Hopey Holidays


We used to think suicide rates were highest around the winter holidays but now we know that T. S. Eliot was right, April is the cruelest month. Why? Because it “breeds lilacs from the dead land,” which is to say that everything wakes up and if you are not in the mood for that, it can be pretty off-putting. The winter was dark for everyone, now everybody but you is out there in the sun shaking their booties. Depressing. So I say we use that information to boost our moods now! How cozy are these darkest hours. How intimate our separate longings. How dormant all that nonsense and humidity. Winter! We, of all people, are present, if accounted for (if for which unaccounted). How absurd. In the twenty-first century, no less! At least, let us together mourn the weather. At best, let us let failing and winning take its rest. Got a little poetic there. Ex oh ex.

New Review of Stay -- In The Christian Century

New Review of Stay in the current issue of The Christian Century

Fascinating to be thus reviewed in The Christian Century.

Some highlights:

The distinguished poet Jennifer Hecht is a kind of philosopher and a first-rate historian of ideas. In her previous book, Hecht traced the vicissitudes of the meaning of doubt in our culture, and in these beautifully written pages she jogs our collective memory about the topic of suicide.

Most arguments contra the moral legitimacy of suicide are built on premises of faith, on the view that you are robbing God of God’s property. Hecht, in contrast, is intent on providing secular reasons ...

Hume’s claim that suicide adds to the common good contradicts Hecht’s main point: that the ramifications of suicide are long and destructive. As the old adage goes, “I have a right to do what I want as long as I am not hurting anyone else.” This belief prompts the conclusion that we are morally entitled to take our own lives. Hecht, however, marshals many facts in support of her axial position that suicide not only devastates families but “causes suicide.” She pins this well-established fact on the board: “A suicide by a parent while a child was under the age of eighteen tripled the likelihood that the child would commit suicide.”

Hecht is wise to remind us of the mysteriously powerful impulse to imitate those with whom our lives are inextricably bound up.

This gift of a book is as much about the issue of pain in life as it is about not ending your life because of the pain. Following in both a religious and  secular tradition, Hecht submits that suffering is soul-making.

Hecht has the wisdom to understand that life is not an argument. She is simply intent on providing people who are at the razor’s edge a reason to endure, a reason to stay. She writes: “I do not mean to pass judgment on those who have committed suicide. I mean instead to express to the suicidal person who has rejected suicide that you deserve gratitude from your community and from humanity.”

This tender and well-reasoned book is sure to save lives.

Gordon Marino, The Christian Century

We're not alone. (We're together.)

Here's a question and answer from a new interview on FORMER PEOPLE: A JOURNAL OF BANGS AND WHIMPERS

Other than religion, why do you think the defense of  community as been largely ignored as an argument against suicide?"

Well, read these and then we’ll talk: ("enisled" means set off as an island)


(From) To Marguerite – Matthew Arnold

Yes: in the sea of life enisled,

With echoing straits between us thrown,

Dotting the shoreless watery wild,

We mortal millions live alone


Islands        – Muriel Rukeyser

O for God’s sake

they are connected



People used to be connected, right on the surface. You needed tight social ties to get anything done. We need more than a barn raising party to put up a house, but that human interaction is low on the human. In the past you were stuck in the faces of a relatively small group who all knew your business. We voted with our feet and went to the anonymous city, where most of us now live. (Through all settled life before now most human beings, by far, lived in farm villages.)

People used to sit in one room together, where the best fireplace was, and tell stories or sing, there was little else to do; same for the breezy front porch in the summer. Now we all have our own rooms with heat, ac, a TV, and the web. It is possible as never before to avoid millions of dull random conversations (and accidentally miss out on many good ones, and even the human ties of the dull ones). So our connection is less, but deeper down it still makes sense of our whole lives.

If you want to know about the highly social mole rat, taking one specimen to the lab and watching it is not going to help. Nor for us. We are still a group animal, in many deep ways. We follow each other into both practices both dangerous and healthy. We matter to each other.  The shock of modernity made us see ourselves as utterly alienated, but we overshot the mark. It is not the peak of rationalism to say love doesn’t exist. It clearly does, and is rich and strange. Things exist between people that are quite uncanny. It is not rational to deny that. The argument in Stay started as literary and philosophical but became scientific when the statistics robustly backed up the reality of suicidal contagion.



Struck by this new review

"As a suicide attempt survivor, I found this book most enlightening. It provided me with a platform on why not to attempt to take my own life again. Hecht’s approach to attach the survivor with society is quite powerful. She has accomplished what she sets out to do from page one: to convince the person contemplating suicide to 'consider the arguments (for not taking one’s own life) and choose to stay. After that, anything can happen. First, choose to stay.'”

David Rosman, New York Journal of Books


I just found this review and was surprised by this last paragraph. The rest of the review was a more intellectual and somewhat neutral (lightly positive) reading of the book. I'm struck by how the personal note at the end allows some fresh air in the room regarding our secret lives and masked pain. And thereby makes the world more honest, and more empathetic. It's very moving.

Meaning of Life Stuff

I wrote the below for an essay I'm working on, speaking to some of the reasons I've been writing about (against) suicide:

I’m interested in human meaning, especially the kind that exists outside the individual, in the culture and the community. I believe that the feeling of meaning is sufficient to the definition of meaning, just as the feeling of love is sufficient to the definition of love. (Of course we sometimes don't feel love, but that doesn't make us say love doesn't exist.) I  believe this question of suicide allows us to see ourselves as more profoundly connected to others, and able to relax our need to each generate the entire meaning of life on our own.

Valentine's Day Poem (on the nature of thought and communication)

Love Explained


Guy calls the doctor, says the wife’s   

contractions are five minutes apart.   

Doctor says, Is this her first child?

guy says, No, it’s her husband.


I promise to try to remember who   

I am. Wife gets up on one elbow,


says, I wanted to get married.   

It seemed a fulfillment of some


several things, a thing to be done.   

Even the diamond ring was some


thing like a quest, a thing they   

set you out to get and how insane


the quest is; how you have to turn   

it every way before you can even


think to seek it; this metaphysical   

reframing is in fact the quest. Who’d


have guessed? She sighs, I like   

the predictability of two, I like


my pleasures fully expected,   

when the expectation of them


grows patterned in its steady   

surprise. I’ve got my sweet


and tumble pat. Here on earth,   

I like to count upon a thing


like that. Thus explained   

the woman in contractions


to her lover holding on

the telephone for the doctor


to recover from this strange   

conversational turn. You say


you’re whom? It is a pleasure   

to meet you. She rolls her


eyes, but he’d once asked her   

Am I your first lover? and she’d   

said, Could be. Your face looks   

familiar. It’s the same type of


generative error. The grammar

of the spoken word will flip, let alone


the written, until something new is   

in us, and in our conversation.


from Funny by Jennifer Michael Hecht. Winner of the 2005 Felix Pollack Prize in Poetry. Copyright © 2005. By permission of The University of Wisconsin Press.

Poem at the Beginning of All This

Click here to hear Garrison Keillor read this poem. (Worth the click. Poem's there too.)

I wrote this poem before the second shoe dropped, before the essay, before the research, before the book idea. When Keillor featured it recently he invented the parenthetical and more easily remembered title "don't kill yourself." I like it in part because it reminds me of how a Jukebox would have some songs listed by title and also (as if behind their hands) by the line everyone knows. De facto title. 

No Hemlock Rock (don't kill yourself)

by Jennifer Michael Hecht

Don't kill yourself. Don't kill yourself.
Don't. Eat a donut, be a blown nut.
That is, if you're going to kill yourself,
stand on a street corner rhyming
seizure with Indonesia, and wreck it with
racket. Allow medical terms.
Rave and fail. Be an absurd living ghost,
if necessary, but don't kill yourself.

Let your friends know that something has
passed, or be glad they've guessed.
But don't kill yourself. If you stay, but are
bat crazy you will batter their hearts
in blooming scores of anguish; but kill
yourself, and hundreds of other people die.

Poison yourself, it poisons the well;
shoot yourself, it cracks the bio-dome.
I will give badges to everyone who's figured
this out about suicide, and hence
refused it. I am grateful. Stay. Thank
you for staying. Please stay. You
are my hero for staying. I know
about it, and am grateful you stay.

Eat a donut. Rhyme opus with lotus.
Rope is bogus, psychosis. Stay.
Hocus Pocus. Hocus Pocus.
Dare not to kill yourself. I won't either.

"No Hemlock Rock (don't kill yourself)" by Jennifer Michael Hecht from Who Said. © Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Stay: Keen Observations by A Psychiatrist.

“Suicide and Communal Values: Ethical Implications for Psychiatrists,” by Ronald W. Pies, MD 


January 27, 2014

The article is behind a pay wall, but here are some highlights:

[T]he ethical status of suicide is not a question that psychiatrists can ignore, any more than we can ignore human values in general.

Recently, the moral status of suicide has been scrutinized by the poet and philosopher Jennifer Michael Hecht in her book Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It …In essence, Hecht argues that suicide cannot be evaluated solely in terms of "personal autonomy," as some modern ethicists might claim; rather, we must hold suicide up to the clarifying light of communal values.

Hecht argues that "when a person kills himself, he does wrenching damage to the community." In general, I agree -- and this damage, arguably, may be counted among the "moral harms" of deliberate self-destruction. 

[T]he communitarian argument made by Hecht is compelling.

As an ethicist, I largely agree with Jennifer Hecht, that suicide's communal damage is a compelling reason to urge our suicidal loved ones to stay, and respectfully to suggest that life isn't too hard to bear -- only, as Hecht poignantly puts it, "almost too hard to bear." 

What the Former Ranger Wrote

I'm incredibly moved by this.

Former Ranger Ted Janis had a moving, smart essay in The Daily Beast this week. It's about surviving the suicides of two Ranger friends and then losing another a few months ago.


"The week after my friend’s funeral, I read David Brooks’ article on suicide in the New York Times where he describes Jennifer Michael Hecht’s book Stay: A History of Suicides and the Philosophies Against It.  With my friend’s death still haunting me, one passage in particular stood out.

“Suicides happen in clusters, with one person’s suicide influencing the other’s. If a parent commits suicide, his or her children are three times as likely to do so at some point in their lives… People in the act of committing suicide may feel isolated, but, in fact, they are deeply connected to those around them. As Hecht put it, if you want your niece to make it through her dark nights, you have to make it through yours.”

Or rather: if you want your Ranger buddy to survive, you have to accept help and fight through your own battles."


Read the whole essay if you have a chance, it's really insightful and well done.

- Jennifer

An Insightful review of Stay in the Daily Mail - Coronation Street


Insightful Review of Stay

Must you really go? It's a life and death decision: Review of Stay (Yale)

By Bel Mooney in The Daily Mail        1/24/14

The recent controversial suicide storyline in Coronation Street caused some people to worry that it might encourage desperately ill - or just desperate - viewers to take their own lives.

That fear is not scaremongering. Between 2007 and 2009, 25 people between the ages of 15 and 28 killed themselves in or around Bridgend, South Wales, and experts were surely right to talk of this as a ‘cluster’ - a local epidemic of the desire to leave this world, among young people who unwittingly fed each other’s lack of hope.

Such copycat behaviour is not new, as Jennifer Michael Hecht makes clear in this life-affirming book, subtitled A History Of Suicide And The Philosophies Against It.

She reminds us that Plutarch wrote of an epidemic of suicide among young women in the ancient Greek city of Miletus that was stopped only by the warning that their naked bodies would be dragged through the streets.

In the past 45 years, suicide rates all over the world have increased by 60per cent and Hecht wonders if this may be because the old religious prohibitions have all but disappeared. It used to be a crime against God to kill yourself; now people argue that it can be the ultimate act of self-determination - I am free and therefore I can choose to take my own life.

But Hecht will have none of that. She makes it clear she is not talking about those who wish to take their own lives because of terminal illness (the Coronation Street storyline) and/or intolerable pain, but for the rest who might succumb to despair she holds up a hand and cries: ‘Don’t.’

This powerful book was prompted by a double personal bereavement; two friends (poets and academics, like herself) who seemed to have everything to live for killed themselves within a year. Deeply upset, even angered, by these losses she wrote what amounted to a passionate manifesto for life.

‘I’m issuing a rule,’ she announced. ‘You are not allowed to kill yourself. When a person kills himself, he does wrenching damage to the community. One of the best predictors of suicide is knowing a suicide. That means suicide is also delayed homicide. You have to stay.’

Her passionate plea drew a huge response and then led to this book. Stay is a fascinating, intelligent exploration of the way suicide was regarded in the ancient world, reminding us of the punishing treatment meted out to the poor corpses, then describing the change of attitude in the 18th century, when a turning away from religion led to a secular philosophy tolerant of suicide.

Hecht’s approval is for those through the ages who argued against the suicidal impulse - like Albert Camus, the existentialist novelist, who suggested that once we see that life is always absurd and accept that fact, we can accept life, too. This is not to ignore real despair. It is to assert that it can be overcome and that ‘more life’ is always ‘better’.

To reach the heart of Hecht’s own belief, we can go back to John Donne’s famous sermon beginning, ‘No man is an island’. The idea that we are all interconnected, like a vast jigsaw of souls, leads logically to the ringing assertion that ‘any man’s death diminishes me’.

This is the core of what the author calls ‘the human project’ - the root of all compassion, all empathy, everything that makes us truly human in the best possible sense.

Hecht’s history, from ancient texts and the Bible through to modern thinkers is essential (and accessible) reading for anybody interested in the subject, but what impressed me most of all was the freshness of her passionate belief that ‘human beings contribute just by continuing to persist in life and rejecting suicide, despite anguish’.

It is true that she fails adequately to address the type of depression which leads some people to kill themselves. The point about Stay is that it provides a message which needs to be heard amid the too-easy relativism of modern life.

Hecht is crisp: ‘Clear as it is that suicides can cause more suicides, it is clear that talking to people about rejecting suicide can help them reject suicide.’ And convincing: ‘When we cannot see our own worth and are tempted to leave life, we are doing a shining service to our community and to our future selves when we choose to stay.’

When I review a book I underline special passages, stick post-it notes and write comments in the margin. By that token this one has inspired me more than anything I’ve read in a very long time. Full of life and spirit and hope, and deeply moving, it communicates a generous love of suffering, flawed humanity. I cannot praise it highly enough and feel grateful to have read passages like this, which confirm all I hold dear: ‘None of us can truly know what we mean to other people, and none of us can know what our future self will experience. History and philosophy ask us to remember these mysteries, to look around at… the surprises life brings - the endless possibilities that living offers - and to persevere….Bear witness to the night side of being human and the bravery it entails, and wait for the sun.’

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-2544694/Must-really-Why-not-stay-talk-STAY-BY-JENNIFER-MICHAEL-HECHT.html#ixzz2rdhKC2LJ 
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Some thoughts on Stay

I received an email from a reader saying that he didn’t agree with me that suicide is wrong, but…if anyone he knew were suicidal, he would give them my book.

Many people who think we all have the right to take our own lives would save most people from that fate, if they could help.

There are intellectual arguments that  suicide is morally neutral because we own ourselves, but they don't seem to apply when we think of young people, or our friends who we think could make it through, or parents of young children, or anyone we think might later be glad they stayed around.

Nobody should die without having heard the arguments against suicide. They are about community and about your own future self. They have been around for hundreds of years.

If you stay for the sake of community, you are our hero. If you stay for the sake of your future self, you are your own hero.


Voices of Reason * Jennifer Michael Hecht * Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It

Hill Center DC-Drummond Hall, 921 Pennsylvania Ave SE, Washington, DC 20003 (Eastern Market Metro)

Jan 12, 2014 

2pm - 4pm


REGISTER HERE: http://action.centerforinquiry.net/site/Calendar?id=104141&view=Detail

Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It

Worldwide, more people die by suicide than by murder, and many more are left behind to grieve. Despite distressing statistics that show suicide rates rising, the subject, long a taboo, is infrequently talked about. In this sweeping intellectual and cultural history, poet and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht channels her grief for two friends lost to suicide into a search for history’s most persuasive arguments against the irretrievable act, arguments she hopes to bring back into public consciousness. From the Stoics and the Bible to Dante, Shakespeare, Wittgenstein, and such twentieth-century writers as John Berryman, Hecht recasts the narrative of our “secular age” in new terms. She shows how religious prohibitions against self-killing were replaced by the Enlightenment’s insistence on the rights of the individual, even when those rights had troubling applications. This transition, she movingly argues, resulted in a profound cultural and moral loss: the loss of shared, secular, logical arguments against suicide. By examining how people in other times have found powerful reasons to stay alive when suicide seems a tempting choice, she makes a persuasive intellectual and moral case against suicide.

Jennifer Michael Hecht is the author of three history books, including the best-selling Doubt: A History, and three volumes of poetry. Her work has won major awards in intellectual history and in poetry. Hecht teaches poetry at the New School University in Manhattan and lives in Brooklyn, NY.

* Public Admission + Stay book $26
* FOC Admission + Stay book $24
* Public Admission $5 advance registration / $7 at the door
* FOC Admission Free (Registration required) 

Support the Center with your book purchase. 

The venue is wheelchair accessible. People with disabilities who anticipate needing accommodations or who have questions about physical access may email sdavis@centerforinquiry.net in advance of the event. 

REGISTER HERE: http://action.centerforinquiry.net/site/Calendar?id=104141&view=Detail

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