On the first night of this month, I was in Los Angeles at the fabled Grove shopping center/farmer’s market complex near my friend Russ’ Beverly Hills apartment he’s rented for the last decade. I was with Russ and my girlfriend and we dined on delicious global food, contemplated seeing a movie, and walked back toward the parking garage only to discover the path blocked by fire trucks that looked for all the world like a new high-end trolley ride to match the overpriced prestige of the Grove’s glass-fronted stores. The crowd closed and swelled ahead, with people doing the sideways shimmy of attempting to sneak by each other without bumping rear ends against their neighbors. Two firemen with an empty stretcher pushed by us coming from the opposite directions, indiscernible poker faces on their visages.
Then we rounded the corner to make the parking lot visible and saw an opening, a police line, a white sheet unflat upon the ground. And just enough skyward fingers to do the math.
You can fill in the rest of the blanks here.
The event dominated the rest of my thoughts for the night. I tend to get a little obsessive about suicide conceptually, something I’ve struggled with being tempted by for 22 years and something that has touched just enough of my life periodically to keep the morbid fascination going. It’s something that always seems far more prevalent than people want to admit or talk about. Such a high percentage of people love life so irrefutably and unquestionably, and/or are so terrified of death, that their voice tends to shunt suicidalism off to the corner of the unthinkably mad or the blindingly stupid. And there’s this incredible shame that seems to follow suicide around, preventing newspapers and other media bastions from reporting the true nature of death for so many, scrupulously avoiding the cause of morbidity as though they’d died from an STD one can only contract from sheep. Which seems grossly unfair treatment of someone who made a deliberate and definitive statement as their last act. Sure, maybe you’re protecting the next of kin from the shame of not preventing the act and they are the ones living, after all. But I don’t think anyone seriously blames loved ones for the suicide of an individual, at least no one other than that individual themself. Who, presumably, already knows. One has to jump from the seventh floor of a parking garage in broad daylight before a hundred shoppers to get recognition publicly for what one is doing.
I don’t mean to glorify suicide, much less advocate it, but I think there’s so much obfuscation and sugar-coating in our society that it’s important to call things what they are as often as we get the opportunity. I can understand and relate to it and that’s enough for me to recognize that I would be angry if I chose that action and newspapers chose to spread ambiguity on how I left the Earth. Within days of our near-miss with the Grove jumper, NPR reported a story on an increasing epidemic of suicide-by-train in the LA area, perhaps equal parts the fault of the worsening quality of life in this country and the increase in mass transit around the favorite city of the car. As they always seem to, they managed to find and interview a miraculous survivor who reported what I imagined would be a common sentiment of not realizing the impact of his decision on the driver of the train who was left with literally no alternative to de facto ending a life. Trains occur to us like anonymous agents of the mechanized age, not volitionally driven vehicles. No one commits suicide by jumping in front of a car without thinking of the driver. It’s something about the tracks and their inalterability, as opposed to the appearance of control we all have in a car, the choice of lane and speed and turn on an otherwise structured road.
It was also worth noting, I guess, that one of my first questions about the jump was whether someone could stop it by getting under the jumper. The reality, of course, I quickly realized, is that one would probably trade one’s life for that person’s, or maybe just add a suicide to the one already in progress. I didn’t actually witness the event and I don’t know how I would’ve reacted then, but my gut feeling is that I would’ve gone to catch the person. Or at least thought to try before stopping myself. Even though it would be potentially fatal and even though I believe in a personal right to suicide. I envision myself split-second calculating whether sacrificing my arms to arrest the momentum would be a fair trade and whether I would have enough of a read on the person’s downward trajectory to make sure I didn’t put my cranium under them. Like fielding a fly ball in right field. Like the catcher in the rye. And then I consider myself on the descent instead of sizing up its slowing, and I can easily see my first comment to the attempted catcher, should I survive, being “The hell you do that for? Can’t you see I’m trying to die here?”
And yet everyone who has survived a jump from the Golden Gate is grateful that they lived through it.
Which brings me to the more unsettling and haunting theory that overshadowed my recent, mostly glorious, trip to the west, to hometowns and favorite places (La Fonda, Grand Canyon, Pacific Ocean), something I’m thinking about writing a novel about and simultaneously thinking all three of my extant novels are already about. Maybe what my whole writing career will be/could be about, what three decades as a student of human behavior has led me to conclude. I’ve long discussed that everyone tells themselves a story about their life. That everyone is the hero(ine) of their own story, that they explain their faults and foibles in the grand narrative arc of self-affirmation and improvement, and that no one is ever the bad guy. Sure, a small fraction of suicides may have finally, irksomely concluded that they may be the bad guy, but most of even those who no longer want to live are tired of being the victim or of having irreparably bad judgment that loses them hope, not concluding that they themselves don’t actually deserve to keep making decisions.
As a searing but inadvertent illustration of this, Russ showed me a comedy sketch on his Roku by someone he’s come to appreciate, his alleged heirs to Monty Python. I wish I could remember who it was, but they were British or Canadian and thus capable of humor. In any case, the skit was two Nazis in a trench with skulls on their sharp gray uniform caps coming to the horrifying realization that “they may be the baddies”. What made the scene funny is actually a dual absurdity. On the surface, it seems funny that Nazis wouldn’t realize that of course they are the bad guys – they’re a group so reprehensible and notorious that they’ve launched a century of trauma, terror, atheism, and disbelief in the potential of our very species, not to mention justification for ongoing militarism and violence. But the more profound humor is that of course the Nazis didn’t believe themselves to be the bad guys, because no one does. The idea of the Nazis having this discussion is the truest absurdity, because no one reflects on their surroundings and is really capable of ultimately concluding that they are the villain of their own story. Or statistically no one.
Which brings us to the Golden Gate jumpers (or the interviewed SoCal train jumper, for that matter) who suddenly feel that they’ve been spared for a reason and life’s worth living again. Even though many of them are paralyzed or endure such excruciating pain and injury that it would drive other healthy whole people to the brink of their prior act. Is there something profound in this about the innate livability and worth of life? Or is this actually something far more insidious and disheartening about the nature of the narratives we tell ourselves? That in a society bent on progress and obsessed with growth, we can’t merely say that our lives got worse and stayed worse. That we are driven to tell ourselves a story that everything that happened is some form of advancement, of improvement, that even the act of colossally and crushingly failed suicide can be a notch higher than what came before it because heroes must proceed.
It’s a pit-of-stomach-churning thought. Its implications are as deep and as strong as everything we feel about everything that happens to us in our lives. It’s a question I don’t even want to ask you, reading this now, for fear of its reverberations on your life. It’s more than the already notorious “are you happy?” inquiry, for there’s such a strong drive to find ways to answer that one affirmatively. But this one makes quicksand out of our daily assumptions and the way we’re inclined to react. How much of my present self-image is motivated by the desire to feel good about myself, my standing, and to justify everything I’ve slogged through before?
I think this is why people were so unsettled by my baldly pessimistic statements about my life after Emily left me. People don’t make baldly pessimistic statements about their life. They find hope, even crazy irrational unreasonable hope. And not just for the long-term, for forever from now, but for tomorrow, for the next day, just to keep themselves hanging on. And not doing so is seen as so irrational, so unsettling, so disabling, that we have come to diagnose and treat anyone who dissents as though, well, they had that sheep-based STD. Or cancer.
Yesterday’s “This American Life” (NPR radio show) episode was about Longshots and how people who have basically no chance at doing something which is on-paper impossible still get their hopes up. Damningly, two of the three depicted groups/people wound up initially losing but then actually getting what they wanted, reaffirming our self-affirming mythos about constant upward spirals. Two days ago, my girlfriend and I watched the documentary “Waiting for Superman” for the first time, watching kids with impossible odds pin their entire future to a ping-pong ball with their number on it so they could be salvaged from America’s broken public school system. Even there, a kid gets in off the waitlist and keeps our hope of the ineffably improving future alive in the midst of tragic heartbreak and despair from so many of his cutely illuminated peers.
The truth, of course, is that things don’t always get better. They don’t always improve. People get debilitating diseases that take their mobility and will before they take their life. Wars start. People lose jobs, houses, spouses, friends, lovers, parents. Every day, the sky falls in for millions and they are expected to carry on as though the sun’s just a little higher than it was the day prior. What’s good about this departure?
Of course, there are always opportunities in these losses. I’m not saying that change and alteration and loss are unsalvageably bad, or even as bad as they first seem to anyone. But to pretend that even with the inevitable growth and learning that comes from pain that pain is somehow making things better is utter nonsense. And to expect it of others is as crazy as jumping off the seventh floor of a parking garage.
The most recent suicide statistics available for the whole country are from 2009. That’s a remarkably notable 2.5 years ago. I don’t know if there’s regularly this kind of lag, as investigators and analysts sift through countless instances of insurance fraud and single-car crashes and euphemistic obituaries looking for the despondent self-inflicters hiding in plain sight. Or if someone’s put the brakes on the reporting because of recent spikes. The chart already looks like what people want out of their stock charts since 2001 (see below) and maybe reports about the jump in suicides in the military have less to do with the military than I’d normally believe. Maybe everyone’s getting off the train, or getting in front of it, or whatever vaguely macabre metaphor you want to invoke. Maybe there is something real and tangible going on in a country that’s invested everything it has in the idea that everything always gets better realizing that reality is not so predictable.
Maybe we all just need to take a good long look at each other, help each other through this nonsense, and find things other than the unending improvement model to get us through the day. Hope is fantastic, but delusion is not grandeur. Hope can be tempered and reasonable and sufficiently tamed to make life something other than an unstoppable series of denied disappointments. Maybe by setting our sights a little lower, we can actually see the ground ahead. Otherwise, how can we help but trip and fall?