Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous, and the Notorious

Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous, and the Notorious

Kurt Cobain, Anne Sexton, Mark Rothko, Ernest Hemingway, Adolf Hitler . . . all famous, some rich and powerful, some beloved, some abhorred. But when life and circumstance got to be too much, each headed for the exit door. Sigmund Freud overdosed on morphine. Dorothy Dandridge stripped naked and swallowed a handful of antidepressants. Hunter S. Thompson shot himself while talking to his wife on the phone.

These are the lonely personal nightmares behind celebrity suicides—the deaths and their causes are as diverse as the victims themselves. In Death Becomes Them, Alix Strauss bids each one a final good-bye while examining the last days and the unbearable incidents that drove these notables to end their lives. She decodes their notes, touches on their accomplishments, and delves into the methodologies of their deaths using autopsy and police reports and personal photos. Strauss also explores the morbid curiosity that feeds our fixation with famously tortured souls and provides lists of other controversial, bizarre, and poorly executed suicides in this mammoth tome.

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3 Comments so far »

  1. cathy earnshaw said,

    Wrote on November 7, 2011 @ 2:40 pm

    20 of 27 people found the following review helpful:
    1.0 out of 5 stars
    Error-ridden and morally questionable, October 18, 2009
    By 
    cathy earnshaw (Berlin, Germany) –

    This review is from: Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous, and the Notorious (Paperback)

    Books like Malcolm Forbes’s They Went That-Away: How the Famous, the Infamous, and the Great Died (1989), M. F. Steen’s Celebrity Death Certificates (2005) and this one by Alix Strauss all feed into and reflect a certain social fascination with the premature deaths of celebrities – the new gods, as many say, in our increasingly secularized society.

    Many of the cultural representations of suicide over the years have been more than a little questionable at best. Often famous artists who have killed themselves undergo romanticisation for their self-destructive ends (e.g. Kurt Cobain, Nick Drake, Ian Curtis, Elliott Smith, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf). Such romanticisation seems partly to have the function of glossing over the individual and social psychological and emotional problems that underlie what is in most cases a very tragic act, making it more ‘palatable’ to a public eager for behind-the-scenes access to the lives of public figures. Hand-in-hand with this cultural romanticisation and heroisation of suicide goes a morbid fascination with the details – the chosen method, the appearance of the corpse, the documentation, and the pain that usually preceded the act. And it is this morbid voyeurism that Alix Strauss gleefully feeds in her book Death Becomes Them (2009). As its neon cover suggests with the respective method hovering above the celebrity’s name – a gas oven above Plath, a dagger-like knife above Elliott Smith, a noose suspended above Ian Curtis – this is one of the ‘glossy’ takes on tragedy written by, as the dust jacket tells us, “a lifestyle trend writer for national talk shows”.

    There are three key moral problems to Strauss’s book, I think:
    1. It trivialises suicide and the negative emotions and thought patterns that frequently precede it (when talking of the Hollywood actress Peg Entwistle, for example, Strauss writes “this would be her last performance”, as if suicide could be equated with theatre).
    2. It explains in detail to its readership the most effective ways of killing yourself. Given that the Centre for Suicide Research at Oxford University has found that “all research suggests that showing, in detail, methods of suicide does result in an increase of those methods immediately afterwards”, this is irresponsible of Strauss and her publishers (Harper).
    3. It treats all suicides as equal and at one point directly follows an account of Hitler’s suicide with one of Sigmund Freud (which was not technically a suicide) who had to flee the Nazis in 1938, escaping from Vienna to settle in London. Disturbingly, Strauss seems to equate Nazi genocide of the Jews with the emergence of jaw cancer in the Jewish Freud, which was largely self-caused by his 20-a-day cigar habit: “As Hitler’s power blazed through parts of Europe, cancer did the same to Freud” (p. 230). Rather repugnantly she includes a “Career Highlights” section for Hitler, too.

    There is also the matter of factual inaccuracies:
    In the chapter on the poet Sylvia Plath, for instance, Strauss writes that she died in Devon (she didn’t, she died in London), that she was found by the nanny (it was actually the nurse and construction workers), that Ted Hughes’s second wife also killed herself (which might surprise his second wife who is alive and well and living in Devon; he never married Assia Wevill), and that the poet Anne Sexton read “a touching eulogy” at her funeral (Sexton did not in fact attend her funeral, which was held in Yorkshire).

    The author of a blog on Plath found in excess of 22 errors within the space of the 10 pages written on Plath alone.

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  2. Steve said,

    Wrote on November 7, 2011 @ 3:17 pm

    3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
    1.0 out of 5 stars
    Junk Read, March 18, 2011
    By 
    Steve

    This review is from: Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous, and the Notorious (Paperback)

    Do not read this book if you want real and accurate information. Just three examples of the sad lack of accuracy Alix Strauss passes off as a book:
    1. Nick Adams starred in the TV series “The Rebel”, NOT “Rebel Without a Cause” as Strauss states.
    2. Adolf Hitler’s body did NOT show traces of any poisoning and there is no physical evidence that he shot himself. A reasonable possibility is that he was strangled by his man-servant because he wouldn’t commit suicide and the Russians were closing in. Arguably the best biography on Hitler is Robert Waite’s The Psychopathic God.
    3. Kurt Cobain’s death biography is fictional in the most important areas. His skull did not have an exit wound so the foolishness of Courtney Love supposedly finding a small piece of his skull is ridiculous. Also the comments on what shotguns can do does not apply to what actually happened to Cobain. Read the police report; it only describes damage to the mouth; no exit wound. The statement that he did not have enough drugs in him to kill him is not accurate. In fact he had 3 times the lethal dose in his system. And that lethal overdose proves that he could NOT have shot himself. The statement that investigators confirmed that only Kurt was pointing the gun is wrong: see […]. And regarding legible fingerprints, NONE were found, not even Cobain’s, which raises the red flag of someone wiping the weapon down after the shooting. Again, read the police and lab reports which can be found online.

    Don’t bother reading something that is not accurate.

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  3. wendy "wendy" said,

    Wrote on November 7, 2011 @ 3:54 pm

    8 of 12 people found the following review helpful:
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Fantastic Read!, October 7, 2009
    By 
    wendy “wendy” (phila) –

    This review is from: Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous, and the Notorious (Paperback)

    I highly recommend this book! This was one of the most fascinating and compelling books I’ve ever read! Each profile is well executed with page turning details, descriptions, and suspenseful intricate moments unfolding the mysterious stories of these accomplished figures. It’s dark, it’s informative, it’s FANTASTIC!

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