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Suicide Is Not Beautiful

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In 1963, Sylvia Plath stuck her head in an oven, turned on the gas, and committed suicide as her children slept.  Her friend and fellow poet, Anne Sexton, memorialized Plath with a poem that linked them as suffering women who both had “the suicide inside” them:

Thief / how did you crawl down into, / crawl down alone / into the death I wanted so badly and for so long, / the death we said we both outgrew, / the one we wore on our skinny breasts, / the one we talked of so often each time / we downed three extra dry martinis in Boston, / the death that talked of analysts and cures, / the death that talked like brides with plots, / the death we drank to, / the motives and the quiet deed.” *

Ten years later, after a number of failed attempts, Sexton also committed “the quiet deed,” pouring herself a glass of vodka, locking herself in her garage, and starting her car, poisoning herself with carbon monoxide.

Sexton and Plath have always been two of my favorite poets. I love the confessional poetry of the 1960s and 1970s, so sensitive and honest and personal, and I especially admire the ways that Sexton and Plath used this newer kind of poetry to examine themselves as women and think about what it meant to be female in their particular worlds. Who can forget, for example, Plath’s chilling words to her father, her declaration that “Every woman adores a fascist, / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you“? Sexton wrote about sex, adultery, menstruation, masturbation, abortion, motherhood, and her own lifelong struggle with a complicated set of debilitating psychological disturbances originally diagnosed as “hysteria.” Her specific personal experiences became the subjects of her poems, and she boldly published work related to her failures as a mother (“You did not know my voice / when I came back”), her problematic use of psychiatric drugs and sleeping pills (“Fee-fi-fo-fum / Now I’m borrowed. / Now I’m numb.”), and her repeated attempts at suicide (“I pretended I was dead / until the white men pumped the poison out”). ** This choice of material, combined with the fact that she ultimately killed herself, ensured that people would remember her, like Plath, primarily as a tragic “suicide poet.”

It’s understandable that we think of Plath and Sexton in that particular way. And yet something about the way we remember them – something, even, about the way that I have personally read their work and thought about their lives and deaths – bothers me. It bothers me a lot. And it’s not just that their dramatic suicides eclipsed the fact that they produced, during their short lives, what writer James Carroll has called “some of the best poetry” of the twentieth century.  It’s something more than that, something hard to articulate; it’s something that has to do with our tendency to see romance, maybe even beauty, in lives that culminate in these tragic, self-inflicted deaths – especially, perhaps, when the lives in question belong to women.

I don’t mean to argue, here, that we never romanticize the suicides of men – we certainly do, though often in different ways. I could write an entire blog post about male suicide, too, about how men are trained to cover and deny their emotional impulses in a way that can lead download (1)to serious mental health crises. For now, though, I want to suggest only that there is a gendered component to suicide and a gendered component to the way we, as a society, react to female suicide. Diane Middlebrook’s biography of Sexton touches briefly on this issue. Middlebrook notes that the feminist poet Adrienne Rich, who saw nothing romantic or beautiful about these sorts of deaths, spoke at Sexton’s funeral and immediately placed the tragedy of her personal suffering in a larger, profoundly disturbing context: “We have had enough suicidal women poets, enough suicidal women, enough of self-destructiveness as the sole form of violence permitted to women.” The quotation struck a chord with me, in more ways than one; it made me think about why I loved these poets, and it made me think about their connection to feminism and women’s history, and it illuminated part of what bothered me so much about the image of the beautiful, suffering, “suicide poet.”

Self-destructiveness: the sole form of violence permitted to women. Isn’t this point worth examining? I don’t think Rich meant to argue that women should go out and perpetrate acts of violence against other people instead, at least not in the literal sense. She meant, I think, that when women’s lives become unbearable, when social and political and personal circumstances make them feel desperate, they often silence themselves, even doing violence to themselves, rather than making noise and fighting against those external forces. And she was right, wasn’t she? At least to some extent? I’m thinking, here, not only about suicide but also about eating disorders and self-injury behaviors like cutting. Women, Rich would argue, express negative emotions and claim whatever small measure of power they can grasp not by striking out at those around them but by hurting themselves.

I recently finished teaching a course on U.S. women’s history – the first half of a survey, dealing not with the gendered problems of the twentieth century but, instead, with colonial, Revolutionary, and antebellum women. During discussion one day, a student asked me several questions, all of which boiled down to something like, “why does it seem like men have looked at the problems around them and blamed other people and other forces, while women have seemed to think the root of those problems comes from inside themselves?”

This perspective is oversimplified, of course, but I knew what the student meant. In class, for example, we had talked about the centrality of religion in the New England colonies, and they’d read Elizabeth Reis’s brief article on women’s witchcraft confessions, which argued that in church conversion narratives, men tended to focus on specific sins they had committed, while women tended to focus on their personal qualities, their inherent “sinful natures.” We had discussed the implications of that distinction at length, noting that in this particular worldview, men might do bad things, but women were bad people. We’d explored the powerful – and powerfully gendered – concept of shame. And once the students understood that particular dynamic, they saw it everywhere, all through the class. They pointed out, for instance, that the contradictions and complexities of the Second Great Awakening and the Cult of True Womanhood meant that if men went out into the world and sinned, their actions could be traced to the failures of women, and, furthermore, that those failures were not simply about what women did (or failed to do) but about what women were (or failed to be) – they were not pious enough, not pure enough, not “true” women.

So when my student asked about why men looked at social problems as external while women turned inward, I understood what she was getting at.  Unfortunately, as so often happens when my students suddenly ask me big, broad, philosophical questions, I struggled to provide a halfway decent answer.  On the fly, I found myself speculating about the gendered constructions of guilt and shame, about the ways that people with power – white people, wealthy people, men – have managed to blame the suffering of the powerless on innate deficiencies or on personal failings. And I wish I had read the Adrienne Rich quote before that particular class; if I had, I would have included it. I would have told the student that one consequence of all of this was that “self-destructiveness” became “the sole form of violence permitted to women.” In general, women were not (and sometimes, still, are not) allowed to fully express their anger or frustration or outrage, not without incurring serious penalties. Consequently, they push those burning, painful, disruptive emotions inward. They punish themselves, hate themselves, cut and starve and kill themselves; they turn those noisy, disruptive feelings against themselves and commit “the quiet deed.” The problem, they affirm, is inside of them; it has to do with their existence, with who they are. And we look on their choice of suicide as somehow more acceptable than some of the alternatives. They do not blame other people; they do not curse society; they do not make too much noise. And when they eradicate their very selves, we see a kind of beauty in it – something poetic, something pure.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

Why do we find female suicide romantic or beautiful? It’s a phenomenon that goes beyond Plath and Sexton. We think about Virginia Woolf that way, and about other famous women who have killed themselves; we see these kinds of deaths romanticized in literature or in film. Why? Part of it, I think, is that women who choose to kill themselves are choosing not to do something else, something we might strangely find less acceptable. What if Sylvia Plath had abandoned her children, pursued some other dream, sailed back from England to America? Would people have called her a horrible person? A bad mother? A monster? Why does the fact that she abandoned her children by choosing to die make us view her more positively? Does suicide somehow prove that her suffering was pure enough, that her pain was real? Or does it reassure us, somehow, by suggesting that the problem was her all along — as opposed to society, patriarchy, the institution of marriage, the current modes of treatment for mental illness, or any number of incredibly complex external forces, forces that would prove so difficult to alter?

Just last month, Vice published a fashion spread (seriously) that featured models reenacting the suicides of famous authors, including Plath, Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Dorothy Parker, Elise Cowen, Iris Chang, and Sanmao. This decision represents a somewhat extreme version of the romanticization I’m talking about – a kind of fetishizing, really – but it should not be dismissed as “just” a bad or tasteless decision on the part of the editors. We can read it as an extension of the idea, sometimes silent but nevertheless present in much of the discussion of them as artists or as women, that these authors had romantic deaths, that their pain was somehow pure or beautiful.

The Vice depiction of Virginia Woolf

The Vice depiction of Virginia Woolf

Though Sexton felt attracted to the idea of suicide for most of her adult life, and though she documented that attraction in her poetry, she also pointed out that her suicidal feelings were agonizing and that the misery she felt, the mental illness she experienced, was not beautiful. In a poem addressed to one of her mentors, John Holmes, who warned her that her personal and unconventional choice of poetic subjects might alienate people and humiliate her family, she described her reasons for writing her poems: “Not that it was beautiful, / but that, in the end, there was / a certain sense of order there; / something worth learning / in that narrow diary of my mind, / in the commonplaces of the asylum / where the cracked mirror / or my own selfish death / outstared me.” *** This is worth noting, isn’t it, that even Sexton, she who openly envied Sylvia Plath’s death, found her own suicidal impulses “selfish” and not at all beautiful, not at all romantic? She was in pain. She was desperate. She was suffering. What on earth is supposed to be beautiful about that?

Like Adrienne Rich, I’ve had enough of this particular trope. Enough suicidal poets. Enough suicidal women. Enough of violence toward oneself being the only form of violence allowed to women. Enough of painting self-destructiveness as something beautiful and pure.

Death is final. These women don’t get to be resurrected.

 

For further reading:

Cott, Nancy. The Bonds of Womanhood: ‘Woman’s Sphere’ in New England, 1780-1835. Second edition.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

Middlebrook, Diane Wood. Anne Sexton: A Biography. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

Reis, Elizabeth. “Confess or Deny? What’s a ‘Witch’ to Do?” OAH Magazine of History (July 2003).

Reis, Elizabeth. Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. New York: Mariner Books, 1998.

* These lines come from Anne Sexton’s “Sylvia’s Death.”

** The first quote comes from Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.”  The Anne Sexton ones come from “The Double Image” and “The Addict.”

***These lines come from Anne Sexton’s “For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further.”

25 Comments Post a comment
  1. spaghettisquiggles #

    This is one of the best things I’ve read in a long time – I genuinely mean that!

    July 25, 2013
  2. KT #

    re: Your classroom discussion: I forget the specific study but there’s a psychology study that supports that argument. It showed women internalized negative outcomes while men externalized them. So when women did badly on a test they blamed themselves, men blamed external sources (the test was too hard, someone distracted them, etc.)

    I think this is a socialized perspective. Women are taught to look for their flaws (make sure you’re not too fat, your pores don’t show, etc.) So they internalize guilt and shame.

    July 25, 2013
    • Thanks, KT. I don’t know the study you mention, but it makes sense, doesn’t it?

      July 25, 2013
    • Yet men still commit sucide 4 times more often than women.

      July 26, 2013
      • Roberto, you are absolutely right! I’m not sure if you actually read the piece or not, but Carrie briefly addresses the gendered aspects of male suicide as well. I don’t think she was setting it up as a competition between the sexes – suicide, no matter if you are male or female, is a tragedy. Rather, Carrie was exploring the ways in which gender play into the act of female suicide, as well as its romanticization.

        July 26, 2013
      • Roberto, interestingly enough, women attempt suicide more often than men, men just complete is more. This tends to be because men use more violent (and successful) methods to kill themselves. They use guns most often, as well as hanging or jumping. Women tend to use less violent methods that are easier to fix, like pills, slashing wrists, drinking, etc. Some people suggest that it is because women still want to leave a “pretty corpse.”

        July 30, 2013
  3. Reblogged this on in gentle poetry savagry lay asleep and commented:
    Very interesting discussion on feminism, poetry and suicide.

    July 25, 2013
  4. Reblogged this on The RadiantMedina and the Author of Sheep and commented:
    “We have had enough suicidal women poets, enough suicidal women, enough of self-destructiveness as the sole form of violence permitted to women.”

    “Why does it seem like men have looked at the problems around them and blamed other people and other forces, while women have seemed to think the root of those problems comes from inside themselves?”

    July 25, 2013
  5. Probably goes all the way back to Ophelia from Hamlet.

    I general society has romanticized women suffering as “for a reason” probably to excuse to sexism they knew subconsciously was there.

    July 25, 2013
  6. alex h #

    Great article – just one thing: Dorothy Parker didn’t kill herself.
    She died at 73 of a heart attack

    July 25, 2013
    • Thanks for pointing that out, Alex! Vice did feature her in the suicide spread, but you’re right; it appears that she attempted suicide but ultimately died of natural causes.

      July 25, 2013
    • babaganusz #

      “…you might as well live.”

      July 30, 2013
  7. Wonderful essay. I had suicidal thoughts for a short, difficult time as a teenager but now as a mother I can’t help but think that suicide is the most selfish act a person can commit.

    July 25, 2013
  8. Hi Carrie, I posted a blog post in response to this one here http://dreamsandzines.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/suicide-is-an-act-of-bodily-autonomy-not-beauty-response-to-suicde-is-not-beautiful/ I will also copy and paste my response here in your comments.

    I am a radical mental health activist and zinester, a feminist, a trauma survivor, someone who has lost a friend to suicide, and someone who has survived my own suicide attempts. While I think you are making some interesting points, I find the way you framed this article to be hugely offensive. To me it feels like you are perpetuating the horrendous stereotype of suicidal people being selfish attention seekers. Have you considered that those poets did not kill themselves to make a pretty show for the world but because they were deeply suffering and seeking to end their own suffering? In my experience, beauty has absolutely nothing to do with the vast majority of suicide attempts- it’s not about making art- it’s about making the horrendously painful nightmare life can become stop. Do I agree that people who encourage suicide are ugly? Yes. Do I agree the abusers and oppressors who drive so many to suicide are ugly? Yes. Do I agree the lack of resources needed for healing for many people with mental health issues is ugly? Yes. But are people who choose to end their own lives ugly, stupid, or bad? No.

    Although I know many feminists will hotly protest this, I have to say; I feel very strongly that demonizing self-harm is a very anti-feminist stance to take. What is so much of the feminist movement about? The right to autonomy. The right to decide how to live our lives: to pursue careers of our choice, to own property, to choose whom we marry. And the right to be the sole person who makes choices about our bodies: to choose who we are having sex with and have the right to refuse sex to anyone, to choose to have a baby, take birth control, or terminate a pregnancy, the right to not be groped on a bus or beat by a partner, the right to not be devalued based on our physical attributes, and (more controversially) the right to use their own bodies to produce porn, to practice sex work. I am a big fan of the comic series A Softer World by E Horne and J Comeau. Comic #940 reads “Our bodies are ours to break, ours to throw into rivers, ours to light on fire, ours to launch into the depths of space.” http://asofterworld.com/index.php?id=940 In our society only certain types of self-endangerment or self harm or bodily altercation is acceptable. Extreme sports, and smoking cigarettes- both of which have the potential to cause death- are seen as acceptable, but suicide is not. Extensive body piercings and tattoos (which can cause physical pain to get) are acceptable- but cutting and burning is not. Political prisoners engaging in hunger strikes are not shamed, articles like this never talk about and shame the religious purposes “self harm” have served at various points (including fasting, and Buddhist monks self immolating)- but when a when a depressed woman kills herself it is unacceptable and she is crazy.

    Many have criticized western feminism of not being inclusive. Our movement can only gain strength by acknowledging that if we want certain types of bodily autonomy, we should align ourselves with all other movements which fight to demand bodily autonomy of their oppressed members- including the disability movement and the radical mental health/psychiatric survivor movement. If women should be able to make the choice about their body to not always having sex with her partner, a physically disabled person should be able to make the choice to not be sterilized, institutionalized, or forced to receive medical treatment without informed consent. If a woman should be able to choose to have the bodily autonomy of having an abortion, then a person with mental health issues should be able to choose to not have to ingest psychiatric medications, receive electro convulsive therapy, or be hospitalized against their will. And all people should be able to be able to make informed choices about their own body- including societally unacceptable self injury and even ending their own lives. Do I encourage suicide? No. Non-coercive and non-abusive mental health care should be offered to all who wish to receive it. But how does the united states deal with suicidal people? Hospitalize them, restrain or seclude them, or medicate them against their will. All of these things have been considered torture by the United Nations (see page 15 under number 3) “Forced interventions, often wrongfully justified by theories of incapacity and therapeutic necessity inconsistent with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, are legitimized under national laws, and may enjoy wide public support as being in the alleged “best interest” of the person concerned. Nevertheless, to the extent that they inflict severe pain and suffering, they violate the absolute prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment “ http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session22/A.HRC.22.53_English.pd
    Especially considering the wide spread torture of people with mental health issues in our country, it is not surprising suicide rates are so high. Do I desperately wish that people who are suffering after oppression and abuse were able to use their sorrow and trauma to motivate organizing activist movement to overthrow the patriarchy, racism, the abusive practices of western mental health? I wish for nothing more in the world. But trauma survivors and suffering people do the absolute best they can with their pain. And since all those huge oppressive forces don’t seem to be going away in the immediate future yet a trauma survivor or person facing oppression’s crushing depression, debilitating panic attacks and nightmares, unbearable flashbacks, and other experiences may persist- it is extremely unfair to blame survivors of violence for not being able to stop all of our cultures oppression and to have to tolerate continuing to be abused or oppressed, living with the aftermath of being abused or oppressed, or living with extreme pain and suffering for any other reason.

    On a final note, saying there should be no more suicidal poets is saying there should be more suicides. Why do you think so many great artists have also happened to have mental health issues? Because creating art, music, writing, etc. is healing and is a way many suffering people are able to stay alive. So when you see a person writing about their suicidal thoughts realize- writing those words is keeping them alive that much longer- and daring to stay alive despite the unbearable violence and oppression women and people with mental health issues in particular face in this world, is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

    July 25, 2013
    • Thank you for the comments. I don’t have time to deconstruct all of what you wrote here, but I will say that I think you are misinterpreting some of what I’ve said. I’m not saying either that these women are horrible, selfish attention-seekers OR that they were trying to create a “pretty show for the world.” In fact, I’m suggesting basically the opposite, and I’m identifying a problematic way that we as a society VIEW their deaths, which may have very little to do with their actual thoughts or intentions.

      I am certainly not demonizing self harm. I actually wasn’t making a claim about whether or not suicide should be a legitimate, potentially rational choice. But I do think that when we’re talking about people like Plath and Sexton, that particular argument doesn’t really apply, not exactly. In a perfect world where we had plenty of mental health services, non-binding gender expectations, and freedom to make real choices, then maybe someone could rationally choose suicide. But we can’t presume that Plath, Sexton, etc, rationally chose suicide.

      July 25, 2013
  9. Be nice nursing Clio in the garden by in the world in my country be conver table in control

    July 27, 2013
  10. Joseph #

    If life itself is a gift, and I believe that it is, then that must be the starting point of the discussion. As an Orthodox Christian priest, that gift is from God who is the Giver of Life. Suicide then is an act of rejecting that gift of saying in the suicidal act that God somehow made a mistake in giving me life. That is an awesome conclusion to arrive at. If the spiritual relationship with God is taken out of a person’s equation and we are left to our own determinations of what life is or more importantly what it is called to be in me as a unique human being, then the feelings of anxiety, desperation, depression and isolation one feels is the “un” natural by product and it is ugly in the existential and practical.

    Life is a gift. None of us choose to be born, we are given life and the logical conclusion to the end of one’s life is to end it not on our terms by or own hand but to exit this world when natural life runs it course. The alternative is to leave this world on our own terms and let others deal with the painful paradox of our selfish decision. Like a stone thrown into the calm waters of a pond, the ripple effect of our action will play out in the lives of others and no one should have to deal with such pain and confusion. There is enough of that already, we don’t need to add to it.

    Thanks for posting a very thought provoking article.

    July 29, 2013
  11. Julia #

    This is a truly affecting and well-considered article, and I’m so glad I had the chance to read it. It made me think a bit about Evelyn McHale, who killed herself by falling from the Empire State Building in 1947 and whose post-mortem photo was reproduced by Andy Warhol – the first few hits you get on Google are all about how “beautiful” she/her suicide was. Thank you again for writing something so profound and elegant.

    July 31, 2013
  12. Hallie K #

    What a great read!

    I wonder, what does it mean that I originally read the line, “violence permitted to women,” as meaning violence permittee *toward* women (rather than permittee for them to perpetrate)? Speaks to your point quite powerfully, I think… Even in my own, progressive, 21st-century, feminist psyche, it’s far easier to conceptualize woman-as-victim, than woman-as-violent. ::sigh::

    August 3, 2013
  13. James #

    I’ll start by saying I thought you said some very interesting things. Please do not disregard my comment because it is critical of your premise or because I am a man. Please.

    But what bothers me about this article is that at no point do you really stop and consider this basic statistical truth; that across cultures for as long as there have been measures of such statistics, men have killed themselves at rates roughly 3-4 times those of women. The idea that suicide even begins to be a women’s issue is preposterous at best and obliviously self-centered at worst.

    August 8, 2013
    • James, I don’t disagree that men kill themselves more than women do (although as a previous commenter noted, women do attempt it more frequently), and I’m not saying that suicide itself is “a women’s issue.”

      This post was about how we, as a society, have tended to VIEW female suicide, that’s all. It’s not making some kind of statement about suicide being more a woman’s problem than a man’s, and it’s not meant to be comparative at all — as I said in the post, one could easily write a whole piece on how we as a society view male suicide.

      I don’t agree that it’s “preposterous” or “obliviously self-centered” to study or write about a particular aspect of a larger phenomenon, and I stand by the post.

      August 8, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Suicide is an Act of Bodily Autonomy- Not Beauty. Response to “Suicde is Not Beautiful” | Dreams and Zines
  2. She flirted with death | Life inside my nutshell
  3. Suicide Girls | Maja Schwarz

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