British cinemas are warning sensitive spectators about the first ‘conte cruel’ in Damián Szifrón’s highly acclaimed film Relatos Salvajes (2014). The story certainly has eerie coincidences with Andreas Lubitz’s tragic murder-suicide of last week. Yet, Szifrón’s very Argentinean take on the matter of a pilot’s terminal depression is humorous rather than tragic. The tale is dominated by improbability (the pilot’s method to select his passage) and by Szifrón’s mockery of the psychiatrist’s efforts to stop the pilot. As he bangs on a door also firmly blocked against intruders, he manages to increase rather than decrease the pilot’s destructive determination. The final oedipal image is an indictment both against family life and against the failure of psychology and psychiatry to contain a man’s pain. As it happened in Lubitz’s case, with nothing at all to laugh about.
I am writing these days an article about a novel dealing with the real-life suicide of a man, British director James Whale. The novel is Father of Frankenstein (1995) by Christopher Bram, adapted for the screen by Richard Condon as Gods and Monsters (1998). I argued in the abstract submitted that this ageing man’s decision to kill himself is an act of masculine empowerment: Whale, 68, suffered a series on minor strokes which were diagnosed as the onset of an immediate psychological and physical decay. Rather than face this, Whale decided to drown himself in the pool of his wealthy California home (he could not swim, the pool was built for a young lover). The whole novel is addressed to proving that gay men like Whale are also manly; this is why Bram fancies that Whale befriends in the last two weeks of his life a prejudiced, homophobic young man, Clayton, who little by little realises the ‘old fruit’ is a man in full. I was asked on what grounds I claimed that Whale’s suicide was a specifically masculine act of empowerment and not an act any human being could commit; also, how his being gay connected with my claims. The Alps tragedy happened in the middle of my considering all this for the article.
Statistics indicate that, roughly speaking, in most countries more men than women commit suicide: of all suicides 70% to 80% correspond to men (the only exception? Afghanistan, where women lead this sad rating). Some specialists claim that the same number of men as of women consider committing suicide; among those who do try killing themselves, however, women are far less effective than men. There are no clear reasons for this, though I’ll speculate that women are worse at using violence, even against themselves. Also, that men connect suicide with courage and possibly feel ashamed at the possibility of appearing to have acted in a cowardly way if they fail to do themselves in.
In support of my argument, I’ll cite Iain Bank’s last novel, The Quarry (2013). Banks was writing the story of cantankerous Guy, a man terminally ill with cancer, when he was himself diagnosed with the same disease. One early morning Guy suddenly disappears; his son Kit and friend Hol find him on a bridge above the motorway: “(…)‘I still couldn’t jump, in the end (…) More of a coward than I thought. (…) Thought I could at least control something, take fucking charge of something, impose my own fucking schedule on what was happening to me, rather than just being… prey to it’” (368). Banks himself did not commit suicide, nor did Terry Pratchett, who passed recently. Pratchett’s family had to twit that he had died of natural causes, given the very vocal attitude he had kept in favour of assisted voluntary suicide; Pratchett had even collaborated in the documentary Choosing to Die (2012), which shows the suicide of Peter Smedley, a 71-year-old man suffering from motor neurone disease (aided by Swiss pro-choice Dignitas).
Men, most research suggests, tend to commit suicide because they bottle up their feelings are unable to ask for help when depressed. The case of the German pilot, who did ask for help and was technically on medical leave, possibly even under medication prescribed by his psychiatrist, shows that this claim needs to be disputed. I agree that men tend to keep their feelings to themselves more than women do, and that acknowledging that they feel depressed may in many cases be incompatible with their own sense of self-confident masculinity. In Bram’s novel, and in real life, James Whale did not tell anyone about why he wanted to die; Father of Frankenstein actually shows the very narrow limits of the friendship he establishes with this other man, Clayton, whom he sees just as a tool. Whale fancies that this man is his Frankenstein’s monster returned; his violence will kill him and there will be no need for Whale to commit suicide. This is not, though, what happens. Yet, just suppose that Whale had asked for help: he would have been told that degenerative illness must be endured and told to bear it with anti-depressants.
Carmen Tejedor, a Spanish psychiatrist who implemented a very successful anti-suicide programme at Barcelona’s Hospital Clinic, claims that there is not such thing as a ‘rational suicide,’ as Whale’s appears to have been, since “95% of all suicidal individuals present clear symptoms of being mentally disturbed.” The other 5%, those diagnosed with a terminal bodily illness as Whale was, are “balance suicides;” these appear to be rational but the individuals involved actually suffer from “more or less covert depression” (https://lescontres.blogspot.com/2009/06/carmen-tejedor-psiquiatra-dirige-el.html). This, of course, is totally at odds with the philosophy behind SOARS, the British Society for Old Age Rational Suicide established, by Michael Irwin in 2009, with the intention that rational suicide might become one day a human right.
I realise that I chose to write about Father of Frankenstein because I am totally in favour of assisted voluntary suicide, that is to say, of the individual’s right to choose how to die. I also think we need to carefully distinguish depression induced by a biochemical imbalance, which is an illness, from sadness and unhappiness caused by events in one’s life, which is a condition. Take Lubitz again: if he suffered from the first kind of depression, he should not have been allowed to fly a plane ever; if, however, he was suffering from a physical complaint that would make him lose his flying licence, and thus his dream job as a pilot, then he needed help to understand that he could still lead a fulfilling life rather than anti-depressants. As for Whale and anyone else like him, male or female, the only dignified solution is helping them to commit suicide in better circumstances than doing yourself violent bodily harm.
And men, listen: feeling sad and unhappy is part of being human. Do ask for help, do help each other, share feelings, share problems, share stories… If male suicide, as the British say, is the ‘silent plague’ killing too many of you, then speak out about what is troubling you. There is dignity in doing this, even in dying if that’s your choice. There is no dignity at all in victimizing yourself pointlessly and, indeed, in victimizing others even more pointlessly.
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