Language of suicide notes
A few months ago, I read an article on suicide notes and I really didn’t like it. And so I approached the editor of Death Studies with a request to write a response. To my surprise, Bob Neimeyer agreed, for which I wish to thank him. My short article has recently been accepted for publication.
In this post, I would like to offer the gist of my polemic. But before I do, I would like to stress that this is an ‘Amicus Plato…’ kind of post. The researchers with whose article I take issue, Antoon Leenaars and David Lester, have provided milestones of suicidological research. I have only utmost respect for their work and I do not and would never wish to undermine what they have done. My polemical commentary focuses on a minute aspect of their work.
The article I commented on is situated with a long-standing tradition of using suicide notes for insight into the ‘suicidal mind’. Indeed, in the study at hand, the two authors use a number of quotes from the suicide notes they studied, postulating what their authors had in mind. Below I go through some of the arguments they make.
1. All-or-nothing thinking. The article suggests that sentences such as:
- I never could stand their cattiness
- I can never be happy
- I never thought I would do this
- Never forget me
suggest ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking. This is because of the use of the word ‘never’ and I have a problem with such a claim. Basically, if I really stopped speaking to everyone I told
I’ll never speak to you again.
while all those who said it to me also stopped talking me, I would have barely anyone left to speak to. Put differently, the authors seem not to allow for the possibility that such words as ‘never’ or ‘always’ might be used for emphasis. Moreover, given the dramatic situation in which such sentences are written, it seems quite obvious that dramatic or emphatic language will be used. It might also be used to justify the act.
2. Failure to cope. The authors propose that sentences such as:
- I’ m sorry I couldn’t help you find it.
- I’m only sorry I couldn’t leave behind a happier adult life
- I never could stand their cattiness
suggest that their authors display ‘failure to cope with problems and situations, a feeling of being defeated’. For me, in turn, there are two problems with such an interpretation. First, I would like to see the full context in which the sentences were written. Surely, there is a difference, if such sentences are part of long notes (some notes I have were up to 8 pages long) or, alternatively, they were the only sentences in the notes. Secondly, the interpretation the article suggests is that suicide notes might not have ‘normal’ communicative functions. In other words, that when you write a suicide note, language changes from a complex communicative tool to transparent window into the author’s soul.
And so, why not assume that the sentences above are means to express sorrow, regret, irritation, anger? They also might have been written in a multitude contexts to which neither the article authors not I have access and so, we cannot possibly interpret the text fully.
3. Emotion-words. The final issue focuses more on the assumptions behind the research, rather than the claims made by the authors. It all boils down to the assumptions that language is about words. And so, we have references to ‘positive emotions’, anger, religion or searing, next to ‘present tense verbs’ and, for the life of me, I don’t understand the foundation of such categorisation. Let’s focus then on two categories – anger words and ‘positive emotions’.
Consider the following two suicide notes (from the Polish corpus of suicide notes) – they are in translation from Polish:
- Why did you kill me? You killed, killed, killed, killed.
- You’ve got what you wanted.
I can’t see any ‘anger’ words in those notes, and yet, I have little doubt that the two notes can be interpreted in terms of anger. The idea that anger is (or can be) expressed only by ‘anger words’ or, reversely, that ‘anger words’ always express anger, once again, has little to do with how language is used. Depending on the context, even
I am so angry with you.
can, in fact, be used as an expression of love. Go figure!
So, what about love, the prototypical ‘positive emotion’ in research on suicide notes. If love is mentioned in the few hundred notes that I have, more often than not, it is explicitly identified as the reason for suicide. This is because it unreciprocated, a remnant of a relationship which had broken down. Given this, I must admit that I find it extremely difficult simply to assume that the word ‘love’ refers to a ‘positive emotion’. In fact, it refers to a destructive force, anything but a ‘positive emotion’ in the lives of the authors of suicide notes. It is a source of suffering, distress, misery and is constructed as leading to death.
In a nutshell, my argument is that language is not a set of words whose function is to offer an unobscured view onto some private (psychological) reality. We use language for a number of simultaneous goals, from representing reality to constructing relationships. These goals are sometimes hidden, strategic or manipulative. There is no reason to think that it all stops when people write suicide notes. Indeed, I doubt very much that a note such as:
You don’t have to phone [anymore], children.
is simply a statement informing the note author’s children that they don’t have to phone their father anymore.