four years later by the death of Chris when hit by a flipped car while trying to help another driver after an accident in a tunnel. Chris finds himself in a self-made heaven, which resembles an amalgamation of Annie's paintings of places they had visited. The world is virtually perfect, except that Chris is missing his wife. Soon after, Annie commits suicide when unable to face life without her family. Chris discovers that she has killed herself, and is in Hell, going mad without even realizing who she is or what is going on. Annie's world after her suicide seems every bit as lacking as her life prior. Like Wristcutters, what comes after suicide is shown to be even worse then what one chose to leave behind. The characters get second chances, but in real life it doesn't typically work that way, so I think it is good that these films still, indirectly, urge caution--you never know if death really is an end to the pain, or just a way of perpetuating it for all eternity. Spirituality certainly plays into that, and that is another thing to ponder throughout this film.

After Annie's suicide, Chris, his guide Albert, and a Tracker take off to the depths of Hell in search of her. Chris risks losing his own mind to get her back, but cannot stand the thought of going on without even trying to get his soul mate. Of course, he does, and they return to Heaven to be reincarnated and have another chance at love.

I really enjoy the end of the film, with two children bumping into each other on a lake and sharing a sandwich; it's adorable and I can be a sap from time to time. The DVD also has an alternate ending in which Annie chooses to be rebirthed because she knows that suicide is a "sin" and she wants redemption. Chris chooses to be reincarnated as well, but there is a catch. Annie will be a Sri Lankan girl with a fatal illness, Chris will be born in the US and meet her when traveling to Sri Lanka, where she will die of her disease, and he will grow old without her. Chris quips that nothing is ever perfect, but the two decide to go ahead with their plans, and the movie ends with the births of a boy and girl in Philadelphia and Sri Lanka.

As far as cinematography and special effects go, this is such a beautiful movie. Chris's Heaven is made out of paint, and the work that was done to make it look like a world created by 19th century artists deserves recognition. The plot is interesting and moving, but I can't help but sometimes placing my love for it a bit behind the excellent landscapes. All in all, the Robin Williams trifecta is pretty fantastic. They are all movies that I can watch over and over again without ever getting sick of them!

Robin Williams Triple Feature--Dead Poets Society

Dead Poets Society is quite possibly my favorite movie of all time. The film portrays a group of prep school boys instructed by an extraordinary (and eccentric) English teacher in a new way of living. They are taught to seize the day and make something of themselves, to be individuals and do what they love. This is a novel concept in a 1950s school where conformity is the ideal, and overbearing parents dictate future professions and the paths to them.

For many of the students, the guidance of their English teacher, Mr. Keating, helps them to leave their shells and grow in confidence. Neil Parry, especially, discovers his love for acting and secretly becomes in the lead in a Shakespearean play. When Neil's father finds out, though, he is outraged. Neil is to become a doctor, and his father has his life charted out for him until he completes medical school (which Neil perceives as an entire lifetime). His father demands that he quit the play, to which Neil at first assents. However, after a talk with Mr. Keating, he tries to explain his love of acting to his father and performs in the first night's show. His father shows up to the performance and drags him home where Neil's father and mother tell him that he will be attending military school and putting aside acting. Neil is given no control over his future, and no further say in what will happen to him. His wants and desires are dismissed as petty, childish things. After his parents go to sleep, Neil desperately ponders his options. Standing in his room, shirtless, with the window open to a cold and snowy night, Neil seems to be anxiously hoping to feel something, anything. When he feels left with no other options, he descends the stairs from his room to his father's study, finds a gun, and shoots himself.

Neil's suicide is blamed on the encouragement of Mr. Keating. Families so often search for something to blame when they cannot explain a death. But the viewer sees that Mr. Keating's guidance brought light into Neil's eyes, that acting gave him a sense of purpose, and that it was extinguished under the well meaning, but extremely harsh, guidance of his father.

Earlier in the film, Knox Overstreet says that he will kill himself if he can't go out with a girl he is interested in. This is a phrase thrown around all too often. It becomes difficult to know when to take it seriously. Lots of teenagers are depressed and rebel against their parents, it is part of the experience of identity formation--I would be worried about somebody that never acted that way, I think. Many of them say they will kill themselves, perhaps because they think that this threat will get them what they want, or perhaps because they are seriously considering it. As Neil's character shows, and many others in previous books and movies I have discussed, often times there is not a verbal clue. The adolescent may comply with everything demanded of them, showing their unhappiness to a small few, until they cannot take it anymore and go about their suicide silently, tragically.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Robin Williams Triple Feature--Patch Adams

Today is a really fun day for me because I get to watch some of my very favorite movies. I will be starting with Patch Adams, and soon to follow are Dead Poet's Society and What Dreams May Come.

Patch Adams is an inspirational, moving film that starts with Adams' attempt at suicide. The movie opens as Adams explains his despair, saying "All of life is a coming home. Salesmen, secretaries, coal miners, beekeepers, sword swallowers, all of us. All the restless hearts of the world, all trying to find a way home. It's hard to describe what I felt like then. Picture yourself walking for days in the driving snow; you don't even know you're walking in circles. The heaviness of your legs in the drifts, your shouts disappearing into the wind. How small you can feel, and how far away home can be. Home. The dictionary defines it as both a place of origin and a goal or destination. And the storm? The storm was all in my mind. Or as the poet Dante put it: In the middle of the journey of my life, I found myself in a dark wood, for I had lost the right path. Eventually I would find the right path, but in the most unlikely place. "

Soon after, Adams did find his path. He committed himself to a mental hospital where he faced a stereotypically unhelpful psychiatrist who did not listen and framed his life problems entirely in relation to his connection with his mother and father. The doctors did not help Patch Adams, they treated him as an illness rather than a person with a problem. (Patch later says, "You treat a disease, you win, you lose. You treat a person, I guarantee you, you'll win, no matter what the outcome.") The other patients, though, were Patch's cure. He learned to help them through humor, and discovered that he felt euphoric when doing so. Against medical advice, Patch left the hospital and started medical school.

Patch Adams found his own salvation from death in helping other people. However, in starting a free clinic for the sick, the suicidal ideations of another came to destroy Patch's friend and love, Corinne. Patch had come across one of his clinic patients, Larry, before in the ER, where he frequently showed up after mutilating himself in bouts of depression following the death of his father. Larry showed up at Patch's clinic in search of help, and later called asking for somebody to come over and talk to him when he was depressed. Corinne arrived at Larry's home, where he appeared to be calmly playing piano. As he began talking, Larry's demeanor shifted and he seemed to undergo some kind of delusion. Larry went into his closet to grab his coat, saying to Corinne "We're going to be late," though they are going nowhere, before taking a gun and shooting Corinne and then himself. Whatever he envisioned going on was too much for him to handle, and he took his own life and that of another. (Those who suffer from mental illness are very rarely a danger to others, more often they are the victims themselves, but there are certainly some precautions people should take in working with individuals who have violent tendencies.)

After Corinne's death, Patch again faces the issue of his own mortality. He peers over a cliff, musing, "Yeah, I could do it. We both know you wouldn't stop me. So answer me please. Tell me what you're doing. Okay, let's look at the logic. You create man. Man suffers enormous amounts of pain. Man dies. Maybe you should have had just a few more brainstorming sessions prior to creation. You rested on the seventh day. Maybe you should've spent that day on compassion." Patch could have returned to his initial despair and thrown himself off the cliff, but instead decided, "You know what? You're not worth it." Despite his incredible hardships, he walked away from the cliff and continued to fight for his passion for humane medicine.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Some General Thoughts on the Portrayal of Suicide

I'm at a local coffee shop that has free WiFi as the Internet at home continues to not work. As you can see, I'm trying to catch up a lot on blogging, so I apologize for the sudden abundance in long posts, but I hope people will take the time to at least skim them when they get a chance.

I've been struggling a bit to come up with some overarching themes as I read and watch all of this. Many thanks to Isaiah who serves as my sounding board. The thoughts are there, they just need some provoking to get out of my muddled brain.

One of the things that I have been finding in looking at how suicide is seen in lit and film is a discrepancy between time periods.

The 1800s saw a burst in feminist suicides with the publication of Madame Bovary, The Awakening, and Anna Karenina (among others, I am sure, that I have not read). The lead characters in these novels are repressed women in search of passion outside of their marriages, who come to realize that they cannot have what they want within the confines of their society and kill themselves as a result. (I think Thelma and Louise might fit in well with this group of women.) The way suicide is written about is distinctly different from contemporary portrayals, and The Sorrows of Young Werther is somewhat in line with these older texts. Issues of sex, child birth, and suicide are brought up, but they are not dealt with the in the confrontational or sensationalized way that modern books and films often tackle them. There is more symbolism and implying of these issues. They might take place in a sentence or a paragraph, alluded to, or mentioned specifically but without all the gory details. Modern depictions of suicide are often more up front. Blood and guts are already prevalent in violent films and video games, so I think people are less shocked when movies like The Suicide Club show 50 girls jumping in front of a train and blood flying everywhere, or people slitting their wrists and stabbing themselves like in 2:37 and Wristcutters. I don't know how much good the gore does, but I could see it as a potential deterrent when suicides are shown to be painful and ugly rather than over in a flash with symbols of the freedom of the ocean and its peacefulness thrown in for artistic effect.

In general, I'm a proponent of the depiction of these issues in movies and literature, so long as they are not romanticized, because I think it does good to get the taboo out there. People inherently feel alone in their problems. And I believe they will feel only more so if they cannot see any others struggling with similar issues. When they can see characters with whom they identify and realize that they are not so alone, their struggles are not so unique, they might be more inclined to seek help and talk about what it bothering them. Dissemination and outreach are incredibly important for educational purposes, but I think also for social purposes within limits. Obviously, I do not approve of sites where anorexics and cutters congregate to talk about their methods of hurting themselves. But I do think that the reverse can be very useful: people talking to or reading about others who have had similar issues and found a way to get past them, or who did not but realized in the end that all their strife could have been resolved if they reached out.

The Internet, film, and books can hold both positive and negative messages. I have been pleasantly surprised, though, by how limited the romanticized, glorified depictions of suicide I found were. I expected considerably more of that. Most of the things I have come across, though, have portrayed the struggle of both life and death, the ambivalence that comes with suicide, and the reality of multiple alternative solutions that existed even if those who killed themselves were blind to them. The more I read and watch, the less skeptical I become, and the more thankful for the writers and directors willing to take on this issue despite a societal pressure to sweep it under the rug.

Thelma and Louise

Thelma and Louise (Scott & Gitlin, 1991) is the story of a weekend road trip gone horribly wrong, leading to the double suicide of best friends Thelma and Louise. The two women leave behind their relationships and commitments to enjoy a couple days by themselves. At home, Thelma suffers burnout from living as a housewife with a chauvinistic husband, while Louise is often left behind to work as a waitress by a non-committal musician boyfriend. On their way to a cabin, they decide to stop at a bar for a few drinks. Thelma lets down her hair a little too much, dancing closely with troublemaker Harlan. Harlan takes Thelma outside to get some air when she is visibly drunk. He roughs up her and begins trying to rape her when Louise appears on the scene, putting a gun to his head and telling him to leave her alone. Harlan backs off, but as he is walking away, he tells Louise that he still wishes he had raped Thelma. Louise, who the audience later discover had been raped previously, shoots Harlan and begins the trouble that will only continue to snowball as the movie continues.

Thelma’s attraction to young males gets the women into further trouble when she sleeps with J.D., a self admitted robber. Thelma leaves him alone in her hotel room, where she is supposed to be safeguarding Louise’s entire life’s savings. As one would expect, J.D. takes off with all their money, but left Thelma with some tips for committing robbery. Following Louise’s breakdown over their loss of hope without money, Thelma uses tips from J.D.’s past to rob a market. She develops a knack for crime quickly. When Thelma and Louise are pulled over for speeding, Thelma shoots the police radio transmitter and car tires, and sticks the police officer in his trunk. As they continue on their way, in hopes of making it to Mexico, the women repeatedly encounter a trucker who catcalls and makes obscene gestures at them. When they get sick of it, they persuade him to pull off to a roadside stop and try to convince him to apologize for his rude treatment of women. When the trucker refuses to do so, they shoot his tanker truck and drive away to leave him with the explosion.

With the police on their tail, Thelma and Louise face fewer and fewer alternatives, despite their previous cleverness. A large squadron of police cars and helicopters chases them. Cornered, the women realize that they have lost everything; the future holds only misery. While sitting in a car surrounded by officers with guns pointed at them, Thelma and Louise decide that they do not want to get caught. They want to keep going, the only way they can. Taking off in their green Thunderbird, Thelma and Louise hold hands in a symbol of unity as the car launches off of a cliff into the Grand Canyon.

The independently minded women do not seem to have a place in their society. They resist male domination. However, when sexually victimized by men, they face skepticism as the predominant viewpoint stands that they must have brought rape on themselves. In their southern communities, women are viewed as weak, though Thelma and Louise are anything but fragile. Once they leave behind their repressive homes, they discover that the world has little else to offer for them, so they choose (somewhat impulsively) to leave it behind.

The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is the story of Esther Greenwood’s nervous breakdown and repeated suicide attempts, a story rather similar to Plath’s own. Greenwood’s depression is apparent early during her time interning at a magazine. Throughout the novel, her condition only worsens, leading to hospitalizations and numerous psychiatric ward commitments.

During her internship, Esther is frequently discontent. She has trouble sticking to deadlines, attending social gatherings, and making friends. Describing her feelings during these few months she says, “I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo” (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 3). With hopes of taking a writing course for the summer, Esther leaves her internship optimistically. However, when she gets home, she finds out she was not accepted into the class. Esther Greenwood falls into a deeper depression at the thought of staying home in the suburbs for a summer. When calling her college admissions office to inform them that she will no longer be enrolling in any summer school courses, her body feels separate from her ”zombie voice” speaking, indicating further depersonalization (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 119). Facing her options for a summer at home, Esther realizes that she is not interested in any typical female occupations. She does not want to learn shorthand, or use it in any type of job that requires it. She has difficulty writing at all, losing an interest in her English major, and realizing that she needs life experience to be able to write. Greenwood stops sleeping, and her hygiene suffers as she repeatedly wears the same clothing and ceases bathing. She cannot face any of the options she sees ahead of her.

Esther Greenwood becomes obsessed with ways of killing herself. Even before this severe depression, she had expressed an interest in the process of one’s life ending. When criminals were being electrocuted, she “couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive, along your nerves” (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 1). Later, she reads a newspaper article about a man being helped off a ledge by police. She searches the article for any clue of why the man wanted to jump, or what convinced him to go back inside. She considers jumping, but decides against it as she is unsure what distance would be required for her to fall with no chance of living through it. This concern arises again with regard to shooting herself. On a blind date, she asks the guy how he would choose to kill himself, and he says with a gun. Esther is dismissive of this idea, fearing that she might shoot the wrong part of her body and end up paralyzed or saved. Esther expresses admiration for the Japanese practice of disembowelment when something goes wrong. She tries to cut herself in a bathtub, but “when it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenseless that I couldn’t do it. It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at” (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 147). Though unsure of where exactly the problem lies, and how to rid herself of it, Esther continues her suicide attempts. She plans to hang herself, but cannot find anywhere to fasten the cord. Instead, she tries to pull the cord tight around her neck, yet finds that her hands always slacken at the crucial moment. When Esther swims far out into the ocean in hopes of drowning, the water repeatedly pops her back up. Esther Greenwood is disillusioned with life, thinking “everything people did seemed so silly, because they only died in the end,” yet has difficulty bringing about her own early demise (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 129).

Esther expresses ambivalence about killing herself for a short while. This is common among those who want to kill themselves, as they usually want to get rid of their problems more than their lives, but do not see another way out. Esther considers religion as a way out of her despair for a brief time. She says, “Lately, I had considered going into the Catholic Church myself. I knew that Catholics thought killing yourself was an awful sin. But perhaps if this was so, they might have a good way to persuade me out of it,” but does not in fact go to the church, or find comfort in anything else (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 164). Shortly thereafter, Esther makes an almost fatal attempt at killing herself by hiding in her basement and taking pills “swiftly, between gulps of water, one by one.” Upon taking the pills, she experiences nothing at first, “but as I approached the bottom of the bottle, red and blue lights began to flash before my eyes. The bottle slid from my fingers and I lay down” (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 169). If she had not been found in time by her mother, that might have been the end of Esther’s trouble, and her life.

After being discovered, Esther wakes up in a hospital room, from which she is soon transferred to a psychiatric ward. Quickly distressed with the public ward in which she finds herself, Esther’s mother finds a famous writer who provides funds for Esther to stay in a private facility. On the way to her new hospital, she thinks of jumping out of the car while it drives across a bridge, but is stopped as her mother and brother sit on each side of her. Once at the new psychiatric center, Esther does begin to improve. Electric shock treatments seem to help her, and she gains more hospital privileges as time progresses.

Even as Esther’s condition improves, she worries about the future. What might her life be like without treatment, outside the hospital, and back in the world from which she had struggled so desperately to escape? She wonders, “How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?” (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 241). The novel ends positively with Esther’s release from the hospital. After constant thoughts of suicide and repeated attempts, she has been rehabilitated, at least temporarily. While there is hope that this might show positive possibilities for those who are suicidal, close reflection on Plath’s own life shows otherwise. Esther Greenwood is a fictionalized version of Plath, who in time did commit suicide. Though it is not within the scope of the novel, Esther, who believes she “would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in [her] own sour air” regardless of where she is, likely killed herself sooner or later as well (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 185).

Suicide in Holocaust Survivors (And Harold and Maude)

Harold and Maude (Higgins & Ashby, 1971) is the story of an unlikely friendship between a death obsessed boy and a free-spirited elderly woman. Harold repeatedly fakes suicide attempts while living in a repressive home, but ultimately comes out alive. Maude, on the other hand, seems eccentric if anything, but ultimately kills herself.

The film begins with Harold, a boy of about 19 or 20, pretending to hang himself. His mother enters the room, dismissing his gagging noises, and makes a phone call. She seems numb to this incident, likely a result of seeing many like it before. (Early in the video, Harold told his therapist that he had acted out his own death approximately 15 times.) Once off the phone, Harold’s mother tells him when he needs to be ready for dinner and leaves him to tidy himself. Throughout the movie, Harold feigns several more suicides, typically with his mother and dates set up for him as the intended audience. Soon after this initial incident, Harold’s mother finds him laying in the tub, having pretended to slit his wrists, with fake blood smeared all over the room and acts like he is drowning while his mother does laps in their pool. Later while on dates set up for him, Harold role acts out self immolation, chops off a fake hand with a cleaver, and stabs himself with a hari-kari knife. Harold is clearly an unusual boy. When asked by his therapist what he does for fun, he replies “I go to funerals.” Harold drives a hearse and often wears a suit.

Harold’s unconventional ways appear to be a direct byproduct of his stifling home environment. He lives in a fancy home with a seemingly wealthy family. Harold’s mother acts uninterested and repressive. She insists that he meet women and get married, interviewing women for him. She wants Harold to stop wasting away his talents, pushing him to enlist in the military. In planning Harold’s life for him, she even goes so far as to take a personality inventory for him, filling it with her own beliefs. As she does so, Harold pretends to shoot himself. His actions look rather directly related to hers. Harold explains that he first began to fake his death when he accidentally caused an explosion in a chemistry lab. He fled school after the incident and snuck upstairs to his room, as his mother was holding a party at home. When the police came to his door to tell his mother that Harold had died in the incident, she fainted. Apparently unused to receiving any reaction from his mother, Harold decided that he enjoyed being dead.

Harold and Maude meet while attending the funerals of strangers. At the time of their meeting, Maude is a week away from turning 80 (the movie takes place in the span of that week). She hopes to meet with Harold outside the context of funerals. As they do so, it is clear that she is not a stereotypical old woman. Maude steals cars, drives maniacally, evades arrest, and playfully sings and dances often. A victim of the Holocaust, as demonstrated by a numbered tattoo on her arm, Maude believes in overtly expressing her individuality. She avoids following socially ingrained rules, even telling a police officer that he should not act so officious. Maude tells Harold that he should not act too morally, as it will cheat him out of too much life; everyone has a right to make an ass of themselves and he should not let people judge him. Harold responds that he has not lived, but he has died a few times. Particularly poignant, when Maude asks Harold what kind of flower he would like to be, he points to a field of white daisies and tells her he wishes to be one of them because they are all the same. Maude replies, "But they're not. Look, see, some are smaller. Some are fatter. Some grow to the left; some to the right. Some have even lost some petals. All kinds of observable differences. You see, Harold, I feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are [a single daisy], yet allow themselves to be treated like [a field of daisies]” (Higgins & Ashby, 1971). (The film then zooms out from a field of daisies to a homogenous grid of graves, a clear statement about World War II and the Vietnam War, which was taking place during the time of the film.)

Harold and Maude, two lonely souls, come to love each other. It takes Harold some time to adjust to Maude’s antics, at first telling her often that they cannot do certain things. The fun they have together quickly overrides his concern with the legality of it, though. Harold and Maude teach each other about what it means to be alive. On Maude’s 80th birthday, Harold wants to propose to her. He decorates her home and sets up a party for the two of them. Sadly, when he goes to pop the question, Maude informs him that she has taken “tablets” and will be dead in a matter of hours. She lived a difficult life, but decided to leave it on what she considered a high point, and on her own terms.

Harold is extremely upset at the thought of losing Maude, his only friend and escape from his dark home. He rushes her to the hospital, showing a quick reaction to Maude’s suicide unlike that of his mother to any of his suicide attempts. However, Harold leaves the hospital alone and heartbroken. He drives away dangerously fast and ends the film with what looks like his own suicide by driving off a cliff; yet, moments after the car goes down, Harold is shown on top of the cliff dancing and playing an instrument given to him by Maude. While saddened by his loss, he seems to have learned the value of living one’s life to the fullest from Maude, and understands that it is not yet his time to die.

After watching Harold and Maude, I was interested in rates of suicide for survivors of the Holocaust. A brief glimpse at Maude's arm showed a concentration camp tattoo, and I believe that her experiences in WWII had a great deal to do with shaping her personality and identity--but did it also influence her decision to kill herself, I wondered?

I just finished reading a study done in 2005 by a group of researchers in Israel on risk of attempted suicide among aging Holocaust survivors. In this case, survivors are considered people who lived in Europe under the Nazi regime, regardless of location and type of suffering, as previous studies have shown similar pathology under all who experienced WWII. The elderly in general have a higher rate of suicide than other populations (likely due to increased lethality in their attempts), and Holocaust survivors in turn have a higher rate of suicide ideation and attempts than others in their age group. This high rate of attempts is in spite of having the same rate of major depression as the control group, though were evidence of more PTSD. Maude's actions, while tragic, can be better understood in light of her age and life experiences.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Bridge and Update

Hello to any readers out there. Haven't been updating as much as I would like because my Internet connection has been iffy at best. Still reading and watching, and hopefully will be able to catch up with all of that.

Recently saw The Bridge, a documentary about suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge. This is one of the most popular spots in the world from which people jump. It's been quite romanticized. So, I was curious to see how it would be portrayed in this film. Some of the cinematography was pretty impressive; a few excellent shots of the bridge covered in fog and mist. Other than that, some so-so cliche kind of stuff with sped up time, change in cloud sort of stuff. As far as the portrayal of suicide, I have mixed feelings. Most of it was done through talking with families and friends of people who had jumped off the bridge. I was a bit shocked at how nonchalant many of these people were. Quite a few of them who basically just said the person is better off where they are, they were okay with it as long as they got to say goodbye first, they had been told ahead of time and expected it to happen but didn't do anything to stop it. Of course there were also many people who were quite upset over the suicides, did try to get help, or held deep regret for not doing enough, and those are the types I am more used to seeing in these sorts of films. Perhaps the others are only so calm as a way of keeping themselves sane, but I worry about the others being a bit glorifying.

Watched a few interesting movies recently about school shootings. I tried Gus van Sant's Elephant and Last Days, but not a big fan of his style. I do recommend the movie Home Room, though. An interesting view not so much of the shooting itself, but of the aftermath, and the unlikely friendships formed as a result.

Lately I've taken a bit of a break from the fiction to read some more general psych books, but am now embarking on Anna Karenina. Am sure that will be an interesting endeavor. Hope to update here with some more research based info soon, and I intend to write some kind of summary of my experiences with all these books and movies as my final term draws to a close.

Monday, May 12, 2008

More from CNN Asia

TOKYO, Japan (CNN) -- Police found three men dead in a car parked outside a spa Monday morning -- the latest in a string of suicides involving detergent, officials said.

Japan has had a spate of suicides including this one in Konan, where a 14-year-old girl died in April.

According to local media reports, more than 60 people have committed suicide across Japan in the last month by mixing detergent and other chemicals, and inhaling the hydrogen sulfide gas that results.

A passerby discovered the bodies of the three men in Tamioka, north of Tokyo, police said.

In western Japan, police found a 21-year-old man with a plastic bag over his head Monday. A police officer in Suma, where the body was found, said authorities found detergent containers by the foot of the man. They suspect the man may have inhaled the toxic gas after mixing them in the bag.

Earlier this month, police in Japan had asked Internet service providers to take down the recipe for the detergent mix. Even before the spate of recent suicides, Japan had one of the highest rates of suicide in the world.

In early May, police evacuated about 350 people from their homes on the island of Hokkaido after a neighbor mixed detergent and chemicals to kill himself.

The two most recent cases did not require the evacuation of the neighborhoods where they occurred. In some cases, officials had to order residents to leave because the resulting gas from the detergent mix can sicken people.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Shawshank Redemption

A prison film, based on Stephen King novel, The Shawshank Redemption (Mavin & Darabont, 1994) paints a portrait of post-institutional suicide.Brooks is an elderly man who served 50 years in prison, much of them served as prison librarian. He had a position of authority, and a purpose that kept him going from day to day. Brooks was well liked and well respected. When he receives parole, Brooks finds that nothing is the same on the outside. He is given a room in a halfway house and a job as a bag boy at a grocery store. Brooks is lonely, disliked by his store manager, and faces difficulties doing work because of age and health problems. Brooks decides that he cannot make it on the outside. After writing a letter to his previous fellow inmates expressing that he does not think anybody will miss him when he is gone, dressing himself neatly in a suit, and carving “Brooks was here” into the top his wall, he hangs himself from his ceiling beam. Red, another prison and the narrator of the film, later says that he does not think he could make it on the outside: “I’m an institutional man, just like Brooks was” (Marvin & Darabont, 1994).

Prisoners face a variety of obstacles upon release, among them mental illness, discrimination, financial disadvantage, homelessness, unemployment, lack of education, and lack of social support. Mortality rates for the first year after release from prison are 156 per 100,000 people. Excluding deaths on the day of release, the suicide risk of released prisoners relative to that of the general population was eight times greater for men and 36 times greater for women (“Suicide in recently released prisoners,” 2006; Pratt, Piper, Appleby, Webb, & Shaw, 2006). Pratt, et al. (2006) found that older men were particularly susceptible to problems with social reintegration after release from prison.

Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther

I won't write out a whole summary of this text, but a couple notes of interest about Goethe's epistolary novel:

The Sorrows of Young Werther struck a nerve with a large number of individuals. Werther wrote “…I read a poet from primitive times, and it seems as if I were looking into my own heart. I have to endure so much! Have people before me been so miserable?” (Goethe, 1774/2004, p. 105). After reading Werther’s story, many others seem to have felt the same way.

In George Howe Colt’s November of the Soul, the impact of his text is described. Men throughout Europe began dressing like Werther, wearing blue tailcoats and yellow waistcoats, imitating his speech, and some even copying his suicide. Those whose suicides were linked to the book became known as Wertherites, suicidal melancholy termed Wertherism. Sociologist David Phillips dubbed the phenomenon of copycat suicides the “Werther effect.” Emile Durkheim believed that the suicides that took place were not so much as extra suicides as suicides that were sped up. He said that those who killed themselves after reading the book would have done so sooner or later anyway. Regardless, the book was banned in Leipzig and Copenhagen. When an Italian translation was published in Milan, the Catholic clergy bought and destroyed every copy (Colt, 2006).

Goethe himself worried about the impact of his novel, saying “My friends…thought that they must transform poetry into reality, imitate a novel like this in real life and, in any case, shoot themselves; and what occurred at first among a few took place later among the general public…” (Goethe, quoted in Rose, 1929, xxiv). It is questionable whether or not an epidemic of copycat suicides took place. De Ron, a Swedish public health advocate, said, “On case is no case, two is one too many and three cases is an epidemic” (Thorson & Oberg, 2003, p. 71). Thorson and Oberg (2003) said that only using De Ron’s definition did an epidemic take place. Continued research on the “Werther effect” in contemporary media yields mixed results.

Also noticeable in many books, but particularly in this one, is Joiner's theory of an acquired ability to enact suicide. Werther shoots himself on top of his right eye, the same location in which he previously pretended to shoot himself. Joiner suggested that overcoming the instinct for self-preservation is difficult, but that people can become “fearless, pain-tolerant, and knowledgeable about dangerous behaviors” through “an array of provocative experiences” (Joiner, 2005, p. 47). Many people have feelings of wanting to die, but comparatively few follow through with their desire. People who actually kill themselves typically have a certain degree of practice beforehand. Werther previously put a gun to his head and repeatedly defended the act of suicide, preparing himself for the physical and moral doubts that might have prevented the act had he not previously confronted them.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Blog Plugging

If you want some interesting reads outside the depressing domain of my own territory, I have several friends with some really great blogs.

I referenced Steve and Isaiah in my previous post with links to their blogs, and they are also on my side link bar. Isaiah blogs quite regularly about his writing life, soon to be filled with the fun of being a poetry MFA student at Pacific University in Oregon. He also includes references to some fantastic poets who are a bit more established, but I'm sure he will be joining their ranks soon enough. Steve's blog is a fascinating philosophical look at the connection between mathematics and reality.

Another blog that I have not yet referenced is that of freelance writer Lily Casura. I had the pleasure of working with Lily briefly through my job at DemiDec Resources. I quickly discovered that she writes on a wonderful blog about Veteran's issues, among them a number of important psychological problems. Her posts about PTSD, the growing suicide problem among Veterans, and mental health care services available are all very insightful.

I encourage you to check out these wonderful blogs!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Wristcutters: A Love Story (and other weird things one comes across as a suicidologist)

How many people do you know who study suicide? Probably not a whole lot. So I understand and even enjoy when everybody comes to me after encountering something related to the topic. I can't blame them when I'm the first person to come to mind, probably not a lot of alternatives. And the things they show me are often really interesting. I also figure, if nothing else, that I am at least allowing people to openly discuss this topic that would otherwise be taboo and unspeakable. But let me tell you, not everything I am shown is a gem.

Case in point: The Suicide Club. Now, my friends Isaiah and Steve are extraordinarily tolerant of my passion for books and movies related to suicide. They've watched more than their share with me, and I like to believe that I am similarly encouraging of their passions. But in this situation, I'm not sure I was entirely thankful for the recommendation to watch this movie after Steve had heard somebody talking about it. The Suicide Club is a VERY strange Japanese film in which hundreds of people kill themselves and fake blood pours forth in abundance. The ultimate point was that people were connected to each other, but they weren't really connected to themselves. Some interesting concepts in there, but the watching experience was traumatizing for us all, I think. And I've been subsequently unable to eat certain foods when rolled up to look skin-like as a result of this film.

Then, Steve told me about another film that was coming out called Wristcutters. I was hesitant, but curious. I mean, he knows I can't resist these things once I hear their titles, but did this one hold any more promise than the last? Admittedly, it was an extremely weird movie, but a considerable improvement from its predecessor.

Wristcutters does not leave you wondering about its name long: the movie opens with the main character, Zia, cleaning his apartment before slitting his wrists with a razor blade in his bathroom. Zia finds himself in an alternative world full of people who died by suicide. This world is remarkably similar to the world he chose to leave behind, but as he soon discovers, is a little worse. He ponders killing himself again, but fears where he might wind up next. After wasting his time away in bars, drinking and guessing how others killing themselves, Zia finds out that his ex-girlfriend killed herself a month after his own funeral. Armed with a new sense of purpose, Zia leaves behind his job at Kamikaze Pizza and takes off with his rocker friend Eugene in pursuit of ex-girlfriend Desiree.

In Zia’s encounters, the entire gamut of suicide types is portrayed: drowning, shooting, cutting, burning, gas, electrocution, etc. This is physically displayed through subtle differences in skin coloration and wounds, and pursued further through flashbacks to many of the character’s suicides. It is readily apparent that the people in this world did not want to live any longer, but have received no escape through their choices. In the alternate world, there is no smiling, it is obscenely hot, and the people are generally unpleasant. It is its own sort of hell.

The place is particularly unpleasant for Mikal, a hitchhiker that Zia and Eugene pick up, who claims that she was put there by mistake. She accidentally overdosed, but did not mean to take her own life. She wanders in search of the people in charge, hoping to be brought back to life. Mikal and Zia, through their travels, come to love each other. When Zia does find Desiree, she has joined a cult and seemingly lost her mind. Zia realizes that he has moved on, just in time for Mikal to find the people in charge and get a passport back to the land of the living.

Eugene, too, has fallen in love on the trip and left Zia behind. Once alone and purposeless, Zia has little to lose. It is at this point that he conveniently discovers the meaning of life. Zia realizes that the only way he can achieve things is if they do not matter; when he acts as though things are tremendously important, he ends up frustrated and without results. When he takes life as it comes, he finds that he can love and be happy even in a world of despair. Through these conclusions, Zia manages to return (through a mysterious whole-like void in Eugene’s car) to his hospital bed. He wakes up only feet away from Mikal’s bed, the two smile as they could not before, recognizing their new found reasons for living.

While Wristcutters is an often comical portrayal of suicide, it brings up a number of important philosophical points. Among them, what happens after death? This question and the uncertainty it yields likely stops a number of people from killing themselves. And again, while comedic, the movie is never glorifying. The portrayal of those who killed themselves is virtually always filled with regret and unhappiness with the results of their decisions. For those that end up in the alternate universe, many wish the uncertainty of what would come in death had stopped them as their “lives” get only worse after committing suicide. Zia and Mikal are fortunate enough to realize the mistakes they made and get a second chance at life and love, this time hopefully less numb and in greater appreciation of their surroundings.

The Pact: A Love Story

Jodi Picoult's The Pact, like her other novels, takes an interesting and often heart wrenching look at a controversial issue--in the case of this particular novel, the topic: teen suicide. Picoult developed the idea for this book after working as a teacher with a suicidal student, and later having a frank discussion with a teenage babysitter about what it was like to be an adolescent. (An interesting segment about this can be read here.)

As the novel begins, the parents of Chris Harte and Emily Gold are awakened in the middle of the night and called to the hospital. Upon their arrival, Emily is dead from a gunshot wound. Chris suffered injuries from hitting his head after fainting, but was still alive. The parents of each child at first assumed that they must have been in a bad neighborhood; tragedy could be visible from the outside, but the idea of it being self-inflicted was impossible for them to confront.

Chris initially suggested that the teens had a suicide pact. Emily took her life, but Chris fainted before he was able. Unfortunately, as the story reveals, things were not that simple. Emily had been suicidal for sometime. Beneath her perfectly normal facade was a great deal of pain and confusion. Chris and Emily had known each other from the time they were born. It was only natural that they would end up together, and so they did. But their relationship was complicated by Emily's sexual abuse in a McDonald's, leaving her scarred and unable to deal with Chris's touch. She had a great deal of trouble facing sex, let alone with somebody who was like a brother to her. Sure, they loved each other, but in a way that at times felt incestuous even if they were not related by blood. When Emily became pregnant with Chris's child, she was pushed over the edge, abandoning all hope for the future.

Suicide for Emily, like for so many other teens, was a way to escape from what appeared to be an insurmountable problem. People often debate whether suicide is selfish or selfless, cowardly or brave. I think that the circumstances have a lot to do with it, but Chris certainly comes to see Emily's suicide as a selfish act. She couldn't bring herself to pull the trigger of a gun. Chris couldn't allow her to live when she feared life more than death. She convinced him to pull the trigger, her hands on top of his, her words guiding him to end her life if he really loved her. Yet, with Emily dead and unable to answer for herself, Chris was left behind as a murder suspect.

Emily's suicide demonstrates for most involved that one does not always show all the signs of depression. Certainly Chris knew and could have done something, but everyone else was very much in the dark. Her fairly rapid demise following the results of her pregnancy test also point out another important element of suicide: tunnel vision. When somebody is suicidal and forced to sit down and look at all of their options and really carefully weigh them out, death is usually not at the top of the list. But Emily did not do that. She saw a huge problem. She was pregnant, she knew Chris would marry her if he found out, and she wasn't sure she could face the rest of her life feeling dirty while married to somebody who felt like a brother to her. Even as Chris and Emily stood at the site of her death, discussing what Chris should do afterwards, Emily admitted that she had only considered her problems and the act of killing herself, not what death would be like, or what life would be like for others after she was gone. I firmly believe that this is something that could have been worked out in therapy; but Emily did not consider any alternatives to death.

No matter how Chris's trial worked out, I don't think one could say this story is anything but a tragedy. (Chris got very lucky, though, and was given a verdict of not guilty as there was some reasonable doubt. I don't believe, though, that in a real trial he would have gotten off that easily.) These teens were enmeshed for their entire lives, in love in a way that most adults cannot even comprehend. And in the end, one is undeniably dead, and the other forced to go on without her, and without ever understanding the reasons behind her despair.

Friday, May 2, 2008

On the Other Side

A bit of a divergence from my usual topics:

I judged interviews at the Academic Decathlon national competition today. I've proctored and volunteered at regional and state competitions before, and I always find it a bit odd to be on the other side of things. Even though I was completely exhausted and the training session was rather long and exasperating, the actual interviewing experience was fun. I got to talk to people from tiny division III schools. As one would expect, there was quite the range of talent: some really impressive (the ones you wish you could talk to for way more than 7 mins), others painful (the ones you want to shove out the door right around the time they say their name and shake your hand). Nice working with ambitious teens who all seem rather mentally stable to mix things up a bit!

These things always make me so nostalgic, though. As many drawbacks as high school had, there are parts of me that wish I could have just stuck around to be a decathlete forever. Luckily DemiDec season will soon be upon me. Writing tests/quizzes for SuperQuiz this year. The topic: evolutionary biology. Very excited! After all, when I was 12, Charles Darwin was my hero (I really said this in an interview...). And Alpacas always bring such joy into my life. I like to believe that if I can't cut it in the world of Psychology, there will always be room for me in Decathlon and DemiDec as a professional geek.