Suicide and Redemption

Photo courtesy of tousledmind

In light of the tragic death of director Tony Scott, I wanted to bring up the issue that no one wants to talk about, and my connection to it in my life and in my work. It is my hope that those in the midst of dark or harrowing times will reach out to their loved ones in person instead of by a note that will not reach them until it’s too late.

Suicide runs like a knotty vine through my family tree, as it does for many others, I suspect. Even the word ‘suicide’ is a secret, ugly word, shadowed with shame, blame, guilt, and regret. Missed opportunities, pain over harsh words, fear that those who committed the act will never, ever rest from it. Fear that those left have a piece of that in them—a piece of whatever impulse of outrageous courage or cowardice it was that prompted the others to do it.

Because of the suicides of numerous family members and friends, I have long been drawn to artists who have committed suicide, both in fiction and in life. From characters like Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s, “The Awakening,” to Virginia Woolf. From Sylvia Plath to Anne Sexton. From Kurt Cobain to Ernest Hemingway.

Several years ago, I visited Hemingway’s home in Key West. I’ve loved Hemingway’s work since college, and visiting the house seemed to cement my connection to him. When I got home, I knew I wanted to write about Hemingway at that place in his time not only because it held a high degree of historical value, but because I wanted to redeem him.

Ernest Hemingway had a well known nasty streak, but not many people know about his other side. While researching my novel, I was given permission to visit the Hemingway archive at the JFKMuseum in Boston, where over ninety percent of Hemingway’s papers, letters, manuscripts, and photographs reside. It was while reading his letters and flipping through his photographs that I saw a side of Hemingway that moved me deeply.

From the meat-head known for knocking out weaker men in bar fights, came tender words of consolation to dear friends who had lost their son. From the writer known to slam his peers through vitriolic commentary and thinly disguised fictionalizations, came a man who let a homeless young wanderer into his home and his life for a year to instruct him on fishing and writing. From the prolific husband and notorious womanizer, came A MOVEABLE FEAST, which feels, in large part, like a long letter of apology and regret to his first wife and his young self.

Sadly though, I could hardly enjoy reading about the good times in his life with his end looming. When someone commits suicide there is a natural tendency to view every moment of the life through the filter of the death. For some, suicide is the culmination of a lifetime of terrible lows, for others, a seemingly inexplicable impulse. Whether it is appropriate or not, every harsh word, every tear, even the happy times seem somehow connected to the final act.

In Hemingway’s works and letters, one can’t help but think of his life in terms of his suicide since he not only talked about his intention of doing it throughout the years, but also because of how many of his family members had died by their own hands. In the present day, Hemingway would have probably been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and given antidepressants. In his time he was given electroshock therapy that damaged his mind, broke his spirit, and left him unable to write.

While spending so much time learning about Hemingway’s death and the suicides of his father, sister, and brother, among others, I was forced to spend a lot of time thinking about my own family members and friends. A boy who had shot himself in high school for not getting into the Naval Academy. A father who had taped the windows and doors of his New York City apartment bathroom and opened the gas line while his five kids played in the living room. An uncle who got drunk after several years of sobriety and drove his car into a parked vehicle at a dizzying speed. They came back to me, and I did not welcome them.

Gradually, though, I found that while I wrote, while I thought of them, my writing became a prayer for them. It was an acknowledgment of their lives and deaths, and hope for their peace after death.

My novel is not about suicide. It is about persistence and living life well, even in the face of temptation and tragedy. It is my hope that within the words there is a release, a remembrance without judgment, and a redemption.

*     *     *

If you or someone you love is experiencing suicidal thoughts or depression, please don’t wait to reach out for help. There are so many resources out there. One of particular poignancy is that of Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter, Mariel Hemingway. Her foundation is called You Matter, Don’t Quit. For more about it, please visit the Facebook page.


21 thoughts on “Suicide and Redemption

  1. This is such a beautiful and important post, Erika. Thank you for writing it and giving the subject matter the attention it needs. Like you, my family has experienced the tragic loss of friends and loved ones to suicide. It can be so frightening and painful and infuriating. I found great comfort in your thoughts on persistence and living well and “a release, a remembrance without judgment, and a redemption.”

  2. Wow, Erika. All I can say is, ‘wow.’ Who among us hasn’t been affected by suicide — such an emotionally difficult topic which, as you say, isn’t discussed and carries so much shame in its aftermath. Your words in this post, alone, are beautiful and poetic. I can’t wait to read your homage to Hemingway. I’m sure your prayer for him – and those in your life – will be well-recieved. We’re fortunate you had the courage to tackle this difficult topic in your writing.

  3. This is beautiful, Erika. Sad and stark – but sometimes those are the things that best make us appreciate our own lives and help us see into the lives of others with more compassion.

  4. Hallie Sawyer says:

    When I hear of a suicide, I always think, “How could they possibly think that this was the best solution?” But then I have to realize I haven’t walked in their shoes. I have not dealt what they have dealt with. It’s sad that so many choose to leave this world so early, letting their light die rather than stoke it to its full glory. Thank you for the info about Mariel’s foundation. I had never heard of it before and will certainly check it out.

    And you accomplished what you set out to do with your novel in regard to redeeming Hemingway. You did it beautifully.

  5. erikarobuck says:

    All of you are leaving such touching comments. One can never fully understand the private pain of another. It’s fortunate that there are so many resources for people today.

    Thanks, again. xo

  6. Erika, This is such a beautifully-written, heartfelt essay on something that is so difficult to address and talk about. Thank you for sharing something near to your heart, so near to all of us, and for opening up a conversation on it with hope in your novel. Stunning, what you’ve shared. Thank you.

    • erikarobuck says:

      Thank you, Jennifer. It’s amazing how many people can relate when it’s brought up. It’s just so hard to talk about.

      I went to a funeral last year of a husband and father active in church and community life whose suicide was a total shock to everyone who knew him. The minister did such a beautiful job of consoling the congregation.

  7. Diane Turner says:

    Beautifully written, Erika. On Friday, I attended a funeral for an amazingly talented young dancer, who opted out of life in her thirties. Everyone was reeling and uncomfortable, including the facilitator. He should have used your poignant essay as a template. Thanks for sharing.

    • erikarobuck says:

      Oh, Diane, I am so sorry to hear that. The minister at the service said that the man who did this was obviously very ill in his mind, and that he thinks God’s mercy extends far wider than what the human mind can possibly imagine. I hope the family of that dancer (and her own soul) finds peace.

  8. lomaurice says:

    What a beautiful and moving post. Thank you so much for sharing.

  9. Nina Badzin says:

    I echo your other commenters–beautiful and moving.

    As a TOTAL aside, it’s been incredible to watch the pre-pub excitement over your book. I could not be more thrilled for you. My only beef is that you’re not coming to Minneapolis. We will expect you for ZELDA. 😉

    • erikarobuck says:

      Thank you for your thoughts on the post, and for your launch congratulations!

      As an aside, I was just invited to ABA in Minneapolis! But it’s not a public event. 😦 I’ll let you know if I have any extra time, though Penguin likes to get me in and out of these places, so I can’t make too much mischief.

  10. Thank you for sharing. In my family, there was a similar tragedy, and my parents told me not to talk about it or tell anyone about it because it would make them think poorly of us. But I think talking about it makes it lose its stigma and hopefully spurs people to get help. It seems like there’s a murder-suicide or at least a suicide every month around here (largely due to the economy, I think), so San Diego has been advertising a suicide helpline quite heavily.

    • erikarobuck says:

      That is so sad, Margaret. Two of my family suicides happened during the Great Depression. Two others were directly related to money troubles in recent years. It’s just terrible.

  11. It’s a curious subject, and you write about it so beautifully. I cannot wait to read Hemmingway’s Girl.

  12. Wendy Kelly says:

    Thank you for those words of wisdom. Often, it is through tragedy that life is reborn. After losing a son to suicide, I’m grateful to be able to share Mariel Hemingway’s site to my daughter, also dealing with bi-polar disorder. Everyday is a new adventure.

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