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May 27, 2008 - 5:10pm



Hank Payne, Denice Denton, Jorge Liderman, Jerry Wolff -- these are some of the more high-profile professors who've killed themselves in the last few years. During the time UD's been writing this blog.

Wolff, a well-known biology professor at St. Cloud State, is the latest case. His strange choreography of his obliteration, in the depths of a national park, has generated some controversy.

The others jumped - Denton from one of San Francisco's best-known skyscrapers, Liderman from a platform in front of an oncoming commuter train, Payne out of a hotel.
Suicide is the act about which we know least and theorize most. When someone jumps down, we jump up, brandishing reasons: a botched prescription, a broken heart, a bout of nothingness.

The suicide leap prompts an interpretive leap. We can solve this maybe, once we pull out the analytical stops.

Motives for suicide being legion, we couldn't ask for a richer interpretive field. Although we're stunned, wounded, although we call it bizarre, unaccountable, the minute suicide happens, we're telling each other why.
Impossible to imagine doing it! Yet, once done, okay...
Of course, suicide might be an entirely alien gesture, the intentional putting of the self to death being unknown in other species, Durkheim writes in Suicide, and
altogether counter to our life-instinct. Our amazement might be just what you'd expect, if it's a cultural mutation.

We don't think of it this way, however. It's dark and mysterious, but part of the family, a not-exorbitant comment on the effort to exist.
"My brother was a sweet young man who wanted to be in control," Anderson Cooper <> writes. "In the end, he simply wasn't. None of us are. We all dangle from a very delicate thread. The key is not to let go." "We have to be patient with ourselves," comments a colleague of Payne's. "There are great things in life, but life can be very, very hard. It's a mixture. We have to find our way through it so we can enjoy the good and not be overwhelmed by the bad."

August Kleinzahler concludes an essay about his brother's suicide:
Someone once suggested to him that he check out Gamblers Anonymous. But he'd have to put that one on the list with Alcoholics Anonymous, Drugs Anonymous,
Sex Anonymous, Fighting Anonymous, and Bad Boy Anonymous. There were no twelve-step programs in those days, nor did the terms 'dysfunction' and 'denial' exist. My brother and I were certainly familiar with the concepts, but pop psychology had not yet found its way into the American mainstream, blessedly. He did, on at least a couple of occasions, give it a go with a psychiatrist, but this never lasted very long. It's not as if he didn't understand that much of his behavior was driven by desperation and self-hate; he wasn't shallow or unreflective, quite the contrary. It was simply the way he was. He was born wild, born troubled. He wasn't designed for the long haul; not everyone is...

...People would say to me, "Too bad about your brother." Fuck 'em, what do they know about it? I never begrudged him what he did. He was in a lot of pain. A lot of people seem to think you're on this earth to keep them amused. It never made me love him less or think less of him. If you ask me, it took guts. Most people simply hold on to life and rot.

Suicide lays down loud but indistinct tracks about life. Huddled by a radio, feeling for a signal, we listen to suicide.
In "For the Suicides," a poem dedicated to three friends who killed themselves, Donald Justice describes them, once dead, "in the labyrinth,/ from your reasons." But for the rest of us, looking in, "the passage, / ...remains obscure."

"[W]e have no conception of the inner torture which precedes suicide," wrote Boris Pasternak. "The continuity of inner life is broken. personality is at an end. . What is certain is that they all suffered beyond description, to the point where suffering had become a mental sickness. And, as we bow in homage to their gifts and to their bright memory, we should bow compassionately before their suffering."

Most simply, Justice suggests:

What you meant to prove you have
Proved: we did not care for you
Nearly enough.
But the origins of the act are as profound as they are obscure:
[D]eep within the black
Forest of childhood that tree
Was already rising which,
With the length of your body,
Would cast the double shadow.
...At the end of your shadow
There sat another, waiting,
Whose back was always to us.
Justice has the idea that the suicide has always led a double life, unable to make his or her personality not be broken. Of that split personality, the more shadowy one will be the self-killer, waiting, its back always to us.

Justice concludes "For the Suicides" with an amazing couple of stanzas, their symmetrically repetitive final words a kind of verbal equivalent to the suicide's psychic prison:
When the last door had been closed,
You watched, inwardly raging,
For the first glimpse of your selves
Approaching, jangling their keys.
Musicians of the black keys,
At last you compose yourselves.
We hear the music raging
Under the lids we have closed.
Only in suicide, Justice suggests, can the broken personality finally achieve composure. At an entirely outrageous price.


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