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January 18th, 2006

  Getting Off at Baltimore


You know how once in a while you read something that leaves you feeling vaguely disturbed — suddenly unsettled and insecure, as after a minor earth tremor? Well, that's my current state. The offending text was Eric Konigsberg's piece "Prairie Fire" in the January 16 issue of The New Yorker. The piece is about Brandenn Bremmer, a 14-year-old Nebraska boy who committed suicide last March. I can't locate the New Yorker piece on the internet, but a google on the boy's name will turn up numerous references like this one.

In very brief: Brandenn was an exceptionally gifted boy: home-schooled, far ahead of his peers intellectually, but by no means an introspective misfit. Musically talented, he released a CD of his own compositions. Raised on a farm, he did construction work ("Over a single weekend, Brandenn learned woodworking and how to pour concrete, and he put up most of the aluminum siding himself …") and made ingenious horticultural improvements. Good-looking and athletic, he had a warm and appropriate friendship with a girl of his own age and intelligence. He showed no signs of being any more depressed than the average 14-year-old. Obviously he was a very nice kid, the sort you'd want your own kids to mix with. His suicide seems, from Konigsberg's account, utterly inexplicable.

The suicide of a child is of course one of the major nightmares of parenting. That is one reason I, as a parent, find the Brandenn Bremmer story unsettling. If THIS kid could do it, who might not? Even aside from that, though, there is something about suicide that is deeply disconcerting to all of us. We have all known instances among our acquaintance, or, if we are unlucky, in our own families. An odd thing I have noticed is that a suicide, even of someone we are not strongly connected to, makes us angry. As a friend of mine put it when a mutual, though slight, acquaintance of ours pulled off the trick with the car exhaust and hose: "It's like you're playing a game of football and one of the players suddenly walks off the field." I suppose this anger is just an acknowledgment of the fact that killing yourself is the most selfish thing you can do — a gross betrayal of your social responsibilities, the first and foremost of which is to exist, so you can carry out all the others. Surely the old dishonoring of a suicide's corpse — in Christian countries, it could not be buried in consecrated ground — reflects something of this instinctual anger.

Albert Camus opened one of his essays with the observation that:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest … comes afterwards.

I suppose the best one can say about a suicide is that he has solved this philosophical problem, at least to his own satisfaction.

For many people, of course, there is no problem. Devoutly religious followers of the Western faiths believe that suicide is offensive to God, and so forbidden. Even quite irreligious people, like Hamlet, look at the unknowable darkness that stretches away beyond the end of our lives and wonder if there might not be, lurking in those shadows, some awful punishment for an act so outrageously at odds with all the processes of creation.

As a social phenomenon, suicide presents strange profiles. On a simple balance-sheet approach to the pains and pleasures of life, you would think that poor people should be more inclined to kill themselves than rich people, the old more than the young, the irreligious more than the religious, the oppressed more than the powerful, the single more than the married, the ailing more than the healthy, the failed more than the successful.

Some of this is as expected: old people, for example, do indeed kill themselves at a much higher rate than young people. Most, though, is counterintuitive. Poor countries do not have higher suicide rates than rich ones; married people are more likely to annihilate themselves than are the never-married (though divorced and widowed people have high rates); women, though they suffer from depression more than men, kill themselves at only a quarter the male rate; African Americans have a lower rate than the rest of us; and Napoleon's suicide attempt came before Waterloo, not after. Attempts to correlate by religiosity are inconclusive: Catholic Poland has a high suicide rate, Catholic Portugal a low one, irreligious Iceland a lowish rate very close to religious Ireland's. (Though Muslim countries seem to report exceptionally low rates. There is something, at least, in Islam's favor, unless they are cooking the numbers. Protestants have a higher rate than Catholics, by the way, while both have higher rates than Jews.) In the USA, the Bible Belt has a higher rate than the North and Northeast — there is a state map here.

That last may be related to the only thing that emerges with any clarity from the sociology of suicide: rates are higher where people have easier access to swift and relatively painless methods. In my own childhood, when doctors cheerfully dispensed powerful barbiturates to anyone with insomnia, drug overdoses were commonplace. In this country, states where guns are more plentiful seem have higher suicide rates than others. One can't help wondering what statistics would be like if a cheap and sure-fire suicide pill were available over the counter at drugstores.

The historical evidence is likewise resistant to analysis. Life in late 14th-century England, in the shadow of the Black Death, must have been pretty depressing, yet suicide is not a noticeably strong theme in Chaucer. Paul Johnson has an interesting passage on early 19th-century suicides in Birth of the Modern, with many curious examples, but Johnson can't find any broad significance in them. (My favorites:  (1) "Auger, the perpetual secretary of the Academie Française, who killed himself in a fit of depression at the triumph of romantic over classical-style literature."  (2) "The wealthy Mr. Stovin of Yorkshire, said to be 'Methodistical,' shot himself because he was 'married to a beautiful woman whose sentiments on religious subjects did not agree with his.'")

The biology of suicide is poorly understood, though there must surely be some inborn, likely genetic, predisposition. Small children, who have not yet learned what topics may be voiced in polite society, often express a desire to die; I have heard it from a 4-year-old. The literary archtype here is Little Father Time in Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, who enters life not seeing the point of it, never gets the point, and at last hangs himself and his two siblings "because we are too menny." A genetic inclination would be even harder to square with evolutionary biology than the famous conundrum of homosexuality, but there is evidence for it none the less. The north-Eurasian stock of people who speak Finno-Ugrian languages, and nearby populations that must have absorbed some of their genetic heritage, seem particularly prone to suicide. There are only three actual nations whose national language is of the Finno-Ugrian family: Finland, Hungary, and Estonia. All three show up in the suicidal Top Ten nations. Suicide runs in families, too. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had four brothers: three of them committed suicide. (There is another case like this in my book Prime Obsession, Endnote 97.)

Oh dear. Perhaps a brisk walk will banish these morbid inquiries. Or perhaps not. Freud, in his later years, came to think that there was a universal human instinct drawing us towards the contemplation of our own deaths, and that many forms of aggression, including obviously suicide, were manifestations of that instinct. (Freud died by euthanasia, at his own request.) The old boy was wrong about a great many things, and there is not much left of his grand system now. On this point, though, he was surely right. The tug towards death, expressed most memorably in Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale," is stronger in some of us than in others, and stronger in each of us at some times than at others. We stay on the football field, most of us, because the tug of life is overwhelmingly stronger practically all the time.

In Stay of Execution, his memoir of the inoperable cancer than at last killed him, the political journalist Stewart Alsop wrote of waking in his hospital room late one night with the conviction, induced by chemotherapy drugs, that he was in a railroad carriage.

"We'll be stopping in Baltimore," I announced loudly, in an authoritative voice. I looked around me. A private car, evidently. Good of the railroad people to supply those fruits, and all those flowers. The furniture looked a bit shoddy, but what can one expect these days? I got up to explore.

The car was swaying heavily — the roadbed must be a disgrace. I supported myself on a table, and then a desk. Then there was a space of empty floor. I was halfway across it when the car gave a lurch, and I fell down. I sat on the floor for a bit, getting my bearings, then scrambled to my feet again, and opened a narrow green door. A locker, with my own clothes in it. I opened another door — a small bathroom.

Then I came to a much bigger door, and opened it, and leaned against the doorjamb. The swaying had stopped — the train, apparently, had halted. Outside was what I assumed was the Baltimore station — wide platform, dim lights, green tile. A whimpering noise, then silence, and no one to be seen. There was something hellishly grim about the place. Suddenly I was quite sure I didn't want to stop in Baltimore.

"We won't stop here," I said, again in a firm, authoritative voice. "Start up the train, and carry on."

I turned back toward my bed, and the big door closed behind me. I fell down twice on the way back — the crew must be pouring on the power, I thought — and getting into bed was like mounting a bucking horse. Safe in bed, I turned off the light, and was asleep in an instant.

In the days following this episode, Alsop's cancer receded. Soon he was well enough to go home. Why the reprieve? He speculated in his newspaper column:

My guess is that my decision not to stop at Baltimore had something to do with it. In a kind of fuzzy, hallucinated way, I knew when I announced the decision that it was a decision not to die.

It was only a reprieve. The cancer came back, and Alsop died soon afterwards. In that strange story, though, you see the life force in action, even in a life that knows it is near the end.

Occasionally the life force fails us, and the longing for stillness, dissolution and peace has a brief ascendancy. If there is a gun to hand, or a bottle of barbiturates, I believe any one of us might yield on a moment's temptation. I can't think of any other explanation for Brandenn Bremmer's death. May we be spared from that moment. May the force, the force that pushes us forward through our lives, even when they seem filled with pain, failure, and despair — may the force always be with us.