“Didn’t you ever think that your father was doing something noble for you?” the man in the front row asks. He’s an older gentleman in his mid-70s. He is white, well-educated and upper-middle-class. And he is making a comment that only comes from men with his demographic background.
Granted, the comment comes in different forms: “There isn’t room in this show for rational suicide,” or “I always found the idea of suicide comforting.” But I hear the same thing, always in my father’s voice: “You’d be better off without me.”
The question comes in a postshow discussion after a presentation of my solo performance, “Suicide Punchline.” In this performance, I chart the ways in which I have tried to survive the suicide of my father, as represented by three characters.
These characters use everything from suicide research to French philosophy to folklore to try and understand my father’s suicide. They are angry, fearful, desperate, hopeful and, at times, funny. But not one of them ever says that suicide was “noble” or that we really are better off without my father.
We aren’t. Surviving the suicide of a loved one at least doubles your risk for completing suicide. Suicide survivors are twice as likely as the general population to suffer from mental illness, particularly depression.
We feel stigmatized, ashamed and isolated. We have to live with painful, unanswered questions, particularly the question of “why?” We are not better off.
So why is it so important to these men, these men who are so like my father demographically, to think that suicide is a noble choice? I believe the answer lies in our traditional scripts for masculinity.
We teach men that their most fundamental function is to protect and provide. We teach men that they should always be in control, especially of their emotions. We tell them the myth of rugged individualism, where solitary struggle and achievement are the purest markers of success.
We flash guns at them through every available screen, telling them that if they have a problem, a gun is the solution.
The flip side to these scripts is practically a prescription for suicide: If your role as a protector and provider is shaken in any way, including forces beyond your control, you are failing. In fact, your very lack of control is a sign of your failure, even if what you are failing to control is a global recession or the world’s most powerful military.
If you reach out for help, especially help with those emotions you are supposed to control, you are failing. If you reach for a gun, though, that makes you a “real man.”
On Thursday, I read that veterans are killing themselves at more than double the rate of the civilian population. This is new data collected by the “Back Home” News 21 project, focused on investigating veterans’ experiences.
Later in this report, Craig Bryan, research director at the University of Utah National Center for Veterans Studies, says that veterans are different from the general population, with a culture of “mental toughness” that makes them less likely to talk about their pain or to seek help.
I disagree; the only difference I can see between military culture and mainstream culture is the strength of the suicide prescription. Military culture uses these masculine scripts religiously. It’s one of the many places my father first learned them.
On Friday, the Minnesota Department of Health announced that our state has the highest rate of suicide since the early 1990s. The sharpest increases were in the 55-to-59 and over-65 age ranges.
If my father were alive, he would be in that over-65 group. The men who make those comments would be in that group. It’s imperative that we start looking not only at the neurobiology and individual psychology that lead to suicide, but also at the larger cultural scripts that write suicide as a “noble” end.
Jennifer Tuder, of Columbia Heights, is an associate professor at St. Cloud State University. She is touring “Suicide Punchline,” her original solo performance about surviving suicide, to stages across Minnesota and the nation.