The Hope that Suicidal Authors Leave for the Rest of Us

I’ve long harbored a deep reverence for authors who have committed suicide. Yet, I maintain some reservations about this. I feel guilty; I’ve been taught that suicide is among the greatest acts of selfishness. But these authors leave behind the truths they’ve stumbled upon in their work, and however thick or thin their contributions may be, they’ve all shown me courage in the most unlikely form: through moments of illumination in an otherwise bleak and lonely path, in a place where no individual with a compassionate heart can bear to be without eventually caving in to despair.

Tomorrow is my birthday. Consequently, I am reminded that I should take some time to consider my life. Strangely enough, I view what’s transpired episodically rather than narratively. My moments become a wall covered with photographs, a grid of tableaus, and my memory works to randomly select these moments in time to engage me in what most people think to be nostalgia. Usually, I return to present circumstances no wiser, without the illumination that the soul seeks (when the mind allows it).

David Foster Wallace has earned notoriety in both life and death. His writings all detail the human condition with both the scrutiny of a microbiologist, the broad scope of a historian, and the intellectual preponderance of the great philosophers of old. Basically, the brilliance of his writing only serves to frustrate and confuse 99.9% of the human population. For this reason, I have steered clear of his tomb-like books and novels. Fortunately, through his essays and short stories, I have been able to glean some of his insight. Most if it weighs heavily on the conscious mind, so I will spare you that. That being said — if I were to choose one thing he wrote to share with you, it’d be this:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.

It’s unfortunate that David Foster Wallace had to hang himself. His prison, as it is well known, existed in his own mind in the form of a crippling and chronic depression. It’s the kind of affliction that Kurt Vonnegut (recently deceased, but not by his own hand) would describe in lines like this: “Dwayne’s bad chemicals made him take a loaded thirty-eight caliber revolver from under his pillow and stick it in his mouth. This was a tool whose only purpose was to make holes in human beings” (Breakfast of Champions).

Then there are the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Iris Chang, and John Kennedy Toole. You’ve got a shotgun that’s pointing at your face and your big toe twitching over the trigger, a pistol pressed against your temple as your family hums in the next room, a revolver’s barrel in your mouth as you sit alone in your car, and your lungs slowly burning with the toxic fumes that a garden hose feeds in from your vehicle’s tail exhaust pipe.

These authors all seemed to write for some higher purpose, sacrificing themselves for others. Many of them have only gained fame posthumously, as if tragedy suddenly dog-eared their pages, and their lives, for others to readily find and skim through. These men and women labored for truth, enlightenment, and understanding. They challenged definitions of sin and defied convention. But what they encountered during their journeys that drove them to suicide is something I never hope to find, much less brush past, down within the darkest recesses of soul searching. I feel that their moments of illumination function as signal flares, maybe even distress beacons, telling nearby wanderers to turn around and move in another direction so that they may save themselves. Or maybe not. Either way, I’m not sure if I want to find out. But is it foolish to chalk their deaths up to just another case of the “bad chemicals”? Doing so, I feel, would be an indignation to everything that those authors lived and died for, as if the social stigma of suicide removes any credibility from their words. That the truths they found are dead and decaying, alongside the person from which they sprung from.

The Edge… there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. — Hunter S. Thompson

Tomorrow is my birthday. I am unemployed, spend a large part of the week alone, and nervously question a future that’s already arrived. I’ve endured hardships, sustained emotional wounds, and have suffered flat-out defeat over this past year. I’ve been told that comedy is the unexpected truth distilled from a life (not necessary a lifetime) of suffering and humiliation, but I’m not sure if I agree with that notion at this point in time.

Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt, use it-don’t cheat with it. — Ernest Hemingway

Illumination is a tricky thing to process. At its best, it’s instructive, perhaps even soothing. Otherwise, it becomes a cautionary tale for those who are ruled by fear and don’t know it. Illumination is meant to be shared, for they are guideposts for others who, by happenstance, have wandered down the same path that you have.

People need people.

No man is so foolish but he may sometimes give another good counsel, and no man so wise that he may not easily err if he takes no other counsel than his own. He that is taught only by himself has a fool for a master. — Hunter S. Thompson

After I finish this entry, I will put on my shoes and run. I will run until I find a street that I haven’t gone on yet and run until I ache. I will see some good friends tomorrow, laugh at our current stations in life, and be happy that I have met them. I will order a tall frothy glass of cheap beer and savor it as if it is nectar.

When you believe you have a future, you think in terms of generations and years. When you do not, you live not just by the day — but by the minute. — Iris Chang. TC mark

image – MDCarchives

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  • Chelsea

    Beautiful post.

  • Seanna

    This is a thing I think about often. Thank you for writing a part of it down for me.

  • Orqui

    So amazing! Exactly why I love TC

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

    nice

  • Rlangley

    LETS PLAY A GAME. WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE SUICIDAL AUTHOR AND WHY?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Y

    HE IS OG.

  • http://bushwickreview.tumblr.com Kristen

    I really liked this. I hope nice things happen on your birthday Sean Li, and I hope a lot of people give you the small gift of positive comments on this article. It's one of the best I've read on Thought Catalog in a while.

  • http://lukenathan.tumblr.com Luke

    Thank you for writing this. It is brave. I put the DFW and the Hemingway quote in my commonplace book.

  • http://twitter.com/jenonizzle Jen O'Neill

    I've always been fascinated by writers who've committed suicide.

    This piece voiced so many things I could never even attempt to verbalize. And it was so beautifully written.

    Hope you have a splendid birthday!

  • LitNit

    Add Richard Brautigan to the list. I'm a writer and a few months ago, my boyfriend killed himself. I've struggled with depression myself, but, strangely, his suicide has made me feel more like living life and ceasing the wallowing. Also very sad, of course, it's made me very sad.

    • Sean Li

      may he rest in peace.

  • xtos

    Statements like these I feel effectively amount to taking artistic license with someone's suicide. Similar themes were explored in this article (https://thoughtcatalog.com/2011… ) and I found it interesting enough to summarize/relay to a friend, but when I came back for a second read I noticed STAUGUSTINE's comment which came as kind of a slap in the face. How could I have claimed to be privy some more poetic reasons for DFW's suicide than those that immediately present themselves? How can you claim that these authors may have committed suicide reaching an ultimate philosophical or literary realization?

    I don't think it's my, yours, or anybody's place to assert these kinds of things about why somebody killed themselves.

  • Guy

    Wonderful article. I sort of feel the same way about the “bad chemicals” thing.

    Also, if you've liked DFW's short story collections, try starting his novels at Broom of the System. It's not as massive as the others and easier to read in short spurts. Still just as good.

  • http://twitter.com/straponheart Evan Hatch

    if hunter s. thompson, who is 100x the man i will ever be couldn't not kill himself, what chance do i have?

  • http://paintwithwords.tumblr.com leah

    there was an article in Time a few weeks ago about david foster wallace's last work that will be published posthumously — it feels eerie to even read about it..

  • http://sheriffshooter.posterous.com Sheriff Shooter

    i never imagined i'd ever read anything like this in my life. i'm grateful.

  • aerie

    Thanks for this.

  • Nicholasmarc

    Mind = Blown. That was amazing.

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