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Looking to Fiction for Insights on Suicide

We need to help everyday Americans understand suicide better. Literature is well positioned to serve that function.
Books and Reading

The recent well-deserved uproar over YouTube star Logan Paul's "Suicide Forest" video is an indictment of our ongoing cultural and historic fascination with suicide.

While the video received more than 6.3 million views in its first 24 hours, a recent search for "suicide" across news outlets yields 14.6 million results. It's clear that a global audience has an enduring appetite for reading about this topic in the news; there's also no question that suicide is a major public-health concern, particularly in the United States.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death for Americans, and suicide rates have been rising steadily over the years. The National Institute of Mental Health reports similar figures (while offering more detail about the extent of the problem). Multiple resources for prevention are also available, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, and Suicide Prevention Services for America.

But the question remains whether the public's fascination with suicide is best served by increasing numbers of media reports describing how people take their own lives. For those who want to better understand what might drive someone to engage in self-harm, literature can serve as a non-exploitative, empathy-increasing resource.

Suicide has been a literary obsession going all the way back to the ancient Greeks; in more recent centuries, classic works by William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, Gustave Flaubert, and many others have explored the topic in great detail. For a better understanding of suicide in contemporary America, though, several novels stand out.

Celeste Ng's remarkable novel Everything I Never Told You centers on an Asian-American family living in Ohio in the 1970s grappling with the apparent suicide of their eldest daughter. The book raises questions about what might lead a girl in the daughter's position to make such a tragic choice, while also dealing with the complexities of how the family is supposed to move on afterward. Though the book is set in the past, the struggles of Ng's characters are deeply resonant, particularly given our present-day efforts to understand racism.

David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest involves a particularly bizarre suicide by a movie director after he creates a video so compelling that anyone who watches it loses all interest in anything else and continues watching it over and over until they die, essentially replicating the director's own death, if not his methodology. Wallace often wrote about depression and suicide in his fiction but eschewed it in his non-fiction, despite battling those impulses himself before he ultimately took his own life in 2008. A review of his collected work describes how effectively Wallace was able to use humor to write about "material that must have been no small source of anguish," and for that alone, Infinite Jest is worth reading, despite (or perhaps because of) its length.

In young adult literature, suicidal tropes have only multiplied since the success of Jay Asher's 13 Reasons Why, though critics are mixed about whether the novel (2007), and the Netflix series based on it (2017), treat the topic responsibly. Still, there are other recent novels that have been recognized for their sensitive handling of difficult subject matter.

Cynthia Hand's The Last Time We Say Goodbye examines the effects of losing a family member; in it, the narrator is haunted by her brother's suicide and the fact that she ignored a text message from him right before he died. The book does a beautiful job describing how grief can cause the line between fantasy and reality to become blurry.

The narrator in Jasmine Warga's My Heart and Other Black Holes is considering taking her own life, and she's serious enough about her decision to go to a website that matches teenagers who are contemplating suicide with partners so that they can die together. It's gut-wrenching to read about characters who feel that depth of despair, but it's also illuminating for readers who wish to understand what would make someone so young feel as though there might be no other options.

Of course, for anyone struggling with suicidal ideation, novels are not a replacement for real-world resources—but they can provide insight into the minds of those who are dealing with these issues. It's useful to seek ways to increase public sensitivity and help people empathize with people who face these challenges. Literature is well positioned to serve that function.