Robin Williams committed suicide and it is all over the internet. I recently watched Dead Poets Society for the first time and Williams’ suicide is hitting me harder than I might have expected. I have been working on this post for over a month, but as we all mourn Robin Williams’ death it seems like now is the time to publish it and join the conversation about suicide that has sprung up online in the last few days.
In 2010, Jennifer Michael Hecht wrote an open-letter essay called “On Suicide” for the Best American Poetry blog after a second poet and friend committed suicide. In 2013, she published a book that expanded on and supported, with scientific and literary evidence, the claims she made in that essay. She titled the book Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It.
The book only includes one reference to LGBT suicide, but Stay is nonetheless an important resource for our community and particularly the secular portion of our community. Most people probably don’t need to see the statistics to know that there are higher rates of suicide among people who are LGBTQ, especially youth, than among people who are straight and that suicide is a serious problem within the queer community.
The queer community has its own suicide prevention tools, mostly targeting youth, the most well-known being the It Gets Better Project and The Trevor Project. The Trevor Project provides crisis intervention for young people actively considering suicide. The It Gets Better Project provides testimonials from queer adults addressing the difficulties queer youth face and talking about all the ways life got better for them as adults, with the intent of providing incentive for queer youth to stick around to see how their own lives get better. These are important resources, but we need all the resources we can possibly get. Stay is another tool to add to the arsenal.
The purpose of Stay is to examine historic ideas about suicide and bring to light secular philosophies that argue against suicide. Hecht is plain in the fact that she is not even pretending to be neutral in her research and I write this review with the same bias and the same intent: we are both trying to tell people considering suicide to stay, to live.
I want to first quote at length from Hecht’s essay (which she quotes in the Preface to Stay). Her words are vital and worth repeating. She writes:
“In the West, in the past, the dominant religions told people suicide was against the rules, they must not do it, if they did they would be punished in the afterlife. People killed themselves anyway, of course, but the strict injunction must have helped keep a billion moments of anguish from turning into a bloodbath. These days we encourage people to stay alive and not kill themselves, but we say it for the person’s own sake. It’s illegal, sure, but no one actually insists that suicide is wrong.
I’m issuing a rule. You are not allowed to kill yourself. … When a person kills himself, he does wrenching damage to the community. One of the best predictors of suicide is knowing a suicide. That means that every suicide is also a delayed homicide. You have to stay.”
This quote captures most of the essential ideas of the book. Hecht felt strongly the absence of awareness of philosophical and moral arguments and injunctions against suicide in modern society, particularly modern secular society, and set out to bring historical arguments to light. Through her research, she found two main arguments against suicide, one arguing that a person contemplating suicide owes it to their future self to stay alive, the other arguing that suicide is wrong because it does damage to the community.
The message of It Gets Better is essentially the first argument. Most painfully relevant to our community is what Hecht writes in her Introduction about the second argument: “Suicidal influence is strong enough that a suicide might also be considered a homicide. Whether you call it a contagion, suicidal clusters, or sociocultural modeling, our social sciences demonstrate that suicide causes more suicide, both among those who knew the person and among the strangers who somehow identified with the victim” (5). We’ve seen this happen before. Queer youth identify with each other and every time a queer youth commits suicide, suicide becomes a more ‘acceptable’ response to the agony young people can suffer as a result of being queer or being perceived to be queer. We need to be able to go beyond saying “it gets better” to also say “it is not just yourself you hurt.”
In Stay, Hecht presents some of the ways philosophers have said both of those things. About half of the book explores the history of suicide, from famous ancient suicides, through the development of religious mandates against committing suicide, through the rebellion against religion of The Enlightenment which included acceptance of suicide, to the current situation in which millions of people are not religious and seem to believe that there are no rational arguments against suicide. The other half explores the arguments against suicide and presents the thoughts of philosophers from throughout history which support those arguments. From Socrates to John Milton, Voltaire to Immanuel Kant, Victor Hugo to modern science, John Stuart Mill to Ludwig Wittgenstein, Emile Durkheim to Albert Camus, Hecht pieces together a chorus of famous voices speaking from the past and the present and urging people to resist the urge to commit suicide and stay alive. I do not have any background in philosophy and for that reason, I will refrain from even attempting to summarize the various arguments.
However, I will leave you with snippets of the ideas of two philosophers to mull on and hopefully entice you to read Stay. First, John Henley “acknowledges that life can be tiresome and hard but believes that as we go through life we gain wisdom and the ability to be the person we want to be” (98). Second, G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world” (144). Taken out of context, these strings of words are hardly enough to prevent anyone from committing suicide. But maybe, in the context of the full arguments they come from, they can remind people of all the reasons to stay.
If you are looking for other voices to help you combat suicidal thoughts or to help you appeal to someone else who is combating suicidal thoughts, especially other voices from secular philosophy, Hecht has found them and gathered them in her book. They may not all make sense to you, but maybe some of them will and maybe that will make all the difference. Please read Stay. Share it with your loved ones. Find your own ways to tell them that you need them to stay. And you, reader, chose to stay. Make that choice as many times as you have to. But please, stay.