Friday, January 25, 2008

What kind of person?

What "kind of person" commits suicide? That's a rather blunt way to start a post, but it's been on my mind since I heard about Heath Ledger's death Tuesday afternoon. (For the record, I'm not saying he did; I'm not interested in the morbid speculation about what illness/accidental/purposeful drug overdose killed him.) I haven't seen his movies, and honestly I'm much more personally affected by waking up today to the news that CBS Ch. 2/former WGN reporter Randy Salerno just died. (I watch a LOT of news.) I confess to looking at the celebrity website TMZ for the first time (I linked through an unrelated story), where I found this on 1/22: “TMZ has been contacted by a rep from Heath's family. The cops told the family Heath's death was accidental and there is no evidence to support the buzz that he may have committed suicide. They are particularly distraught over media reports that he may have taken his own life. The family says he was not that kind of person.”

What kind of person? What does that mean? It's fine to set the record straight about how a person died, but I never quite understand the need to deny suicide. In part it's because you can expect judgment about a person's "selfishness," or confusion over how someone who "had it all" could do that. I've seen that out there (I couldn't stand to read too many TMZ comments); I've also seen rants about "junkies" and "druggies." Since Ledger was most famous for playing a gay cowboy, some particularly hateful commentators have thrown that into the mix (making Andy Rooney's comments about Kurt Cobain's death seem tame; anyone remember that?)

What kind of person do we expect? Divorced, unemployed alcoholic drifters? Reckless heartbroken teens? (You know how you always hear about teen suicide? Far more elderly people kill themselves. How often have you heard suicide is the third leading cause of death for teenagers? It is, for both younger and older teens, but that's because teens rarely die of chronic heart disease, strokes, or lung cancer. Homicide is the second leading cause of death for older teens.) Do we still expect looks, fame, money, success, talent to immunize people against depression?

I didn't want to spend too much time online reading about his death. But I was impressed by the comments on this post at the political blog Shakesville. People may certainly think it "selfish" if someone with a family (especially a young child) kills themself, but the chilling but essential point was made there--people that consumed by self-loathing can feel they're doing a FAVOR to those around them by not being around anymore. They feel just that hopeless, useless, worthless. Maybe the world is divided between people who "get it" and those who don't; those who've crossed some sort of line into at least knowing what those feelings feel like, if not necessarily feeling an overwhelming urge to act on it.

What kinds of people think about suicide? Maybe there needs to be a speakout, much like the film/campaign/t-shirt “I Had an Abortion”. The "not that kind of person" trope protects the individual's reputation at the expense of anyone who's thought that way. It divides people into "us" and "them," it polices acceptable feelings, it shames people who've felt that way as selfish, antisocial, weird. Undeniably, families/communities/society have an interest in preventing suicide. But whenever the "not that kind" line comes out, people who worry they might be "that kind" are shut out. What incentive do they have to talk about it with anyone?

This is sort of a contribution to the idea of reducing the "stigma" around depression, anxiety, suicide, self-harm, etc. But if you Google "suicide" or "depression" and "stigma," probably 99% of the "anti-stigma" campaigns out there are about pushing the most reductive biological theories to explain mental disorders, and professional treatment (mostly pharmaceuticals) as the fix. Maybe it used to sound like conspiracy theories to talk about mental health campaigns this way, but there have now been so many good books about it that it's not a wholly outrageous idea anymore. (But then someone like Tom Cruise has to come along with judgmental ranting and Scientology-pushing, and it becomes difficult to critique the mental health system; I've seen people torn apart on feminist blogs for saying what I've just said.) I think those campaigns do a lot to stigmatize people who DON'T seek professional help (and often they have valid reasons for not wanting it).

To put it in the most delicate way possible, my instincts for self-preservation have not always been the most robust. Things are different now. It certainly amuses me that I'm so involved in urban exploration (particularly of long-abandoned and demolished buildings) where there's often literally danger around every corner. I suppose it might worry people who just know what I was like a few years ago.

That provides an awkward transition into explaining these photos, from a trip to the ruined Brach's factory a week ago, showing it to a new explorer. It was my fifth visit; my first was September 22, 2007, my first "official" exploring trip. Tuesday, the day Heath Ledger died, I thought about the four months I've been doing this. I was in a hurry to get to Brach's originally because I'd thought it was getting destroyed for the filming of the next Batman movie, the Dark Knight, but in fact only one building was imploded. Of course, you probably know that was Ledger's last film. I'm not finding any great meaning in that connection, but I felt like pointing it out. We'll probably find out that Ledger was not "that kind of person," but I wish so much that that phrase will no longer be used to invalidate anyone's despair.


dk said...

i hope they killed off the joker

Jennifer said...

Perhaps we feel the need to distinguish the ones who seem not to desire death so much as attention?

Katherine said...

death vs. attention-seeking is a good point I didn't make. it's also an issue when talking about self-injury, which for years was often written off as "attention-seeking." but then it became so well-known through media coverage that's there's the possibility some really do it for that reason (though that should never be assumed).

wow, it's just occurred to me that people other than the 4 or 5 I know are reading this blog might be seeing it...