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Cornell Suicides: Do Ithaca's Gorges Invite Jumpers?

Posted: 03/14/10 11:47 PM ET

For Siegel, the "frequent mention of death and particularly of suicide" he encountered was "often a function of the logic of sublimity." In 1764, Immanuel Kant speculated that anyone who beholds "deep gorges with raging streams in them, wastelands lying deep in shadow and inviting melancholy meditation, and so on is indeed seized by amazement bordering on terror, by horror and sacred thrill." Under such circumstances, thought Kant, a man would be "diminished to insignificance," seeing only the "misery, peril, and distress that would compass the man who was thrown to its mercy." As his subjects contemplated the downstream abyss, Siegel noted, the thought of suicide was eerily comforting.

At bottom, the question for Cornell is not whether the gorges afford a dangerous outlet for the disconsolate or disturbed (by all accounts, they do). It's if, absent the gorges, some of the suicides could be avoided. Common sense suggests, as one official told the Times in 1994, "if you put a barrier up on a bridge, that people won't die from that bridge. Even if barriers were installed, people could just go somewhere else." That's the same thing people said about the Golden Gate Bridge, until a landmark 1978 study proved otherwise. To test the hypothesis that people thwarted from committing suicide "would simply and inexorably go someplace else to commit the act," Richard H. Seiden, then a professor at Berkeley, tracked down 515 people who attempted suicide but were restrained. His findings showed that 90 percent of the would-be victims did not later die of later suicide attempts, and that the notion that "attempters will surely and inexorably 'just go someplace else,' is clearly unsupported by the data." During the debate in the late 70's over suicide barriers in Ithaca, the director of suicide prevention at the time, Nina K. Miller, cited Seiden's data in a Letter to the Sun's Editor. "I hope we can persuade those who are most opposed to the barriers," Miller wrote, "to examine some of the data which indicates such barriers are effective anti-suicide measures." Thirty years later, Machell says, "Suicide can be prevented, and limiting access to the means to die is one part of the equation." But "most importantly," he said, is a comprehensive approach that emphasizes education, counseling and support services.


Would heightened barriers or enhanced security have mattered for Jakub Janecka? Some think not. "It seemed like he must have come back here with a very clear intention," says Tom Clausen. Over the years, Jakub had visited Ithaca from time to time, always calling on Christopher Morris's father, the late M.D. Morris, when he arrived. On Jakub's last visit, Morris heard nothing.

Jakub arrived in Ithaca on Oct. 7 carrying only a small black nylon suitcase, with very little clothing inside. He checked in at a gloomy stopover at the foot of campus called the Hillside Inn. There, said the desk clerk, he would shuffle by without returning the clerk's greetings. "He was so interiorized, so introverted," the clerk remembers, "it looked like he was in a mental mess." His condition was no different the next day. On the bridge that afternoon, unlike so many who had hesitated at the precipice, Jakub was quick and decisive. Witnesses said he jumped headfirst.

But if he never intended to return that evening to the Hillside Inn, then why was Jakub carrying a key for Room 202? And what use would he have had for the $271 in cash police found in his pockets? Jakub paid upfront for a three-night stay at the inn, according to the clerk, which was two more nights than he needed. And a suicide note? Nothing but a small notebook with several local numbers inside, which, when the inspector followed up, were for local landlords and employment services. Jakub had no mental health issues, his family told police, although after finishing his master's degree in biology at the Catholic University of America, he was depressed due to a lack of employment -- the very reason, they said, why he had come to Ithaca in the first place.

In the gorge, mouth agape, arms spread, and shirt scrunched up past his stomach, it seemed to onlookers like Jakub might just be taking a nap. The white ball cap had fallen ten feet away. A few inches of water flowed underfoot. In the years after his graduation, Jakub was consumed by an apparent wanderlust, for answers to unformed questions, until finally "his searching must not have felt worthy anymore," says Clausen. His English teacher, Robert Simons, wrote, "Not having followed his life into manhood, we can only assume that he continued to be a searcher after he went out of our view."


Especially in this day and age, cries for help come in any number of ways. The week before he died, Matthew Zika, the most recent victim, posted a poem he had written on Facebook. It was, he said, "the culmination of one week of doing nothing," penned instead of completing a problem set. About waking up, or trying to, Zika ruminated:

Something's in the way, though
ducttape binding my arms,
holding me from reaching the light switch
that could shed light on this isolation
chamber. but who am I
to suppose correct wiring.
For all I know, the light bulb
is dead.
So here I sit, instead.

Then, on March 9, at 2:03am, Zika updated his Facebook status with a portentous message. "My hope in living life," he wrote, "is that if one day someone told me it would be my last, I could smile and nod knowing full well that I did all I could with the time I was given. Never put off until tomorrow what you'd be okay having never done." On Friday, after his death had been reported, a friend posted to Zika's wall, "I think you mean never put off until tomorrow what you wouldn't be okay having never done."

Yet for all the red flags planted in Zika's profile, a close inspection of Bradley Ginsburg's Facebook account would have yielded little cause for concern. Responding to a friend in October, Ginsburg wrote that "everything's great," and that "it's sick here." "There's mad frat parties," he continued, "the campus is ridiculously nice, my classes are pretty cool, and everyone's really chill." The workload was heavy, Ginsburg concluded, "but it's definitely worth it."

In the 1970s, an alumnus named Howard Cogan created a slogan for the ten square miles of his hometown he said were "surrounded by reality": ithaca is gorges. Emblazoned today across apparel, mugs and bumper stickers on campus, in town, and even across the world, the catchphrase has become a kind of catchall for the small city. So when tragedy strikes, it's not in Ithacans' nature to search the proverbial wall for clues; the handwriting's right there on the tee shirts. "Cornell is a river of students," Hubbell said, "a city of eternal youth." Far above Cayuga's waters, the people of Ithaca look on their gorges as neither quirk nor quiddity -- but just what the pun says: gorgeous. "As a townie and alumna," one disgruntled resident wrote some years ago, "I take exception to your blaming my beautiful gorges for just being there. Ezra Cornell must be turning in his grave, having searched for the most beautiful place to found his institution, where any person could find instruction in any subject," she said, quoting the university motto.

"I don't think suicide was quite what he had in mind," she wrote, "when he placed Cornell high above Cayuga's waters."

 

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