The president of the United States was caught by surprise. That day should have been a normal one in his young administration, busy with the work of reform. Instead, the news arrived that an old associate and appointee had killed himself in suburban Washington. The president issued a statement, in which he said he was “shocked and grieved” by the suicide.
Along with the mourning, however, came recriminations. In the days following the suicide, public figures quickly blamed the political atmosphere for the victim’s death. The media were held responsible, even to the point that a few specific journalists were said to have “killed” the president’s man. The murder weapons were a series of poison-pen commentaries that impugned his character and motivation. The coverage was too brutal, according to many observers who scolded the offending media. Old standards of fairness and objectivity had been abandoned in the new and ravenous media-saturated age.
The dead man was buried with great ceremony, while those around the coffin sought to explain his self-destruction. A perfectionist with a successful career outside Washington, the dead man was said to have been unprepared for the media spotlight and the cruelty of the political infighting: The stress of high office, the gravity of political setbacks, and a negative campaign by an ideological media were what drove him to death, or so people said. Washington had broken him.
The death began a long cycle of debate, self-analysis, and blame. The journalists accused of killing the man first denied responsibility, then issued blustery explanations that Washington was a town where public figures had to expect sharp criticism.
Everyone agreed on one thing, however. Washington politics had become too rough. The partisan environment was unprecedented, so bitter that careers and lives were shattered, almost like a game. The dead man himself seemed to agree. Shortly before taking his own life, the president’s friend uttered a phrase following some embarrassing political and personal attacks that would later serve as his own epitaph.
“I am a victim of the Washington scene,” James Forrestal had said.
Just two months before his May 1949 suicide, Forrestal was asked to resign his position as secretary of defense after colleagues noted his growing derangement. Committed against his will, Forrestal leapt to his death from the 16th floor of the Bethesda Naval Hospital, where he was undergoing treatment for “exhaustion,” a euphemism for his severe depression, para noia, and delusions. President Harry S. Truman and others found the euphemism politically desirable, given that until just a few months before, the former admiral had controlled America’s stock of atomic bombs.
The suicide 44 years later of Deputy Legal Counsel to the President Vincent Foster was remarkably similar. Although there were obvious differences—Forrestal was hospitalized for madness amid much publicity, while Foster’s inner demons gnawed in secret—the two deaths seem now like mirror images. Driven professionals, both felt plagued by recent failures and had suffered humiliation via the media; Foster took his drubbing from the conservative editorialists of the Wall Street Journal, while Forrestal was the subject of Sunday-night attacks from the muckraking radio and print journalist Drew Pearson.
Separated by four decades, the two suicides elicited an almost identical reaction from pundits, politicians, and ordinary people. The verdict was unanimous: These men had been murdered by Washington.
Political Washington, of course. Washington, in the florid pronouncements that followed the deaths, was a city in which every gesture was freighted with global importance, where every signal was scrutinized, weighed, and assigned a significance beyond the understanding of common people. It didn’t matter that both men were mentally imbalanced—the language of their obituaries was not medical but political. In both accounts, the media was described as newly aggressive, preying on public figures. The demands government placed upon its public servants were too exacting, too unforgiving.
The only problem with the “Washington killed them” thesis is that it’s narcissistic nonsense. The heat of the media gaze didn’t incite Ollie North to eat the gun, and being found out didn’t cause Bob Packwood to charge in front of a hurtling Senate subway. The policy analysts and intelligence officers who failed to predict the collapse of communism haven’t resigned their posts and slit their throats in shame.
The plain fact is that very few people kill themselves in Washington. The rate of suicide here was 5.7 per 100,000 people in 1991—less than half the national average of 12.2, and lower than any of the 50 states, among them suicide champ Nevada with a rate more than four times that of D.C. A measly 33 people killed themselves in the District between Jan. 1 and Oct. 1, 1993, a perfectly average year. Each death is a tragedy, certainly, but as a whole they are no evidence of a “suicide city” syndrome. In fact, Washington’s suicide rate is actually dropping. And despite the publicity surrounding Foster’s death, Washington’s leadership class kills itself at the same rate as do ordinary residents.
“The thing to remember is that suicide is a very democratic happening,” says Dr. Seymour Perlin, a psychiatrist at George Washington University. “Whether it be politics or academia or doctors, there is no one group that is uniquely [vulnerable to] suicide.”
Despite its partisan content, the 12-point “suicide memo” Foster wrote and tore into shreds hours before he took his life shared the same anxieties and disappointments found in suicide notes written by many of the 30,000 perfectly ordinary Americans who kill themselves every year.
“Poor people have their stresses too,” Perlin points out.
Suicide is a constant in the human condition, a staple of literature, religion, and history. If suicide is indeed different here, perhaps it is because Washington is more opportunistic than other places, more eager to mine tragedy for useful nuggets. The first opportunist is often the suicide himself, who knows that his desperate deed will spin a sympathetic obituary. Then come the journalists, feeling the cold body for a headline, followed by the politicians clasping the corpse to their breast for one final photo op. Lastly, the preachers and essayists and activists draw from the angry act the morals that sustain their individual faiths.
The politics of suicide are writ large and small in Washington, from the government official whose dramatic exit becomes a metaphor for his peers to the Arlington grandmother with terminal cancer whose calculated expiration via a handful of pills sets the psychiatric community against advocates of suicide rights.
All suicides are equal on the District of Columbia’s medical examiner slab, and every one becomes a stiff player in the politics of suicide.
An hour’s tour through the appropriately named “clip morgue” of old newspaper stories in the Washingtoniana room of the Martin Luther King Memorial Library reveals one startling fact about suicide in Washington: The astonishing gullibility of the city’s cabbies. Decade after decade, local hackers have driven individuals—some of them in tears—to the middle of a city bridge, collected the fare, and released their solitary passengers to an obvious fate.
They still do. Feigning a deep sulk, I hailed a Liberty Cab after midnight in Adams Morgan and told the Iranian driver to take me to a bridge over Rock Creek Park. The driver was keenly aware that he had a madman on his hands; during the short ride, he advised me on the importance of optimism and the certainty that life would improve. When he asked which side of the bridge I wanted, I requested the middle. “You’re going to walk?” he asked. I said nothing, paid him, and opened the door. “OK, you are going to walk,” he asserted doubtfully. I strode briskly to the railing, but by the time I had my hands on the cold metal the hacker was long gone, searching for his next manic-depressive fare. I waited 10 minutes, but he neither returned nor summoned the police.
Suicide isn’t funny, but sometimes it tries to be. The Washington Star delighted in a 1946 case in which a WAVE (a woman Naval auxiliary) took a taxi to the center of Key Bridge and then leapt into the Potomac. Police officers in a rowboat found her downstream, floating slowly, where she commented about being “surprised I can swim as well as this.”
Never was an attempted Washington suicide more blatantly political than that of Lucille Whomble, who on Aug. 1, 1952, threatened to throw herself from the sixth floor of the old YMCA at 17th and K Streets NW. A newspaper photographer made it to the scene in time to capture a shot of Whomble as she was seized at the last moment by YMCA patron Maynard H. “Snuffy” Smith. Smith was already a certified hero, having won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his role in saving a burning B-17 over the English Channel. Snuffy Smith had the virtues of being handsome, brave, and modest, while the 21-year-old “girl,” as the newspapers called her, was “young and attractive” and “slender.”
“HONOR MEDALIST RISKS LIFE TO BALK WOMAN’S DEATH LEAP,” read the Washington Post headline. The events were further described by the paper as “thrilling and heart-warming,” but within a few days the paper reported that they were also invented. Whomble confessed that Smith, a failed salesman of dubious health creams under investigation for duping elderly customers, had promised her $500 to fake her suicide. His plan was to use the publicity in a future race for the governor of Virginia.
Washington gained the reputation as being “the suicide capital of the nation,” as a Washington Afro-American clip from 1950 put it. The federal government was blamed for attracting young people and “intellectual types” who were vulnerable to despair as they served far from home. Washington was “one of the leading cities for suicide in the country,” the Washington Herald reported after a 1935 survey. The previous year, a typical one in the annals of Washington suicide, 115 people had killed themselves here. That figure is twice the rate of suicide today, corrected for the decline in population.
The suicide venue of choice was the same one I visited by cab, then called the Calvert Street Bridge, which joins Woodley Park and Adams Morgan. So popular was the 130-foot drop from the railing to Rock Creek Parkway below that 40 people pitched themselves to their deaths from the bridge between 1940 and 1951. The Washington Times-Herald reported in ’51 that seven of 12 bridge jumpers chose the Calvert Street method. After the bridge was renamed in honor of Duke Ellington in 1974, police officers paid grim tribute to Ellington by quoting the title of one of his songs to describe the jumpers: They “took the A train.”
Even before the bridge was completed in 1935, citizens were warning that it would attract the suicidal, and called for the erection of high fences or nets to no avail. In 1950, the debate was reanimated by newspaper reports that chronicled the 15-year cascade of bodies. Again, the city did nothing, arguing that the suicide barriers would be both hideous and ineffective. Suicides would simply walk five minutes to another launch point—the adjacent Taft Bridge, which carries Connecticut Avenue across Rock Creek Park.
The Calvert Street/Duke Ellington Bridge controversy didn’t become fully politicized until 1979, when the 24-year-old daughter of diplomat Benjamin H. Read dove off it. Connected to official Washington in a way that most bereaved parents are not, Read was a member of the Cosmos Club, the founding director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and a former undersecretary of state.
Who can blame Read (who died earlier this year of natural causes) for assuaging his grief with a crusade to erect suicide fences? Nobody can deny that his suicide-prevention efforts were genuine: In addition to using his considerable clout to start the Calvert Street crusade, he served on the boards of the Samaritans, a suicide-prevention group, and the St. Francis Center, which assists the grieving. By 1984, Read had become the city’s premier suicide politician, successfully badgering the District into agreeing to build jumper-deterring barriers. But halfway through construction, Calvert Street area residents organized a counter-campaign that stalled the ugly ironworks with a legal challenge.
During a year-long hiatus for arbitration and a court hearing, three more people took the A train to Rock Creek. An emotional appeal was made to then-Mayor Marion Barry to finish the barrier project, and confronted with the choice of stamping out suicide or preserving one of the District’s most handsome vistas, Barry did the expedient thing. In January 1986, he ordered that city workers finish the job immediately to save lives.
But the number of suicides in Washington did not decline. In fact, it increased slightly. The D.C. medical examiner’s office reported that during 1986, the completed barrier’s first year, two jumpers managed to clamber over the 8-foot fence to kill themselves, and citywide total leaping deaths increased dramatically. Determined suicides took the 100-yard detour to nearby Taft Bridge to do their deadly work: In 1986, three jumped from that span compared to only four in the previous five years. The jumpers jumped somewhere else, but the politics and personal politics of suicide were in accord.
Other “action” measures have been taken in D.C. The Taft Bridge sports two “suicide phones,” which connect to a crisis-counseling line, and since the ’50s, private hot lines have offered confidential counseling to local residents in the throes of suicidal feelings. It would be nice to think that these constructive measures account for the decline of suicide in the District. In 1983, 86 people made their own exits, and although the numbers spiked briefly in the mid ’80s, (which some people blamed on the publicity surrounding the Calvert Street bridge controversy), the numbers have dropped steadily since then. There have been fewer than 50 suicides in each of the last three years.
Attributing this drop to preventive measures is tricky. The national suicide rate has remained roughly steady during this century, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), even as suicide-prevention programs came into vogue during the ’50s and flourished in the ’80s.
The decline could be linked to the increase in black population. Suicide is largely a white thing: Nationally, African-Americans kill themselves half as often as do whites. D.C.’s decades-long demographic shift from majority white to majority black has coincided with a decrease in the suicide rate.
“Suicide is not traditional among African-Americans,” says Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Joye Carter. Carter, black herself, guesses that blacks may eschew suicide for religious reasons, because it is “un-Christian.” She cites anecdotal evidence from her years as medical examiner to suggest that Hispanics are the most likely candidates for suicide, due to their insistence on settling what she calls “matters of honor.”
Dr. Carter believes that some suicides are never detected in Washington. In many cases, she says, families erase evidence—and thereby the stigma—by destroying the suicide notes or hiding the empty pill bottles. In one suicide by hanging, the family removed the noose from the deceased, placed him in bed, and then claimed he had died quietly in his sleep. Rooting out such deception takes a thorough investigation, and Carter directs several Metropolitan Police Department homicide detectives. Called “the natural men” by other officers, in honor of their expertise with natural causes of death, these detectives check the death scene for hidden suicide markers: pills stashed in the back of drawers or rough drafts of suicide notes left in the trash can. Carter and her staff then examine the corpse for evidence—neck bruises from a rope or “hesitation marks,” wrist scars from previous attempts to open veins.
Another factor clouding an accurate count is jurisdictional geography. Some suicides recorded in Washington may shoot themselves in Maryland or Virginia, but in the final moments of life, a helicopter carries them to a District hospital where they became a D.C. statistic. Carter believes that imported suicides outnumber the hidden cases (and that the District exports very few suicides to Maryland or Virginia), so D.C.’s real suicide rate is probably lower than the already low official rate.
Dr. Susan Blumenthal, a psychiatrist and chief of the Behavioral Medicine Program at NIMH, suggests a “possible” link between D.C.’s low suicide rate and its famously high homicide statistics. Suicide is classically described (by Freud, among others) as aggression turned inward. In D.C., Blumenthal suggests, that aggression is so frequently turned outward that there is less desire to turn it inward.
In layman’s terms, we’re so busy killing each other that we don’t have the time to kill ourselves.
D.C. Council Chairman John Wilson, a vivacious, moody, and complicated man, found time to hang himself in his own basement on the afternoon of May 19. No authority or journalist rose to claim that wicked Washington had killed Wilson. Although he was clearly haunted by the District’s budget woes, it’s clear that the accounts he settled by his suicide were personal.
But we couldn’t leave well enough alone. Wilson’s death was swiftly projected through a political lens, an illustration of our own meanings and uses for suicide. Ignoring F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice to “praise a man while he is still alive,” the D.C. Council poured enconiums over the lifeless body of their chairman. Money talks, of course, and Wilson was praised to the sum of $150,000 as the council voted that amount to his widow for the “transition costs” of closing his office and paying her the survivor’s pension of a 30-year government employee, even though Wilson had served only 18 years. The truth was that the $150,000 equaled the grief that the council wanted to express. See, we loved him, the council announced to all: We did not hear his cries for help, but now we have done something. The gift was later rescinded when citizens complained that Wilson’s widow, a career woman, was in better financial shape than the District.
Is there anyone who has not once considered taking his own life and imagined the cold pleasure of suicide as revenge, as supreme gesture? Wilson was apparently driven to his death by clinical depression, but it isn’t cynical to deduce that he considered the ramifications of his death to family and friends, political foes and allies, journalists and voters. Surely he must have remembered the spectacle of the last prominent Washington suicide: Mitch Snyder, who hoisted himself to death on July 5, 1990, had tiptoed to the abyss a dozen times before, starving himself to near-death in his many successful political protests. But Snyder’s final act of agitprop wrote an intensely personal page in the politics of suicide. In addition to relief from the poison of his own heart, Snyder was rewarded with three days of coverage in the Post, segments on network news, a feature spread in Vanity Fair, and the funeral of a martyr.
The perpetrator of a suicide pulls the trigger knowing full well that the bloody splatter of his death will dictate an inevitable obituary and mood. Commentators will write that we are all implicated in the suicide’s death because we failed to reach out to him, and that it is unfair for us to judge the suicide because he has committed the ultimate act of self-criticism. The only societally acceptable response to suicide is to blame everyone for the death but the person who jumped.
As soon as Vincent Foster’s 1913 antique revolver was cold, the blame-makers converged from all points of the compass to claim his body. Most of them shared a single assumption—Washington was to blame.
Despite much competition, no scribe was more credulous on this account than Sidney Blumenthal in his “Letter From Washington” in the Aug. 9 New Yorker. Blumenthal theorized with much help from unnamed-but-high-sources that Washington politics killed the Arkansan. The only question left unanswered in Blumenthal’s piece was precisely which political problem killed Foster—the Wall Street Journal editorials, the travel-office affair, or another of the gripes that filled Foster’s lawyerly suicide memo. Blumenthal quoted numerous confidential sources either saying directly that Foster died of politics or considering the possibility:
“The town has now killed somebody.”
“I’m afraid it might have been the pressures of this terrible town.”
“I don’t want to think somebody can be toppled by Washington, by the press, by the hounds.”
“Washington didn’t kill Vince, but it was an accomplice.”
Such testimony confirms that the art and politics of suicide in Washington are nothing if not self-serving.
Never mind that Foster was a superlawyer who guided the Tyson chicken-works through legal thickets and navigated the thin air of New York investment banking. Advancing the absurd thesis that partisan craziness and vituperative journalists had murdered Foster required that Clinton hagiographer Blumenthal paint Foster as a sensitive rube from the Ozarks.
Later, Blumenthal came out from behind the protective cover of his anonymous sources to issue the coup de grâce on ABC’s Good Morning America: He charged that Foster was a victim of an “ideological war” by the editors of the Wall Street Journal.
Blumenthal wasn’t the only journalist attempting to infuse the Foster suicide with meaning. On the afternoon Foster drove to Fort Marcy and shot himself, journalists I know were fielding—and making—calls to and from Little Rock and within Washington to determine the “real” reason Foster killed himself. At bottom was the assumption that some scandal or exposé would quickly explain the death—i.e., that the explanation lay in external events, which we in this profession would then document.
Most of the rumors were discarded, but a few dark shapes broke the surface briefly. Washington City Paper heard from two major news organizations that wanted to know if Fort Marcy was a meeting place for men desirous of anonymous same-sex encounters. The Washington Times confirmed to the New York Times that it had been working on a Foster story, the implication being that the Washington Times might have convinced the presidential aide to kill himself. (Later, Washington Times Editor in Chief Wesley Pruden wrote that there was no such Foster story in the works.)
Michael Kinsley pulled a stylish switcheroo in the New Republic by announcing at the start of his Aug. 16 column that he could not ascribe blame to the Wall Street Journal for killing Foster, and then proceeded to do exactly that. For Rush Limbaugh, the death of Foster meant a sex scandal (there are only so many ideas that can fit in Limbaugh’s cranium, and “DemocratsSex” is one of them). Limbaugh predicted gleefully on his radio show that the suicide would somehow grow to involve arch-demon Hillary Clinton—letting his listeners make the obvious deduction as to just how Foster and Hillary Clinton were linked.
Covering the Foster funeral in Little Rock for the Post, reporter David Von Drehle also imagined that Washington pressures were unique. When the church service for Foster was too packed to allow admittance of three judges and an important Arkansas politician, Von Drehle wrote that “no one called this a snub or a gaffe; no one mulled what implications this might have for the local power map. Things are not the same here as they are in Washington. Certain events simply happen, and have no darker meaning. Buildings fill, people arrive too late.”
Like Kinsley, Von Drehle first dismissed the possibility that anybody killed Foster and then immediately reopened the case. In his July 25 piece, with the voices of Little Rockians acting as his investigators, Von Drehle identifies Washington as the leading suspect. “It’s not that they blame Washington for Foster’s death, they hasten to add,” he wrote. “It’s just that, to them, the place and the death seem somehow inextricable. And a number of them rue the day Foster left Little Rock to follow his friend, the new president.”
Von Drehle continues: “This gap between Foster here and Foster there seems, to many in Little Rock, poisonous. Washington’s implications and insinuations, its obsession with process over results, the who’s-up and who’s-down seem thick with venom. Washington is a city that finds motive behind every event, and all motives suspect.”
The suicide boiled the synapses of New York Times columnist and scandal-snooper William Safire. Grabbing at an old suit’s worth of loose threads, Safire dedicated his Aug. 12 column to 32 questions he wanted to have answered, on everything from who called whom when at the White House to the traffic flow at Fort Marcy:
“Was [Foster] familiar with that spot? Did he meet anyone there? Where is the white middle-aged male, no tie or jacket, driving a white van, who reported finding the body to a parkway attendant? Did any of the people in the cars parked in the parkway lot hear the shot? Was Foster alone when the shot was fired? After the body was reported found at 6 p.m., why was Foster’s office not sealed until midmorning the next day?”
And so on. To Safire’s Beltway-trained mind, Foster’s death was a tight weave of political manipulation, conspiratorial maneuvering, and secret motives, with only a plucky columnist to extract the truths. Foster’s death meant something very specific to Safire: not merely that official Washington had killed the counsel, but that a shadow-world of capital intrigue claimed the poor man’s soul.
Those who advanced the notion that “D.C. did it” also promoted the narcissistic view that Washington is tougher than other places—more ruthless and brutal than the studios of Hollywood, the commodity pits of Chicago, or the banking houses of New York. The “hounds” of Washington could kill someone. In a widely quoted passage from his New Yorker piece, Blumenthal wrote:
“The concept of service has little political currency in Washington. Everyone is fair game, simply for being on the other side. Humiliating one’s prey, not merely defeating one’s foes, is central to the process.”
Casting Foster as a tenderfoot from the provinces, Blumenthal and his anonymous sources deftly scripted a flattering role for themselves. If Foster was the Fallen, then they were the Survivors, those who are too tough to die in this cruel town. An unspoken corollary to this thesis also rebounded on Blumenthal: If the Wall Street Journal killed Foster, then obviously journalists—like Blumenthal—are powerful people around Washington. Powerful enough to kill.
Of course, the Wall Street Journal and other publications can wound only with paper cuts. If Washington pressure and media humiliation were lethal, corpses would litter the halls of Congress and the offices of every administration. Robert McNamara savaged Vietnam and bankrupted much of Latin America, but he’s a chipper guest at receptions. Not one of the Watergaters committed suicide, and Bert Lance is still alive and kicking in Georgia. Of the many perpetrators of Iran-contra, only one fell weakly on his sword. With characteristic incompetence, Robert McFarlane swallowed a handful of Valium, not a very potent hemlock, and waited to be discovered.
If Washington can be accused of killing anyone, that man is Tom Pappas. In May 1988, the Washington Post published a Page One investigative story about the unseemly climate of Rep. Roy Dyson’s (D-Md.) congressional office. Dyson was already under investigation by the Federal Election Commission for campaign finance irregularities and dealings with a defense contractor, but those transgressions weren’t the object of the Post exposé. Dispensing with innuendo, the paper described how Dyson’s top aide, Tom Pappas, hired only male staffers, especially young and inexperienced ones. Pappas required that they socialize with him and not date women, and he asked one male staffer to perform a striptease during a staff retreat.
The day the article appeared, Pappas leapt to his death from a New York hotel room.
In the Washington-did-it court of opinion, Pappas’ suicide was an open-and-shut case, in part because the interval between media attack and suicide was a matter of hours. The aide appeared to have broken no laws, aside from the political law of circumspection. The Post painted a portrait of the representative office as a gay social club, with Pappas as the director. Such a reputation would be politically fatal to a family-values small-town conservative Democrat like Dyson, and if Pappas returned to Washington, he could expect nothing but television-camera lights and months of agonizing scrutiny. So Pappas played the suicide card.
But was it the “hounds of Washington” that snared Pappas, the same pack that nipped the heels of Foster and brayed over the body of Forrestal? Or did Pappas fall into a trap he had laid for himself?
It defies all common sense to believe that Pappas’s woes began the morning he opened the Post and read about himself. His tyrannical and exploitative style was bound to attract the attention of the press, the representative’s constituents, or the opposition. A canny political operator, he knew the risk he was taking, dreading media exposure so much that he coined an office mantra, “publish and perish,” to warn what would happen if the press got inside Dyson’s office. Although Pappas presumably meant “perish” in a political sense, he gave it a literal meaning with his own vault.
How did the politics of suicide play in the Pappas/Dyson case? Better than any letter to the editor, his suicide rewrote the entire Dyson scandal. Attention shifted from the inner workings of the congressional office to the inner workings of the Post, which was accused of “murder, homophobia, malice, sensationalism and irresponsibility,” wrote Post ombudsman Richard Harwood. The Post abandoned its investigation for mild “react” pieces quoting Marylanders angry with the media. No longer a target of scandal, the fallen aide was eulogized for his political skills. Dyson ducked and tucked all summer, dodging inquiries into his finances, relations with defense contractors, and Pappas’ unusual staff arrangements. Urging his constituents to close ranks against outsiders, Dyson overcame his summer of scandal to win a re-election victory by 1,400 votes that November. If the dead can appreciate irony, Pappas must still be smiling.
About 25 years ago, Kurt Vonnegut had a vision. As usual, it was an absurd one. He predicted that suicide would one day become routine, just another consumer choice in an overpopulated world. In his short story, “Welcome to the Monkey House,” Vonnegut described a future where federal suicide parlors stood beside every Howard Johnson hotel, and cheery hostesses helped patriotic elderly people shuffle off this mortal coil.
By presenting an amoral culture in which suicide was regarded as normal, Vonnegut joined an eternal debate that reached at least back to Plato and his account of Socrates’ death by hemlock. The ancients generally favored self-destruction as an honorable act of self-determination, but later Christian Europe supplanted such endorsements with strict condemnation. From the Middle Ages onward, those who took their own lives were denied burial in consecrated ground, their souls condemned to wander eternity. By English custom, the corpse of a suicide was buried at a crossroads, considered the least holy of places. The crossroads also served another end: The many passers-by would see a stern reminder that suicide was judged a horrible crime.
And crime it was, a form of murder under English law, with attempters regularly put on criminal trial throughout the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. The irony lost on no one was that it was a capital offense, and there was no shortage of cases in which failed suicides were sentenced to death. The last such hanging occurred in the 1860s, but the criminal taint remains. The English writer Alfred Alvarez described his shock at waking in the hospital after an attempt in 1959 to poison himself only to find two detectives in his room. The police officers instructed Alvarez that his swallowing of more than 50 pills was certainly an accident. He did not disagree, and the detectives took their leave.
Alvarez detailed his experience in The Savage God, an exhumation of both his own suicidal impulses and the cultural history of self-murder. The central modern figure in this literary tradition is Primo Levi, an Italian Jew who survived the Holocaust. For 40 years, Levi wrote passionately about the urge to destroy oneself, the meaning of suicide, and the weighty moral burdens of living. He transformed his own body of work into one long suicide note with a suicidal tumble down a stairwell in 1989.
His death came at an extraordinary moment in the history of suicide. Across Europe and the United States, suicide had become a topic of enormous public debate. Final Exit, a book detailing how to kill oneself, became a best seller in 1992 and was even printed in a large-type version for the elderly. Groups advocating suicide rights emerged, hoping to remove politics from suicide entirely. It belonged not in the sphere of moral and legal consideration, but in the realm of personal choice.
About 400 Washingtonians pay $20 a year to join the local chapter of the Hemlock Society, which agitates for suicide rights. Along with membership in the club comes a bimonthly newsletter and cold-blooded advice on how to kill oneself.
Don’t ask the members of this fraternity what was on God’s mind when Sampson pulled the temple down upon himself. Don’t expect to debate Sartre (“Suicide is the act of man and not of the animal. It is a meditated act, a noninstinctive, unnatural choice”) or learn about the roots of bipolar depression. The moral debate, the one that for millennia has engaged theologians, philosophers, and artists, holds no interest for them. Although the nominal purpose of the group is to change laws, its real concern seems to lie with the practicalities of auto-destruction. Hemlock seeks to replace the legal, moral, medical, and religious politics of suicide with a single proposition: The individual will is all, and suicide a matter of right.
The chapter newsletter regularly describes the “self-deliverance” of members, six of whom have killed themselves in the last three years. Typical is “MARION ROSEN MAKES CLASSIC FINAL EXIT,” which describes how Rosen, a chapter founder, “donned her best nightgown” before following the detailed recipe for self-poisoning found in the suicide’s bible. Rosen altered the formula in only one respect: She mixed her pills with chocolate pudding.
“She always said she was a “chocoholic,’ ” the newsletter reports.
“People who join our chapter are people who want to be in control of the end of their lives,” says Myrtle Brickman, author of the newsletter and a leader of the local Hemlock chapter. Most members, she explains, have seen a loved one die of a slow illness that left them without dignity and in intense pain. Yet in the search to replace the elaborate politics of suicide with the simple doctrine of choice, Brickman inadvertently reveals why the Hemlock movement is so troubling.
Brickman relates the deaths of three chapter members. In the first case, a woman ended her life by the book—Final Exit, that is. She downed tea and toast, which help prevent vomiting when the poison is swallowed (vomiting would make a mess of things in several senses). Then the woman drank a vodka tonic to aid in dissolving what came next—a certain number of a certain kind of pill. Waiting for the pills to begin their debilitating work, the woman then slipped a plastic bag over her head. Brickman explains that a fellow Hemlockian was present during the death. Why? Her answer is casual: “If you wake up, then they can help you.” Asked to clarify, she explains that sometimes the suffocating effect of the bag strikes before the pills have rendered the victim unconscious. Half-incapacitated, the suicidal candidate may instinctively struggle free of the suffocating bag. A friend can help “reattach” the bag after such an episode, Brickman explains.
This is suicide? Brickman doesn’t bat an eyelash. If the decision to cross death’s door was voluntary, then a little push from behind is no matter, simply the work of one friend helping another. The momentary, instinctive reach for life doesn’t overrule a suicide’s stated wish to die.
The second case involves an elderly couple from Virginia horse-country. They attended the group’s bimonthly meetings, read its newsletters, studied Final Exit, and then snuffed themselves. They were not terminally ill. They were not in overwhelming pain. In fact, they didn’t have so much as a cold. They simply wanted to die.
“It wasn’t clear,” Brickman says of their reasons for suicide. In an effort to assign meaning to this final act, the best Brickman can do is suggest that the couple feared getting sick and losing control of their lives and dignity. “They wanted to go out before they declined,” she posits.
It’s only a couple of freeway stops from there to HoJo suicide parlors. The Hemlockians share with Vonnegut’s short story a vision of suicide as “normal,” a routine choice between life and death that carries all the weight of the choice between a Ford and a Chrysler. In Vonnegut’s case, stripping suicide of its meaning is the premise for a comic short story. For Brickman and her cohorts, eliminating the politics of suicide is an agenda to be taken entirely seriously.
Depoliticizing suicide won’t be easy. Not only is the conventional wisdom on the side of the Washington-did-it crowd, but so is William Shakespeare. Long before Sidney Blumenthal chronicled the murderous folkways of Powertown, there was Hamlet, a suicide-obsessed drama with an Elsinore-did-it plot.
Hamlet was no working stiff, but a top political figure in his government. Kenneth Adelman is sympathetic to the idea that the sensitive Dane was the Vince Foster of his day, beset by problems that became an unsupportable burden. Adelman claims politics does offer special pressures, and he’s in a position to know; he served as the head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under the Reagan administration, writes a syndicated newspaper column, contributes to the Washingtonian every month, and teaches Shakespeare at Georgetown University.
From his vantage point amid journalism, government, and literature, Adelman argues for a political interpretation of suicide, one that starts with Hamlet and runs through Foster. Hamlet wasn’t merely stewing over ordinary family tragedy, but was also tormented by his stately duties. “It’s not just that his uncle killed his father,” he says, “but that the present king killed the previous king. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
Adelman asserts that something is also rotten in the state of politics today, citing the scrutiny that attends the smallest political events and the “craziness of government” in this “rough town.”
“When a businessman makes a mistake,” Adelman says, “the board may hear about it, but it’s not big stuff. When a mistake is made in the public realm, it becomes a far more trying matter because the public hears about it, your wife reads about it.”
It’s certainly a common argument, and one that underlies the conventional interpretation of suicide in Washington. But if it is true, why are examples so thin on the ground? Adelman mentions Foster and McFarlane, though he quickly concedes that the latter’s attempt was not serious.
So where are all the bodies? If Hamlet is the strongest literary text on the politics of suicide, perhaps it proves just the opposite of what Adelman says it does. Hamlet doesn’t kill himself because his faith in God won’t permit it; Ophelia, his beloved, takes the plunge because, in the Bard’s view, she is morally weak. And besides, remember that Hamlet, like all Shakespeare’s plays, had to please the nobility—the political class—with a reflection of their own importance. It’s a reflection that still appeals to our own potentates, whether in office or in the media.
And Hamlet does impart one other lesson. Suicide has been around a long time, and the debate on its uses will not end soon. After all, the politics of suicide remains the property of the living, not the dead.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: J.L. Warner.