Parent advisory: This article includes descriptions of the results of suicide.
What goes through the minds of suicide perpetrators and victims during their last seconds of thought? Journalist Scott Anderson ended a New York Times article two months ago ("The Urge to End It All," July 6) with a quotation from Kevin Hines, one of 29 people known to have jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge without dying: "I'll tell you what I can't get out of my head. It's watching my hands come off that railing and thinking to myself, 'My God, what have I just done?' Because I know that almost everyone else who's gone off that bridge, they had that exact same thought at that moment."
Anderson estimates that 2,000 men and women have jumped from the Golden Gate and died. California clinical psychiatrist Richard Seiden obtained a police list of 515 would-be jumpers pulled off the bridge, conducted extensive research, and found that only 6 percent of those kept from killing themselves went on to commit suicide. Seiden allowed that some suicides might have been mislabeled as accidents, but that correction only raised the total to 10 percent: "90 percent of them got past it. They were having an acute temporary crisis, they passed through it and, coming out the other side, they got on with their lives."
Seiden said that suicide attempters "get fixated. They decide they're going to jump off a particular spot on a particular bridge, but if they discover the bridge is closed for renovations or the railing is higher than they thought, most of them don't look around for another place to do it. They just retreat." Seiden told of one man on the Golden Gate's eastern promenade who fixated on jumping from the western side but didn't do it because he feared that a car would hit him as he made his way across six lanes of traffic.
Anderson concluded that suicide is an overwhelmingly impulsive act: One study of survivors found that 70 percent think about it for less than an hour before trying it. Anderson reported on the work of David Hemenway, who directs the Injury Control Research Center at the Harvard School of Public Health: Hemenway and his team, focusing on the "how" of suicide, have learned that "if you can somehow remove or complicate a method, you have the potential of saving a tremendous number of lives."
Some officials, therefore, are pushing for barriers on the Golden Gate and other popular suicide sites. Some search for other physical ways to "remove or complicate a method." What's missing from the literature, though, perhaps because it's so politically incorrect, is the usefulness of psychological warfare: Make descriptions of suicide, now airbrushed, once more sickening. Make the character of those who commit suicide, now the subject of sympathy, the object of intense scorn.
We know how this can be done because up to a century ago newspapers readily did it. Although the late 19th century may have been a "Victorian Age" in which "legs" became "limbs" and "breasts" were tucked away as "bosoms," blood and guts reporting dominated suicide coverage. For instance, the Dallas News described relatives finding a "lifeless body still warm seated in a chair with the top of his head blown off, the blood and brains scattered around the room." The Atlanta Constitution described "blood oozing from the gaping wound" after another shooting.
Even newspapers not known for sensationalism were vivid in their treatment of those who leaped from buildings or in front of trains. The New York Tribune reported that one jumper's "brains were scattered over the flagstones," and that another "fell three stories and struck her head foremost, almost smashing her entire skull. She lay there for about 10 minutes before she was seen. By that time an immense quantity of blood had flowed from the body and trickled into the gutter." The New York Times described a man who jumped in front of a subway train: "His head was knocked clean off." The Times said of another suicide, "His throat was cut, there was a foam on his lips, and his eyes stared wildly."
Newspapers also tended to report the physical remains of suicide: A "mangled body," a "crushed and bleeding form," and so on. Would a person thinking of drowning himself think twice after reading that fish had eaten the face of a man who committed suicide in a lake? Would a man thinking of killing himself in a forest rethink his decision when he read of a man hanging himself and not being found for several weeks, by which time "the lower part of the body had evidently been eaten away by animals"?
Statistics-keeping a century ago was not what it is today so we don't know whether such articles saved any lives, but the use of shame to fight suicide has a distinguished lineage. Two millennia ago the Greek historian Plutarch, writing about young women on the island of Miletus, noted that at one point they were hanging themselves in abundance. The perverse craze continued until "on the advice of a man of sense, an ordinance was proposed that the women who hanged themselves should be carried naked through the marketplace to their burial."
The ordinance, Plutarch wrote, "stopped completely the young women from killing themselves. Women who had no deterrent sense of shame when facing the most terrible of all things in the world, death and pain, yet could not abide nor bear the thought of disgrace which would come after death." Journalists a century ago vividly described the physical results of suicide and also connected that act with other disgraceful actions. The Washington Post told of a man committing suicide after kicking his aged mother to death. The New York Tribune explained how a convicted wife murderer hanged himself in jail with a handkerchief.
Reporters connected adultery and suicide. The Chicago Tribune reported that one man took arsenic after learning of his wife's adultery. The New York Times had a man killing himself after his wife found love letters another woman had sent him. The New York Journal wrote of a married woman taking poison and dying in the yard of a lover's residence, and of another who found "HER LOVE FATAL. Frederika was Disappointed and Killed Herself."
Theft also led to suicide: The Dallas Herald noted the cyanide-taking of a bookkeeper arrested for theft, and the Los Angeles Times noted that a man shot himself after stealing $100. "SUICIDE OF A DEFAULTING CASHIER" was a typical headline: "J.P. Hassler, late cashier for the Carlisle Deposit Bank, hanged himself this afternoon. Mr. Hassler was elected cashier in 1863, and held that position until last October, when he was found to be a defaulter. Today, February 28, 1877, the bank officers instituted criminal proceedings against him."
Reporters described the demise of suicidal thieves with particular vividness. One front-page story, "A Thief & A Suicide," showed how a bank robber shot himself and was found with "his face shattered and covered with blood." Another man, who also had a record of wife beating, slit his throat in the courtroom after being convicted of grant larceny. Associates found a bank defrauder "with half of his head blown off."
When some readers said newspapers were being mean, the New York Tribune responded, "It is dangerous, it is inequitable, it is demoralizing for us to regard merely the ruin, appealing as it naturally does to our charity and our pity. It is necessary that we should also take into account the long concatenation of causes which culminated in the tragedy-follies intellectual, moral, and physical." The Tribune noted "vices which are undeniable tokens of selfishness; passions to which the bridle has been given until it cannot be resumed."
The Tribune tried particularly hard to strip suicidal individuals of any hope that their actions would be honored. An editorial in 1883 summed up the era's coverage: "The Tribune would like to say something about the suicide business which, to persons contemplating that manner of egress, may seem harsh and unfeeling. [The suicide] is an ass, a very distinct and unmistakable ass. Is this too harsh? . . . There is no dignity, nor seldom any decency in suicide. It is the best cowardly desertion of the ranks in the presence of the enemy. It is insanity, of course, always. But always, it must be observed, the insanity of the personal vanity: of overwhelming egotism."
That editorial is part of a long literary tradition. Dante, in his Inferno, poetically placed suicides in a dark, pathless wood, where their souls took the shape of thorns in stunted trees. The harpies, with their great wings and feathered bellies, human faces and clawed feet, nested in those stunted trees and tore at the leaves, endlessly repeating the violence the soul had inflicted on itself.
Editorials a century or more ago argued that suicide was wrong theologically because it reflected a lack of belief that God has a purpose for individual human lives. The New York Tribune editorialized in 1877 that "the highest wisdom, therefore, even for a wretch whose life is saturated with sorrow, and for whom apparently there is no future, is to wait. Surely, considering how much we need them, faith and persistence should not be lightly abandoned. The very fact that we are not yet called from the scene of wearisome struggle and disaster, seemingly consummate, should prove to us that Providence has some design in continuing our existence."
Today, with greater concern for the invasion of privacy and awareness of potential lawsuits, few newspapers print causes of death. Almost all omit gory details. But a more fundamental change has occurred also: When secular publications cover suicide, those who do it receive a form of honor. I still have in my files a story concerning the 1983 suicide of Kent Green, age 16. The Louisville Courier-Journal's Sunday magazine put his smiling picture on its front cover, with the caption, "Star athlete, solid student, popular leader. . . ."
The story inside quoted Green's suicide note-"I just didn't have a future"-and noted simply that "one night he put a rifle to his head and pulled the trigger." The writer, instead of showing brains and blood all over the floor, emphasized how much his parents, friends, and teachers admired him. The story's final sentence showed how Kent Green's mother "still keeps the door to Kent's room closed, and for the most part she stays out. But sometimes, when she's home during the day, she will open the door and just look in."
The romanticized story had a tragic aftermath. Terry Ray Cahill, a friend and classmate of Green, read the article five times, said "it wouldn't be a bad way to die," and shot himself fatally in the head, just as Kent Green had. The local school superintendent noted the next day, "I'm very concerned about the fact-whether it's irony or whatever-that this kind of tragedy falls right on the footsteps of this Courier-Journal article."
No one can reasonably state that the Courier-Journal printing of the article caused the Cahill suicide. But I remember this story because the editor later told me that he repented of printing the romanticized account. He said he had spent "a long time" discussing with staff members whether to print the story and what to include in it, only to follow the regular contemporary format: bloodlessness and sympathy.
Is typical coverage helpful? If bridge barriers and other slow-down devices can cut the number of suicides, would accurate and honest media coverage help as well? Fyodor Dostoevsky had his character Kirilov explain that people who might otherwise commit suicide do not kill themselves for two reasons: fear of pain, and fear of the next world. What happens if newspapers do not report pain and do not discuss the religious questions involved in suicide? Might journalistic compassion for those contemplating suicide actually require tough coverage of those who have?