As I was writing this review, Heather Armstrong killed herself. The quote from her obituary, referring to the time she underwent an anti-depressive treatment that involved going into a deep coma “When you want to be dead, there’s nothing quite like being dead” struck me differently after reading HOW NOT TO KILL YOURSELF, a definitive, comprehensive investigation into the suicidal mind.
My aunt, a former philosophy professor, left that field because, she said, “Philosophy is useless.” No. It is not. It is the mind that has emerged from his studies of Philosophy that prepared Clancy Martin to view the issue of suicide in a context that stretches across centuries, religions, societies. A philosopher needs to have a big, broad mind. He goes down the side roads of Socrates, Albert Camus, Dostoyevsky, Heidegger, Nietszche, Voltaire, David Foster Wallace, the I Ching, Madame de Stäehl, Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, and many others, weaving all of them and more into a formidable, readable, and thorough analysis of suicide. He warns at various points that people who are possessed of such a mind should read at their peril because he speaks intimately and frankly, bringing alive the experience of attempted suicide. He makes suicide a fact of life, not a tragic aberration. For those who stick with him to the end, he provides a way through.
He is generous with his own story, which includes numerous suicide attempts, family catastrophe, unimaginably humiliating events, and quite a few miracles.
I welcomed this book because my beloved husband Terry died of suicide, and I am in a now-lifelong period of ruminating how that came about. I glimpsed Terry in the book: the frequent references to suicide, the road rage, hewing to rights and wrongs and dismissing the in-between, attraction to mind-altering drugs such as alcohol and marijuana, intolerance for boredom, also a deep appreciation of and attraction to a loving, devoted partner. A person might ask me, “What would you have done differently if you had known that this constellation of otherwise common qualities sometimes led to suicide?” After reading the book, not much. Martin acknowledges throughout that he is responsible for his own life, even after acknowledging the indignities heaped upon him by his family and other matters of unfortunate circumstance, including his genetics. I have never felt responsible for Terry’s suicide, and this book solidified that feeling.
With all the hotlines, and Marches Against Suicide, and professors and researchers in the newly created specialty of suicidology, and the school counselors, and general “suicide awareness,” there has been little to no progress in lowering its frequency, so maybe it’s time we stepped back to take a comprehensive look at it, as Martin does in this book. Martin doesn’t depend on his own story. Poets from an anonymous ancient Egyptian to Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath are quoted, as are a long line of thinkers from Socrates to Freud to David Foster Wallace…and Shakespeare, of course. As I read the book, I thought back on the people in my own life who had killed themselves. Wendy, whose car crashed head-on into a tree at high speed with no skid marks, and died at 20, Eddie, who hung himself in the basement of his home in Austria, Ed, the managing partner of a law firm I worked in, who jumped in front of a subway train, (Jacob, the attorney I worked for who only escaped bleeding to death after slitting his wrists because his girlfriend had the police break down his door), David, the British artist who lived a block away in Athens, Greece who hung himself, my friend’s brother who suffered from PTSD after military service and downed a bottle of Vodka and a handful of pills, Carlos, who shot himself on his front lawn so his wife wouldn’t have a lot of clean-up to do, Frank, with whom I had a conversation about his depression at a high school reunion, and who overdosed a few months later, and my husband Terry. More people in my circle have died of suicide than of diabetes or COVID. Sprinkled throughout the book are the public personages recently lost to suicide, from Ernest Hemingway, and Marilyn Monroe to Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kate Spade, Naomi Judd, and Alexander McQueen. Without acceptance of its ubiquity, even its ordinariness, progress will be stunted.
There is a throughline of addiction in the book. Martin (and the recently deceased Heather Armstrong) sank into profound addiction to alcohol and dabbled in other addictions as well. He doesn’t stop at “Go to AA,” but parses the ways in which AA and the Twelve Steps are helpful, while insisting they are not enough. Without embracing his own helplessness, his need of others, and the other basics of AA, he could not have reached the equilibrium he enjoys today, but he needed to find his unique path nevertheless. Perhaps attending AA meetings is like learning the scales on the piano—they don’t make such beautiful music, but no beautiful music can be played without them.
After making his case, Martin turns to resources for those struggling with suicidal thoughts. Appendix I is called “TOOLS FOR CRISIS,” and includes dozens of resources from YouTube videos to websites to hotlines to a link to Oprah Winfrey’s liberating interview with Thích Nhát Hanh. There is a list of organizations ready to help. Recommended books include those specializing in young people in crisis, and classics in the genre. He makes reference throughout the book to various Buddhist teachers (Chögyam Trungka Rinpoche, Thích Nhát Hanh, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, Pema Chödrön) and has been helped by their teachings. Appendix II is called IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, and includes specific advice for helping a suicidal person. Its transcription of conversations with people experienced in helping avert suicide provide many helpful insights. The takeaway from Appendix II is summed up by the “suicide helpline guy,” John Draper, who advises, “just be human with them. Let them feel what they’re feeling.”
I love the last words of the book: “Not to get all sentimental on you at the end of the book, but look at us, here we are together, we made it. We don’t want to die, just yet.”