By Daphne Merkin, from This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression, a memoir that will be published next month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Merkin is the author of three previous books, including The Fame Lunches (2014).
Self-inflicted death has always held an allure for me. I am fascinated by people who have the temerity to bring down the curtain on their own suffering, who don’t hang around moping in hopes of a brighter day. I know all the arguments about the cowardice and the selfishness (not to mention the rage) involved in committing suicide, but considering how frightened most of us are at the possibility of our own extinction — how little we discuss the conclusiveness of death, preferring to gloss over its finality with timorous words like “passed” — nothing can convince me that the act doesn’t require courage, steeliness, some special, aberrant sort of bravery. Certainly in the moment of its enactment it requires a radical daring, a willingness to abandon the known for the unknown. Not to leave out the desperation, which must be of such strength as to torpedo all other solutions. In any case I can’t help but notice, as I continue to shove myself forward, trying to give my life purpose, trying to write this book about living despite a wish to die, that other people have been giving up — some of them famous, like Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and some of them not.
Two poets, for instance, killed themselves in the same year, separated by eight months, neither of whom I’d read at the time of their death. One of them, Deborah Digges, was fifty-nine, the same age that Virginia Woolf, the writer whose sensibility and novels mean the most to me, was when she decided to pack it in. Digges jumped off the upper level of a campus stadium.
She looks very pretty in the jacket photo that accompanies her last collection of poems, The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart, almost girlish, certainly nowhere near her age; I wonder whether it was her favorite photo or whether she had never bothered to have it updated.
There are other things I wonder in passing: whether Digges’s weekends, in particular, were as shorn of relief as mine. Did she hibernate the way I do, sleeping away the best part of the day, waking up briefly in the late morning and again in the early afternoon only to plump the pillows before returning to the haven of sleep, ignoring all attempts at plans, redoing my life in dreams, in which I retrieve dead parents and far-off lovers, find myself pregnant with the second child I never had or married to a long-ago boyfriend who wasn’t my type but whose type I wished I had been. Waking up to find myself in the same bed as always, my nightgown sticky with sweat.
This is the same bed on which I lie at seven o’clock on a Thursday evening in early May, feeling that there is no lower to go and wondering whether I have it in me to kill myself and what would be the most reasonable way to do it, should I leave a note, would it have an irrevocably terrible effect on my daughter, are nine stories high enough to ensure death (the actress Elizabeth Hartman, who was so poignant as the blind girl in A Patch of Blue and then as Priss in The Group, fell to her death from the fifth floor), is there the possibility of crashing into the pavement and ending up alive but maimed?
A friend of mine who lives on the Upper East Side recently told me about a woman in her building who hung out in the lobby every morning with the doormen, together with her little dog. “I was obsessed with her roots,” my friend explained. “She had two inches of gray, her hair parted down the middle, the rest of it a very dark brown. And I kept looking at her with my lip curled, it really bothered me, I couldn’t understand why she didn’t do her roots. Then she jumped off the roof and I felt bad that I snarled at her every morning in the lobby and that I wouldn’t talk to her because of her roots.” I think about how I frequently let my own roots grow out and wonder if untouched-up roots are an indication among a certain class of women of growing despair, like Marilyn Monroe’s uncut toenails.
Then there is Rachel Wetzsteon, a forty-two-year-old poet I didn’t know personally but had heard of who called it quits on Christmas in 2009. She taught at the 92nd Street Y, where for a number of years I taught as well, so for all I know we may have passed each other on the way in or out of the building, may have bonded, shared war stories. The New York Times reported that Wetzsteon was despondent over a love affair that had recently ended after three years. She was also known to suffer from depression, no surprise there. I wonder how she did it and ask someone who I imagine might know. She hanged herself, my friend says, or that’s the story.
The methodology is always of interest to me, almost as much as the finality of the act. Who by fire? Who by water? Who by pills? Who by razor blade? Rachel Roberts, the gifted Welsh actress who starred in gritty British films of the 1960s such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and This Sporting Life, continued to pine for her husband, Rex Harrison, and the glamorous life he offered her long after they were divorced and she had become an alcoholic, according to her heartbreaking, posthumously published journals, No Bells on Sunday. At the age of fifty-three, she swallowed lye and crashed through a glass room divider, committing a sort of double hara-kiri. Hanging oneself seems to require so much in the way of accurate logistics, I can’t see myself taking that route. I worry specifically that I would kick the stool or chair away at the wrong moment and be left dangling, choking but not dead. Or perhaps the rope wouldn’t be short enough. Those kinds of mistakes. I don’t think I am possessed of the steely will and planning ability of types like David Foster Wallace, who reportedly taped his hands together beforehand.
Woolf’s method, on the other hand, has always made sense to me. Walking into the River Ouse, with a large stone in her coat pocket — or several stones, no one seems to know for sure their number or size — to help weigh her down, going under for good, the bubbles coming up in a frothy rush, the final stillness. (She had tried to drown herself several days earlier, only to return home drenched.)
“By the way, what are the arguments against suicide?” Woolf wrote on October 30, 1930, in a letter to the composer Ethel Smyth.
You know what a flibbertigibbet I am: well there suddenly comes in a thunder-clap a sense of the complete uselessness of my life. It’s like suddenly running one’s head against a wall at the end of a blind alley. Now what are the arguments against that sense — “Oh it would be better to end it”?
I read somewhere that suicide remained a crime in England until 1961 and am taken aback at the fierce judgment of this view, not all that different in its implications from the definition proposed by Samuel Johnson in his Dictionary of the English Language, a little more than two centuries earlier: “Self-murder, the horrid crime of destroying one’s self.” The word “horrid” seems so supremely condemning; it’s enough to make one feel ashamed of harboring such impulses, much less acting on them.
But there’s nothing much to cozy up to in Scottish philosopher David Hume’s hyperrational essay in defense of suicide, either, published in 1783, less than three decades after Johnson. Hume takes a scrupulously dispassionate approach to the problem, treating suicide as a minor ripple in a larger, impermeable ecosystem — pointing out that an individual life lost “is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.” This equal-opportunity diminishment is the other side of, perhaps even a corrective to, the melancholic’s habit of seeing nothing but his own despair writ large everywhere he looks. We have, for instance, Max Brod, Kafka’s great friend, recording in his diary: “Took a walk with Kafka; the misery of the Turks reminds him of his own.” (In October 1912, the Turks had been expelled from the Balkans, and coverage of the ensuing atrocities had filled the papers.) Still, Hume’s vision puts me on the defensive, makes me want to separate myself out from other potential suicides in keeping with Churchill’s famous pronouncement: “We are all worms but I do believe that I am a glowworm.” To which I would add: “We are all oysters but I do believe that I am a glow oyster.”
In Death Becomes Them, an incongruously lighthearted book about famous and notorious suicides, drowning is described as the “most mentally demanding and painfully agonizing” method of killing oneself. I can see why it is viewed differently: there is something about water — the ongoing flow of it, the tide coming in and then going out, time and time again — that suggests a joining up with rather than a ceasing to be, a lament larger than one’s own puny keening. The sound of the waves like a hushed conversation, one that began long before you entered the world and will continue long after. Still, the commitment to the act must be fierce — forcing yourself down into the numbingly cold depths, resisting the natural impulse to come up and gasp madly for breath, allowing the water to enter your lungs.
Suicides don’t seem to fret about the possibility of physical pain, or at least I haven’t read much about this aspect of things. And yet if I were being completely honest, I would have to say that it is this prospect, as much as anything, that has stopped me from, say, jumping off a roof — perhaps a trivial consideration in light of the insensate eternity that awaits, but there it is.
Recently, a dauntingly tall and quite beautiful fashion designer named L’Wren Scott abruptly killed herself, at the age of forty-nine. I had lunch with her once, at the Lambs Club on West 44th Street, several years earlier, when there was an idea afloat that I might write about her for Elle. Clever girl, I thought to myself when I first heard the news.
Her death was deemed newsworthy, unlike some other suicides, because of the glamour surrounding her. Her boyfriend of more than a decade — none other than Mick Jagger, he of the strutting gait and rubbery lips — had or had not, depending on which account you read or believed, recently broken up with her. Then there was the matter of her recent financial troubles with her fashion label, which had left her $6 million in debt. But she had also been a force in and of herself — she was the adopted daughter of Mormon parents, she had come from inauspicious beginnings in Roy, Utah. What powers of self-invention she must have had, enough to catapult her out of Roy at the age of sixteen to seek her fortune as a fashion model in Paris. When did those powers begin to sputter out? Did she spend a lot of time concealing her depression, or was it something that came with little history, or little that was discernible to others?
In my fantasies of suicide, I never write suicide notes — with a few exceptions they strike me as, on the one hand, gratuitous, and on the other, slightly melodramatic — but of late I have been thinking I would owe my daughter, at least, an explanation. And an apology, for all the good it will do.
I have heard all the terrible statistics about the children of mothers who kill themselves, the lingering harm it does; I think of Nicholas Hughes, the biologist son of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, who was an expert on stream-salmonid ecology and hanged himself in 2009, when he was forty-seven. He was reported to be suffering from depression, and I glean from what little information is out there that he was something of a loner, but would he have killed himself without such a ready model at hand?
I think of how much more Woolf had done by this point in her life than I have in mine — all the books written, the founding of the Hogarth Press with her husband, Leonard, her intense rapport with so many people by way of conversations and letters. It’s not that I have accomplished nothing — I have published three books and written hundreds of thousands of words for a wide assortment of publications, been a passionate if not always reliable mother, a caring sister, a good friend, a devoted aunt — but that it falls so far short of what I once hoped for. I suppose you could say that the mere fact that I’m still banging around is itself a triumph of something — strength, fear, indecision — but I wonder whether it isn’t also a failure to keep my word to myself. I have promised myself suicide the way other people promise themselves a new car, gleaming and spiffy. It is something I think I deserve, a reward for bearing up under what feel like intolerable conditions, the dreary dailiness and balefulness of existence coming at you again and again. I understand that taking one’s own life is not in itself a positive thing, of course, that it represents a turning on the self of the most radical order, but I also think it is possible to look at it as a kindness, a way of paying utmost attention to one’s own utter bereftness.
Then there is this: I have always secretly believed that suicides don’t realize they won’t be coming this way again. If you are depressed enough, it seems to me, you begin to conceive of death as a cradle, rocking you gently back to a life unsullied by you. If you are depressed enough you are prepared to jump off the ledge and into the embrace of oblivion — in the private and entirely unprovable knowledge that oblivion will yield to an expanse of green field, dotted with wildflowers, where you will run and run, unencumbered by the heaviness you have been carrying with you for what seems like forever. This secret conviction bears some resemblance to religious faith, even though it demands nothing and offers nothing back except its own irrationality.
“Life is one long process of getting tired,” Samuel Butler said. There will always be people who feel that although everyone else is tired, they are too tired, have waited long enough, and that it’s time, now, to get going.