The Forgiveness Machine
June 24, 2011 7:19 PM   Subscribe

"When the person you love kills himself time stops," she says at one point. "It just stops at that moment. Life becomes another code, a language that you don't understand." An interview with Karen Green, visual artist, and widow of David Foster Wallace.

The splash image for "artwork" on her site shows the Forgiveness Machine, although not in action.
posted by Cold Lurkey (56 comments total) 68 users marked this as a favorite

Cold, but truthful.
posted by Mblue at 7:37 PM on June 24, 2011

I've never read a thing by Wallace, but that was beautiful, and heartbreaking.
posted by Zozo at 7:39 PM on June 24, 2011

"While Green was in the ocean, Wallace would routinely stand on the shore, yelling anecdotal statistics about shark attacks at her."

Somehow strangely moving.
posted by subbes at 7:49 PM on June 24, 2011 [10 favorites]

"He couldn't bear the idea of the dogs dying. And he used to say to me all the time, at night: 'Don't die.'" She pauses for a long time. "That's a hard thing to think about," she says. "It is hard to remember tender things tenderly."

This is very true and so sad. :(

Thanks for linking this, Cold Lurkey. I hadn't read anything about Karen Green's art before and am totally unnerved by the idea of the forgiveness machine.
posted by bewilderbeast at 8:02 PM on June 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

I struggled with the choice of pull quotes, as there were so many that pulled at me. But my runners-up were:
She resists the idea that suicide is in any sense a meaningful act, still less one understandable in terms of art – the myth of the romantic depressive –as many of the multitude of commentators on Wallace's death, grouping him with Kurt Cobain, have sometimes wanted to see it.
Green was struck by a powerful need to redeem the fiction in some way, to allow the depressed person to breathe. She faxed Wallace to see if he would mind. He faxed back saying he didn't, at the same time correcting her grammar.
"I think I'm supposed to buck up and be the professional widow," she says, with another quick laugh, "and I have found that very hard. Very hard. I mean one day you are a couple living in a little house and watching The Wire box-set for the third time, and letting the dogs do their antic stuff, and then suddenly you are supposed to be functioning as the great writer's widow.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 8:14 PM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

An excellent, excellent piece, and I'm glad to learn a little about her work and her ongoing life.
posted by Miko at 8:16 PM on June 24, 2011

I'm a pretty smart guy. I've worked in science, where there are a lot of very smart people, and not really encountered anyone that much more intelligent than me (I say this with all humility, as I have done very stupid and unwise things in my life. But still, the horsepower is there).

But reading Infinite Jest brought me to my figurative knees. This was a whole other level.

I've also been depressed, which for me compounds the tragedy that this individual is lost to us. I'm pulling for his wife, who seems to be dealing with this terrible occurrence, his suicide, with pluck, grace, and dignity.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 8:23 PM on June 24, 2011 [11 favorites]

I have these visual cues where it all comes back to me, and if there is any way you can make that stop then you will do. If it means bashing your head against the wall, or whatever. The fear that you won't get out of it is worse than the thing itself.

This seems like a very Wallacean concept, something I feel like I've read in a lot of his characters' predicaments. Most recently, the sweating guy in The Pale King.
posted by valrus at 8:37 PM on June 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Just the idea of the forgiveness machine is a beautiful and powerful thing.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:41 PM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

He was so painfully self-aware. I feel like he would've been made deeply uncomfortable by the continued journalistic focus on his death and legacy. Hell, it makes me uncomfortable on his behalf. Suicide is about as private and as personal an act as one can carry out. By all means, celebrate his writing, but have the respect to leave the man his suffering.
posted by dephlogisticated at 8:47 PM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I love his writing deeply and I cried when I heard what he did at the end, so please don't think I don't care when I say: David Wallace is dead. He no longer has any stake in his legacy. Whatever we do or say about him, we do for ourselves, or for each other, but not for him. He doesn't care. He is dead.

Meanwhile, some of us, the living, still need to think about it just a little bit more.
posted by pts at 8:58 PM on June 24, 2011 [20 favorites]

I love Infinite Jest but holy shit is A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (the essay as opposed to the collection) an incredible piece of writing. Not better than IJ, but there are sentences with like four amazing word choices that just nearly leave me in tears they're so funny.

Ok, I found the example I had in mind, which I feel I should provide, though I think it's going to seem unimpressive without context:

There was a "Singles Get Together" (sic) on the Nadir that first Saturday night, held in Deck 8's Scorpio Disco, which after an hour of self-hypnosis and controlled breathing I steeled myself to go to, but even the Get Together was 75% established couples, and the few of us Singles under like 70 all looked grim and self-hypnotized, and the whole affair seemed like a true wrist-slitter, and I beat a retreat after half an hour because Jurassic Park was scheduled to run on the TV that night, and I hadn't yet looked at the whole schedule and seen that Jurassic Park would play several dozen times over the coming week.

Anyway. The Pale King contained extraordinary passages but was frustrating for what might have been. I thought the chapter in which the religious guy considers an abortion was particularly beautiful.
posted by neuromodulator at 9:19 PM on June 24, 2011

David Wallace is dead. He no longer has any stake in his legacy. Whatever we do or say about him, we do for ourselves, or for each other, but not for him. He doesn't care. He is dead.

In regards to most people and most deaths, I would be inclined to agree with you. I'm no spiritualist, and am not usually sentimental about death. If he'd died in a grisly car accident, and people wanted to leer over the details of his last moments, I might find it unseemly but would not be greatly bothered by it. Suicide is different. Private existential suffering is different.

You'll have to forgive what is probably personal bias, but I believe such things deserve a greater measure of respect, whether or not the person is alive to appreciate it. And in this case, I would equate respect with the good grace not to stare.
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:24 PM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

He was so painfully self-aware. I feel like he would've been made deeply uncomfortable by the continued journalistic focus on his death and legacy.

I kind of feel the same way, and yet a selfish part of me feels an intense desire to learn more about him personally. It's difficult for me to parse what parts of his writing are actually him and what comes out of his incredibly vivid imagination, and so these types of articles give me a frame of reference. They make me appreciate him as a person, rather than just as an author.
posted by spiderskull at 9:54 PM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I went to this thing called The Pale King Event and saw Karen Green accompanied by Wallace's editor and friend, Michael Pietsch. She was smiling the whole time and seemed to have a lot of energy and vitality. I was happy to see her this way - I hope she gets through whatever grieving she must still do all right. I love the concept of The Forgiveness Machine. I've thought about what it could be like if it was an interactive website (a la Post Secret). I fought the urge to ask her about it when I saw her because I thought it'd be rude and I'm such a huge Wallace fan that I'd probably been to nervous to say something to the man's widow at an event honoring his last unfinished work.
posted by fantodstic at 10:19 PM on June 24, 2011

That's a very nice article, thanks for posting it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:31 PM on June 24, 2011

I haven't yet read the article. I'm not ready to. I've gone through bouts of depression my whole life, and while I'm not depressed all of the time these days, I regularly encounter situations I have no idea how to deal with. And what people who have never suffered from depression will likely not realize, the thought of suicide there is not (at least at that point) "oh god I can't go on" so much as, "well, at least I have that option." It is soothing. It is a contingency plan.

I can't speak for those who actually get close enough to that decision to make it. I will never be that close, myself.

And I know this for sure because a few weeks ago my friend's fiancee went missing. After a few days, he was found, dead, almost certainly from suicide.

Now, when my older brother was in high school, he drove a hand-me-down Lincoln Town Car my mom had named "Rosie." My family used this car for 3-day-treks from Houston to Colorado twice or more per year, and for most of that time it smelled strongly of something I didn't know at the time but would later understand to be scotch and bile.

Because one night, my brother was out at a party, and took home a girl, whose name I don't know, but who was extremely drunk on the ride back. Mike tried to listen to her rambling about her issues, but was most focused on just getting her home until she threw up in the car. She kept talking, but he was just concerned with cleaning up the mess. When she was found dead her note just said that anyone curious about why should as Mike, who honestly had no idea.

My other brother, Jeff, drove him to the funeral, and says that he's never seen Mike so uncomfortable in his life.

And yet, as obvious as it is, it never hit home to me just how destructive that act is until a few weeks ago. I never knew my friend's fiancee. I don't believe I ever actually met him. That doesn't matter. For now, she is not the brilliant, funny person I knew in law school. She is not the amazing attorney working to save the lives of condemned prisoners. She is not anything but a "widow," and legally not even that. After taking her extraordinary talent and moving to Kentucky she has had her own life ripped out from under her. I don't know her relationship with her fiancee's family, who are the ones who live down there, but I can't imagine that's a good situation, with her not even a daughter-in-law as much as a reminder of their son's life, now always in the past tense.

Suicide is not a "personal" act. Urinating is a personal act. Masturbating is a personal act. Suicide is a hopelessly selfish act. Excepting the obvious cases of terminal illness and dignity of life and death. Obviously. Otherwise it is cowardly. Cowardly and selfish and horrifically myopic. And I sympathize, I really do. I understand how it feels.

I don;t believe anyone makes that decision lightly. And yet, anyone who makes that decision has still made it too, too lightly.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:50 PM on June 24, 2011 [29 favorites]

Mike's story, Navelgazer, is really extraordinary. What an unbelievable mess.
posted by neuromodulator at 10:59 PM on June 24, 2011

The thing is, what would you have a severely depressed person do, if nothing else is working? Wallace once compared suicide to jumping out of a burning building. How can you insist that a person stay in that burning building for another 40 years?
posted by Adventurer at 11:16 PM on June 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

The thing is, what would you have a severely depressed person do, if nothing else is working?

Exactly. Some people live lives not worth living. You can look at someone like DFW and say "but he was so brilliant and his writing was so brilliant and he was so young" but someone shouldn't have to live a life that is a prison of suffering for them so that other people have more good books to read.

I believe deeply that good, compassionate and easily available mental health care can help virtually all of the people who die by unassisted suicides each year. But DFW was getting that care and it wasn't helping. Suicide is an inherently selfish act but "you have to keep living to spare me that pain" is also selfish.

I'm so sorry for Karen Green and the grief she's suffering. Nothing mitigates it. Nothing can make it go away except a time machine. If we had one, would Wallace be better today? Most people say yes, it gets better, but for some people, it doesn't. People can pull out statistics, but nobody can know the outcome in this specific case, and the only person who was qualified to decide if it was worth it to keep on trying decided that it wasn't.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:42 PM on June 24, 2011 [12 favorites]

What she said about "when the person you love kills himself time stops", well that is just so true it hurts like a thousand hells. My best friend killed himself. Incidentally his first name was David and he was a huge DFW fan and was always trying to get me to read IJ. He was also very depressed, maybe as depressed as DFW, depressed in a way that he couldn't seem to break free from, even though he also had access to good mental health care. Those of us he left behind try to comfort ourselves with the thought that his suffering is over, but it is a cold comfort because he burned so bright and we loved him fiercely. He killed himself in 2005, and that moment is utterly crystallized for me.

Sometimes I wake up and realize it's 2011 and I'm physically shocked.

Sometimes I think it will always be 2005. I punched the steering wheel so hard the horn stopped working. Sometimes (too often) I wish it was 2005 for real so I could hug my David again and again and never let him go.

He wasn't my husband, but he was my best friend. I can only imagine how much more painful it must be for Karen. The fact that she's willing to talk about it, to try and work through it really is encouraging and brave.
posted by jnrussell at 12:42 AM on June 25, 2011 [9 favorites]

No matter how great the pain a young suicide seeks to escape, it is nothing to the pain he inflicts on those he leaves behind. He not only ends his own life, he takes a part from every life he's ever touched. Courage comes not from killing yourself, but loving others and living, if not for your sake, than theirs.
posted by joannemullen at 1:06 AM on June 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

No matter how great the pain a young suicide seeks to escape, it is nothing to the pain he inflicts on those he leaves behind.
You don't know that. Personally, I would refrain from the kind of crass moralizing that makes me look like a guy who is real good at knowing what people 'should do' and how they've failed in that, but that's just me.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 4:53 AM on June 25, 2011 [24 favorites]

I don't think suicide is a selfish act. I think it's probably more selfish to ask someone suffering in a way that I can't really understand to keep up that suffering because if they kill themselves it will make other people sad too. I would love it if DFW was able to go on living and working. I would love it even more if he was able to find a way to be happy or what passes for it. But yeah a depression that will not lift, that's probably a bigger thing than the grief and loss other people feel on losing their loved one. I don't know this but I'm guessing based on the evidence that they're still here.
posted by I Foody at 5:32 AM on June 25, 2011 [6 favorites]

Anyone who feels like they can tell the suicidal how selfish their desires are should probably sit down.
posted by QuarterlyProphet at 5:42 AM on June 25, 2011 [18 favorites]

I would speculate that part of the motive of the forgiveness machine is for the people left behind to help reconcile their own personal psychic pain, inflicted by the suicide, with the pain and suffering that drove the loved one to do it. It's seems like an extremely difficult balance to achieve, and can't be reconciled in a binary selfish/unselfish mode of thinking, as it requires integrating two separate, incompatible, emotional states and realities. Thus her observation "Forgiving is never as easy as we would like," she says.
To truly come to forgiveness seems like a years long effort and none of us are there yet.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 7:01 AM on June 25, 2011

I mean one day you are a couple living in a little house and watching The Wire box-set for the third time, [...]

I get this picture of a sofa with a telly playing The Wire reruns, placed just at the edge of this enormous, deep, gaping abyss. He probably wasn't pretending it wasn't there. Why did he choose to spend his time at the edge like that? Is it because it is a triumph to have a bit of normal time to oneself under these conditions? (I am probably reading something into it that isn't there, and this isn't meant to be disrespectful, I just don't understand it...)
posted by yoHighness at 7:52 AM on June 25, 2011

jnrussell's comment is so exactly how I feel I could have written it, change a few details and replace "David" with "Alun", and "2005" with "2008". The "selfish" nonsense needs to stop - I hate that my best friend killed himself, but I respect it, and I understand that not all terminal illnesses are called cancer. People who think suicide is worthy of contempt are people who do not really understand mental illness.

This quote: "The fear that you won't get out of it is worse than the thing itself. I think that is where he was that afternoon. He couldn't see a way to be." is pretty much how I think my best friend felt that February. I still think of him every day, I will miss him for the rest of my life, but I can't moralize about his death, and I don't think anyone else should either.

Thank you for this post, the article is lovely.
posted by biscotti at 8:37 AM on June 25, 2011 [5 favorites]

Whenever DFW comes up I link to this article, which is a very illuminating picture of his struggle with depression. It complexifies the whole story, including the simple response that it was his only way out of crushing depression.

There's no getting around the idea that suicide is one of the most phenomenally destructive acts you can do to other people, including not only those who loved or liked the person who has died, but also others whose suicidal ideations are encouraged or revived by another example.

If we truly should accept suicide as a society, as a reasonable response, why do we not have assisted suicide clinics where people can make an appointment ahead of time and work through their passing in a hospice-type arrangement....
posted by Miko at 9:19 AM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

But DFW was getting that care and it wasn't helping.

To quibble: Yes, it was. He was taking a medication for years that helped, but didn't like the side effects, so under the advisement of his doctor(s) he stopped taking it to switch to a newer medication. It was during this transition that he died.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:49 AM on June 25, 2011

It was more like the cautious tolerance of his doctors - it was his idea.
posted by Miko at 9:50 AM on June 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

About a month ago, I read the first and only (so far) thing I've ever read by Wallace , the essay, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again". I was surprised how much I loved it because I was assuming it'd be insufferable (it was my husband's book and he's much more intellectually-inclined than me). It was so funny and the dude seemed like such a likeable guy - somebody you could see yourself being friends with - it made me really sad he was dead.

His wife also seems incredibly likeable - I was shocked by one thing though. I can't believe he corrected her grammar in their first exchange! And she actually went out with him after that!

Very good3ee article though. Depression and suicide are so horribly unfair and they always seem to plague the people least deserving of them.
posted by Jess the Mess at 10:37 AM on June 25, 2011

Everytime we have a DFW thread we talk about suicide in general, and some of the attitudes just trouble me. Suicide is neither a selfish act or a rational choice that some people need to take to stop their suffering ( in cases of suicidal behavior due to depression, not terminal illness).

People lost to suicide due to depression, bipolar, BPD, and other illnesses, are just that: lost. We lost them. People who are suffering try hard to help themselves and the rest of us try hard to help them and sometimes we lose people in this fight and it's tragic but it happens.
posted by sweetkid at 12:18 PM on June 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Suicidal people, like the rest of us, are all different. Some are angry, some are sad, some have lost meaning on their lives, some have severe illnesses. Some of us were born with brain wiring/chemistry that predisposes us to intense emotion, and intense emotional pain. Reading this article totally changed my thoughts about suicide. I have posted it in many threads, and before there was an intarweb, I sent a photocopy to someone, who says it made a difference.

For those who have experienced the suicide of a loved one, I am so sorry for your loss.
posted by theora55 at 12:47 PM on June 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

He was taking a medication for years that helped, but didn't like the side effects, so under the advisement of his doctor(s) he stopped taking it to switch to a newer medication. It was during this transition that he died.

There was more than that, though: he switched to several medications, one after the other, that didn't work, and then tried to go back to his original drug, a pre-Prozac MAOI, and found that that didn't work anymore either (not an uncommon phenomenon, but maybe the recent reformulation has something to do with it, who can say), and also had 12 courses of electroshock therapy that didn't work.
posted by Adventurer at 12:57 PM on June 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

found that that didn't work anymore either

Actually, it was too early to tell whether it would have worked - it didn't have enough time to build up in his system.
posted by Miko at 12:59 PM on June 25, 2011

Medication isn't as powerful as some people think it is. If you still haven't resolved your problem, it will find a way through the most powerful of drugs. Anti-depressants seem to work best with people who think they should be getting better, but still don't have much control over their moods.
posted by Soupisgoodfood at 2:21 PM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

So let's say that some fine woman married a guy who'd been struggling with cancer off and on throughout his whole life. (Even though he's very smart, even though well all love him and all.) So they're going along, having some fun, watching TV, sitting on the couch, he's telling her about sharks in the waters of life, and punctuation, too, she's helping him see some bright in life, and to put it into his work, I don't know but I'd bet that they stroked one anothers thighs and stuff, they really love one another, they're these really rockin' artists, a great couple, it's pretty, they're ambling down the road.

And then this fine man decided to try a different regimen of medications, in hopes of less and/or lessor side effects from the treatment which is helping to keep him in remission from this pesky little cancer thing he's got going. (I know what you're thinking, you're thinking that he shouldn't have let these side effects bother him, I know that you know more than he does about what he wants in his life, but still, let's say in this little story that's what's happened. 'k?)

And then that new regimen didn't work. And then his prior medications didn't work anymore either -- which was a risk he absolutely must have known of, he was not unschooled in any topic related to his illness and/or it's treatment and this man is not stupid. But he had courage, for sure, this cat really had jam, he had courage enough to make a choice, to take a chance, to toss the dice, hoping for a better life.

It didn't work out well.

And then he got sick again, bad sick again. He was sick even if he could sit on the couch and watch TV with his wife, he was sick even if he still had an office in his garage, he was sick even though we all loved him, he was sick even if he didn't want to be sick, he was sick even though he was getting the best care available. He was sick, he was bad sick.

And then he died.

Now. Would any of you fine people -- who've never had cancer, who obviously can't or won't even try to imagine life as a person suffering cancer, you who've not had to try to explain to fools that you can't wish your way out of cancer, no matter how much they tell you that you can, and that you ought -- would any of you fine people find his death selfish?

Why do you continue with stubborn obstinacy to cling to your outmoded ideas and ideals related to this issue?

Here's the news: You don't care about them, you don't care about the person suffering the illness. Not really. You might think you do. You will damn sure tell yourself, and anyone else within range, that you care oh. so. much. But you don't.

But you're clearly very moved by this whole thing, you clearly care about someone very, very much. Who can it be?

You care about you. All you want is for people to not die -- of a debilitating, progressive, chronic, often fatal goddamn illness, which they are suffering, which it is not their fault that they have -- so *you* won't have to hurt.

And then you call *them* selfish.
posted by dancestoblue at 2:29 PM on June 25, 2011 [22 favorites]

dancestoblue: I'm embarassed about many things about my post last night, but introducing the word "selfish" into the conversation isn't close to being one of them. Because I do know what it's like, and have for my whole life.

Your analogy is horribly flawed. With cancer and other potentially terminal diseases, the patient goes down fighting or else chooses, in discussion with their loved ones to die with dignity. It is awful, and it is damaging, but it is not selfish.

Wit the type of suicide we are discussing here, however, it is done entirely on ones own, without consultation. It leaves people shattered, particularly those who should have been most in one's consideration when making that choice.

I understand that the illness might make such considerations near-impossible. I understand how great the pain must be for one to make that decision, particularly as an adult. I understand that logic doesn't come into play in that circumstance.

That doesn't stop it from being selfish. I used to think so, but not anymore. It just is.Whether that selfishness is damning is another discussion, but suicide is the ultimate non-action. The most craven refusal to find a solution, no matter what is at stake not just for yourself but beyond yourself. It is the supreme act of cowardice and the utmost betrayal of those who care about you.

But I sympathize deeply with the cowards. How can I not? I am one of them. My cowardice debilitates me on a daily basis. But I refuse to - I absolutely refuse to - deny them agency. That is straight-up fucking irresponsible and I will not do it. I am not a doctor and thus cannot research or prescribe medications. What I am is a random person on the internet who can hopefully remind at least one person in that situation that suicide is selfish. Yes, it is. It certainly doesn't seem like it at the time, but it is.

A better word may be "myopic."

Apparently most people who attempt suicide and survive don't try again. Perhaps it's more useful to remind people of the collateral damage they are doing with such an act than to fucking write off their deaths and the damage they cause as inevitable aspects of depression, huh?
posted by Navelgazer at 9:11 PM on June 25, 2011

- would any of you fine people find his death selfish?

Possibly, sure.

I have a cousin dying of cancer right now, because she's refusing to pursue conventional medical treatment. She has a relatively rare form of cancer that has been over 90% terminal within five years even with chemo and radiation, and she has decided not to use those methods to try to get into the 10%. It's what she wants - she thinks that her alternative and homeopathic treatments will drive the cancer away, make the tumor disappear, etc., and we read in her cancer blogs where she interprets every physical change in a hopeful positive light, even though she is down to under 100 pounds and hemorrhaging regularly and living on donated blood transfusions.

It's her choice, but it's definitely against the wishes and advisement of her family and many (not all) of her friends. It's what you'd have to call a "selfish" decision; in saying that, I'm not saying she doesn't have the right to make it, but that in making it, she places the greatest weight on her own ideas and desires, and less weight on what her doctors, other survivors, some friends and family would wish and recommend as the course of treatment most likely leading to recovery.

You don't have to think you know anything better than anyone else, or even ascribe a lot of negative weight to "selfishness," in order to recognize that a particular decision serves the self above others. I think it's fair to call a decision like that "selfish," objectively. But the "selfish" word becomes immediately problematic in these discussions, because we generally and widely think that selfishness is a negative. But it's really not a shallow concern and we're not talking about any shallow form of selfishness such as taking the biggest piece of cake. We're talking instead about a mental state in which the reality of other people's lives and experiences becomes totally inconsequential, even lost, in comparison to one's own present life experience.

Yes, focus on the self above others is the byproduct of profound illness; we can understand that and it helps to understand how the mechanisms of depression narrow one's world and imprison one's perceptions. Yet the effects of this self-focus on others are among of the real, painful and inevitable results of suicide, results which those sufferers will not be able to escape (assuming they aren't and don't become suicidal themselves) but will have to carry with them throughout the remainder of their lives, never being able to forget. I'm not sure it's obvious that that suffering, extended over time and across many separate individuals, amounts to less than the suffering that precipitated the suicide. In this way, acts of suicide, taking the broad view, may relieve an individual of further suffering but are still a net negative for people and society. IN other words, it's quite possible that they may cause more suffering, in the abstract, than they relieve.

I've long felt that there are ethical dimensions to suicide, because the choice to do it is a moral decision, but it's very difficult to discuss for obvious reasons, not least of which is that the profoundly depressed don't have the strongest wherewithal for making moral decisions. I do believe they are fairly real, and that they are at the root of what makes survivorship so difficult. I don't think it's necessary to lob the accusation "you can't imagine how bad depression can be" because I think a lot of us can, and a lot of us even have had episodes of suicidal thought or suicide attempts, varying in seriousness of intent, in our own pasts. Some of us are alive only because of dumb luck or because something intervened. And many of us have also lived through the suicide attempts or suicides of others. IT's much more common, I think, than people suppose. And so is depression.

Anyway, there's not much reason to get mad at each other about it. It's not especially productive and I often feel that asserting the necessity or inevitability of suicide as a general solution to depression serves only to enhance the seductive/romantic aura that suicide often takes for people who have had much less of a lifelong, chronic struggle than DFW and are simply passing through one of life's nadirs, and that can have permanent and unecessary repercussions for those individuals and their loved ones. There's much more reason to figure out what kinds of things can help, and what kinds of things can prevent suicide from happening when and where there is more hope. It may be true that there are some people who simply cannot bear to live, under any treatment plan or in any kind of existence. But they are relatively small in number compared to the number of people whose depression is episodic, situational, treatable, or controllable. For that reason I think a more productive focus is not to generalize from the most serious cases in order to promote the choice of suicide as always reasonable, but to exhaust efforts toward identification, intervention and treatment, and to communicate that though many people experience major depression in life, that the great majority of those sufferers actually do recover, and that pursuing recovery, even in the face of feelings of hopelessness, is worthwhile.
posted by Miko at 9:40 PM on June 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

You call suicide selfishness. For some of us, being selfish is the only way we have been allowed to be ourselves, for once. We have always lived for others, at the behest of others, because we have been told that other people matter more than we do. In fact, we don't matter at all; only our ability to provide or withhold pain to others matters.

Well, fuck that. I claim my own agency, for life or death, at my own choosing. You give me nothing but pity or scorn. Why should I give a fuck about your feelings, if you provide nothing but how it might affect you? How are you more selfish than me?
posted by Errant at 11:59 PM on June 25, 2011 [6 favorites]

I have long suspected that in these discussions, there is a disconnect between people for whom suicide is an acceptable outcome and people for whom it is not, and that the two sides will never see this the same way. The difference is so fundamental that I refer to it using "the suicide gene" as shorthand. Eitehr you have it, or you do not.

I have it. I have been profoundly depressed at periods of my life, and have taken drugs and been in therapy and been in treatment. I am not depressed now and have not been for nearly a decade. I am well - in fact, I'm very well, at least relatively speaking. Despite this, I see suicide as a perfectly viable option and a reasonable outcome from any number of scenarios. It's on the table; it always has been and always will be.

My husband, on the other hand, doesn't appear to have this gene. He is hardly what you'd characterise as a cheeful person, but suicide is not something he would ever consider. It isn't part of his makeup and might as well not exist as an option in his personal universe, because functionally, it doesn't. At all. There are no circumstances under which he can imagine ending his own life.

I don't really know where to go with that, but I have always found it fascinating.

On the issue of selfishness, I have never understood this argument. It's like if people just understood that suicide was selfish, they wouldn't do it. I understand completely that suicide is inherently selfish and I'm still OK with that. It isn't an act that people commit lightly, for crying out loud. People do it because the suffering is literally unbearable. I have no desire to suffer that way, nor to have someone I care about suffer that way. For someone to tell me that their pain in the aftermath would be greater than mine in the instance seems to me to be equally selfish, and thus I think this is a disingenuous argument. It would be much more straightforward to say "I would prefer you continue to suffer a life of emotional agony so that I don't have to."

Both parties are selfish. Unfortunately, only one party gets to choose the outcome. This is one of the effects of people having individual agency; there are a lot of downsides to the choices other people make with their lives when you don't rule the world.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:24 AM on June 26, 2011 [8 favorites]

We're certainly all equally selfish, but minimizing the suffering of survivors is no more pleasant than minimizing the suffering of those with depression. Yes, "both" parties are selfish, but there is also usually more than one party enduring the aftermath, as well, so there is a multiplied effect to the loss.

My ultimate point is that yes, some people will commit suicide, and for some it may be the only solution they can identify for their suffering. But the majority of people who are depressed at any given time probably do not have to do so in order to avoid a lifetime of suffering. Most people recover or partially recover. I'm interested in what can be done and said to shore up that idea so that unnecessary suicides, and the attendant misery they unleash on others, are avoided as often as possible.
posted by Miko at 7:22 AM on June 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

1. Some suicides, especially one as articulate and depressed as DFW (for one example) was, do discuss the possibility of their own suicides with others. Sometimes those others include loved ones.

2. If arranging one’s own death was as convenient as making a salon appointment, people with questionable motives would convince other people to commit suicide.
posted by mistersquid at 8:55 AM on June 26, 2011

But using the hospice model, it could be much better managed. I think it's actually all too convenient now. Having some intentional structure created which people with no other imaginable outcome could use would allow the loved ones to prepare for death better. Professionals could certainly screen for external influences which might be coercing others to consider suicide. When you recognize that we have absolutely no such screening process in place right now, and it's still entirely possible to push others toward suicide through a variety of methods, managing it with a protocol could only be an improvement.

Also, as to the point that David Foster Wallace had discussed the possibility with others, yes he had. But he had not made a plan with others, or requested anyone's support. He actively concealed his plans and ensured that his sudden death would come as a shock and surprise. Read the New Yorker article again:

Green believes that she knows when Wallace decided to try again to kill himself. She says of September 6th, “That Saturday was a really good day. Monday and Tuesday were not so good. He started lying to me that Wednesday.”
posted by Miko at 9:43 AM on June 26, 2011

But the majority of people who are depressed at any given time probably do not have to do so in order to avoid a lifetime of suffering.

I said that, at the very beginning. Most people who kill themselves could be saved by access to good mental health care. Nobody is debating that. The point that is being debated is what options there are for people who do not get better.

Also from that article:

“Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac, Tofranil, Wellbutrin, Elavil, Metrazol in combination with unilateral ECT (during a two-week voluntary in-patient course of treatment at a regional Mood Disorders clinic), Parnate both with and without lithium salts, Nardil both with and without Xanax. None had delivered any significant relief from the pain and feelings of emotional isolation that rendered the depressed person’s every waking hour an indescribable hell on earth."

Again, if someone wants to end that, I'm okay with that. I understand, Miko, that you are not but I don't think anyone can look at a history like that (which is apparently not autobiographical, except that I'll bet you it is), and say that he just wasn't trying hard enough to get care or to feel better.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:13 AM on June 26, 2011

The point that is being debated is what options there are for people who do not get better.

I'm really not sure I'm debating that point. I think there should be other options for people who don't get better, but I'm not really debating anything as I'm not sure what the question being debated would be. Obviously all people have the option of suicide at any time and there's no way to remove that in a civil society. I just think there are potentially other ways we as a society could handle it, if we honestly do believe that in some cases it is the most merciful outcome, that other options should be exhausted before anyone elects for it, and if electing it, it would be considerate for those persons do so honestly and openly, and perhaps as an assisted suicide.
posted by Miko at 10:48 AM on June 26, 2011

Also, I don't think it's fair to say I'm "not OK with that;" please don't put words into my mouth about this specific case or any similar one. I was in no way really touched or hurt by DFW's death, nor could I have prevented it. It doesn't concern me personally. I'm speaking more generally and in the abstract about the fact that there are ethical dimensions to suicide and we currently handle it, and everything to do with depression, relatively poorly.

What I'm not OK with, in general, is the impact of survivorship, and I believe it should be lessened wherever possible, through suicide prevention and, when that isn't a productive course, perhaps through other systems yet to be devised. I understand that a focus on caregivers and survivors can be immaterial to people in depression, but it's important to me.
posted by Miko at 10:59 AM on June 26, 2011

I got done with reading The Pale King last week. It is just begging for some fan fiction. Probably unfillable shoes, but it's hard to resist the temptation. There are even notes at the end about how Wallace intended it might go, so you have a running start! Drinion just cries out for expansion. Also, the fanfic author could appear in the examination room as a ghost from the future.
posted by fivebells at 11:47 AM on June 26, 2011

DarlingBri: I have the "gene" you're speaking of, and used to be offended by the idea of suicide as "selfish." My mind has been changed. While in some sense it will always be "on the table," as you say, I will never pick it up. Others have it tougher than I do, without any doubt. I'm honestly not trying to judge in this thread. I'm really not. What I'm trying to do is to make one point very clear.

To a clinically depressed person (and I know this from personal experience) the greater the pain, the less they will understand or care about the emotional state of those around them. And the nature of the disease makes us so self-examining that we obsess about ourselves and become narcissistic. I said at the start that no one makes the choice lightly, but that everyone who makes it makes it too lightly and I stand by that.

If death is avoidable, it should not occur without at the very least counsel and planning, preparations. In fact, I wonder how many suicides would be prevented with the peace of mind that proper preparations involved in the act would provide.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:32 PM on June 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Suicide is a selfish act.

this is one of those things that gets repeated over and over because it bears the faux elegance of the counterintuitive. it invokes a concept that simply cannot exist in the presence of the overwhelming psychic pain of self-obliteration. more than anything, it seems to be spoken for the sake of people who might consider suicide in the future, as if piling on even more guilt and shame somehow turns it all around. yeah, it doesn't.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 12:50 AM on June 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Drinion is totally the Mario Incandenza of The Pale King.
posted by shakespeherian at 4:40 AM on June 27, 2011

it invokes a concept that simply cannot exist in the presence of the overwhelming psychic pain of self-obliteration

I see it more as Navelgazer does; that it kind of is the overwhelming psychic pain of self-obliteration. It's the imprisonment within the pained self.
posted by Miko at 10:13 AM on June 27, 2011

Miko, I just finished the excellent article you linked upthread, really helped give more context to the interview with Karen Green. Thanks!

I'm only left wondering now - as the article mentioned mindfulness vis a vis The Pale King a lot but never said whether DFW ever came into contact with mindfulness therapy* - whether he had a brush with it. Google has little.

*Or whether it was psychiatrists and pharma-mafia all the way, ("the neuropharmacologist saw us for all of 3 minutes", from his first wife's account of his first hospitalisation as a student).
posted by yoHighness at 4:00 PM on June 27, 2011

Re: imprisonment within the self: Piranesi's Prisons.
posted by yoHighness at 4:06 PM on June 27, 2011

(Small note: that was his sister talking about the three minutes, yoHighness. Wallace was only married the one time.)
posted by Adventurer at 7:17 PM on June 27, 2011

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