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Legend of a Suicide

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For twelve years, no agent would send out my book, Legend of a Suicide, to editors. So I finally sent it to a contest which included publication by a participating university press, and it won. It was published, in other words, without any agent or editor ever agreeing to publish it. Now the book has been on 25 "best books of the year" lists in the US, UK, Ireland, and Australia, is a national bestseller in France, has won several prizes, and is being published in more than half a dozen languages in more than 50 countries. The film rights have been optioned by actor Chris Meloni (Law & Order). And this month a major US publisher who took note of the early hardcover reviews -- HarperCollins -- is relaunching it in trade paperback.

So why was it impossible to consider for publication for those twelve years? Part of the answer is the form of the book: a short novel framed by five short stories. That's an unusual form. But the main answer, I think, is suicide and shame.

For three years after my father killed himself, I told everyone he had died of cancer. Perhaps it was the violence of what my father did, taking off most of his head with a .44 magnum pistol, the pistol used by Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry movies. My father took me to those movies--his favorites--when I was a child. And what he did seemed to transfer to me, the violence and shame of it, so I didn't want anyone to know. What he had done made me dirty.

There are more than 33,000 suicides in the United States every year, and half of those are with guns. 83% of gun deaths in homes are in fact suicide, not the much-imagined and nearly mythical protection of one's home against intruders, and often the suicide is not by the gun owner but instead by the gun owner's children or spouse or other family. Think of how many Americans are directly affected, the parent or spouse or child of a suicide, their lives changed forever. Or all the others who are also affected--the friends, for instance, of a suicide. That's a lot of people ashamed to talk.

Imagine you're the parent of a suicide. Thousands of teens die by suicide in the United States every year. Two years ago, my cousin's 18-year-old son killed himself. What does the suicide of your son or daughter say about you? Isn't this proof that who you are is flawed? That you didn't love your child or raise him or her properly? Or what if your parent dies by suicide? Doesn't this mean they didn't love you, that you are not worthy of being loved? Or what if it was your husband or wife? Is it so terrible to be with you that death is preferable? Shame is an inevitable feeling, I think, for the people a suicide leaves behind.

Guilt, also. My parents were divorced, and my father asked whether I would spend the next school year (8th grade) with him in Fairbanks, Alaska, leaving my mother and sister and friends in California. I said no, and two weeks later, he killed himself. A therapist had told my uncle to stay with my father and accompany him on his final trip up to Fairbanks, and to separate his guns and shells. But my father talked my uncle out of this at the airport, convinced him he was fine. Then flew up to Fairbanks and killed himself. Every person left behind by a suicide has some moment like this, some ugly opportunity for lifelong guilt, and this helps drive the shame, a feeling that one is, at one's core, essentially bad, unworthy, damned.

Ninety percent of all people who die by suicide have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder at the time of death (most often depression or bipolar disorder). And 80 to 90% of people treated for depression respond positively. So earlier recognition and treatment for depression and bipolar disorder can reduce suicides. Less access to guns can also reduce suicides, though of course the gun rights folks will howl at that. It's amazing to me that much of our national politics can be driven by the idiotic belief that the federal government wants to enslave us all and hopes to take away our guns as the first step in their evil plan.

We should certainly try everything possible to prevent suicide, and what I wish my father had known is that his life could have been reshaped. Though he had hit a kind of dead-end, he could have lived on a hundred different ways. Though he hated his job, he could have switched careers. Though he had failed in two marriages, he wasn't doomed. Though he owed back-taxes, that was only money. My sister and I still loved him, and really, that should have been enough. And what I wish survivors of suicide could know is that it's not their fault and it doesn't make them dirty or damned. I also want them to know that all that's most unbearable does fade with time. This March 15th was the 30th anniversary of my father's death, and by now, all that was debilitating about his suicide--the guilt, anger, fear, insomnia, and even shame--has fallen away. All that remains is the fact that I still love him.

All quoted facts are from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, where David Vann is a volunteer. Legend of a Suicide is available now in paperback from HarperCollins. www.davidvann.com

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