Suicide notes are acts of communication

When I was preparing to write my book on men’s suicide notes, I was struck by how unproblematised suicide notes were. Just about since the first study of suicide notes (by Shneidman and Farberow) suicidology has not been interested in notes as acts of communication. They are seen as  not having any communicative functions of goals.

Such assumptions are simplistic, to say the least. Suicide notes for decades have been seen as communicatively transparent and have largely been used to get insight into the ‘suicidal mind’, i.e. into what the person who wrote them thought or felt. Moreover, there has practically been no attempt (apart from two, which I discuss in the book) to consider communicative aspects of suicide letters.

One of those studies, by Yang & Lester, breaks away (and it is explicitly noted in the article) from the dominant assumption that suicide notes might be a bit more than a simple reflection of a person’s mind. In contrast to the commonly held view that suicide notes offer insight into the suicidal mind, the authors argue that some suicide notes might also have self-presentational aspects. However, they add that any attempt at self-presentation is tantamount to psychosemantic fallacy (Shneidman and Farberow’s term). In other words, “the person confuses the self as experienced by the self with the self as experienced by others.” (page 78).

Let make a couple of comments. I am not certain at all why assume that only some suicide notes are self-presentational. Is self-presentation only assumed in the notes with self-reference of their author? This is unclear (though all their examples do contain it) and, if indeed it is assumed, it is implausible. Ever since the publication of Goffman’s Self-Presentation in Everyday Life, we have been able to assume that self-presentation is just about inevitable. Interestingly, second, if Yang and Lester are right, we could say that Goffman discovered that psychosemantic fallacy is the cornerstone of social interaction. And that would be something!

In contrast to Yang and Lester, I would argue that arguments about self-presentation can easily be extended onto all notes, including, for example, those linguistically focusing only on the addressees, as, for example, notes with instructions do. After all they position the writing person as powerful and in control. Surely, this is also self-presentation. Even such notes as

  • You killed. You killed. You killed. You killed.
  • You have got what you wanted.

must also be seen as constructing a particular picture of the person writing them. The notes can be seen as accusations, apportioning blame, which in turn positions the author as wronged, in pain or simply an accuser. There is no escape from self-construction (which, for example, psychologists such as Davies and Harré remind use in their positioning theory) and any assumption that only some notes are self-presentational is implausible. But the two notes above also show another aspect of the communicative potential of suicide notes. It is more than likely that the notes are used to blame the addressee. In other words, the notes are accusations and this is likely to be their main function.

And so, suicide authors confessed love, accused, apologised, thanked, sometimes all at the same time in one note! And yet, it seems, that suicidology is blissfully unaware of these and probably quite a number of other functions of suicide notes, together with the goals the notes might serve. I would argue further that a note such as

  • I will haunt you and [name] till you are alive.

should first and foremost be understood as a threat with a goal of scaring the addressee! That is the point of what the author of the notes wrote and as a competent user of language, the author could not have not realised it. It cannot and should not be taken simply as transparent insight into what the author thought. And it is worth adding that any attempt to assess the ‘state of the mind’ of the person who wrote such a note must surely fail. Do you take the note at face value? Will the addressee take it at face value? Was it an attempt simply to score one? Was it based on the assumption that the addressee believes in ghosts, while the writer does not? Or, strange as it may seem, was it simply a joke? Or maybe a joke at the expense of the addressee? There are so many permutations of (inter-)subjectivities used in writing and understanding (which, incidentally, might not overlap) of the notes that such questions could go on just about indefinitely. At the same time answers to them are practically impossible to give.

This is the point where I want to take issue with another assumption which, I think, has underpinned research into suicide notes. Suicide notes are taken to be ‘ultrapersonal’ (a point made by Antoon Leenaars in numerous publications) and this is why one gets insight into the suicidal mind of the person about to kill themselves. The problem with this assumption is that as acts of communication they are not and cannot be seen as personal, let alone ultrapersonal (regardless of what it might mean). There are two reasons for it. One is that suicide notes have addressees. They are written to be read, often with an explicit addressee. It is highly unlikely that a suicide note is written for the sake of it, never to be found, and if found, never to be read.

I’d go further, actually. I think that suicide notes must be understood as semi-public texts. They are more than likely to be read in institutional contexts, also by people they are not addressed to. In fact, suicide notes which I analysed suggest that the writing men were well aware of the fact. Some notes are addressed to the police and/or the prosecutor’s office, moreover, I also argue that statements of the man’s intent to kill himself can be seen to be directed at officials qualifying the act as suicide (or not). This means, basically, that suicide notes do not only have the ‘front stage’ (Goffman’s term) or the direct addressees, but they also have other recipients, some of them licensed, and some not. This, in turn, changes the nature of communication. Commonsensically, if I know that someone is eavesdropping or can overhear me, I need either to change the medium of communication or the message. The medium of the suicide note cannot be changed, but I can change the message. Insight into the suicidal mind? Hardly!

Now, the final point I want to make can be somewhat controversial. I think that research on suicide notes hitherto has tacitly assumed that suicide notes are simply an honest and sincere act of communication. And yet, there is no reason to think that at all. At least some might well be deceptive, manipulative, or at least strategic. The suicide note might (and I stress ‘might’) be the last opportunity to take revenge, to get your own back. In a nutshell, there is no reason to assume that just because a man wants to take his life, all ulterior motives disappear. And given the number of notes confessing eternal love and stressing inability to live without it, it seems that at least there is a context for it. I do want to emphasise, however, that I do not claim that this is the case, let alone in all suicide notes. I only propose such a possibility as an issue which should be considered in researchers’ reflections on suicide notes.

To sum up – I propose that in contrast to dominant research on suicide notes, they should never be seen as transparent texts with no communicative functions. In fact, I argue they should be seen as the exact opposite of that. They should be seen as a site of complex, multi-purpose acts of communication, possibly with hidden, strategic or manipulative goals. And they should certainly not be seen as a simple window into anyone’s mind.


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