News travels and over the last months I have received a few articles on suicide notes to review. They all make the same assumption – suicide notes are personal (‘ultrapersonal’ even). As the claim is supported and reinforced by reviewers, it seems, I am again fairly solitary in my view that such claims are implausible. This post contains extracts from genuine suicide notes.
I have written about suicide notes before. In a recent post, I argued that suicide notes are acts of communication and there is no reason to see them outside normal assumptions of what communication is like. And in contrast to the oft-quoted claim by Antoon Leenaars that suicide notes are ‘ultrapersonal’ and through this allow insight into the suicidal mind of the person about to kill themselves, I think that this is an assumption that ignores the nature of communication. Here I want to extend the points I made earlier.
So, first, suicide notes have addressees. They are written to be read, often with an explicit addressee. It is highly unlikely that the suicide note is written for the sake of it, never to be found, and if found, never to be read. And if so, there is no reason (or at least no evidence) to suggest that as acts of communication which are directed at someone, they leave the realm of communication practices and, for example, do not follow Gricean Cooperative Principle or rules of politeness. There is plenty of evidence that note writers want their letters to be perceived as ‘normal communication, e.g. by following ‘normal’ rules of letter writing.
The second point is more important. Suicide notes must be understood as semi-public texts. Most suicide notes I read are either explicitly or implicitly addressed to those close to the person killing themselves, however, many are explicitly addressed to the police and/or the prosecutor’s office on the one hand, and to employers, banks, insurers, on the other. There is much evidence that authors of farewell letters are fully aware that their notes will be read in institutional contexts, possibly also by people they are not addressed to.
This is also flagged up implicitly. Consider the following notes (in translation from Polish)
- I hanged myself on my own. Please do not blame my wife.
- My death is an ordinary suicide. I am not blaming anyone in my family for this premature death of mine.
In both extracts, the men explicitly talk about killing themselves, in the first extract directly taking responsibility for taking his life. In the other fragment, the responsibility is more indirect, yet, the reference to ‘ordinary suicide’ is, in my view, aimed at claiming responsibility for the act. Both these statements are followed by explicit denial of any responsibility for the men’s deaths on the part of their close ones.
I see such notes as a sort of legal indemnity for the men’s families. The notes do not ‘give insight into the writers’ minds’, but, rather, have clear communicative goals of exculpating the families of those who took their lives. By taking responsibility for their deaths and making clear they were suicides, the men might have hoped to pre-empt any prosecutor’s investigation. Put differently, the notes are not an account of suicide, they are warrants that nothing would happen to those who were left behind.
Of course, you can interpret the second fragment at face value. The note can be interpreted as informing of the fact that its author killed himself. Yet, if we take that the authors do follow normal rules of communication, the information is more than likely to be redundant. The family are likely to know this, so, the message must be directed at someone else.
Needless to say, this is all only part of the story. In my view, there is also little doubt that such notes have other functions, such as, for example, relieving any potential feelings guilt on the part of the men’s families (how successful they might be, is a completely different matter!).
Such considerations lead us to the point I made in the earlier blogpost: suicide notes do not only have the ‘front stage’ (Goffman’s term) or direct addressees, but they also have other recipients, some of them licensed, and some not. Those who write such notes suddenly do not lost the ability to communicate and are fully aware of what is likely to happen to their letter, as well as of what happens in the case of someone committing suicide. And in my view, their letters are a strategic response to such contexts and considerations.
All the above suggests that suicide notes are far from be ‘personal’ or ‘ultrapersonal’. Yes, they do (sometimes!) talk about very difficult issues and strongly experienced feelings, emotions, suffering. Yes, they are things that we tend not to talk about lightly or publicly, but references to very personal and often private experiences don’t mean that notes are ‘personal’. Such a claim is based on assumptions made on the basis of the contents of what is written, without much reflection of what else and how it is written.
If discourse analysis of suicide notes suggests anything, it is that the context of taking one’s life lifts some of the concerns of sayability. And, indeed, quite commonsensically, confessions must become more available in a suicide note than, say, in a lecture. But discourse analysis also teaches us that whatever and however is said must be seen as part of the context in which it is said. And, in my view, it makes considerably more sense to argue that the dramatic context of one’s suicide changes what can be said without face loss, rather than to argue that the nature of communication suddenly changes.
Suicide notes are not ‘personal’, they are acts of communication. It also turns out that they might offer some considerable insight into how suicide is experienced.