Robin Williams is dead. That’s still super-weird for me to even conceive of. I have been spending an inordinate amount of time sitting in my living room watching Robin Williams movies and thinking about how strange life is. This isn’t a post about Robin Williams; there are dozens of beautiful tributes across the internet, and we’ve even had one here at Book Riot. But this is a post about how we talk about suicide and mental health, and how literature is a really good place to start the conversation.
I don’t know if you’ve read many of the tributes to Robin Williams that are out there, but if you do I advise you to stay away from the comment sections. The comments often ask the kinds of questions that might emerge as knee-jerk reactions to our feelings of shock, surprise, and confusion: what could someone who has so much money / is so beloved / have been so successful possibly have to be depressed about? This kind of questioning belies a fundamental misunderstanding of what depression is, especially the depth of a depression that leads to suicidal ideation or action. In the words of the inimitable Stephen Fry, “If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather.”
The reality is, we’re not very good, as a society, at talking about mental health, depression, and suicide. Faced with the chance to discuss the topic, we are all suddenly Bartleby, the Scrivener: “We would prefer not to.” When I was first training to do suicide interventions over the phone at a crisis line, I was amazed to discover that the hardest thing for most people to do in a suicide intervention is to ask clearly and directly, without beating around the bush, “Are you planning to kill yourself?” It was hours of training before most of us could manage to say those words aloud in a simulation, and harder still the first few times we talked to real people on the phone. And in my life as a teacher, I’ve discovered that asking it while making eye contact is even more difficult still. But the silence around depression and suicide — the stigma — only adds to its destructive power.
As readers, we often like to say that reading makes us more empathetic people: that because we read, we can put ourselves in the lives and hearts of other people. That ability to crawl inside the experiences of people who have different lives from us is one of the reasons why diversity in literature is so important. While everyone is thinking about Robin Williams’ suicide in the wake of his struggles with depression, I thought I would take the opportunity to recommend three books that explore what it is to live with suicidal thoughts and depression. Because the only way to combat stigma is with empathy.
Swing Low: A Life by Miriam Toews is an imagined memoir written in the voice of Toews father, who took his own life in 1998. This is very much a book about a daughter searching for understanding and forgiveness for her father. Through this book, Toews describes the complicated interior life of her father who, respected in his Mennonite community and loved by his family, tries desperately to conceal the bipolar disorder that is causing his world to unravel. Through the book, Toews’ depiction of her father, up to and including his decision to end his life, is full of compassion and humanity. Toews would eventually also lose her sister to suicide, an experience exquisitely fictionalized in the forthcoming All My Puny Sorrows (if you’re in Canada, it’s already out — go forth and discover).
The Savage God: A Study of Suicide by Al Alvarez is one of the classic books about this topic, and is part non-fiction sociological exploration, part meditation on Sylvia Plath, part memoir of his own attempted suicide, and part exploration of the role of suicide in the history of literature. It is a difficult book to read, both in form and content, but also incredibly rewarding for its empathetic and challenging interrogation of what Alvarez terms “the final human taboo.” If you’ve ever wanted to think more deeply about why you feel the way you do when you hear about a suicide, and if you’ve ever pondered the larger significance of our simultaneous fascination with and denunciation of the act of suicide, Alvarez’s study is the most complete and effective I’ve encountered.
Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me by Ellen Forney is a graphic memoir about Forney’s experiences with bipolar disorder. What I love about this inside look at mental illness, treatment, and recovery is that Forney is so much more than her mental state, even when that state is totalizing. This memoir is witty and unblinkingly honest, and Forney’s images will astound you with her ability to express her experiences of bleakness and loneliness in her sparse black-and-white style. This comic also very thoughtfully examines the idea that art and mental illness sometimes seem to be inextricably linked, and offers examples of some of the incredible contributions people suffering with depression have made to our creative lives.
I really believe that books about difficult experience can help us to empathize, and that through empathy we can build safe places to have these difficult conversations. In fact, I kind of think that kind of mind-opening and growth is the whole point of reading. And if someone reaches out to you in a time of despair, find the strength not to change the subject. Let’s figure out what we need to talk about when we talk about suicide.
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