Haunted by his father’s death when he was only 10, Eric Marcus produced a book that answers every imaginable question about suicide.
“I’m sorry that you have any reason to read this book. But the sad fact is that almost everyone is touched at some point in life by suicide, whether it’s the suicide or attempted suicide of someone we know or our own self-destructive thoughts.”
So begins Eric Marcus’ poignant and disturbing Why Suicide? (HarperOne, $14.99), a revised and expanded version of a book first published in 1996. It’s a handy paperback, but one you probably won’t want to haul to the beach or dip into after a hard day at the office. It’s what might be called a need-to-know book—in this case, good to have around in the event of a phone call from someone, friend or family member, who threatens to end his or her own life or says that a child, parent, or spouse has made a similar threat.
Haunted by the self-killing of his own father when he was only 10, Marcus has produced a book that answers every imaginable question about suicide—who threatens it, who fails in the attempt, who’s likely to choose such a desperate action, and how suicide affects all in the family—and beyond. He discusses youngsters, oldsters, and everyone in between—people who seem perennially vulnerable and suicide-prone as well as hardy folk, women as well as men, whose life-ending action will stun even their closest kin.
“Before I started work on this book,” Marcus writes, “I thought a suicide survivor was someone who had survived a suicide attempt. But in fact it’s the phrase I hear—and read—most often to describe someone who has lived through the suicide of a loved one.”
Prominent in his sub-text is that though it may be possible to achieve closure when someone dies in battle, in an accident or from a fatal illness, memory of a suicide lingers. There is anger, remorse, disappointment, and guilt as well as grief—a host of emotions that may ultimately fade but never completely vanish. Like Marcus, anyone close to a suicide wrestles with all the whys and what-ifs for a lifetime. Closure is rarely possible.
For the many years I knew him, my friend Bruce Macomber spoke repeatedly about his twin brother, Chris. They had been raised together, had gone off to Harvard together, and had become alcoholics at about the same time. But Bruce managed to pull his life together; Chris did not. When Bruce ceased being an amiable drinking buddy, Chris turned his back, and for the next 20 years had almost nothing to do with his twin. Bruce knew where Chris was heading; he also knew that, like a runaway train, Chris couldn’t be stopped. In an essay he wrote but never published, Bruce recounted his brother’s sad demise:
“The phone call I’d been expecting all my adult life came in the evening of April 14, 1987. It was from my sister-in-law, Sabina. … She was hysterical, sobbing. The instant I recognized her voice I knew what she was going to tell me. She’d come home from work to find the body of my twin brother … in a heap on the living-room floor. An empty vodka bottle anchored a two-page letter to the coffee table; a third would be found later in his briefcase. He’d given his suicide a lot of thought; there was nothing inadvertent about it. ‘I found the Elavil,’ he explained. Pills and booze. He’d wound up a cliché.”
Bruce continued to talk about Chris until his own death from cancer more than two years ago. There was rarely a time when Chris was not on his mind, just as Eric Marcus carries with him the mystery and sadness of his dad’s self-administered death. In one telling passage of Why Suicide? Marcus writes: “I’ve never thought of myself as someone who ‘survived’ a suicide. I feel I’ve coped with and learned to live with the reality of what my father did and how it affected my family and my life. And, of course, I did survive the experience. … But to me being called a suicide survivor feels like I’m being condescended to, like a happy face is being pasted on a reality that isn’t nearly so heroic or hopeful as the term ‘survivor’ might suggest. I feel more like a victim of my father’s suicide.”
I found that last statement particularly powerful, for a suicide leaves behind survivors who themselves are victims, people either close or distant who may always wonder, “What could I have done to prevent this?” or “Why couldn’t I see the signs?” Marcus defines the signs, the signals, the cries for help, and the insights into often barely expressed feelings of despair or depression.
His book, with its helpful appendix and bibliography, deserves a place of prominence on everyone’s bookshelf. Reading it may not temper emotions that inevitably dog a suicide survivor. But referring to this book could help a reader recognize and deal with a warning that someone near and dear is descending into a self-inflicted life-ending spiral. And what, in effect, Why Suicide? says repeatedly to all who’ve been touched and devastated by a self-inflicted loss of life is “You are not alone.”