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Suicide & David Foster Wallace

On September 18th covering , ,

I am still troubled and sad about the passing of David Foster Wallace — and I’m in touch with many others who share this feeling. It seems apropos to say a word or two about suicide.

It’s hard to keep away from the question of what the suicide’s real state of mind was — a question we can’t answer. A suicide leaves such a toxic stew of pain, guilt and anger among the survivors that one interpretation is that this is an act of terrific hostility and selfishness – a gift that keeps on giving, a massive stink-bomb of an exit. This is a hard thing to think about a person we love and esteem, and it’s not the only possibility. I do not think this of Mr. Wallace. Everyone says he was a thoroughly decent fellow, and there is some wishful thinking on my part. I do not want to be angry at him for doing this to his family, his wife, his students, and to all of us.

Another possibility is that the suicide is not in his or her right mind — perhaps a transient psychosis. Depression of sufficient intensity can evoke psychosis, a true loss of touch with reality, even in people who don’t have conditions we usually associate with loss of reality-testing, such as schizophrenia. He may literally not have known that suicide would affect his loved ones, or even that death was a permanent thing.

A similar explanation is that some excruciating pain had constricted this person’s world to a pinpoint. Pain makes us all selfish, and chronic searing pain can block everything else out. Wallace gave us many characters in various extremes, at the limit of what is bearable. One suspects his access to states of great pain was first-hand.

This is the understanding that makes the most sense to me. If this was the case, he was exhausted by chronic psychic pain and there was no room in his psyche to imagine the ripples of suffering that would emanate from this act. I think all that was in his mind was the pain and the need for it to stop.

As a practical matter — many suicides seem to come to action in very short time frames. A recent research report — I can’t find it — found that a surprising number of serious suicide attempts were made within fifteen minutes of the decision.

People kill themselves at a brief point of high danger. This can be the bottom point of a fluctuating mood — the loss of all morale and hope — or paradoxically when they’re feeling slightly better and they have the energy to kill themselves. If they can be persuaded to delay a few days, it is possible to find some other kind of relief. The hospital can be good for this — it’s not the solution, but it can create a little time and breathing space for a solution to develop. But for people who have a sustained and urgent desire to die, all the king’s horses and men can’t stop them.

I bet that he looked like he was fairly OK to his loved ones … maybe badly depressed, but no different than what he had endured before … and that his decision to end it all came all in a rush.

None of this makes me feel any better. It is so disturbing a thing.

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Christina Wilson

Sep 18 at 2:31


“I bet that he looked like he was fairly OK to his loved ones … maybe badly depressed, but no different than what he had endured before … and that his decision to end it all came all in a rush.”

I think this is what happened, too. And I also can’t find it in myself to be angry at him. Anger is very far from the prevailing feeling of sadness and a weird kind of knowing bewilderment.

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