Writing on suicide is dangerous because suicide is deemed unthinkable. To think about it, then, and here syntax betrays what I’m going to claim, is understood as thinking about how to do it or when to do it. To think about it is to contemplate it. Thus, one says that one is not thinking about it, but even raising the prospect elicits concern and paranoia: why would one think about it if one were not thinking about it? I want to stay with this formulation, because I think its unthinkability is a problem, albeit a problem tied to the unthinkability of death, and the political and aesthetic imperative to think through life and to cultivate thriving life.
Because suicide always elicits confession, let me tell someone else’s story.
My cousin killed himself when I was a freshman. I was in Kenya during my first (and only) summer vacation, and, as was required, I attended family meetings and tried to help my age-mate cousin (his brother) cope with the banal details of life—I think I wrote his book report. It was whispered that he had attempted suicide previously by ingesting some kind of chemical agent. Finally, he went the way of the rope. He hanged himself. His mother was Catholic, the act unthinkable, our family narratives disingenuous.
Repeatedly, my siblings and cousins and other relatives confessed that they could not understand why he would contemplate and pursue suicide. This, for them, occupied the realm of the unthinkable. I did not know how to respond: suicide seemed perfectly thinkable. Deeming it unthinkable, refusing to contemplate it as a possibility, made more exotic, more strange, more unapproachable what some of us, many of us, think about often. Let that think stand, because I want to move beyond suicide’s unthinkability.
I am most often surprised when those of us who navigate the margins, whether as minoritized subjects or allies, who write eloquently about the difficulties of minoritized subject positions, who speak openly and fluently about “pain” and “suffering” as the conditions of our existence and as the horizons of our possibilities, render suicide unthinkable. When our friends, loved ones, co-workers, and co-travelers kill themselves, we react with shock and surprise, often claiming we “could not have known” and “we might have helped” and “we would have been available.” In doing so, we forget that we do know and that we do help and that we are available. We face the more frightening, terrifying prospect that knowing and helping and being available cannot suffice. We face the terrible, unthinkable, undesired prospect of letting go.
Letting go is hard.
As always, my father.
For the last year of his life, he was bedridden, on a liquid diet that tried to re-hydrate him, on so many drugs that his body smelled chemical, unable to use the bathroom, peeing in a jug, his mind destroyed, his body a living husk, gasping for air, dying in a dark room, where even we who loved him hated to go. It was not a life worth living. Not a life I could term a life. Not a life that could be celebrated, desired, nurtured. It was a half life. And still I wanted him in that half life. I wanted the proximity of his dying more than I wanted his suffering to end. I cannot, now, regret the hours and hours I prayed that he would live, even as I knew I was praying for his half life. I cannot regret wanting him to be around no matter in what form. But distance allows me to recognize the selfishness of my want. Learning to think about what a livable life means in very concrete and banal ways has forced me to think differently. And I continue to hope that my own cruel optimism is not grounded in someone else’s suffering half life. I can only control so much.
Our unthinking about suicide (or unthinking suicide, as more theory savvy people have it), the constant “shock” we express when we hear about suicide, our ongoing inability to believe that those we love and who are in pain, whether we know it or not, might not want to share their space-time with us, these are not things we might want to acknowledge. Because to acknowledge the banality of suicide, the drive toward suicide that animates a hostile social, goes against what we want to term the political, the future, the possible. And without the animation of futurity, much of what we do and try to build can seem utterly meaningless.
I do not want to claim that suicide is banal. But I do not want to act as though it’s extraordinary. I’d like to think about its proximity to the quotidian, its ever-present possibility with and among those we know and love and admire and those who are utter strangers. I’m glad for those who have success narratives: even as I’m not sure “I tried and failed” is a success narrative. But this is selfish. My love for others wants them to remain anchored in a shared world-building project. Even as my love for them must compel me to let go when that shared world-building becomes impossible.
I understand shock as an expression of grief, the admission that we’d prefer not to let go. But I find violent and dangerous the ways we unknow and unthink why suicide should be a possibility. I find dangerous the ways we refuse to acknowledge its proximity, even as we insist on knowing that we inhabit a killable and killing world. Yes, social alienation. Yes, depression. Yes, economic stress.
In the final analysis, we might not know the particular and peculiar thing that makes this or that moment unlivable, and we might never be able to accept our proximity to unlivability and, thus, to suicide. And we might never be able to accept that we failed to say something, do something, prolong a life we valued. Perhaps making suicide thinkable is unbearable—how does one bear it? But I live in the banal world where suicide is not unthinkable—as many conversations over the years have demonstrated. And I live in the banal world where the success of failure is simply often a deferral. This is the world from which suicide must be thinkable.