Thursday, May 15, 2008

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.

1 comment:

Isaiah Vianese said...

Wow... that was long. :)

Some great conclusions in there, though... It seems like your project is coming together.