On April 14th, 2014, around four o’clock in the morning, Victoria McLeod, a seventeen-year-old girl from New Zealand, stood on the roof of a Singapore condominium building, texted a curt farewell to her friends (“Love you all, sorry guys”), and leaped ten floors to her death. Some weeks later, Victoria’s mother spotted a long scuff mark on the building’s façade, which suggested that her daughter had tweaked the trajectory of her fall, insuring that she landed between parked cars on a narrow parcel of tile. “She was so focussed,” Linda McLeod said, “even when she jumped.”
In the months leading up to her death, Victoria (or Vic, as she was called by friends) kept a journal in which she meticulously recorded the torsions of her darkening headspace. Wry and brilliant, Vic proved an astute observer of her peers, as in one passage when she briskly dissects a paragon of “Mean Girls” popularity: “Walking down Claymore Avenue with $200 Nikes and a cloned training buddy, no doubt to the gym . . . It’s kind of beyond me how anyone can have their life so sorted.” As her depression deepens, her prose grows more self-aware and more gravely disconsolate. “Today was bad,” she writes. “Sat in the shower. Did the whole crying bit. Sat in bed. Did the whole sad songs and crying bit . . . PLEASE MAKE THIS SAD STOP. FUCKING MAKE IT STOP. God, something out there, please make it stop.”
According to Jesse Bering, a research psychologist at the University of Otago and the author of the new book “Suicidal: Why We Kill Ourselves,” Vic’s journal is an “extraordinary” portrait of cognitive unravelling. While scrutinizing the diary of an adolescent may seem like a dubious scientific enterprise, Bering shows how the evolution of Vic’s dejected bulletins accords with the social-psychologist Roy Baumeister’s “Suicide as Escape from Self,” a six-stage theory demonstrating how a person might descend into the pit of self-extinction. What undergirds Bering’s inquiry is the belief that locating the psychological blunders that lead to suicide can help, in time, to curb their prevalence. For Bering, the subject is personal. He writes, “When I get suicidal again—not if, but when—I want to be armed with an up-to-date scientific understanding that allows me to critically analyze my own doomsday thoughts or, at the very least, to be an informed consumer of my own oblivion.”
The timing of Bering’s book is hardly coincidental. Between 2008 and 2016, suicide rates went up in almost every state, and a spate of recent articles have purported to explain why certain demographics—farmers, veterans—have been killing themselves in unprecedented numbers. Bering’s volume thus joins a niche canon of suicide studies—or suicidologies—which, throughout history, has sought to explore the lure of self-destruction. Such volumes include Émile Durkheim’s “Suicide: A Study in Sociology,” Kay Redfield Jamison’s “Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide,” and A. Alvarez’s “The Savage God: A Study in Suicide.” Each of these books is a fossil record of its specific historical context. Durkheim’s tome, which was published in 1897, is a glittering testament to the Progressive Era, what with its dogged faith in social engineering and its suggestion that suicides can be thwarted via institutional reform. “The Savage God,” meanwhile, was published in 1971, and is haunted by the spectre of Freud and his theory of psychoanalysis.
Somewhat predictably, then, Bering’s book reflects our own cultural fixations. An early chapter, for instance, wonders if suicide should be viewed as an evolutionary adaptation. He summarizes the neuroscientist Denys deCatanzaro, who pioneered the gene-centric view of suicide in the nineteen-eighties, as having said that suicidal thinking is “most common in people facing poor reproductive prospects” and who consume “resources without contributing to their family.” Picture a thirty-year-old burnout who relies on the munificence of a more successful older brother. By committing suicide, this individual might insure his own genetic survival; from a biological standpoint, the older brother’s offspring will have a better chance of thriving if the sponger no longer exists. (As Bering has noted, these “adaptive” decisions aren’t conscious but result, instead, from latent, primordial triggers.) A similar logic underwrites the altruistic suicides that the explorer Knud Rasmussen observed among the Netsilik Inuit community in Canada, where elderly clan members truncated their lives to reduce the caretaking burdens on the next generation.
Bering also examines the role of von Economo neurons (VENs), spindle-shaped cells that contribute to empathy, self-awareness, and other advanced social functions. One study by the neuropsychiatrist Martin Brüne found “significantly greater densities of VENs in the brains of the suicide victims compared to those in the control group.” Another section explores cyberbullying as a possible culprit, although Bering displays the telltale ambivalence of someone who fears being pegged as a Luddite. “The internet is a manifestation of human nature,” he writes, “and because of its unique capacity to bridge formidable social divides, it’s important to emphasize that it summons not only the worst in us, as we’ve seen, but also an astonishing amount of good.” He goes on to extol the ameliorative efforts of companies like Facebook, which use artificial intelligence to detect posts that mention suicide and other idioms of self-harm. Scanter attention gets paid to the numerous studies that show that young people who use social media experience higher rates of depression.
Some readers will be dismayed that Bering seems insensible to larger sociological concerns. While Bering grants that Vic’s depression was possibly made worse by the yardsticks of affluence and achievement, which aggravated her perfectionist streak as she prepared for college, it seems never to occur to him that these apprehensions are outgrowths of larger social systems. Moreover, during a chapter in which Bering explores the recent phenomenon of live-streaming one’s suicide, he doesn’t pause to wonder why Marcus Jannes, a college student who broadcasted his own hanging on a Swedish Web site called Flashback, chose to do so by lassoing computer-network cables around his neck and rigging them up to a doorframe. The symbolism seems wholly lost on him.
“Suicidal” contains no mention of economic inequality or the 2008 recession. For those interested in the nonbiological motivations for suicide, these are strange omissions. After all, to ignore the extent to which depression and suicide are responses to the larger culture is to assume that the deprivations of our moment cannot be amended. For the psychologist Oliver James, the author of “The Selfish Capitalist,” attributing depression and suicide to genetics reveals an unchecked commitment to neoliberalism. “That genes explain our behavior and well-being distracts attention from society as a cause,” he writes. Bering admits that suicide isn’t “inescapably” determined by genes, but he fixates throughout on the pathology of the individual. The critic Mark Fisher, who himself committed suicide, in 2017, rejected this approach in his book “Capitalist Realism”: “The pandemic of mental anguish that afflicts our time cannot be properly understood, or healed, if viewed as a private problem suffered by damaged individuals.”
Strangely, for all his faith in the curative powers of science, Bering defers to the fantasia of dreams for his final recommendation. In the last chapter, he describes a REM vision from his youth in which he enters a palatial theatre and on stage is a mockup of his childhood bedroom. In the corner, the boy version of himself is fast asleep, and, outside a cardboard window, his ghost hovers, Scrooge-like, in anticipation. For Bering, the perspective of this dream—that of a spectator in the audience—proves a useful vantage, too, for the doldrums of waking life. Sitting apart from reality, a person can rest more easily in the belief that nothing actually matters. Because we lack eternal souls, “there’s no afterlife; without an afterlife, there’s only the theater of the now. Suicide? You’ll be dead soon anyway.” It is this “spiritual power” of nihilism that offers Bering a solution.
In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus’s landmark essay, it is precisely this conception of daily life that foments suicidal thinking. “It happens that the stage sets collapse,” he writes. “Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday according to the same rhythm—this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.” The desiccated procedure of modern life soon reveals itself as a proscenium. But, unlike Bering, who finds this a relief, Camus considers it a viable reason to terminate his existence. The rest of his inquiry wonders how we might persist in a world devoid of consequence.
For Camus, there are three options. One, a person could kill himself, yanking the cord on the light show of reality. Two, a person could—like Kierkegaard or Dostoyevsky—commit “philosophical suicide,” embracing an ideological system (Marxism, Christianity) even though Camus believes all such dogmas to be thoroughgoing nonsense. Finally, we might choose Camus’s third option, which is to live an “absurd” life, recognizing the futility of existence but accepting it and somehow finding happiness in the struggle. Like Sisyphus, who’s consigned by the gods to push a boulder up a hill only for it to roll back to the bottom, we must rise and fall each day, knowing the cycle is nothing but a harsh and tedious regimen. (As some critics have argued, Camus failed to see that his submission to absurdism was itself a philosophical suicide.)
Camus was writing almost a century and a half after the Enlightenment, when, as Nietzsche argued, the architecture of religion had been dismantled and citizens of the Western world were left scrounging around for a system of surrogate beliefs. Without the plotline of the Christian gospel, with its messianic view of history, the purpose of life and our place in the world became woefully uncertain. Given Bering’s dogged fatalism—his personal mantra is “nothing matters”—the question of whether people feel this anxiety now strikes him as retrograde and impertinent. This despite evidence that many do, including a recent Op-Ed in the Times, by the behavioral scientist Clay Routledge, which presented new data showing how the surge in suicides could be attributed to a “crisis of meaninglessness.”
Approaching contemporary life-style trends through the lens of philosophical suicide, it becomes clear that, despite whatever lip service we might pay to the diktats of science, a goodly percentage of us still fall on our knees and perform the calisthenics of faith. Whether we bow before the altar of transhumanism, with its robotic promise of eternal life, or congregate in the house of wellness, with its grunting sect of CrossFitters, we are nevertheless embracing an ideology that supplies a certain framework of meaning. Recognizing the spiritual function of these ideologies might help us understand their role in staving off suicide, but Bering fails even to consider them.
For Bering, parsing the etiology of a person’s mental health leaves little room for the musty errand of ideological contemplation. At one point, Bering notes that churchgoers—who place a high premium on communal fallibility—are four times less likely to commit suicide compared with their secular counterparts. But Bering cannot extract any comfort from this statistic. He admits that he cannot espouse “religion or any other belief system in which human suffering is conceived as meaningful.” Setting aside the question of what sorts of suffering Bering means by this, the point is not that we should all don vestments and recite the catechism. Instead, it’s that the systems we embrace might not be value-neutral, at least insofar as they buttress us against the despair that Camus so painstakingly explored.
The act of suicide necessarily involves the ravages of biology and personal disposition. But it also intersects with the ability of a society—its structures, mandates, and dominant ideologies—to impart and sustain purpose. In December, GQ published a cluster of testimonies about Anthony Bourdain, collected after his suicide, in 2018, which includes a poignant anecdote about his popular “Parts Unknown” episode with Barack Obama. Apparently, during an idle moment while sipping beers in Hanoi, Bourdain leaned over and asked, “We’re both fathers. Can you tell me, is everything going to be O.K.?” The President replied, “Yes, Tony. Everything is going to be O.K.” Bourdain, who on his shows revelled in cosmopolitan curiosity, was appealing to Obama as a fellow-parent, but his query was also, perhaps, that of a writer, one who had grown doubtful of the plotline’s coherence and who wanted our narrator-in-chief to restore the story’s truth and meaning.
“The whole age can be divided into those who write and those who do not write,” argued Kierkegaard, who himself wrote at length about the scourge of suicide. “Those who write represent despair, and those who read disapprove of it and believe that they have a superior wisdom.” Victoria McLeod was herself a writer and, even at her young age, displayed a gimlet-eyed approach to the world and a winsome narrative persona. In her diary, Vic was at work on a profoundly important story, one that was asking all the right questions. Her struggles across its pages reveal a consciousness that chafed against expectation and social pressures, and that was in desperate search of a more stable narrative. It’s impossible to know, of course, whether a better story would have saved her. The onus falls upon us to examine the ones we’re still telling.