Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

The Basics:
About Emdashes | Email us

Before it moved to The New Yorker:
Ask the Librarians

Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule


The bridge, Didion, and Fayard Nicholas

Filed under: Eustace Google   Tagged: , , , , ,

The New Yorker's Alec Wilkinson was on WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show today talking about his February 15, 1999, piece on suicide notes, along with Thomas Joiner, the author of a new book called Why People Die By Suicide. While Joiner was researching the book, his father killed himself. [See comments for more detail on this point.] The show (now downloadable) was strange and grim. Excerpts from the NYer archive summary of Wilkinson's piece:

"The writer describes how twenty years ago, while he was a policeman in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, he imagined what it would be like to kill himself. He was twenty-three at the time.... The writer became interested in suicide notes because he thought they might contain revelations about the end of life that couldn't be found anywhere else.... Only 1 out of 5 suicides is likely to leave a note.... The writer describes the oldest suicide note--a letter written on papyrus by an Egyptian man in 2000 B.C. The letter is titled "The Dispute with His Soul of One Who Is Tired of Life."... [T]here are 5 kinds of suicide notes: notes that blame someone, notes that deny an obvious reason is the cause, notes that blame & deny, notes that contain an insight, and notes that contain no explanation at all.... The writer excerpts 10 notes in the article. Some of the notes discuss how life is no longer worth living, some blame others for their death, some give instructions for the dispersal of their property, some claim to be possessed by demons, etc."

I happen to have that Egyptian poem (maybe I copied it from the issue at the time?). Spacing is off but it's late, so I'll fix later.

To whom can I speak today?
One's fellows are evil;
The friends of today do not love.
To whom can I speak today?
Faces have disappeared:
Every man has a downcast face toward his fellow.
To whom can I speak today?
A man should arouse wrath by his evil character,
But he stirs everyone to laughter, in spite of
the wickedness of his sin.
To whom can I speak today?
There is no righteous;
The land is left to those who do wrong.
To whom can I speak today?
The sin that afflicts the land,
It has no end.

All day this has woven into what I've been reading. I used to say that the saddest double feature in the world would be Breaking the Waves and The Sweet Hereafter. But if you survived the cruel screening and were still unsure whether life was all about suffering, reading Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking would finish you off. I stopped reading it in public—I can't not cry, I can't not move to the next chapter. It's brutal. Knowing how many thousands of times more brutal it was and is for Didion herself is not comforting.

While we're on this sunny subject, here's that Tad Friend piece on the "fatal grandeur" of Golden Gate Bridge, which people still talk about often (and plagiarize—apologies to the tipster at the time whose email I didn't follow up on). Did Lopate perhaps originally intend to book Friend rather than Wilkinson? That would seem to make more sense, since Friend's piece came out more recently and Wilkinson was understandably reticent on the subject. The compelling oft-repeated and occasionally filched passage:

Survivors often regret their decision in midair, if not before. Ken Baldwin and Kevin Hines both say they hurdled over the railing, afraid that if they stood on the chord they might lose their courage. Baldwin was twenty-eight and severely depressed on the August day in 1985 when he told his wife not to expect him home till late. “I wanted to disappear,” he said. “So the Golden Gate was the spot. I’d heard that the water just sweeps you under.” On the bridge, Baldwin counted to ten and stayed frozen. He counted to ten again, then vaulted over. “I still see my hands coming off the railing,” he said. As he crossed the chord in flight, Baldwin recalls, “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped.”

Later in Friend's piece, there's an interesting coincidence of phrase with Didion's title:

Jumpers tend to idealize what will happen after the step off the bridge. “Suicidal people have transformation fantasies and are prone to magical thinking, like children and psychotics,” Dr. Lanny Berman, the executive director of the American Association of Suicidology says. “Jumpers are drawn to the Golden Gate because they believe it’s a gateway to another place. They think that life will slow down in those final seconds, and then they’ll hit the water cleanly, like a high diver."

That is not the case.

Fayard Nicholas R.I.P.

In other very sad news, the unmatched tap dancer Fayard Nicholas died this week. If the history of race in America and, as a result, Hollywood had been different, you'd already know this, and television would devote a week or a month to showing his leading-man movies. Do a little soft-shoe in private for him, or if you're brave, go to a tap jam; discover you can swing. It's easy. True, doing what Nicholas and his brother, Harold, did is probably impossible, but you can still do something joyful for yourself that'll also carry forward a meaningful piece of what he loved and perfected.

Early Fayard Nicholas work


I found this blog surfing. Speaking of depressing, how about Brokeback?Regards.

I read Joiner’s book, and while I don’t have it in front of me, my distinct recollection is that his father committed suicide while he was still in school—college, I believe. In other words, long before he began researching his book.

It’s certainly possible I misheard it, so I’ll check. Thanks! Anyone who knows the story is welcome to write in. As it says in the sidebar, no correspondence or conversation is printed without permission.

Hello Anonymous—I’m a big fan. Here’s my transcript of the conversation on this point. It’s not clear whether Joiner had begun research on the book when his father died, but he seems to have been pursuing the topic. Leonard Lopate: Thomas, didn’t your father commit suicide?Thomas Joiner: My dad died in 1990, about fifteen years ago. He died by suicide.Lopate: Was that before you got interested in the subject?Joiner: It was not; it was after. Nevertheless, his death came as quite a blow, quite a shock. And the effect it’s had on me is to make my work all that more urgent. I don’t want other people to go through the agony of what my dad went through. I don’t want other families to have to go through the suffering of what mine went through. And this book is intended in part to prevent that kind of suffering.

The Tad Friend story also inspired the amazing Sleater-Kinney song “Jumpers.”

Yes indeed. This is from an SF Bay Guardian interview with them:SF Bay Guardian: I want to talk about the song “Jumpers.” There’s a new movie, The Joy of Life, dealing with suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge – did the Tad Friend article in the New Yorker about the same subject influence you, and did the song stem from depression while you lived here? Carrie Brownstein: When I was living in the Bay Area, I read the Tad Friend article as I was taking BART into the city, and I found myself just crying and thinking about how out of place I felt. I was certainly thinking about my own struggles – I couldn’t understand why, in this place of such intense beauty and sun, these things that were supposed to be healthy and helping me, I felt such a sharp contrast. That was my first reaction to the article. By the time I was writing the song, I was living back in Portland, [Ore.,] and the song itself partially stems from my own feelings of disparity about the overall political and social climate. The song is culled from specific stories in that article, which is a pretty amazing and touching piece. The intensity of feeling that you can’t find meaning in your life, so you need to find meaning in your death – looking for a way for it to be somehow symbolic or beautiful or public. Especially when people feel so alone, it’s such an intense thing to think about, or way of going. Also, the larger picture of this album is about the instability of structures, whether they’re internal structures that we thought were holding us together or political structures that we thought were stable or safe, that we could rely on for doing good. So the song is about this structure that is very solid in terms of engineering prowess, but unstable in that it’s a launching place for those in despair. In that sense, it works as a metaphor for the rest of the album. And here are the lyrics.I spend the afternoon in carsI sit in traffic jams for hoursDon’t push meI am not OKThe sky is blue most every dayThe lemons grow like tumors theyAre tiny suns infused with sourLonely as a cloudIn the Golden State“The coldest winter that I ever sawWas the summer that I spent…”The only substance is the fogAnd it hides all that has gone wrongCan’t see a thingInside the mazeThere is a bridge adored and famedThe Golden spine of engineeringWhose back is heavyWith my weightBe still this old heartBe still this old skinDrink your last drinkSin your last sinSing your last songAbout the beginningSing your song loudSo the people can hearLet’s GoBe still this sad dayBe still this sad yearHope your last hopeFear you last fearYour not the only oneLet’s GoMy falling shape will draw a lineBetween the blue of sea and skyI’m not a birdI’m not a planeI took the taxi to the gateI will not go to school againFour seconds wasThe longest wait

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, it may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Thanks for waiting.)

2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree