Suicide Contagion & the Risks of Literature
Cynthia Gralla discusses whether depicting suicide in literature causes more instances of it, & portrayal responsibilities for authors.
Experts have identified a phenomenon called “suicide contagion,” whereby exposure to it, whether through a loss in one’s family or peer group, the publicizing of celebrity deaths, or even film and television images, often results in an uptick of suicidal behavior among the vulnerable. This has made suicide one of the last taboo subjects. Following the deaths of several celebrities and two Parkland survivors, as well as a 2018 report from the Centers for Disease Control on the surge in American casualties by this method, the prevention of suicide and the treatment of those with suicidal ideation are more important than ever. And while the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention urges journalists to write about the topic in a way that prevents contagion, a trickier question is what responsibilities creative writers bear in this regard.
This issue is personal for me. I am a writer with a doctorate in Comparative Literature, and I have tried to take my life half a dozen times, coming close on several of those occasions. The experiences left me sick for weeks and shaken to the core. I have since won my worst struggles with mental health and these days have little acquaintance with self-destructive ideation. Still, it is impossible for me to forget coming so close to that vertiginous drop.
By the time I made my first serious suicide attempt, in my early 30s, I had completed my graduate program, for which I wrote a dissertation on modern Japanese and English prose. I have no doubt that this choice of specialization complicated my fascination with death. The Japanese literary canon is rife with suicides, particularly instances of love suicide (shinjū) and ritual suicide by samurai (seppuku). Some of the most famous bunraku puppet plays from the 18th century, including Monzaemon Chikamatsu’s Love Suicides at Amijima, popularized the plot of lovers’ suicide pacts. Two hundred years later, it was so stale that Jun’ichirō Tanizaki satirized it in 1920s books such as Quicksand and Some Prefer Nettles. Even contemporary superstars like Haruki Murakami play on this tradition, with his early work Norwegian Wood, one of the most celebrated modern novels in Japan, including more than one suicide.
Off the page, some of Japan’s most lauded authors lived the plot device. In 1970, prolific author, right-wing political activist, and gay icon Yukio Mishima died by seppuku after a failed coup d’état meant to restore Japanese imperialism. This act was intended to be sensational, and it has since been immortalized in the film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. And then there’s Osamu Dazai, author of The Setting Sun, one of the first great Japanese novels of the postwar period. Dazai attempted double suicide at least three times, leaving two female corpses in his wake by the time he finally perished.
I was drawn to Japanese literature for its sense of transgression. For the fact that it was Nothing Like Me, a Catholic American of Eastern European descent. More than most other books, its slim 20th-century novels transported me. The kinkiness that pervades much of the famous fiction was part of that escape, as were the demimonde settings that plumbed the realm of geisha, their customers, and other outcasts. But I never consciously acknowledged that the frequency of suicide in the texts also fueled my attraction to them.
Still, some of the dramatizations of suicide in Japanese literature and film crossed an intuitive line for me between art and bad taste. Just as Mishima’s ritual suicide was more public than Dazai’s eventual one, some of Japan’s literary suicides are more staged and romanticized than others, and thus more troubling to me. Not surprisingly, Mishima’s own work contains unsettling scenes of self-annihilation that align sex and the idea of “beautiful death” as a byproduct of his fascistic world view. His 1961 short story, “Patriotism,” is devoted to the acts of seppuku performed by a husband and wife following the February 26 Incident, a coup d’état that took place in Japan in 1936. I use the words “performed” and “devoted” intentionally. Mishima made his short story into a film five years later, and both treat these deaths as shinjū as much as seppuku, a test of fidelity and passion between the couple. The husband chooses to die first, a move meant to show his deep trust in the wife who will not have his assistance if her resolve or hand weakens. Their decision to kill themselves is presented as the consummation of their love, and in both the story and the film, the scene of their last night together is chilling. Watching the latter in graduate school, I was nauseated by its suggestion that they found a perfect union with each other only on the brink of death.
Yet other passages about self-destruction in the literature I studied both steadied and cautioned me. When I contemplated suicide after first attempting it, I tried to talk myself out of it by picturing what it had felt like the first time, hoping the recalled terror would calm my impulses. However, I often narrated these mental pictures not with my own thoughts — I could not remember the ones I’d had during moments of drugged trauma — but with a line from The Shade of Blossoms by Shōhei Ōoka. Another postwar Japanese writer, Ōoka is most famous for rendering the devastation of survival in Fires on the Plain, a novel based on his real-life experiences as a soldier serving in the Philippines during World War II. The Shade of Blossoms is set in a very different milieu, the hostess clubs of 1950s Ginza. In the novel, Ōoka, the son of a former geisha, chronicles the downfall of an aging bar hostess. By the end, the hostess feels that she has no choice left but suicide after the leech-like men around her have bled her dry of money, opportunity, and youth. After tying her legs together — a gesture included in many literary and historical suicides of Japanese women, meant to spare them the indignity of legs flailing open in death — the protagonist listens to children playing outside her window. The last line of the novel, the one that haunted me: “And then the darkness came.”
Because I had worked as a bar hostess in Japan, the heroine’s tragic demise hit close to home. Maybe it sounds strange, but this line gave me pause during my most precarious periods. One is never in a right state of mind when attempting suicide: it is a moment of unconscionable trauma, a fissure of the self. So when I reached for understanding and temperance in my reactions, I relied not only on my memories, which were hazy and fractured, but on the representation of suicide in literature. Finding it there, I was able to stay my hand more often than not. This sentence and its promise of an infinite black hole was my straitjacket, far gentler than the other kind.
Whether others will have this reaction or feel their suicidal ideation exacerbated by reading of such deaths, I can’t say. I do know that our general reticence on the subject has not resulted in a curbing of the problem. As we now know, the number of deaths by this method is rising in the United States. If silence hasn’t worked, maybe talking about it and witnessing private agonies in fiction and memoirs will help.
Still, what protocol should creative writers follow, if any? The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention suggests guidelines for journalists writing about suicide, among them that the phrase “died by suicide” should be used in place of the verb “committed.” If an attempt does not result in death, it should not be described as “failed” or “unsuccessful.” This makes sense for a journalist’s articles, which are written to convey the bare facts to a wide audience. But what about creative writers who are trying to instill empathy through vivid evocation? And should we try to censor passages from literature out of fear that they might trigger such dire actions?
I am worrying about this issue in part because I recently completed a memoir in which I wrote about my battles with mental health and suicide. And while I appreciate the intention of these guidelines, I did feel like I had failed at something — at so, so many things — when I tried to take my own life and lived. I wanted to use that verb: failed. Should I really tailor my language to guidelines? If it is, instead, my job as a memoirist to convey my experience as authentically as possible, it will involve using a verb on the should-be-avoided list.
Based on the case of Japanese literature and its obsession with suicide, my sense is that literary preoccupation is often a reaction to, rather than a catalyst for, the tragedy. While Japan has one of the highest suicide rates among first-world nations, it has been dropping in recent years. Still, sufferers of all kinds of mental illness have to contend with an oppressive stigma there. Literature is one of the few arenas in which that kind of pain is outed and explored, and in that sense, its representation seems to me a healthy gesture.
Maybe we have to strike a balance — in creative writing if not in reportage — between awareness and denial, representation and risks. Even if this is a perilous project, we may have no choice but to accept it. The ethical problems of literary censorship aside, we could never truly cordon off creative writing about suicide from public view. Perhaps we could expurgate the most graphic portrayals of it. However, are all the literary passages that refer to self-obliteration immediately obvious? To me, the most self-demolishing sentence in all of literature is the final one of Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, in which the protagonist witnesses a fire and a woman’s death: “As he caught his footing, his head fell back, and the Milky Way flowed down inside him with a roar.” In this moment, through the symbol of the Milky Way, the boundaries between inside and outside, self and other, collapse. If it is not a literal suicide, it still aestheticizes a rupture of the self. Yet it would be absurd to ban this utterance — which also happens to be one of the most gorgeous sentences I know — from Japanese and translated literature.
While I can’t say for certain that literary scenes of suicide do not result in real-life contagion, I am convinced that literature takes a stand against dissolution even when presenting the option in its plots. Books in the hand are solid, rough-paged, real. Their narratives testify to the beauty of persistence and, as the story reaches out to the reader, the power of belonging in this painful and disorienting world.