May 09, 2004

THE ROOTS OF HORROR: The Dynamics of Suicide, Revisited

In several earlier posts about suicide and its underlying dynamics, I referred to Alice Miller's discussion of the relationship between Sylvia Plath and her mother. Miller makes a number of crucial points, which are applicable to many families:
Sylvia Plath's life was no more difficult than that of millions of others. Presumably as a result of her sensitivity, she suffered much more intensely than most people from the frustrations of childhood, but she experienced joy more intensely also. Yet the reason for her despair was not her suffering but the impossibility of communicating her suffering to another person. In all her letters she assures her mother how well she is doing. The suspicion that her mother did not release negative letters for publication overlooks the deep tragedy of Plath's life. This tragedy (and the explanation for her suicide as well) lies in the very fact that she could not have written any other kind of letters, because her mother needed reassurance, or because Sylvia at any rate believed that her mother would not have been able to live without this reassurance. Had Sylvia been able to write aggressive and unhappy letters to her mother, she would not have had to commit suicide. Had her mother been able to experience grief at her inability to comprehend the abyss that was her daughter's life, she never would have published the letters, because the assurances they contained of how well things were going for her daughter would have been too painful to bear. ...

If a sensitive child like Sylvia Plath intuits that it is essential for her mother to interpret the daughter's pain only as the consequence of a picture being damaged and not as a consequence of the destruction of her daughter's self and its expression--symbolized in the fate of the pastel--the child will do her utmost to hide her authentic feelings from the mother. The letters are testimony of the false self she constructed (whereas her true self is speaking in The Bell Jar). With the publication of the letters, her mother erects an imposing monument to her daughter's false self.

We can learn from this example what suicide really is: the only possible way to express the true self--at the expense of life itself. Many parents are like Sylvia's mother. They desperately try to behave correctly toward their child, and in their child's behavior they seek reassurance that they are good parents. The attempt to be an ideal parent, that is, to behave correctly toward the child, to raise her correctly, not to give too little or too much, is in essence an attempt to be the ideal child--well behaved and dutiful--of one's own parents. But as a result of these efforts the needs of the child go unnoticed. I cannot listen to my child with empathy if I am inwardly preoccupied with being a good mother; I cannot be open to what she is telling me.
As I commented: "And that is the most important, the absolutely crucial point: suicide is the only possible way to express the true self--at the expense of life itself. Most people do not grasp this at all." The balance of the earlier essay discusses how these mechanisms are now playing out with regard to many of our troops who have served in Iraq -- and the mechanisms include remarkable, but completely predictable, levels of denial on the part of the surviving family members.

And today, I came across this story [link no longer working]-- which shows, yet again, how these dynamics reveal themselves. As you read the following, notice the clues: the mother's desperate need to find an external agency to blame for this tragedy; the obvious distance that existed between the mother and her son (evidenced by, among other things, the mother not even knowing about the earlier suicide attempt); and the mother's clear, but unadmitted, guilt. On the basis of the mechanisms identified so convincingly in Miller's books, I can guarantee you that the ultimate causes of this tragedy do not lie in any of the events that immediately preceded this tragic death. They lie deep in the son's childhood, and in the family dynamics that shaped him:
HARWICH - Four years after the suicide of her 27-year-old son, Barbara Felton is still angry.

She's angry at her son, Mark Christopher Felton, for ending his life and scarring hers. But mostly she's furious with her son's friend for leaving an unlocked shotgun where her son could find it and use it during a moment of despondency.

"I told my counselor, 'I like being angry,'" Felton said. It not only feels good, the elementary-school computer teacher says, it's helping her do good.

Felton is among a group of Cape women who are converging on Washington, D.C., today for another Million Mom March to protest gun violence in America.

"This is what I feel I can do," Felton said during an interview at her house in Harwich. She promised during her son's eulogy in May 2000 that she would march in the new gun protest known as the Million Mom March.

The first march, held on Mother's Day 2000, came too soon after Mark's death for Felton to participate. The second march, occurring today, calls on Congress to renew a ban on assault weapons. The existing ban expires Sept. 13. ...

According to a fact sheet prepared by the organization, on average a person is killed by a gun every 18 minutes in America, giving the United States the highest rate of deaths from gunfire in the industrialized world.

The fact sheet also includes suicide statistics: It says that 1,273 children or teens have committed suicide with a firearm each year over the last 10 years. Each year more than 145 gun-related suicide victims were younger than 15. ...

What bothers Felton and other marchers is how quickly a suicidal idea can turn into reality if a gun is handy.

The afternoon that Mark committed suicide, he had just found out that a co-worker to whom he felt romantically attached was moving back in with an old boyfriend. He apparently took this move as a rejection, Felton said, and was thrown into despair.

After leaving his job at a Barnstable elementary school, where he was an aide for a student with special needs, Mark went to the apartment of a friend with whom he'd gone target shooting in the past.

According to Felton, the friend wasn't home, but the apartment was unlocked and guns, including a shotgun, were "laying around."

Felton's voice fills with fury when she talks about the guns.

"I don't believe this suicide was planned. I believe it was spur of the moment," she said. "I will never get over my anger at this negligent S.O.B. who left the apartment open with the guns available for anyone to get them."

In fact, Felton encouraged the district attorney's office to prosecute Mark's friend under a relatively new law that criminalizes unlawful storage of weapons. As a result, the friend was ordered to perform community service in a clinic for head injury patients.
The case was continued without a finding, which means that if the young man did not commit another crime the case would be closed after a year.

In many ways, the prosecution helped Felton deal with her own despair. ...

Felton said she forgives Mark. "I don't believe this suicide was planned," she said, pointing out that the week before he died he bought two kayaks, one for himself and one for a long-term girlfriend. ...

But Mark also suffered from clinical depression and his dose of Paxil, a medication used to treat depression, had been increased right before his suicide, Felton said.

Looking back, it seems Mark struggled long before being diagnosed. His high school years were lackluster academically. While he loved Dean Junior College, the two-year Franklin college where he discovered sports broadcasting, he left the University of Utah without earning a four-year degree.

Moving back home with his mother, he discovered a niche in education and child care. He was a camp counselor and a special education assistant for a child with Down syndrome.

"People liked Mark," Felton said.

He didn't always like himself. After Mark's death, Felton found out from his girlfriend and a colleague that Mark had attempted suicide at least once before, by trying to suffocate himself while running a car engine. When that hadn't worked, he'd swallowed a bunch of over-the-counter medicines, only to throw up. ...

Felton said she wishes she'd known about the earlier attempt.
And she believes that if the guns had not been available in his friend's apartment, Mark might have taken the time to think or seek out people for help.
As someone who has suffered from terrible depressions in my own life, I cannot tell you how angry Mrs. Felton's remarks make me. Certainly, I understand the deep agony and pain that she feels, but I still find it difficult to overlook certain of her comments -- particularly when they so clearly reveal the causes that led to this tragedy.

For example, it is rather immaterial at this point whether she "forgives" her son, and to talk about it in this manner reveals that she deeply blames him for taking his life, as if he hasn't already paid the greatest price possible. By implication, she also blames him for the emotions which led to his actions. But Mark is dead, he doesn't exactly give a damn about her forgiveness at this point. And to say that the suicide "wasn't planned" -- when he had previously tried to kill himself, when she was completely ignorant about that earlier attempt, and when he had been diagnosed as suffering from clinical depression -- and to justify her belief that it "wasn't planned" because he had just bought two kayaks, reveals a desperation to avoid the obvious that is painful to see, and verging on the ludicrous.

But this shows the lengths to which people will go to avoid facing profoundly uncomfortable truths. For Mark's mother to face the truth, she would have to be willing to set aside the obvious mythology that she has built up about her family relationships. Mrs. Felton ought to recognize that, in the final analysis, she didn't pull the trigger; her son did. In that sense, she is not responsible for her son's death.

But here is what she, and every other parent who engages in this kind of psychological dishonesty (which is the majority of them), is responsible for: she is responsible for not recognizing the enormous emotional distance that clearly existed between her and her son, and probably between all the members of this family. She is responsible for not seeing that her son probably had always felt unable to reveal his true feelings to his mother or to anyone else. Remember Miller's comment about Plath: "Yet the reason for her despair was not her suffering but the impossibility of communicating her suffering to another person."

Those words probably describe precisely how Mark Felton felt throughout most of his life, beginning in his childhood. And that is one of the major causes for his death. And his mother is responsible for refusing to admit, or it appears even honestly to seek for, the truth. Instead, she pretends that gun control laws would have solved this problem, and searches for any semi-plausible outside source to blame, rather than looking inward. It is remarkable to see that her search for an external villain even led her to encourage the prosecution of Mark's friend, a move that Mark himself might well have condemned.

This is the kind of family tragedy that is enacted every day, in countless families, only usually without this particularly horrible tragic ending. But this kind of emotional distance, the absence of the belief that one may communicate one's genuine feelings and not be "blamed" for them, and this sort of denial are common to almost every family. One of the results is the sort of deep, unreachable emotional numbness that can be seen in so many people today.

In these ways, too, the denial goes on...and the tragedies continue. And people still refuse to see the truth, even when it is screaming in their faces.