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His Work Is Still Full of Life

Edwin Shneidman has long been a scholar of suicide. At 86, slowed by illness and out of the mainstream, he's not yet ready for his own death.

June 05, 2004|Thomas Curwen | Times Staff Writer

Edwin Shneidman is an old man, and death is often on his mind. But then, it always has been. Only now it's personal, and like many people of his age, Shneidman is not ready.

"Am I afraid?" he asks. "No. But our language is insufficient. 'Afraid' is not the right word. It is more 'rueful,' but even that is too vague."

Death has been his companion because Shneidman has stood at the forefront of suicide studies in this country for more than 50 years. He is not ready to step aside, even though he is 86 and slowed by cancer and diabetes. He admits surprise, however, when he wakes up in the morning, and in idle moments pens his own obituary: "Noted Thanatologist Dies." He laughs at the irony. Much better, he says, than "Noted Suicidologist Commits Suicide."

Rising from bed each day, he shuffles through the living room, into the dining room, kitchen and into his office, where he sits in front of an old computer, takes solace in the photos of his deceased wife, Jeanne, and writes.

"I am a rather elderly man," begins a recent essay. "I am a thanatologist [one who studies death].... I realize that there is a certain whiff of sulfur in this profession, but my assertion is that anyone who spends a good deal of time with Thanatos, the Greek god of death, can live a life made much richer by that intimate association with the darker side of life."

Far from a morbid investigation into the enigma of self-destruction, the study of suicide is often philosophical, and Shneidman writes to clarify his ideas. His work -- 17 books that he's either written, edited or co-edited -- is an intellectual diary and a compelling reminder that suicide is part of our lives and our culture. We see it in the most diverse quarters: in the retrieval of writer-artist Spalding Gray's body from the East River in New York, in recent concerns that antidepressants contribute to suicide in youth, and in a controversy over a Britney Spears video that shows her submerging herself in a bathtub.

Over the years, however, Shneidman's lifelong project has been marginalized by the shifting winds of science. The more we study the brain and discover effective synthetic treatments for mental illness -- which, many believe, is the underlying cause of suicide -- the less critical private histories, personal stories and emotional circumstances, the major tenets of Shneidman's work, become.

Herbert Hendin, the medical director of the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, said Shneidman was the first person in this country to call public attention to the problem of suicide. "He had a charismatic quality and played a pivotal role in dramatizing the problem of suicide."

But as Hendin points out, the biggest advances in the field of suicide prevention in the last 15 years have been in the biology and pharmacology of depression and suicide, and it borders on malpractice for a doctor not to prescribe medication for a seriously depressed individual. Shneidman, nevertheless, "remains an advocate of the position that the medical treatment of depression is the problem and not the solution."

If every life is a narrative, then every death is its conclusion foretold, and Shneidman works to ensure that his story will continue. He sits on the back porch of his home in West Los Angeles, sunlight falling through the branches of a tall pittosporum, and is eager to talk about his latest book, "Autopsy of a Suicidal Mind."

A Case for 'Psychache'

Grief and despair are often inseparable for those left behind by a suicide, and Shneidman recognized both in a woman who approached him after one of his lectures. With some urgency, she pressed upon him a photocopy of an 11-page suicide note. Please help me understand the death of Arthur, my son, she said; he had so much to live for.

In his lifetime, Shneidman has read thousands of suicide notes. They are, he says, surprisingly banal. He made no promises. He folded the note under his arm and didn't look at it until he got home that afternoon. The first sentence was strikingly familiar. "All I do is suffer each & every day," Arthur wrote.

Suffering is what Shneidman believes is at the heart of every suicide, and in that first sentence, he found a concise expression of that pain and a potential window to look upon the most puzzling of human behaviors. Let others talk about mental illness when they talk about suicide and then point to an at-risk diagnosis such as depression. Shneidman chooses instead to talk about "psychache," a word he coined almost 20 years ago to describe psychological pain.

When the woman called him later in the week, he agreed to help decipher her son's death. He had once again been given an opportunity to make his case for psychache. Chance has played a continuing role in Shneidman's career; "chance favors the prepared mind," he often says, quoting Louis Pasteur's formula for creativity.

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