A Review of Terry Williams’ Teenage Suicide Notes - Pacific Standard

A Review of Terry Williams’ Teenage Suicide Notes

What, exactly, does teen suicide tell us about America today?
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Teenage Suicide Notes: An Ethnography of Self-Harm. (Photo: Columbia University Press)

Teenage Suicide Notes: An Ethnography of Self-Harm
Terry Williams
Columbia University Press

Since 1950, the suicide rate among Americans aged 15 to 19 has more than tripled, from 2.7 to 8.7 suicides per 100,000 people. Seeking insight into this phenomenon, veteran academic ethnographer Terry Williams presents 10 studies of teenagers who either killed themselves, tried killing themselves, or thought seriously about it. Their stories — mosaics of intense pain, marginalization, and gothic suffering — are built from interviews, diary entries, and suicide notes (including notes written but never used). Along the way, Williams theorizes about what, exactly, teen suicide tells us about America today. Most of his arguments are vague, tendentious, and underdeveloped in a way that feels inappropriate for a book from a major university press. But when Williams gets out of the way and lets his subjects talk, his central point is vindicated: To care about teens (or anyone), start by listening to what they tell you.