Fonda’s mother, Frances Ford Seymour, suffered from bipolar disorder and killed herself when her daughter was just 12 years old in 1950.
Fame is no sanctuary from the passing of youth. Suicide is much easier and more acceptable in Hollywood than growing old gracefully.
It seems that the depiction of women who take their own lives as being vulnerable and passive, dying young and staying forever beautiful, is nothing new. Doomed Queen of Ptolemaic Kingdom Cleopatra and tragic Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet are familiar narratives. The death of Marilyn Monroe has been endlessly speculated on, the initial shock giving way to decades of tabloid gossip about her personal life and what really happened.
Even lesser mortals such as L’Innconnue de la Seine can achieve iconic status in death. A teenager who drowned herself in the river sometime in the 1880s, the mystery of her life and circumstances of her death became dinner party gossip in fashionable Parisian society of the time. Her death mask went on to become the basis of the Ressusi Anne doll and she had no choice but to pucker up from beyond the grave to become the “most kissed face in the world”.
I don’t want anyone in or out of my family to see any part of me. Could you destroy my body by cremation? I beg of you and my family – don’t have any service for me or remembrance for me…
Evelyn McHale – Suicide note
Bookkeeper Evelyn McHale jumped from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building in 1947 and left a suicide note suggesting that she wanted to be quietly forgotten and requesting that there be no funeral or memorial for her. Her peaceful, delicate corpse was photographed by Robert Wiles for Time Magazine and ended up being an attention-grabbing pop culture device for everyone from Andy Warhol through David Bowie to Taylor Swift.
One woman for whom history has found it difficult to write a passive, gentle narrative is television journalist Christine Chubbuck (portrayed by Rebecca Hall in the 2016 film Christine, pictured above). Her 1974 on-air suicide while presenting the Suncoast Digest on Florida news station WXLT-TV is notorious.
Despite her talent in the field she worked in, Chubbuck had a history of depression and seemed plagued by self-doubt, often clashing with network bosses as they didn’t allow her to cover serious news topics, preferring to focus on sensationalised material designed to grab ratings. She struggled with forming friendships or intimate relationships with other people. Her final words before drawing a gun, putting the barrel behind her right ear and pulling the trigger seem to have been a direct criticism of the people she worked for.
In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first: attempted suicide.
Christine Chubbuck – final words
When asked for comment on the tragedy years later, network news director Mike Simmons was very succinct in his assessment of Chubbock’s suicide…there was no man in her life.
The crux of the situation is she was a 29-year-old girl who wanted to be married and wasn’t.
Mike Simmons – station director
Interestingly throughout the article, she is referred to as a girl, not a woman. The only known studio footage of her death is under lock and key at an undisclosed American law firm with instructions that it is never released.
In 2013, internet purveyors of low-grade clickbait journalism Vice were roundly criticised for publishing a fashion spread featuring famous female writers who took their own lives. Sylvia Plath, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Iris Chang all starred, with models posed depicting their final moments. In fabulous gowns, of course. No doubt Vice thought it arty, provocative and challenging. Instead, public response was generally one of outrage and derision. The article was subsequently removed from the site. Incidentally, four years later Vice would find themselves at the centre of a sexual harassment. Several female employees alleged that they had been pressured for sex, groped, or been the subject of lewd remarks by male colleagues. The too sexy to live “Last Words” spread really shouldn’t have been such a surprise.
So, it appears that not much has changed when it comes to the fetishisation of and fascination with female suicide. Although male suicide is frequent, it is more shocking when a female takes that final step. Women are traditionally seen as emotional creatures, given to seeking help and talking about their feelings, willing to listen to others. When someone of the sex with the power to make life eradicates her own, it disturbs the natural order of things. It makes a compelling final statement. We should remember though, the lives and triumphs of these women, as well as the tragedies.
- 4 conspiracy theories about the death of Marilyn Monroe – SBS
- Julie Burchill – Lapham’s Quarterly
- Why are we so fascinated with female suicides? – Jezabel
- Why do so many people like looking at images of women committing suicide? – The Atlantic
- Ocala Star Banner – August 1 1977
- How the video of Christine Chubbuck’s suicide became a very macabre ‘Holy Grail’ – Vulture
- At Vice, cutting-edge media and allegations of old-school sexual harassment – New York Times
- The Most Beautiful Suicide – Rare Historical Photos
This post examines the different ways in which suicide is portrayed in comedy. Having being bereaved by suicide, it is not my intention to mock anyone who has been through this, I simply feel that it is a topic that I would like to explore. Please keep this in mind should you choose to read on.
“Notes of hope”, a suicide prevention initiative designed by Charlotte Palmer has been given the go ahead by Highways England.
You’re dead but the world keeps spinning
Take a spin through the world you left
It’s getting dark a little too early
Are you missing the dearly bereft?
Mark Oliver Everett, better known as ‘E’ of the band Eels wrote the above song as a tribute to his sister Elizabeth following her suicide in 1996, it appears on their 1998 album Electro-Shock Blues. The lyrics reference Elizabeth stopping by to say hello on the way to wherever she had to go after death. It is a beautiful song.
To many, memorialising the death of a loved one is an important part of grieving. When the passing is a result of a suicide, deciding on the best way to honour a life can be an overwhelming thing to deal with for some. Unanswered questions, shame, anger, and despair can all make ensuring that a legacy is respectful and dignified seem very difficult indeed.
When poet and novelist Sylvia Plath took her own life in 1963, the years that followed saw controversy around the name on her headstone. Plath was an enormously gifted writer who had two young children at the time of her death and a history of mental illness and suicide attempts. She was living in the shadow of husband Ted Hughes, another poet who had left her for someone else and allegedly behaved abusively during the marriage. Despite the couple being separated at the time of her suicide, Plath’s husband ensured her married surname featured on the headstone, leading to years of it being defaced by those who felt that he continued to exert control over his estranged wife even in death.
Although my mother was not a published author, there are some similarities between her experiences and those of Sylvia Plath. My mother was married twice, first to my father, then to a man she met at the psychiatric facility where she was an inpatient at times. This man manipulated then abandoned her for another woman, a contributing factor to her suicide which occurred when her children were very young. Fortunately, her second husband made no attempt to ensure her married name appeared on the headstone, which displays her first and middle names only. In any case, it is highly unlikely my mother’s parents would have acquiesced to such a request given their feelings towards him.
…When all the talking is over after eleven years, you have been assett-stripped and dumped by two husbands, you cannot get a job, you are denied free access to your two kids, you are on heavy medication that changes your mind, the voices in your head are screaming at you, your patient family are at their wits end, the doctors are operating at the Cinderella end of medicine, your friends are frightened of you, people cross the road to avoid you, those that ‘care’ infantilise you and a whole industry of hand-wringers claim to know what’s best for you…You should be allowed, and helped, to end it without retribution.
Of course, grave sites are not the only places where people go to grieve. Some choose to erect shrines at the site of the suicide of a loved one. This is a sensitive issue for many people to handle, including the emergency services, local authorities and businesses, who fear that advertising a suicide hotspot could encourage copycat behaviour. Instead, bereaved families have been encouraged to memorialise their loved one at a place that was special to them.
In the age of social media, grieving has evolved to become a shared experience online. Many people choose to preserve the memory of a loved one via a Facebook or an Instagram account. They can leave messages for them, relate stories with friends and mark anniversaries without having to leave the house or have an emotional conversation in person. Those who remain after a loved one has died can visit a memorial whenever they wish, as it is likely to be right there in their pocket or the palm of their hand.
Anatomy of a song: Mark Oliver Everett – Last Stop This Town
Sylvia Plath – 25 years after suicide American poet finds no peace
What it’s like dealing with railway suicides
How the internet is changing the way we grieve
Good to see widespread positive media coverage of World Suicide Prevention Day and the encouraging of people to seek help if they are in crisis.
But in the end one needs more courage to live than to kill himself.
Albert Camus – Happy Death
Having discussed press coverage of suicide in my last post, I thought this time around I’d look at changing public attitudes towards mental health and suicide prevention.
Continue reading “Cowardice, courage and confusion…”