Essay: What We Talk About When We Talk About Suicide

You’re the one who doesn’t exist. You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important. Get used to it.”
-Emma Stone in Birdman(2014)

“I felt it. Perfect. It was perfect.”
Natalie Portman, in Black Swan(2010)

The ultimate suicide fantasy is where the individual after a meticulously-researched and ingeniously-planned attempt does not die or fatally injure himself, but rather, by some unforeseen miracle is saved and granted a new lease of life. Psychology may or may not espouse this hypothesis, but empirical data suggests that those preoccupied with suicide ideation often construct an alternate Utopian reality, with glorified versions of themselves wherein they seek to retreat to when the going gets tough. This is perhaps, escapism and existentialism at its finest, depraved best.

Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s critically acclaimed and Academy Award-winning film, Birdman, in one of its multiple interpretations evinces a similar notion. A story of struggle and despair woven into the delicate fabric of magic realism and chaotic in its essence, the movie follows Riggan, an ageing washed-up actor, once a top-billed celebrity for his iconic superhero films, straining to reinvent himself and his career by adapting a Raymond Carver story for a stage production. Yet financial constraints, altercations with family members and an intense rivalry with his more laudable, method-acting co-star, work to foil his Panglossian Broadway fantasies of critical and public encomium. But eventually, what proves to be his hamartia is his own stifling and exhibitionist ego, coupled with the coolly impertinent voice of Birdman who scorns his every step and his own desperate hankering after love, plaudits and veneration. His wife later tells him, “But that’s what you always do. You confuse love with admiration.”

As the pressure for the opening night’s performance rises to a crescendo, his grandiose hallucinations aggravate, reality slips, and the despondent Riggan recourses to taking a loaded gun and shooting himself for his first and final performance on stage. His public suicide is also inextricably linked with the Carver character he portrays-an abusive and possible maniac who beats up and attempts to kill his girlfriend, all in the name of love, and in the end, pulls the trigger at himself.

But Riggan’s untimely death, far from being unprecedented, was strikingly inevitable. Previously, he had tried to kill himself by drowning but was driven off by the poisonous jellyfish. Moreover, on a plane ride with George Clooney and informed of a possible crash, he expressed his disappointment that it was Clooney and not him, who would grace the headlines and be a matter of consternation for his marijuana-addicted daughter.

But the movie does not conclude with his suicide. Instead, the audience is treated to a scene where Riggan is in a hospital bed, grotesquely wounded but unmistakeably alive, reconciled with his estranged family, having secured the approval of his co-workers and even a rave review from his harshest critic who dubs his stage act as ‘super realism’.
It is this sudden switch to a Shangri La-esque situation that made the critics wonder if it was indeed real, or more likely, another element in Rigaan’s elaborate delusion, a fact emphasized by his seemingly telekinetic powers, impressive visions and the ambiguous ending scene all of which suggest that Riggan died fantasising about being saved.

It was in the horrific moment when Riggan takes out his gun, that I was sharply reminded of another film, more darker than Birdman and expertly-directed, the psychological-thriller Black Swan that examinesthe descent to madness and the implications of one ballerina’s manic obsession with perfection.

The more I thought about it, the more similarities I found between the two movies, both thematically and plot-wise. For one, both the films were set in New York and featured frustrated protagonists, consumed by their lust for excellence, coerced externally, rivalled by talented competitors and unable to channelize their suffering into liberation. And both of them tragically achieve their ultimate perfection by suicide.

Like Riggan who was repressed by his failure to live up to his Birdman persona, Nina, the ballerina’s abortion lay in her inability to morph the innocence and naiveté of the White Swan, to the sinister darkness, volatility and seduction that the role of the Black Swan entailed. Desirous of performing the part, Nina hallucinates about stabbing her co-star, only to realize, much later, that she has stabbed herself. Thus, both Riggan and Nina die for their art. Art instead of absolving them, in a grotesque irony dooms them into perdition.

But such instances are not restricted to cinema, but are also prevalent in real-life from where celluloid borrows its inspiration and perhaps, most recently embodied in the demise of comedian and actor Robin Williams. For a man, who made his living making other people laugh, his suicide was almost an act of rebellion and a betrayal to those who had idolized the teacher in the Dead Poets Society- a dark, cynical finger disdaining the insensitivity and incognizance of a society that marginalizes  those members afflicted with mental illness.

As per the statistics, suicide is the second leading cause of death for those aged between 10 and 24. And more teenagers die from suicide, than from AIDS, cancer, heart disease, pneumonia, chronic lung disease, influenza, stroke and birth defects COMBINED. It is the tenth leading cause of death in the US, alone. And one in every 25 attempts is a success. And if that wasn’t depressing enough, there is one death by suicide in the world every 40 seconds. Research also suggests a strong link between bullying and suicide.

In India alone, youngsters in the 15-29 age group account for the highest suicide rate per 100,000 populations as per a 2012 WHO report. According to NCRB findings, there was an average of 15 suicides an hour, or 371 suicides a day. 84 of them (per day) were attributed to family problems. Also, one of out every six suicides was committed by a housewife.

With such deadly numbers it is easy to play the devil’s advocate and question the efficacy of new-age therapy sessions and wellness centres. How efficient and responsible has the government, both in the Modi-era and prior to that, been in curtailing poverty, unemployment and violence? And what good is an education system that claims to inculcate the youngsters the values of life, if it cannot teach its children the very value of a life?

Almost all the major religions will testify to the fact that suicide is a sin according to their scriptures. Myths of vampirism stem from cases of suicide and murder. A popular superstition goes, that the soul of the deceased would be cursed to wander the earth, till the allotted years of his life (if he had not committed suicide) are over.

Nevertheless, there are cracks in one’s own mirror too.

In Hinduism, doesn’t the banned practice of sati, imply suicide of the widow, wilful or otherwise? Why should an individual or more specifically, a woman be compelled to immolate herself on her dead husband’s pyre, on account of societal norms?  Is that because of the gender into which she was born, that makes her subservient to her husband’s iron will, and his legal property even after his death? If, by patriarchal standards, wives are mere functioning commodities owned by their husbands, shouldn’t the commoditization at least come with an expiry date?

What is that intrinsic factor that ultimately prompts  a suicidal to jump off the proverbial cliff? Bankruptcy/ Destitution? Family disputes? Frustration? Loneliness? A lack of love?
Instances of lovers committing suicide make the fodder for successful best-sellers and blockbuster films. If it’s mutual, it’s a re-hash of Romeo And Juliet. If it’s the alienated, unrequited, misunderstood kind, it is along the lines of Hans Christian Andersen’s beautiful and disturbing faerytale, The Little Mermaid.

As a child, it was this Andersen classic that I’d devour with almost a vulgar appetite, and the one bedtime story that has haunted me ever since. And naturally, the Disney animated makeover, complete with the clichéd-happy ending might have been the stuff of my wishful thinking but ultimately filled me with revulsion.

For me, there was always something too tragic and fragile abbot the desperate mermaid who gives up her mellifluous voice to be with the Prince, only to face rejection. The knife in her hands was almost too symbolic of Hamlet’s indecisiveness. Should she stab the Prince, the object of her love and suffering, and return to her old life beneath the ocean? Or should she kill herself? Yet, even in her death, there was no liberation. And that for me, was the ultimate despair.

Both Tennyson’s the Lady Of Shallot and T.S Eliot’s The Love song Of J. Alfred Prufrock indirectly deal with the ramifications and the stifling bereavement of unrequited love and untimely death. While the vacillating, digressive Prufrock, was unable to communicate freely, the mysterious Lady Of Shalott , ‘half-sick of shadows’ was cursed to look upon the real world with her own eyes. And both of them, trapped as they were, consequently drowned. Their alienation from society and from themselves, and thereby their estrangement leading to their deaths comments on the very nature of suicide itself.

Did the two archetypal characters, part of the collective literary unconscious, die for, or out of love? Or did they die, longing for something else? Longing for the freedom that the real world had exiled them from?


In my teenage years, when battling depression and self-esteem issues were on the forefront, I tried to look up to Holden Caulfield and Charlie Kelmeckis as my role-models. But it was finally in the writings and known life history of confessional poet, Sylvia Plath, wherein I finally found my salvation. First it was the sensational controversies shrouding her suicide (Sticking her head in the oven! That is just so poetic!) that fascinated me, her roman-a clef novel, The Bell Jar(where I was shocked and delighted to find too many uncanny similarities with my own life) that I finished in a single, dreamlike afternoon, and finally her surreal poetry, suffused with strange metaphors and a ludic desire to play God that absolved me. Needless to say, being the obsessive fan that I was, I must have dehumanized her to the extreme. But I think I did it out of love. Sylvia, my dark goddess…

Yet I wasn’t the only one. A fashion magazine came under the fire for publishing a photoshoot with explicit references to women authors that glamorized suicide as a style statement. The rock band, My Chemical Romance, though professing to be “not emo” are  a top favourite among the hard-core emo followers. Despite barricades, the Eiffel Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge remain popular locations for suicidal tourists. Young adult novels dealing with teenage angst still top bestseller lists. In the dystopian twenty-first century, the suicide culture is a multi-million dollar industry. There are even detailed guides available on the internet, instructing the curious on the best ways to get off the ledge.

In this regard, I can’t help but include a quote from an Edwin Brock poem, entitled, ‘Five Ways To Kill A Man’. A scathing attack on the rapidly proliferating inhumanity of mankind and the consequent degradation of moral values, the poem references the Crucifixion of Jesus, the medieval War Of Roses, the two World Wars before finally concluding with the smoothest way of killing a man-

Simpler, direct, and much more neat
is to see that he is living somewhere in the middle
of the twentieth century, and leave him there.”

The poem thus suggests that in this modern age, man need not resort to cumbersome ways of exterminating his enemy. Present society with all its evils-the diseases, the poverty, the violence and lethal ambition is self-destructive enough to finish off its members.

Frustration and loneliness are thus, the collective symptoms of an increasingly nuclear existence, in an increasingly narcissistic and material-success-oriented society. In such a social construct, suicide, be it of a literary icon such as Virginia Woolf, a fictional character on the screen, or an average school girl unable to meet her parent’s lofty expectations in an exam score, can only be interpreted as a deeply political act-the ultimate rebellion against the system that seeks to brainwash its members, elite or destitute into partaking the deadly game labelled ‘conformity’.

“The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.”

A slightly different version of this article (edited by Manisha Ganguly)  previously appeared on Eye zine.


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