City Paper is not for tourists
Geo Stone has thought a lot about suicide. If the circumstances warranted itif he were struck with a debilitating illness, say, or if his emotional state were such that, after a careful weighing of all his options, death seemed like the only viable escapehe would certainly consider doing himself in. Stone is the type of person who can discuss suicide in a seemingly casual manner, even make jokes about it. But by no means does he take the subject lightly.
“I personally think that most of the people who kill themselves are making a terrible mistake,” he insists, rocking in a chair in the Mount Pleasant group house where he lives. “But not all of the people, and not all of the time.”
If Stone were to die of natural causes any time soon, suicide would still be what many folks would talk about when they talked about Geo Stone. His book, Suicide and Attempted Suicide: Methods and Consequences (Carroll & Graf), will make sure of that, although notoriety was not his reason for writing it. The subject is simply one that Stone has been thinking about for a long time, much longer than the 12 years he says it took him to finish the tome. “A long time ago, I had a sort of girlfriend who went off and married somebody else,” he explains in his unwavering deadpan. “About six months later, she killed herself. I never knew why. It’s always sort of been on my mind. If she had known more…this might not have happened.”
Suicide is a textbook-like volumereplete with exhaustive footnotes and endnotes, graphs, tables, and an index and bibliographythat attempts to condense and disseminate the mass of scientific and scholarly information pertaining to suicide, grafting the data with philosophical insights and perspectives. Given the ambitiousness of the book and the touchy subject matter, you might expect Stone to be some impressively credentialed academic or doctor. He’s neither. Stone did study pharmacology at George Washington University Medical School, but he never finished his Ph.D. His last full-time gig was teaching chemistry at Georgetown Day School, a job he fell into when the school unexpectedly lost one of its teachers. “They were fairly desperate,” Stone says of his former employer. “They must have been.”
To characterize Stone as an absent-minded-professor type does not do the man justice. He quit his Georgetown Day job several years ago to commit himself fully to his book, but it’s safe to assume that he left an impression on the private school kids in the six-and-a-half years that he taught. (In an e-mail, Marc Vogl, a former pupil, recalls that students used to refer to the chemistry teacher as “Geo Stoned.”) He’s slow-spoken but quick-witted; when I ask him the breed of his dog, Rocco, he doesn’t hesitate before responding, “Stray.” An unkempt beard covers his face, and his eyes always seem to be aflutter behind his medium-thick glasses. He wears blue socks, one argyle, one not; an age-darkened baseball hat emblazoned with the name Barcelona Dragons, a team Stone says he’s never heard of; and a ratty leather jacket that a self-respecting punk might have gotten around to replacing by now. He talks at such a low volume that I strain to hear him over the gurgle of a fish tank so overtaken by algae that the guppies inside are barely discernible. “I feed them dog food,” says Stone, referring to the fish.
Suicide isn’t just Stone’s first book, it’s the first writing of any kind that he’s ever published. The book begins with the obligatory Dorothy Parker quote (“…Nooses give/Gas smells awful/You might as well live”), and the prose that follows simulates what might result if Stephen Wright were moved to pen a doctoral thesis.
Stone condones suicide in the sense that he believes in freedom of choice and that a person’s decision to kill him- or herself is not always irrational, but he’s careful not to come off as a foolhardy proponent. “[F]or anyone considering suicide…” he writes, “I urge you to try every alternative firstand then try them again.” The humor he injects into the text is dry but not always subtle; for example, he points out that one can safely assume a friend to be suicidal if he or she plays a lot of Russian roulette. At times, Stone even seems to poke fun at his own exhaustive research. For example, he constructs a subgroup for those people who, he believes, run the highest risk for suicide: “depressed, ill, elderly white Protestant male immigrants, who are widowed, divorced or unmarried, who sleep more than nine hours a day, have more than three drinks a day, smoke, and keep a gun in the house.”
Stone concedes that some readers may find his sense of humor offensive, though if the book gets him into hot water, it’s not likely going to be a result of his wry wit. There’s no denying that the author takes pains to be evenhanded. The day assisted-suicide advocate Jack Kevorkian was sentenced to hard time, I called Stone to see if he’d heard (he hadn’t), and, as I’d expected, he seemed dejected by the news. But as much as Stone, like Kevorkian, would like to see assisted suicide viewed as a compassionate act, he’s sensitive to the reasons that many doctors have for believing that the deed is purely criminal. “I’m not a physician,” he says, “so I’m not sure I understand as well as they do.”
The author’s purported attempt to be nonpartisan isn’t going to assuage the horror of parents who find a copy of Stone’s book in their teenager’s bedroom. Suicide is as much a how-to manual as it is an academic text. More than half of the book comprises chapters with titles such as “Asphyxia,” “Drugs, Chemicals, and Poisons,” “Gunshot Wounds,” and “Jumping.” Each section describes how one might best go about executing the chapter’s titular act. Stone also includes the pros and cons of each method, as well as a gourmet selection of related tables, many of them filled with seemingly arcane data, such as the physical and mental illness histories among suicidal jumpers in London between 1958 and 1978.
The author contends that such potentially lethal information is more useful than harmful. He doesn’t, after all, just tell people how to kill themselves; indeed, Stone thinks Suicide is best described as a how-not-to manual. There’s no knowing, he says, how many people end up dead when their real intention is to make, as he calls it, a “suicidal gesture.” The thinking, basically, is that lives could be saved if people only knew which veins are lethal when cut and which simply provide a dramatic gush of blood. Stone also points out that if the spirit moved me, I could walk into his kitchen, grab a knife, and never walk out. “It’s not rocket science,” he says. “If somebody is really going to kill themself, they are not going to need to sit down and read a book.”
(Suicide could have been much more disturbing than it already is. Stone wanted to include pictures depicting the gory results of, among other things, self-inflicted knife and gunshot wounds, but his publisher nixed the idea. The images he had in mind will be on display on his Web site, which is currently under construction.)
Now that his book is finished, Stone spends much of his time playing soccer (he coaches a college-level women’s team), backpacking, and watching after his elderly mother. He’s hardly the hellbent sort, but he’s not averse to reckless activity. When he tells me that he’s a motorcycle enthusiast, I mention that, according to his book, such activity qualifies as “suicidal behavior.” Stone agrees, but he says he compensates by occasionally wearing his crash helmet while driving his car. He respects life enough to know that the threat of death is always there, sometimes even when you take extra precautions. He has noticed that when he’s behind the wheel with his helmet on, other drivers often get distracted. Some even swerve at the sight of him. CP