Living as an Ex-Suicide

“The only cure for depression is suicide.” Walker Percy was not joking when he penned this line. The author himself was a survivor of suicide—though he did not attempt it. His grandfather and father both shot themselves at home; his mother either intentionally or not drove off of a bridge and drowned; and the first American Percy, Charles Percy, tied a kettle to his neck and also drowned.

Unlike his ancestors, Walker Percy lived a full life and died of prostate cancer at 74 years old. Why did they die but he lived? Because Percy chose to be a survivor, to find out not only why his father took his own life, but, as he put it, “to make damn sure it didn’t happen to [him].” This determination fueled his work. Percy wrote novel after novel trying to solve what Albert Camus called the only philosophical question, to be or not to be.

In his National Book Award-winning novel The Moviegoer, the hero’s lover is suicidal, and there is no cure for her; each day she lives is a victory. Percy’s quixotic Will Barrett from The Last Gentleman, has, like the author, lost a father to suicide, and in its sequel The Second Coming, he too attempts suicide in a lunatic Pascalian wager. Both Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome center on Dr. Tom More, who slashes his wrists and then discovers he wants to live. Real suicide is tragic, painful, and sometimes, no matter how much therapy or time, the wound cuts so deep that it feels forever raw.

In the wake of recent celebrity suicides—that of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain—there is a whir of explanations as to why they died. The majority of us were not close to these public figures. We could not tell you their pet peeves, what made them laugh, or their favorite childhood memory. Therefore, it seems audacious for so many to theorize on why they took their lives. Despite our ignorance regarding Spade’s and Bourdain’s reasons, we can speak about them as examples of a larger cultural problem. If suicide is the third leading cause of death in America, if it has risen, as journalists contend, thirty percent in a couple of decades, then our silence, in this instance, would be the more galling response.

It is too easy to dismiss suicide as a mental health problem. When we do so, we think we can throw money at the problem, and it will go away. But, the number of suicides has only risen with the increase in mental health care. Is suicide, then, another byproduct of modernity, this nondescript label we give our contemporary culture? As far as modernity has increased our alienation from one another, this may be true. Yet, we’ve been in a modern era for the past century, and suicide has only climbed the charts over the past twenty years. What of the faults of technology, how it disconnects us and dices us up into partial roles with one another rather than deep relationship? True, that’s a problem. However, there are plenty of social media users out there who are hashtagging “My Story” and telling how they overcame suicide rather than succumbed. It seems that social media, in this way, is acting as a bridge, not a divider. So, should we cast stones at American-ism? Our desire for achievement and financial success?

Percy indicts many of these factors but digs deep underneath them to the roots. The problem may be legion, but it has one cause: we do not know ourselves. We do not know where we came from, why we are here, or what comes at the end. We do not know what it means to have a good life or a good death. Often, Percy accuses Descartes as the great rabble-rouser who sliced us into two and made us question, for the past few centuries, whether we are organisms in an environment or gods within. Beasts or Angels. Who are we?

Lacking in this knowledge, we live and die for all the wrong reasons. The Declaration of Independence calls for the pursuit of happiness, but we define “happiness” as pleasure, achievement, or fortuitous circumstances. When we have all that we’ve ever wanted, then, we are surprised to find that we are still unhappy (read The Second Coming). Human beings seem paradoxically able to find enjoyment in bad environments, and sadness in pleasant ones.

If we do not literally kill ourselves, many of us are spiritual suicides, living in despair, and those of us who are not contemplating suicide, Percy labels “non-suicides”: “The non-suicide is a little traveling suck of care, sucking care with him from the past and being sucked toward care in the future.” Films, like Shaun of the Dead, parody our condition by casting us a physically living-dead, zombies going about our day with a pretense of happiness. We are spiritually sick, without being cognizant of the symptoms.

While there may be something wrong with our culture—and I’d grant that there is a lot wrong with it—the problem begins with ourselves. To combat this culture of death, we must acknowledge that the world is deranged, that we are not alienated individuals, but we are all born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. The Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminds us that if humans were made to be happy, we would not be born to die. Perhaps, we were not made for this world. Perhaps, earthly happiness should not be our primary pursuit. Perhaps, we should search for something more, and that search is life.

For Percy, we are wayfarers and pilgrims, and he always used “we” because, in this search, we are not alone. Yet, most of the time, we do not know this. We struggle to make it through a Wednesday afternoon. There seems to be no point or meaning, and we contemplate ending it all. Percy would say this is right. Consider suicide. Follow along with Percy’s thought experiment:

Suppose you elect suicide. Very well. You exit. Then what? … Your fellow townsmen will have something to talk about for a few days. Your neighbors will profess shock and enjoy it. One or two might miss you, perhaps your family who will also resent the disgrace. …The priest or minister or rabbi will say a few words over you and down you will go on the green tapes and that’s the end of you. In a surprisingly short time, everyone is back in the rut of his own self as if you never existed.

Seems like a poor option.

But, what freedom will come after this! After contemplating suicide, with all of its finality, tragedy, and consequences, then, life suddenly becomes livable. Once you realize that living is your choice, your preference, you are, in Percy’s terms, an “ex-suicide,” one who now “opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn’t have to.” Suicide is not the natural outcome of depression, though it’s the only “cure.” By considering suicide and not electing it, we reaffirm that to be is better than not to be.

We are the survivors. And, we must make damn sure it doesn’t happen to us.

Reader Discussion

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on June 15, 2018 at 13:51:52 pm

Great article.

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Michael J. Ard
on June 15, 2018 at 21:25:58 pm

I appreciated reading this well-written essay and reflecting on Walker Percy's existential insights about living in the face of a compulsion to die.

I have known four young men who killed themselves, two of whom were my casual acquaintances for many years, one of whom was a lawyer with whom I worked closely for 7 years, and the fourth was my best friend. All of their deaths were posthumously attributed to have been the consequence of overwhelming despair that was not apparent until after they were dead; all of their decisions to die appear to have been made suddenly, impulsively and with no indications of long pre-planning.

Each of their suicides is a mystery to me. And, based on my reflecting on their deaths and reading extensively about suicide, that is about as good as we can do: call suicide a great mystery while, in our penchant for plausible answers, attributing it to overwhelming despair.

But I think that pain is the problem, pain that seems unbearable, and that abating the pain is the answer.

Novelist William Styron's "Darkness Visible, A Memoir Of Madness" is about his descent into near suicidal depression and "Night Falls Fast, Understanding Suicide" by psychiatrist and chronic depression-sufferer, Kay Redfield Jamison may be the best clinical exploration of suicide. Both talk about seeking death as relief from unendurable pain.

Jamieson says, “When people are suicidal, their thinking is paralyzed, their options appear spare or nonexistent, their mood is despairing, and hopelessness permeates their entire mental domain. The future cannot be separated from the present, and the present is painful beyond solace. ‘This is my last experiment,’ wrote a young chemist in his suicide note. ‘If there is any eternal torment worse than mine I’ll have to be shown.”

And here is a quotation from Styron:
"What I had begun to discover is that, mysteriously and in ways that are totally remote from normal experience, the gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain. But it is not an immediately identifiable pain, like that of a broken limb. It may be more accurate to say that despair, owing to some evil trick played upon the sick brain by the inhabiting psyche, comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this cauldron, because there is no escape from this smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.”

Because the perceived inability to ever escape such intense emotional pain is the despair at the center of much suicide, overcoming that false perception (that the pain will be forever) is key, psycho-tropic medicines indispensable for coping with the pain and faith and courage the best answer to restoring the desire to live. Walker Percy spoke of the spiritually dead as non-suicides and called ex-suicides those with the existential courage to choose life in the face of wishing to die. Paul Tillich described the requisite faith as the "courage to be." Soren Kierkegaard emphasized personal choice and a leap of faith to become a knight of faith.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on June 15, 2018 at 21:49:05 pm

For more of a societal approach to this question, please see https://americansystemnow.com/rising-u-s-suicide-rate-demands-profound-national-change/

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Nancy Spannaus
on June 16, 2018 at 01:02:03 am


-United Press headline October 15, 1946.

The above announcement is more than just an editorial gaffe. It concisely encapsulates the view that suicide is more than just death; that it is a means of escape whether from justice, or pain, or shame, or boredom, or poverty. It is not simply the perfunctory and final outcome of depression. One need not be depressed to commit suicide. Suicide has no single cause, psychiatric, social, economic, spiritual, philosophical, cultural or otherwise.

The issue of suicide is plagued by facile and fallacious thinking: if a former NFL player commits suicide, it is because of CTE; if a gay teen does so, it is because of bullying; if an alcoholic does so it is because he could not overcome his demons, etc Many suicides defy easy explanation, such as the pact suicides that sometimes cluster in middle and high schools. Some people commit suicide as an expression of defiance, others as a final sign of submission, some as a gesture of control. others as final concession of lack of control. One may struggle to find the common thread in Goering's suicide, and say George Eastman's whose suicide note read: " To my friends, my work is done – Why wait? GE." The suicides of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were the codas to an evil and depraved performance.

There are some characteristics about suicide that are readily observable: it exists in all cultures to one degree or another; a significant number of people who successfully commit suicide have an anxiety spectrum disorder; suicides frequently happen in clusters appearing something like a contagion. In the United States the rate of suicide varies among and between American subcultures. This point cannot be ignored. Certain subcultures admire self destructive behavior. Others gravitate to nihilistic and empty world views. The cultural component of suicide is readily observed emerging from the issue of physician assisted suicide.

People do not only commit suicide because of the way they feel, or to avoid some unpleasant contingency. They often do so because of they way they see themselves within their cultural environments.

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on June 16, 2018 at 01:25:15 am

[…] BONUS BONUS: Law and Liberty addresses the suicide issue with an excellent piece by Jessica Wooten on Walker Percy, whose many novels deal with the subject. From the essay: […]

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Soze Yer Old Man | Media Hard
on June 16, 2018 at 10:10:38 am

Thoughtful reply. I did not know of the event and enjoyed reading the headline of Goering's cheating death through suicide. HaHa! The journalist was not in error, I think, but guilty only of inadvertent humorous irony. In fact, by resorting to what the Nazi monster saw as the warrior's act of honor, suicide, thereby denying his enemy the power of death, Goering did "cheat death" of the public disgrace and personal pain intended by the Nuremberg Court.

But as to your important point, I agree that suicide has myriad causes, most of which are known to the survivors, some of which are never known and others of which can only be imagined. A one-size-fits-all suicide prevention, thus, is a ridiculous notion that can only mislead families, friends and societies in their already-frenzied efforts to prevent it.

Yet, from what we know about suicide, we can say that it is mostly linked to the mental illness of severe depression and that unbearable, unremitting pain is its most dreadful, frightening symptom from which the sufferer seeks to escape. Hence my admonition to address the fear that the pain is forever.

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Image of Pukka Luftmensch
Pukka Luftmensch
on June 20, 2018 at 13:31:03 pm

Terrific essay. I've enjoyed hearing you speak at the Walker Percy Weekend, and I've thought a lot about Percy as suicide research has recently become of interest to me. Sadly, although I would agree there has been a rise in mental health care over the last several decades, actual access to mental health resources has not been the case, particularly among teenagers. Only a minority of teens and adults with depression actually receive care. More public health emphasis has recently been placed on prevention and screening as well as access to care. In general, the scientific literature supports the fact that the impulse to kill oneself is generally a transient state (and is rarely contemplated for more than minutes to hours). Hence, increasing emphasis on prevention and keeping people safe. This isn't without controversy--a perfect example was when taxpayers balked at paying extra for the Golden Gate Bridge to build the safety net currently underway (the argument being that if someone is going to kill themselves, intent will override any barrier). But that's generally not the case--it's a transient state. The majority of people are not going to go and find another bridge, and most survivors instantly regret the decision. I wish I knew why we are now seeing suicidal thoughts and acts in younger and younger children. I do believe social media, loneliness, and societal pressure are definitely playing a role.

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Gregory Plemmons
on January 31, 2020 at 06:02:24 am

[…] Living as an Ex-Suicide […]

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Image of Remembering Walker Percy: A Collection of Law & Liberty Essays
Remembering Walker Percy: A Collection of Law & Liberty Essays
on October 07, 2020 at 04:16:58 am

[…] Read “Living as an Ex-Suicide” by Jessica Hooten Wilson on the Law & Liberty here. […]

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.