Leaving You: The Cultural Meaning of Suicide

Leaving You: The Cultural Meaning of Suicide

Leaving You: The Cultural Meaning of Suicide

At heart, suicide is a subversive act: the assertion of individual will against public authority. How is it, then, that the act of suicide–one with defiant political implications–has come to be viewed as the last refuge of the self-destructive victim? In Leaving You, Lisa Lieberman explores the puzzle of this reigning perception of suicide. Drawing on diverse sources, from biblical stories to Romantic novels, philosophical theories, and psychiatric diagnoses, along with contemporary memoirs of suicidal depression, she shows how the idea of suicide as an act of protest has pervaded Western attitudes toward self-destruction, yet how our contemporary view attempts to deny suicide’s disruptive potential by depriving the act of its defiance. Efforts to read meaning out of suicide are not hard to find today, Ms. Lieberman finds. 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. Sociological explanations that emphasize social causes over individual intentions serve to make suicides passive. Our reluctance to recognize the right to die, to concede this right even to the terminally ill, betrays our uneasiness with the power implied in the act of self-destruction. Ms. Lieberman aims to restore autonomy to the so-called victims by showing how suicide came to function as a vehicle for constructing identity.

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1 Comment so far »

  1. Marjorie Hutter said,

    Wrote on October 24, 2012 @ 7:40 pm

    11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Illuminates a dark and difficult topic, May 13, 2004
    Marjorie Hutter (Amherst, MA USA) –

    This review is from: Leaving You: The Cultural Meaning of Suicide (Hardcover)

    I find it hard to say that a book about suicide is a good read but this diminutive collection of essays about the meaning of suicide made a big impression on me. In the preface to Leaving You: The Cultural Meaning of Suicide, Lisa Lieberman says, “The thread that runs through all [five essays] is my appreciation of self-destruction as a meaningful gesture, a statement that holds more than private significance. A statement, moreover, that is essentially subversive…This book charts the tension between society’s interest in restraining suicide’s disruptive power and the individual’s freedom to determine the meaning of his own death.”

    While acknowledging that her argument about such a painful topic will make some people uncomfortable, the author succeeds in presenting her views in a nuanced and thoughtful way that always respects the reader’s right to think and feel differently. Her interwoven essays exploring different dimensions of self-destruction draw the wary reader’s eye with such intriguing titles as “Defiant Death,” “Sex and Suicide,” and “Death and Democracy.” Lieberman says that she intentionally chose the essay format to “allow readers room for their own thoughts.” With her deeply felt commitment to the topic, combined with extensive research and a warm narrative voice, she offers readers much more. She creates the intellectual and emotional spaciousness for us to examine our assumptions about and reflect upon our experiences of suicide, whether the act has touched our lives directly – as in her case – or has gained our attention from a distance.

    Lieberman’s exploration of the meaning of suicide brings to mind another thought provoking book I recently read about the nature of anger. In Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion, Carol Tavris argues that anger is not a disease with a single cause, nor is depression simply anger turned inward, as contemporary medical and psychological models of the emotions would have us believe. Instead, anger in its many forms – rage, hatred, violence, chronic resentment – is “a process, a transaction, a way of communicating.” Similarly, Lieberman could have named her book Suicide: The Misunderstood Act because she expands our contextual understanding of suicide as something more than an incomprehensible act of individual despair. This isn’t to say that she dismisses the advances in neuropsychology that are enabling us to effectively treat depression. Rather, she restores to our current thinking about suicide the notion that self-destruction, contemplated or realized, is an integral aspect of the human condition.

    In sum, Lieberman’s little book rightly belongs on the bookshelves of every doctor, psychotherapist, medical professor and student as a companion to the clinical tomes on depression and related affective disorders. It also calls out to be read by the many professionals and volunteers committed to the work of suicide prevention, from college administrators to hotline counselors. It may even provide some measure of solace to grieving family and friends who have lost a loved one to suicide.

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