Survivor’s Guilt or Survivor’s Humiliation After “Suicide”
I was surprised when my cousin “killed himself.” I am also surprised that I managed to outlive him, including the age he was at when he died around twenty-eight. Ever since I was seven years old I remember clearly I had been in such severe pain and humiliation that I wanted to die and was trying to find a way to die. I thought that I was an idiot for not being able to hold my breath long enough to make it happen.
I don’t know how I as a parent would feel like having a seven year old daughter who is trying to kill herself by holding her breath. I never told my parents that I was trying to kill myself though, and this was even before the subsequent series of rapes happened to me. Whatever had already happened to me at that point I was capitulating (btw I had also gotten the child sexual abuse prevention tips by that point, “Your body is your own and you can fend off adult attackers and rapists by telling them no.”).
I thought that I was certainly going to die, if anyone was going to die it would be me. I am very surprised to have survived and I am surprised to have lived past twenty-eight a few years ago. I really never thought I would outlive anyone in my family. I thought I was really quite weak or lazy mentally. In my mind I was the weakest person with the worst genetics or moral fibre or character. Why else would I have been continually crumbling this way ? I am really surprised that I outlived his death at thirteen and then outlived the age he was when he died at twenty eight.
A few years ago some people in my family would tell me, “You are similar to your cousin J in this way,” and, “Your cousin J was so smart, he never had to study. I had to study so hard or I would fail but he didn’t.” And I always found it a terrifyingly perhaps double edged comment. I wanted to ask, “Do you think I’m going to die too ? Is this what happens to smart people they kill us ?”
The thing about my cousin is that he was quite effeminate and even as a child I knew that this was a disapproved of thing. I didn’t connect it with the “gay people are of the devil” rhetoric but I knew that him being effeminate was “not a good thing”. His being effeminate made me deeply uncomfortable, I thought and have been brought up to think that there was something wrong with it. (While I think the homophobia, even unconscious and not by that name which I was brought up with was a bad idea, I don’t think that women are wrong for feeling uncomfortable if something about a man’s person or sexuality seems off though, many highly abusive men are noted for being “different” and people often thought that they were just gay when they were out raping a series of women). Other people in my family like my parents of course obviously disapproved of this effeminacy.
We actually don’t know whether my cousin was gay but he seemed gay. If he was gay homophobia in not just the family but society may have killed him. The planet and the social order just wasn’t supportive towards his hanging onto his life. Whatever resources he needed weren’t there or he was murdered. He couldn’t survive it whatever it was. The support for him to hang onto his life was just not out there. (This is the way I see it and have seen it since I was thirteen as essentially a political problem rather than a medical one, some people may think he just needed therapy to find those needle in a haystack resources or he made a choice to end his life, like some of my cousins do about him, but this is the way that I see it).
After he died, my parents were very embarrassed, they covered things up and told everyone at their church that he had died but not that he died by “suicide.” And then my mother rather narcissistically and characteristically catering the the unrestrained narcissism of her husband told people, “I don’t know why if he was having problems he didn’t come and talk to his minister uncle, he could have prayed for him.” We all knew that J could not have come and talked to my father. Obviously if my cousin were gay, everyone knew that this religious prayer support and counsel could have gone very badly though, my cousin certainly would not have been able to extract neutrality far less positive support from my father his (virulently anti gay) minister uncle over the gay issue. The absurdity of my mother’s suggestion is that my father would have most likely attempted to pray the gay away (if not worse). I don’t think my parents really felt sadness over my cousin’s death, there was just one less awful gay to deal with. Better to be dead than doing sin in a gay lifestyle. If my parents had contempt to begin with, in his death they just got more contempt, they really learnt nothing.
In the aftermath of his “suicide” my grandmother died or his “suicide” killed her. She said, “Why wasn’t it me ?” and then had a stroke and died a couple of weeks later after him, it literally killed her. (My grandmother may have been lesbian or bisexual, she was very close to another woman who left her a house when she died and had left her husband my grandfather for a period of years before going back to him). It was very overwhelming emotionally (and financially) we were all dealing with and reeling from the shock of my cousin’s death, everyone had just bought plane tickets and taken time off of work to go and be at my cousin’s funeral that it was almost hard for people to then have resources to go to my grandmother’s funeral as well, many of my cousins missed hers. And this is not to speak of the way the emotions hit you when you are already overwhelmed. I basically “chose to” feel nothing about my grandmother’s death. My grandmother’s death was a tremendous loss to me. My grandmother had probably been the closest and most stable adult for me. I’m the grandchild that she spent the most time with due to our living in the same city. My grandmother and I had our issues but she was exceedingly fair to me, not self absorbed and predictable unlike my mother, who I would come home from school on some days and she would have suddenly made all new rules and decided that I was spoilt for her not having had stricter rules before.
I can’t explain the effect of this on me as a young teenager and also as a young woman who had feelings for girls and was somewhat gender non conforming and who was trying to brush these feelings under the rug. It was humiliating. It further inculcated this homophobic system. It was also humiliating in the sense that my cousin’s capitulation to oppression and being killed by whatever killed him was never acknowledged as such, it was just victim blamed as that he “killed himself.” Maybe he needed therapy or to practice some coping skills or whatever. For me I just sort of crumbled and capitulated, though not quite in death. If my parents got deeper contempt from his death, I don’t think that I got anything positive from it either. Sadly it didn’t provoke sorrow that this was wrong, it didn’t provoke (or that much) regret in my family. Everyone in my immediate family pretended not to feel that much grief, I pretended not to feel grief. It didn’t make people value his life any more. If anything it made them value him and his life less. Even the “supportive” people are angry at him because they think that “he killed himself” and were victim blaming. After it happened when I was thirteen I was too far under the shame. I wanted to disentangle and disassociate myself from any part of him that had led to his being killed. It was just more humiliating. Unfortunately it was truly like his capitulation in “killing himself” just led more people to agree with his capitulation and to agree with the oppression.
No one “learnt anything” from his death including me. I learned that being gay could be life threatening and society probably would not be supportive to your survival as such and that there was a good chance you could be killed for it. And your family wouldn’t even acknowledge your murder as such even the ones that feel very bad about it. It inculcated disentitlement to life and good things.
Maybe my parents learned that suicide is a real thing and they didn’t want me dead but that didn’t stop them from doing incredible violence to me in the years to come, including rape and almost letting me go blind. And ever over a decade after this my parents have still learnt nothing, nothing positive at least.