Friday 15 June 2018

Anthony Bourdain and the history of suicide: the importance of language by Fay Bound Alberti

On 8 June, the BBC reported the sad news that US celebrity chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain had died as a result of suicide. Over the next few days, tributes to Bourdain poured in for Bourdain, who was widely respected not only for his writing and presenting, but also because he was passionate about social and political justice. Bourdain was a vocal advocate against sexual harassment and supported his partner Asia Argento in her sexual abuse allegations against shamed Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. 'He taught us about food', said Barack Obama, 'but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. he made us a little less afraid of the unknown. We'll miss him'.

Anthony Bourdain with then President Barack Obama

Almost immediately the world's media began to speculate about Bourdain's death, detailing every single nugget they could find about its circumstances, asking why he died, how he died and what 'drove' him to 'commit suicide'. Suggested causes ranged from long term depression to a break up with his partner Argento, with whom he was said to be besotted. Argento was accused of cheating on the chef, and appallingly, blamed for causing Bourdain's death. Their mutual friend Rose McGowan wrote a letter on behalf of Argento, reminding the world how wrong-headed this view was: 'Do NOT do the sexist thing and burn a woman on the pyre of misplaced blame. Anthony's internal war was his war, but now she's been left on the battlefield to take the bullets'.

Heated debates about Bourdain's death erupted all over social media. Some suggested he was murdered by Weinstein. Others wrote about the pressure on people to live perfect lives, especially since Bourdain's death swiftly followed that of the designer Kate Spade, who was equally successful, equally admired and apparently content, who died from suicide on June 5. After the detailed descriptions of death came the blame, and then the claims of selfishness; 'From every corner of the world you were loved. So selfish. You've given us cause to be so angry', said the actor Val Kilmer

Suicide is a complex, sad event. And its language is important. Not just the language of blame and selfishness, which is unhelpful at best and destructive at worst, but also the language in which the act of suicide is itself framed. One debate on Twitter concerned whether or not Bourdain 'committed' suicide, a term that is widely used but judgement-laden. Those who pointed out that suicide shouldn't be a 'PC" issue; that we should be able to speak correctly according to terms - and that Bourdain had committed (or undertaken) an act - missed the point entirely.

The reason why suicide is so emotionally and morally fraught is because of its history, as well as the way it has been philosophically framed. The word 'commit' is no longer appropriate in talking about suicide because it is no longer a criminal offence. People commit murder, assaults and fraud, but they do not commit suicide. To suggest that they do is to ignore the complex emotional history behind the phrase, and to frame suicide in a moralising way that provokes a lack of understanding for people who die from suicide, as well as people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts. 

Until 1961, suicide was a criminal act. The Suicide Act decriminalised suicide in England and Wales so that those who tried to kill themselves would no longer be prosecuted (the act didn't apply in Scotland, since suicide was never an offence under Scottish law). Assisting in suicide, or more precisely 'assisting, aiding or abetting suicide' became a distinct offence, which is why people will travel to Swiss clinics to end their own lives through voluntary euthanasia. I was reminded, when I read about Bourdain, of the news coverage of David Goodall, the 104-year-old retired Australian scientist who, in May this year, chose to end his life in a Swiss clinic: 'At my age, and even rather less than my age, one wants to be free to choose the death when the death is the appropriate time', he said.  

David Goodall, bidding goodbye to his family before leaving for Switzerland
The moral outrage that had accompanied Bourdain's death was missing in news reports. Was this because he was older? Because his death took place in an official space? Because it was more dignified? Or something else. Why isn't the decision to take one's own life an individual one, since our lives, in modern philosophical terms, are ours to do so as we choose? Why is suicide illegal?  

The answer lies in religious belief, which for centuries was intertwined with the legal system in the UK. The early Christian theologian St Augustine and the Dominican Friar St Thomas Aquinas both argued that suicide was taking away a life that was not one's own, but God's.  Suicide, from the Latin 'sui' (of oneself) and 'cidiim' (a killing) was a rejection of God's power, sine only God had the right to create and destroy life. 

Saint Augustine of Hippo, attributed to Gerard Seghers
To commit suicide was therefore akin to committing a sin, as well as a criminal offence. And society was cruel to the bodies and the memories of those who died by suicide. If proven to be sane, they were denied a Christian burial and carried to a crossroads in the dead of night. There, their bodies would be placed in a pit with a wooden stake driven through their chests - in case their possessed spirits returned to contaminate the rest of the village. There would be no mourning, no prayers. 

This tradition must have been extremely difficult for the loved ones in an age when religious belief was universal. It was also harsh in other ways: the dead person's family were stripped of any entitlement to the deceased's belongings for they were handed to the crown. Social historians Michael MacDonald and Terence Murphy have written of cases where this happened in seventeenth-century England, when insanity and depression were still regarded as spiritual rather than mental afflictions.  

Not all cultures have been so unforgiving. At the other extreme of suicide as a religiously outrageous choice is self-denial and self sacrifice as a supremely spiritual act. Suicide can be understood to be an act of honour rather than disgrace - most famously in Japan, where Samurai warriors would carry out Seppuku, a ritual form of disembowelment, rather than become hostages of their enemies. 

Seppuku with ritual attire, courtesy of Wikipedia

It is extraordinary to think that suicide in the UK was a crime until 1961. But attitudes to suicide are, as the case of Anthony Bourdain shows, filled with fear and anxiety, as well as anger. They are fraught with ideas of moral right as well as public accountability - who are we responsible for in life, and when is it acceptable to ignore those responsibilities? This is particularly controversial when a person dying from suicide has children.

In the digital age, suicide can be private, but it can also be public. There have been many cases of YouTube suicides, when the death of suffering people is filmed, as well as encouraged, by anonymous viewers. This tragic combination of an individual need for support and a vocal yet unfeeling audience, seems to highlight the desolation of many people who are in search of a degree of empathy or understanding that is not forthcoming. Consider the Logan Paul debacle, in which a YouTuber visited a forest in Japan known for its use as a 'suicide spot'. When they came across a man hanging from a tree, Paul said 'call the police bro', but headed in for a close-up. The 'fun vlog' was posted on YouTube under the heading: 'We found a dead body in the Japanese suicide forest'. The video has since been removed as a result of protests. 

Logan Paul

Suicide continues to divide us in an age of digital spectacle. Paul was vigorously defended by YouTubers and viewers who felt that he was simply reporting the facts. That suicide was a reality and he covered it as such. Where are the lines between reporting and creating sensational events in the digital age, whether they are happy or tragic? And what kinds of languages are needed to talk about suicide in an age where performances of the self are much more instant, public and permanent than ever before? 

Talking about suicide is important, both to respect the dead and their friends and families, but also to prevent people from feeling that suicide is the only choice. We are good at highlighting mental illness in the 21st century as being common and widespread; we are less good at doing anything about it. Mental health services are constantly being cut and the social stigma around self-harm limited many people from finding help. 

There were over 6,000 deaths from suicide in the UK in 2015. The highest rate was in men aged 40-44 years old in the UK (in Ireland it was for men aged 25-34). Suicide rates for women are at their highest in a decade, though far more men die from suicide every year than women. We might say that it's a social problem as much as an individual one, since men are not traditionally encouraged to talk about their problems, or to get help for mental illness. 

Whatever the causes of death from suicide, it's not a criminal or a wilful or a selfish act. It is a result of a person being in so much pain that living has become unbearable. That is not shameful, nor a sign of a person's weakness. And it isn't about blame. We need to move away from the language of 'committing' suicide because it makes a difference in how depression and mental health is framed and understood. 

Samaritans mental health hotline is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It can be contacted at any time from any phone for FREE on 116 123. 


Lesley Downer said...

Excellent and thoughtful piece.

Fay Bound Alberti said...

Thank you Lesley

rennieboy said...

I would very much echo Lesley's praise.

Apart from whether it was an understandable act or not (as much as someone else's suicide could possibly be), I actually applaud the person who successfully takes their own life. Few experiences are more personally shaming and degrading than attending at a hospital emergency room with self-inflicted injuries.

'Never again' I promised myself. However I might try to do myself serious harm, I will never again risk being treated like a poor loser whose cut wrist isn't so bad that he can't be left sitting in the waiting room to hopefully teach him a lesson.