These are the final words of Jennifer Michael Hecht’s most recent book: “Choose to stay.”
Hecht argues against suicide as an escape from despair. She offers two reasons. Choosing to stay allows you the chance to be helpful to someone else. And, she says you owe your future self a chance at happiness.
Hecht talks with Dean Olsher about her book, Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It.
Jennifer Michael Hecht reads her poem, “No Hemlock Rock (don’t kill yourself).”
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I’m Dean Olsher, and you’re listening to The Really Big Questions. It’s the podcast that asks really big questions, and today we’re talking about the decision to end one’s life. I’ll be speaking with the philosopher and poet Jennifer Michael Hecht. Her most recent book is called “Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It.” Our interview took place when Robin Williams was still alive, but the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman by overdose was still heavy in our hearts.
Hecht clarified she’s not talking about people who have terminal illness. She thinks that shouldn’t even be called suicide, but instead managing how the cancer kills you. She’s talking about suicide brought on by despair. She makes two arguments against taking your life, the first of which she describes as communitarian, and the second, that you owe it to your future self – the person who has overcome the despair – to give that person a chance to live. She first came to her subject not in a scholarly mindset, but as an artist.
I lost a friend to suicide, and I was very shocked and miserable from it. We weren’t close anymore. I’d known her for a long time, though, and I kept seeing her. And in a combination of grief and, I’m afraid, empathy in that I, too, had certain kinds of periods of depression that would lead me to similar thoughts, I wrote a poem. Because I write poetry, I can sit down and write things that I don’t have proof of, or even know the end of the sentence. I can feel around and nobody gets hurt, right? It’s a poem. And so I wrote this poem out of grief and an attempt to make it very plain to myself, the argument that I’d come up with.
Would you read it for us?
Sure. Here it is.
“The No-Hemlock Rock,” by Jennifer Michael Hecht.
Don’t kill yourself. Don’t kill yourself.
Don’t. Eat a donut, be a blown nut.
That is, if you’re going to kill yourself,
stand on a street corner rhyming
seizure with Indonesia, and wreck it with
racket. Allow medical terms.
Rave and fail. Be an absurd living ghost,
if necessary, but don’t kill yourself.
Let your friends know that something has
passed, or be glad they’ve guessed.
But don’t kill yourself. If you stay, but are
bat crazy you will batter their hearts
in blooming scores of anguish; but kill
yourself, and hundreds of other people die.
Poison yourself, it poisons the well;
shoot yourself, it cracks the bio-dome.
I will give badges to everyone who’s figured
this out about suicide, and hence
refused it. I am grateful. Stay. Thank
you for staying. Please stay. You
are my hero for staying. I know
about it, and am grateful you stay.
Eat a donut. Rhyme opus with lotus.
Rope is bogus, psychosis. Stay.
Hocus Pocus. Hocus Pocus.
Dare not to kill yourself. I won’t either.
Yeah, I wrote the poem. It was for “Best American Poetry.” And then The Boston Globe contacted me and asked if they could print it. And I got a ton of email, a ton of email from really hurting people, people who were suicidal and many more people who loved someone who was suicidal and lots of people who had already lost somebody. It just moved me so much. I said, “Okay, now I’ve got to find out whether everything I’m saying here is specifically true.”
So, I was saying things about religion having been mostly against suicide. Had I ever researched that? Not in particular. I was saying things about how the secular world and the enlightenment started to reject the church’s power, and that’s when we started to get all, “I have a right to suicide.” So, I just started researching to check my work, and it was in that process that I slowly came to the idea of, “I’m going to write a book about this. I need people to be able to read and know some of these important things.”
There were a couple of things that came out of the research which were profound for me. One is that though I found every wonderful permutation of some of the arguments I was finding, I never found anybody say thank you. Just simply “thank you” to those people who are staying for the community. I think the culture needs that. And so I started saying thank you. Thank you. There are people who are listening right now who are staying alive for other people and who are in pain, and it matters that somebody says thank you.
We’ve been tackling this question of what is a good death, and my instinct has been always to think about what is a good death from the point of view of the person who’s dying. But what’s interesting about your book is that you’re writing about the people who are left behind.
Yeah, that is one of the big points of what I’m doing in “Stay.” The arguments that I came up with – the first idea I came up with was communitarian, that we need each other, so that even if you feel like a burden, you would be a million times more of a burden if you take your life. And that means that you’re contributing by staying, even if you’re crying and feel useless and pointless and you can’t imagine a time out of it.
Trust your former self. If you can, when you’re happy, write yourself a note. But when you feel terrible, you’re not going to be able to see your way out of it, but you can put in your mind beforehand that suicide can be fatal to others. I really start from fatal, and then I just touch lightly on the pain and misery that people live with. But I really want to say to people if you have children under 18, if you take your life, those children become at the very least twice as likely to kill themselves, which means often decades of agony.
Why is that? What is it about suicide that is contagious?
Well, I’ll start with saying that almost everything human beings do is contagious. We smoke and stop smoking together; we gain and lose weight together; we decide to have two children; we decide to have three children. These are intense life decisions. We decide to marry or not, or marry someone who makes more or less money than us. I mean, the range of things we do by trend is profound.
And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Culture and community make meaning, and I trust that meaning to a certain degree. On the other hand, once somebody like you has done it, and that doesn’t always mean somebody you knew or were close to. When someone kills themselves and it’s in the news, the suicide rate for that age and gender and profession tend to go up markedly.
I did not know Phillip Seymour Hoffman personally, but I have to say that his suicide through overdose really hit me hard.
Yes. Well, I think that one hit us very hard, partially because when people are famous they start to feel like family. But a death is so different than a death by suicide in terms of how it reverberates on us. I agree that when you have 70 bags of heroin in the house and you’ve joked with friends about dying from it, you know, yeah, this is clearly – I think he meant to wake up that day, but it’s suicidal behavior. And yeah, I think one of the worst parts about it for us, for some of us, is that those of us who work very hard do it because we need something. The woman who was happy in the cafeteria may have had a better childhood than the person who is running for president, sometimes, because what is the point of working so hard if you have a real philosophical understanding of what life really is?
And that tends to come down to chasing demons. You’re trying to prove yourself, that you deserve the space you’re standing on. I think Hoffman had it that way, and we all want to believe – people like you and me, who do a lot, we want to believe that when you get paid for it and that famous for it and that praised, praise, praise, praise from intellectuals, from people you don’t have to say “Oh, I . . .” No, from the deepest people. When you have praise, millions of dollars, and that kind of fame and success, and you’re doing good work and have projection to do it for the rest of your life? We want to believe that saves your ass. Sorry, we want to believe that saves you. And the truth is, no. What it does is raise your expectations, but you’re still a human being. You’re going to be in pain, and feel guilty about the pain. You shouldn’t be in pain, right? You did so much. But you’re still a human being. And so you kill the pain with more need. When they get to their goal, they fall apart, I think, to a man.
This idea of a good death from the point of view of the person who is dying versus the people left behind, they can often be at odds with each other, right? And so you’re privileging the people who are left behind as if their needs take precedence over the person who wants to die more than anything.
When I’m talking strictly about despair suicide, I am saying that—by being born into the United States, you adhere to certain rules or you leave. Being born into humanity, one of the strong moral suggestions along with don’t kill anybody else is don’t kill you. And I don’t hear anyone else saying that; I’m getting a lot of pushback on it. People feel very strongly, and they claim their right to death as a gesture of autonomy that’s really a pillar of human independence.
And I am saying, “No, there is interdependence, too.” Teenagers, should they have a right to kill themselves? When your prefrontal cortex is formed at 25, we can at least have the conversation. But we are losing a tremendous number of people between 15 and 24. Tremendous. And that includes the vast majority of the military suicides. But the baby boomers are now suddenly skyrocketing in suicide, women in their 60s, men in their 50s, white, successful. They are killing themselves in record numbers. Right across the culture, we’re seeing a rise. There’s been a definite rise in the United States since 2000.
And the World Health Organization says that in the last 45 years, the suicide rate has gone up worldwide 60 percent. And we’re not sure exactly what that looks like in different places, but we do know that that’s more than war in the vast majority of places, suicide more than war. Everywhere, suicide more than murder. Everywhere. A couple of little exceptions, but in the United States, suicide more than murder every year. We kill ourselves more than we murder.
It’s a barbarism, in a way, that we’re letting this happen. If we can manage to get out of this suicide business, because there have been cultures who seem to have done it much less, what would happen 200 years from now if they looked back and saw that 30-40,000 Americans every year killed themselves either with a gun or rope or pills? It would begin to look like the culture—if we saw that in an ancient culture, we’d call it a sacrifice. And the society that says that everyone has the right to kill themselves is complicit in those thousands of deaths. It is.
We have video of Jennifer Michael Hecht reading her poem “The No-Hemlock Rock” on our website, which is TRBQ.org. And while you’re there, you can hear several other podcasts and an hour-long radio show all asking the question, “What is a good death?” Go find us on Twitter and on Facebook, too. The Really Big Questions is a project of SoundVision Productions with funding from the National Science Foundation. This podcast was produced by Flora Lichtman and me, Dean Olsher.
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I like what Hecht says about staying because of your future self. And the “thank you.”
The poem is completely different. Listening to it makes my insides scream at what feels like trivializing.
I think the difference is interesting. Perhaps that gap describes the way I experience the agony of the human condition.