Wednesday, March 19, 2014

WRITERS | Are They More Suicidal? Why? (Updated Jan. 7, 2016)

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. She took her own life in 1963.
She had tried before.
March 19, 2014–This is an exploratory post. I would be especially interested in comments, either below or by email (  I'm asking a question... I don't know where it will lead me.

Many writers have committed suicide or have engaged in suicidal behavior. Both Inez Milholland and Edna St. Vincent Millay engaged in such behavior.

Is suicide brave or cowardly? Does it depend on the type of challenge? Does the ability to see life from a unique perspective also mean impatience with the world as it is? I provide a list below showing writers identified on a Wikipedia page as having taken their own lives. Many like Stephen Haggard were poets but had other careers, such as acting.

It appears that a large number of writers seem to have taken their own lives. Possibly the statistical frequency or probability is no higher than in the general population, but it does not seem so, perhaps because most people are more like cats who crawl away to be alone when they feel mortally sick or wounded whereas writers by profession make more of a to-do about staging their own death.

If writers are indeed more prone to suicide, the most satisfying explanation is that they lived on the edge, that their level of emotional intensity was so high they could not live after being rejected by the one they love, or failing in their writing-career aspirations, or not being able to accept the world as it is. But there are less uplifting interpretations.

Writer Suicides

UPDATE: Jan. 7, 2016–Today there is a poem on the Writer's Almanac site called "Suicides"  by Faith Shearin. The subject is really about writers' suicides. It starts with a list of three writers who committed suicide:
  • one "who walked into a river with her pockets full of stones" [don't know who that was]
  • one "who started her car with the garage door closed" [presumably Anne Sexton] and
  • the youngest "went into the kitchen and placed her head where she had so often placed chickens or hams" [Sylvia Plath, whose suicide may have prompted Sexton's].
It ends with the complaint that now she had "outlived all of them." She continues:
I was sad that they could not describe the other world, that they offered no map to old age. Was it dangerous to write? I began to walk more carefully beside rivers, to eat cold food, to let someone else back the car out of the driveway. – From Telling the Bees. © Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2015.
Jilted Lovers

Let's look at the most famous writer suicides:
  • Stephen Haggard shot himself after an Egyptian woman he was seeing said she wanted to break off their adulterous relationship. His career as an actor was doing reasonably well, so a broken heart theory works here.
  • Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), author of The Bell Jar collection of poems, was married to poet Ted Hughes, who by multiple accounts was abusive toward her. Born in Jamaica Plain, Mass., she was a model for Mademoiselle magazine, won a Pulitzer and a Fulbright. Hughes was reported as having adulterous affairs. She put her head in an oven and sealed the sides. He burned her final diaries. Sample lines from her poetry: 
“Never Try to Trick Me with a Kiss” – Never try to trick me with a kiss
/Pretending that the birds are here to stay;
/The dying man will scoff and scorn at this.
“Lady Lazarus.” Dying / Is an art, like everything else…” 
  • Anne Sexton (1928-1974) also committed suicide via carbon monoxide. She and Plath took writing courses with each other, so it could have been a copycat suicide. Born in Newton, Massachusetts, she was a professional model, married at 18. Her psychiatrist recommended she take up writing poetry. She won a Pulitzer and a Guggenheim. The cause of her suicidal wish may have been sexual relationship with her second psychiatrist. She locked herself in the garage and turned on the engine of her car. Sample lines from her poetry:
"Wanting to Die." - …Suicides have a special language.
/Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
/They never ask why build.
  • If we include the lovers of poets, we get more people. For example, when I was in Brazil I was told firmly that the reason Elizabeth Bishop's Brazilian architect lover Lota de Macedo Soares took her own life was that Bishop wanted to end their long relationship.
Failure to Achieve Goals

Some poets and writers take their own lives, or engage in suicidal behavior, because they want to make some point through their death. Lord Byron going off to fight. Inez Milholland signing up to be an Italian war correspondent, and then charging on with a whistle-stop train campaign against Woodrow Wilson and continuing despite severe illness (one reason being that Alice Paul sent telegrams saying Inez must not let down the team).

Is there something about writing that leads to a kind of desperation? Edna St. Vincent Millay, addicted to drugs and alcohol (her death was an accident–she fell down stairs in the year after her husband died–but her addictions came from inside). Or the alcoholism of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and their circle. These three writers were successful, but under the pre-eBook system of acceptance and rejection of poems, articles and books, editors could appear to be tyrants.
  • Were the odds against getting into print and then selling enough copies too discouraging to reassure many writers of their talent, of their own value?
  • Despite being considered successful by history, were the writers not up to their own expectations? Was the required effort too great? 
  • I read once that only two poets in the 20th century made an adequate living from their poetry - Millay and W. H. Auden. In Millay's case the finances were helped by her having married a successful businessman, Eugen Boissevain, about whom I have written a lot in this space.
Chronic Illness

Does the seeming prevalence of suicides among writers reflect an unwillingness to accept life as it is? Does writing take a toll on one's health? 
  • Arthur Davison Ficke had an adulterous relationship with Edna St. Vincent Millay that her husband condoned. Ficke took his own life, it seems, not because of rejection by her but because of his own chronic illnesses.
  • Seven cast members of Saturday Night Live have died. Given the youthfulness of the cast, this seems higher than one would expect (SNL has had 118 cast members, making the death rate 6 percent). Three can be said to have taken their own lives - Charles Rocket (who had been discharged from the show), plus John Belushi and Chris Farley, who both died of drug overdoses at 33. Phil Hartman was apparently killed by his wife Brynne, who then killed herself; she was said to be envious of his career success. The other three died of illnesses.

Here's a list of writer-suicides, with a few names that I have discussed or thought about in bold face:

Francis Adams (writer), Jacques d'Adelswärd-Fersen, Jane Arden (director), José María Arguedas, May Aim
Shirley Barker, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Michel Bernanos, John Berryman, Konstantin Biebl, Jens Bjørneboe Barcroft Boake Joe Bolton (poet) Arturo Borja Tadeusz Borowski Karin Boye Bozhidar Herman Brood
Paul Celan, Ana Cristina Cesar, Nicolas Chamfort, Thomas Chatterton, Chen Mengjia, Danielle Collobert, Hart Crane, Arthur Cravan, René Crevel
John Davidson (poet), Deng Tuo, Deborah Digges, Thomas M. Disch, Tove Ditlevsen, Pierre Drieu, La Rochelle Yulia Drunina, Stephen Duck, Jean-Pierre Duprey
Daniel Evans (Welsh poet)
Gabriel Ferrater, Arthur Davison Ficke, Humberto Fierro, John Gould Fletcher, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, André Frédérique, Misao Fujimura
Francesco Gaeta, Ángel Ganivet, Adam Lindsay Gordon, José Agustín Goytisolo, Gu Cheng, Karoline von Günderrode, Vilmundur Gylfason
Stephen Haggard (grandnephew of author H. Rider Haggard, whose books were favorites of Will Woodin, FDR's first Treasury Secretary), Hai Zi Beatrice Hastings
Paolo Iashvili, Kaan İnce
Ingrid Jonker, Tor Jonsson, Attila József
Misuzu Kaneko Kostas Karyotakis Kitamura Tokoku Heinrich von Kleist Stanisław Korab-Brzozowski Velga Krile
Napoleon Lapathiotis Mariano José de Larra Jan Lechoń Vachel Lindsay Gherasim Luca Lucan Leopoldo Lugones
Vladimir Mayakovsky Charlotte Mew Veronica Micle Branko Miljković Jon Mirande Yukio Mishima
Henry Neele Neobule Gérard de Nerval Ernesto Noboa y Caamaño
Piet Paaltjens Cesare Pavese Alejandra Pizarnik, Sylvia Plath, Sophie Podolski Antonia Pozzi Dragoș Protopopescu
Qu Yuan Antero de Quental
Rajalakshmi José Antonio Ramos Sucre Liam Rector Jacques Rigaut Amelia Rosselli Raymond Roussel
Mário de Sá-Carneiro Anne Sexton Eli Siegel José Asunción Silva Medardo Ángel Silva Edward Stachura Avram Steuerman-Rodion Alfonsina Storni Thomas Thackeray Swinburne
Galaktion Tabidze, Robert Tannahill Sara Teasdale Salvatore Toma Jaime Torres Bodet Georg Trakl Marina Tsvetaeva
Allen Upward
Jacques Vaché, Johannes Vares, Reetika Vazirani Juhan Viiding Ilarie Voronca
Rachel Wetzsteon Rafał Wojaczek
Peyo Yavorov Sergei Yesenin Yun Hyon-seok