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Mar 2, 2004 4:31 pm

Suicide and Choice

I caught this article by Barron Lerner in the Washington Post called A Calculated Departure, It uses Carolyn Heilbrun’s suicide as a starting point for a consideration of rational suicide.

Helibrun (aka Amanda Cross for academic mystery fans) was not ill and not unhappy. She simply decided that this was her time and that taking longer would, in words of one of her books, be" dangerous, lest we live past both the right point and our chance to die." The note she left said, “The journey is over. Love to all."

Disturbing. And the first question I raise here is a simple one. Is there a decent history of suicide? Long ago I read a book by A. Alvarez called The Savage God, but I think the tour he offered was intended more as an exploration of his (and Sylvia Plath’s) demons than as a careful consideration.

But the article raised other troubling questions. One is, “What is moral?” Is rational suicide morally wrong, as some hold. Or is it the last free act of a free life?

The question that concerned me more is “What is sanity?” One psychologist suggested that someone like Heilbrun is, almost by definition, a victim of an underlying psychological disorder.

Maybe that is true. Maybe therapy would have given Heilbrun another decade of life well spent.

Or maybe the worst thing you could do to someone is to have them spend their last years proving that they are not mentally ill because they want to die.

Sibyls in a most helpful cage.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 3/4/2004

Thank you very much. I look forward to checking your book out.

Actually I like Plath's poetry. When I read the Alvarez book I was exorcising my own demons. Apparently I remember that more clearly than the history.

geo stone - 3/4/2004

Alvarez’ book is quite good as a history of suicide. (Just skip the Plath chapter if she’s not your cup of tea.) Professional historians quibble with some of his interpretations, but they always quibble with popularizers who write well.

If you want a shorter history, but more on the ethics issues, you can check out my book (literally---it’s out of print but still in a fair number of libraries), “Suicide and Attempted Suicide: Methods and Consequences”. You can also find about half of the book, plus additional material) on my website,

As for Lerner’s article in the Washington Post, the best I can say for it is that it’s balanced. He cites some well-chosen experts, but presents neither evidence nor analysis of their views. I’m sending a letter to the Post; we’ll see if they publish it.

--Geo Stone

"We're lost, but we're making good time."

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/3/2004

Perhaps. I prefer "bad thinking" or even "sin" to a psychological condemnation, because the latter can be an alternate route to the official denial of freedom.

Obviously I am sympathetic to Heibrun's reasoning. But a shift to social approval of such actions would carry with it some pretty bad consequences, particualrly in a society in which the care for the old depends so much on a family's resources.

Chas S. Clifton - 3/3/2004

In January 2003, my father and stepmother, both in their mid-eighties, made a similar decision to Carolyn Heilbrun's. She had been bedridden for a year with no sign of improvement; he did not want to go on alone. They said that they had done all that they wanted to do, that they had had good lives, and now it was time for the curtain to come down.

The memory is still painful--and things did not go quite as planned. (It's a good thing that they planned ahead and left me with the medical power of attorney; I needed it.) But my sisters and I accepted their decision. Better to act while you still have some degree of agency than to linger in the maw of the medical-death establishment, suffering. I have seen that too.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/2/2004

We have recently experienced the deaths of two quite elderly women in our family. They happened in directly contrasting ways. Faced with the further loss of her independence, one woman exposed herself to a human environment which had previously made her ill and refused all efforts to restore her to health. The other woman experienced a slow, lingering loss of capacity over a number of years. Every effort was made to sustain her life. Having been through both experiences, I have no recommendations for myself, much less anyone else. All of our life-extending accomplishments in health science do not change the fact that aging is an agonizing experience and death is the final conundrum.

Ophelia Benson - 3/2/2004

I wonder if it's a matter not so much of an underlying psychological disorder as of an underlying cognitive disorder. Of just bad thinking.

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