Leaving You

The Cultural History of Suicide by Lisa Lieberman

by Natalie Hope McDonald

16 October 2003


Through the Past, Darkly

Leaving You should have included on its cover a disclaimer, one that states emphatically that the book does not endorse suicide, but neither does it reject it. What the book does instead is draw upon various cultural cues in which suicide is historically defined, regardless of whether the act served as a means of escape or one of rebellion. The work is also a reminder of how the taking of one’s own life can be representative of more than just depression, that rather, it can become, for better or worse, a deliberate act of independence.

When Kay Redfield Jamison published her memoir An Unquiet Mind, the division between mainstream non-fiction and psychology was bridged. Then after Jamison published her book about suicide, Night Falls Fast, a more specific, but no less taboo, subject was broached. The author, a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, narrowed her approach to encompass human emotions and art rather than traditional psychology. While these books were mainstream in approach, they were successful in illustrating important, well-researched issues, such as manic-depression and suicide, and they were written by someone who spent her life treating them in her patients and, as it turned out, in herself.

cover art

Leaving You

Lisa Lieberman

The Cultural History of Suicide

(Ivan R. Dee)

The books also mirror modern civilization’s own move toward introspection, or as modern poets called it, “self-consciousness.” As more people wrote books like Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation—bestsellers that emerged between therapy sessions—the stigma of abnormal psychiatry became much less, well, abnormal. The result is an enlightened interest in the field that’s much less preoccupied with taboo.

Lisa Lieberman, however, is not anything like Jamison.

Lieberman isn’t interested in medicine; she’s a scholar whose focus, modern European and cultural history, establishes the foundation for her book. The distinction is important to keep in mind when reading Leaving You. As opposed to a collection of clinical observations, the book is, instead, an analysis of the cultural issues surrounding suicide throughout various societies, both ancient and modern. Because the book is more academic in its mission, the author neither endorses nor demonizes the act of suicide. She does not provide answers or self-help. In fact, to Lieberman, morality is irrelevant. She reports the facts with a journalist’s integrity, touching upon historical research, religious dictates, and democratic freedoms. She does not base her research on medical science, but on social science.

The author also draws on a wide array of sources to determine the meaning of suicide, attempting to determine whether the act is one of self-destruction or one of subversion against society. She travels from the state-sanctioned death of Socrates forward to modern narcotic therapy, seeking to cast light on the act and its vehicles, whether they be burning monks or depressed teenagers. She explains it as such:

Efforts to read meaning out of suicide are not hard to find today. Therapeutic strategies that treat suicide as an illness, medicating the depression while ignoring the underlying motivations that drive people to end their lives, effectively diminish individual responsibility for the decision to die. In a similar way, sociological explanations that emphasize social causes over personal intentions serve to make suicides passive: victims of forces beyond their control—forces that can, reassuringly, be isolated and manipulated by the sociologist. But an appreciation of the disruptive potential of self-destruction, the power of individuals to use death as a weapon in order to undermine the authority of states or to bring into question the cherished values of societies and institutions, pervades the Western tradition.

Lieberman categorizes these deaths along several categories: defiant deaths, democratic deaths, sex-related deaths, and explores the notion of loss and tragedy in general. Each of the categories reflects a larger goal, to give a face to the multifaceted nature of suicide. According to Lieberman’s thesis, the act of killing one self is not limited to sickness. Instead, it becomes much more symbolic of rebellion and, in some cases, “self-destruction purely in existentialist terms,”—as in the case of Jean Amery, an Austrian writer who chronicled his own suicide attempt.

The author also references Balzac, who once wrote, “Every suicide is a poem sublime in its melancholy,” as well as Seneca, Antony and Cleopatra, and Augustine. She turns to John Donne, who wrote Biathanatos, a 1602 treatise about the moral implications of suicide.(“Whensoever any afflication assails me, methinks I have the keys of my prison in my own hand and no remedy presents itself so soon to my heart as mine own sword.”)

Literary references to suicide are especially critical to Leiberman’s analysis. She uses them to establish how societies expressed suicide in literature, poetry and drama. In addition, historical accounts are used to support her conclusions that suicide often represented a slight of life, rather than always an instinct toward death. Socrates becomes a pivotal example of someone who would rather choose death over hypocrisy, avoiding acting against the civilization that he helped to shape.

Probably the most important presence in the book is that of organized religion, which changed and sublimated its own stance on suicide as it gained and lost power throughout the centuries. For instance, Lieberman writes:

The Ordinance of 1670 codified the religious prohibitions against suicide into French law. By its terms, criminal proceedings were instituted against the cadaver or against the memory of individuals who killed themselves. The state’s penalty was confiscation of the suicide’s property. Additionally, the body was to be dragged, face down, through the streets on a hurdle and hanged by the feet as a public example.

In contrast, she notes that the legends of Lucretia, Cato, Brutus and Portia were inspirational as far as art and politics were concerned. “Their deaths became the models for a distinctive subgenre within the annals of self-destruction: the suicide of honor,” she writes. “To die for some higher ideal, for the sake of virtue, patriotism, or faith was to turn death into an occasion for homage.”

Lieberman nevertheless acknowledges, “This is not art.” These deaths, whether punishable or venerated, were real deaths, and in some cases, both personal and famous examples of loss in society. “Dying on your own terms is still dying,” she writes, citing Amery’s own words: “Often I have asked myself whether one can live humanly in the tension between fear and anger.”

Her point? Every shred of evidence condemning and validating suicide is, without a doubt, relevant to today’s world. Prozac or not.

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