In My Own Write: Detectives on the roof

Keeping an eye out for those who stray too near the edge.

judy montagu 88 (photo credit: )
judy montagu 88
(photo credit: )
You might wonder why I spent some time recently asking friends and colleagues: Have you ever known anyone who committed suicide? I had intended to ask 50 but stopped at 20, having, I thought, demonstrated convincingly enough that this most final of all self-directed acts was dismayingly more common than I had supposed. Also, though all those I asked received my jolting question sympathetically and no one recoiled, I felt I'd had enough of accosting people with it. Of the 20, only three hadn't been acquainted with anyone who'd ended his or her life. At least five had known more than one. One colleague said she had known three. WHAT propelled me along such a dismal line of enquiry was seeing two headlines in this newspaper on the same day, June 1: "Intelligence officer takes own life" and "Woman's suicide attempt fails." Both items were brief. In the first, a military intelligence department head in his mid-forties had shot himself with his personal handgun; motive unclear. The second told of a 56-year-old woman who had lost her job in a travel agency and lain down on a railway track near Beit Yehoshua ahead of an approaching train. Then, as often happens even at life's darkest moments, a glint of humor inserted itself: "Fate, however, would have it otherwise, as the train was traveling on the parallel rail. The Kiryat Ono resident sustained a minor head wound and fled the scene in her car, with the startled train driver looking on." Shades of Charlie Chaplin. A week later, on June 9, we had: "Man hurt in fall from university roof," according to which "a 20-year-old man was in serious condition after falling from the roof of a building at Bar-Ilan University." He had reportedly tried to commit suicide. SOME TIME ago, my daughter and I abandoned halfway through, by mutual consent, a TV documentary about an Internet chat room made up of young people whose sole aspiration in life, ironically, was to end it. Its only bright spot was a former member of this morbid community who had managed to cast off her obsession and was now devoting her time to persuading chatters who seemed to be in immediate danger out of their deadly ambition. When the program began to detail the demise, complete with his own personal countdown, of one youth who had actually carried out the deed, we turned off the television. Other cases have received wide publicity. In March, an electrician named Kevin Whitrick, a 42-year-old father of two, hanged himself live over the Internet in Britain's first "cyber-suicide." He had been suffering from depression after being badly injured in a car crash. Adding to his burdens were the recent death of his father and the breakdown of his marriage. London's Evening Standard reported that an assistant in a shop opposite Whitrick's apartment had described him as "subdued" the last time she had seen him. In 2003, Brandon Vedas, a 21-year-old from Phoenix, Arizona, killed himself on-line using a mixture of alcohol and prescription medication. MOST OF those who end their lives do so far less publicly, though no less tragically. In Israel, more than 400 people commit suicide every year, not including the thousands who try but don't succeed. Reasons run the gamut from illness, loneliness, grief, despair and trauma through social dislocation and economic desperation, with every possible gradation and mingling of these and other factors. But all these people have this in common: the conviction that there is no other way out; and that no one can possibly understand the magnitude of their suffering. Of all acts, suicide is surely the loneliest. Which is where you and I come in, and where I finally explain why I've been depressing the pants off anyone who has managed to read this far. The important thing at this point is to avoid facile or falsely optimistic statements. More than one mental health expert has observed that those who are really intent on taking their own lives will eventually find a way, and not much can be done to prevent them. That said, people don't become terminally desperate overnight; there is usually a trajectory, an incremental growth of hopelessness and despair. And while they move along that trajectory, they're still coming into contact with others - in the street and the supermarket, socially and at work. In any group we frequent, we may be dimly aware of a man or woman, boy or girl who hangs back on the fringe of things and generally seems to be alone. Perhaps he or she is not unhappy, just shy and/or sussing things out, biding his or her time to come forward and make friends. But perhaps not. Perhaps what we are witnessing, out of the corner of our eye and without paying much attention, is the slow disintegration of someone who may look fine but who is, within arm's reach, progressing toward the point of no return. How can we know? That's just it. We can't, unless we make the effort to find out. AND HERE, we are asking ourselves, in a way, to be supra-human. It's only human to want to stay within our own circle, interacting with those in whose company we already feel at ease. It's only human to be hesitant to step outside this comfort zone and open ourselves up, however minimally, to a person who may be problematic. We humans are programmed to harbor suspicion of the unknown - and who knows if the stranger we tentatively approach will turn around and rebuff us, or even be hostile? Troubled people often build walls around themselves that it can take real courage to breach. And, just to complicate matters, who's to say the suicidal person is the quiet one who remains aloof? Many times, poignantly, it's the person who's in the thick of things, laughing and joking and giving every impression of being the life and soul of the party. "'He always struck me as very happy,'" the shop assistant told the Standard about Briton Kevin Whitrick. "'He was friendly and had two perfect kids... I cannot believe he has done this.'" AND YET the fact that thousands of people among us are, at any one time, contemplating suicide makes it imperative that we bring ourselves to look a little beyond our own familiar clique. Indeed, Jewish tradition expects it. "Greet everyone with a smiling face," Hillel enjoins (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:15), in a call that sounds almost naive. What the sage may, however, be recommending is that we develop more of an all-round vision where our fellow man is concerned. This isn't to suggest that we become amateur social workers, adopting every problematic character who crosses our path. We have our own healthy self-interest to consider. But who can say that a warm smile and a moment or two of sincere and friendly conversation may not put renewed heart into someone who's thinking of giving up? We've all seen those television police thrillers where one or more detectives are up on the roof (or down below with a megaphone) coaxing someone who's threatening to jump off to step back and give life another chance. In a sense, we all need to be detectives on the roof, looking around to see whether anyone in our vicinity might be straying too near the edge. JEWISH law considers suicide a very serious offense. "For him who takes his own life with full knowledge of his action, no rites are to be observed," says the Talmud. "There is to be no rending of clothes, and no eulogy." In practice, however, Halacha is notably reluctant to actually label anyone a suicide. Those who act on impulse, or under severe mental strain or physical pain - which covers virtually every case - are categorized as being "under compulsion" (anuss) and therefore not responsible for their actions. They are buried with the same courtesies and privileges as anyone else. Not, God forbid, that it should serve as an inducement.