Culture Shock: Suicide, sorrow and the urge to explain the inexplicable
The death of L’Wren Scott, the partner of Mick Jagger, brought out the worst in the media
Media scrum: photographers outside the New York apartment building where L’Wren Scot lived, as the medical examiner’s van leaves with her body. Photograph: Jemal Countess/Getty
Some of the more disturbing reporting of the death of L’Wren Scott, the fashion designer found dead in her New York home after what a city coroner has ruled was suicide, seemed intent on suggesting explanations. The media, like nature, abhors a vacuum.
“I am still struggling to understand how my lover and best friend could end her life in this tragic way,” read a statement by her partner, Mick Jagger, which hardly required elaboration. There is nothing logical about suicide, the epitome of crisis and despair, which rarely has anything as clear or compelling as a reason. Suicide is always to some extent a mystery.
That didn’t stop a surge of speculation in the international press, which unsurprisingly ran against every good guideline for the reporting of suicide or personal grief. The contentious phrase “committed suicide” reappeared, a vestige from the days before suicide was decriminalised and a reminder of a time when suicides were buried at night at crossroads with stakes driven through their hearts.
The National Organisation for Suicide Prevention and the Samaritans discourage the reporting of details of suicide (the methods, the so-called hot spots), the use of simplistic explanations (Scott “planned to close her fashion business”, “was devastated she didn’t have kids”) and even the sensational reporting of grief (“Moment Jagger was told of lover’s suicide”) – all of which we got and all of which have serious consequences. One uncomfortable truth about widely reported suicides, especially those of celebrities, is that they are often accompanied by spikes in the suicide rate.
Giving suicide a narrative – a cause and effect, details and despair – tries to make meaning of the unfathomable. Turning a suicide into a story can be dangerous.
Could art be in a better position to talk about suicide? Last month the Irish Times Irish Theatre Award for best production went to Lippy , an unsettling experimental performance inspired by the suicide pact of four women in Leixlip in 2000. Frances Mulrooney, who was 83, and her three adult nieces had barricaded themselves in their home, shredded every personal document, put on matching nightdresses and, over the course of 36 days, slowly and painfully starved themselves to death.
The circumstances of their deaths had already been well scrutinised, by coroner’s reports and legal verdicts, newspaper think pieces and television documentaries. Was it symptomatic of isolation in the modern world? Did a suicide pact in the Co Kildare town, home of Intel and Hewlett-Packard, signify a lack of communication in the heart of the communications industry? Did the women’s spiritual delusions suggest religion was no longer a useful framework for life? Meanings had already rushed in to fill a vacuum and explain away its horror.
Dead Centre’s production of Lippy instead honoured the event as essentially meaningless, constructing a circuitous narrative around a lip-reader hired to interpret the last public conversation between two of the women, caught on CCTV (an invention by the play’s writer Bush Moukarzel). Instead of shedding light on the whys and wherefores, the lip-reader is drawn into a surreal version of the Leixlip home and subsumed into a mystery that shudders the soul. There is no explanation, no glamorisation, just desolation. Lippy was hardly a piece designed to create awareness of a societal problem, but it treated suicide with respect, as something unsolvable.
The Samaritans have guidelines for the dramatisation of suicide, too: if the viewer can identify with the character, imitation is increased; if the method is depicted, chances of copycat suicides rise; if the suicide is eulogised and leads to positive outcomes, such as a family being reunited, the effect can also be dangerous.
You can follow those recommendations to extremes: Romeo and Juliet, for example, are a deeply sympathetic couple whose romanticised suicides end an ancient feud. And artists have long been grimly flippant about suicide: “What about hanging ourselves?” wonders Estragon in Waiting f or Godot . “Hmm. It’d give us an erection,” replies Vladimir. The horror of the gesture is cooled by Beckett’s absurdity: what these two men will do for kicks.
In contrast, the use of suicide as a plot device, however sombre, can seem more exploitative. Stones in his Pockets , Marie Jones’s comic play about a Hollywood film being made in rural Kerry, even takes its title from the suicide of a minor character, a drug addict who is rejected and humiliated by a starlet. It brings gravitas to something that would otherwise remain gossamer, but it hardly conveys genuine despair.
A better example might be Michael West’s Conservatory , playing at the Peacock Theatre, which treads a sophisticated line between reality and abstraction, featuring details of a suicide without trying to parse it. The play gives a character’s suicide a circumstance and a consequence but denies it a reason. Last week, after an apparent drop in suicides, an Oireachtas health committee found no evidence to suggest under-reporting. (A letter in these pages from Prof Kevin Malone cast doubts on the methodology.) When journalism is in perpetual danger of over-reporting the details, art may be of more service in asking questions and tactfully drawing blanks.
Fintan O’Toole is on leave