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ON THE EDGE : THE ENIGMA OF SUICIDE, By George Howe Colt (Summit Books: $24.95; 561 pp.)

June 02, 1991|Steve Oney | Oney's book on the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank near Atlanta, Ga., will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux

The figures are quite simply staggering. In 1987, the last year for which data is available, 30,796 Americans--or approximately half again as many as are murdered during any given 12 months--took their own lives. On an average day, about 1,000 people kill themselves worldwide. Since the 1950s, the adolescent suicide rate in the United States has climbed 300%.

The numbers, however, tell only the bare bones of the story. Invariably, every suicide is an excruciatingly human drama. In some cases--as with a gawky and withdrawn Westchester County, N.Y., teen-ager named Justin Spoonhour--the die was cast long before the deed was done. In others--as with a seemingly content Time Inc. graphic engineer named Peter Price or a young doctoral candidate named Carl whose wife adored him--the path that led to the final, fatal alternative was circuitous and marked by moments of great misgiving. And in still others--as with Fred and Holly Ishim, an aging Southern California couple who, fearing protracted, expensive deaths, joined the Hemlock Society--"self-delivery" was akin to a sacred rite.

Considering the mind-boggling frequency of the incidents of suicide, the pain that leads up to and results from each death and the intricate web of psychological, medical, legal, spiritual and philosophical issues that the act brings into relief, the literature on the topic--though extensive--is largely unsatisfying. While such classics as Karl Menninger's "Man Against Himself," Emile Durkheim's "Suicide" and A. Alvarez's "The Savage God" belong on any shelf devoted to the subject, heretofore no one had undertaken a definitive volume. Now, with the publication of George Howe Colt's "The Enigma of Suicide," that void has been filled.

In 1983, Colt, a staff writer at Life magazine, was assigned a piece on the so-called "Westchester cluster," an epidemic during which eight adolescents living in the New York City suburbs took their lives in the space of only four months. From this seed grew "The Enigma of Suicide," a work that in almost every way is a great and moving triumph.

For one thing, the reportage is stunning in its breadth and detail. Indeed, Colt covers everything from the therapeutic profession's failure to deal with suicide-prone patients to the politics behind the city of San Francisco's refusal to install higher railings along the walkways crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, a suicide mecca, to peculiar methods of self-destruction, among them swallowing spiders and firecrackers.

Yet Colt is no mere collector of unrelated facts. To the contrary, he always remains aware of historical context, traversing the ages to reveal how primitive cultures, the Greeks and Romans, early Christians, European rationalists like Voltaire and Rousseau, and such relative contemporaries as Freud, regarded suicide.

What finally makes this book so impressive, though, are the scrupulously documented, intimate narratives that Colt reconstructs that in a sense bring back to life a half-dozen suicide victims and allow us to see how their worlds closed in on them.

Who among us has not at one time known a Justin Spoonhour, an outcast, a butt of all jokes, the lonely, nervous boy who retreats further into himself with each rejection? And who has not known a Peter Price--someone Colt compares to Richard Cory, subject of the oft-anthologized Edwin A. Robinson poem who despite his riches and social graces "one calm summer night went home and put a bullet through his head"? And who has not known a Carl, a well-loved young man who--after discovering a flaw in the doctoral thesis he'd labored on for a decade--believed himself to be a failure and chose to put an end to his life?

Which brings us to the heart of Colt's study, a question implicit in his title: Why does a person--barring affliction by terminal illness or strong cultural enforcement (hundreds of Japanese commit suicide annually after suffering business or political reversals, thus continuing the ancient Samurai tradition)--kill himself?

The answers are as numerous as there are types of therapy, but in Colt's view, the most plausible theory is advanced by one R. E. Litman, author of several seminal works in the field of "Suicidology." According to Litman, the mind can be seen as a kind of slot machine. While most of us suffer the periodic slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, rarely do such events happen all at once. In short, rarely do any of us hit what might be called the dark side of the jackpot, the "perverse, malevolent" alignment of psychological, sociological, biological and existential factors that when set off by a "triggering event" (the break-up of a marriage, a professional failure) can lead us to take our lives.

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