Friday, October 8, 2010

An Aside on Suicide

For some reason, suicide has come up lately. There is the ever present student request for books about kids with "drama" and "problems" like suicide, abuse, etc. That's nothing new. And there are some really powerful books on the topic that treat it with the gravity necessary. Then there is the recent teacher request for book recommendations related to bullying and sexual orientation, a response to the recent discussion of teen suicide in the news. Also, par for the course to a certain extent.

But these benign suicide regerences were followed by an email sent by the LAUSD superintendent that was titled RECENT GAY SUICIDES. In all caps, just like that. Strange that it would be in all caps. Strange that the word gay was really necessary. Is there a difference between a gay and a non-gay suicide (I mean, I know that societal factors may differ for gay and straight kids, and that all suicides are different and personal; I just mean, do they really differ in level of sadness or importance)? That title is just begging for someone despicable to say something really awful like, "That suicide was so gay." In fact, I can't believe I just typed that. I feel really uncomfortable about it. But I'm going to let it stand, because I think it makes my point. It's like when people say "that black kid". Why don't they just say "that kid"? Anyway.

In the first sentence of the letter to the school district, the superintendent expresses his condolences to "the six young students who committed suicide". Probably the readers know which 6 he means, but I wonder if there are families of a 7th or 8th kid out there who just experienced a similar loss. Where are their condelences? He lists some district resources for students who are struggling with despair. One of them is the district's Youth Suicide Prevention Program. This 'program' consists of one man, Richard Lieberman, who works his butt off and is responsible for every student in LAUSD, in a way. That's a lot for one man to do. In conclusion, the superintendent has sent five LGBTQ Resource packets to each secondary school and encourages principals to make sure all staff reviews those materials. Right. I can't even say how inadequate this response is. This school is a terrible place for LGBTQ students, and I would imagine it's not the only one. It's inhospitable, harassment is rampant, and there is zero school support or activism relating to issues of sexual orientation or gender identity. I don't really see how 5 resource packets is going to do a thing. I've only heard one teacher even mention the recent suicides, much less decide to talk to her students about them. Our zero tolerance policy for this sort of harassment is a huge, huge joke. Anyway, enough about that. I'm sure you get my drift.

On a totally different note, suicide has also come up in a new graphic novel from Audrey Niffenegger, the writer of The Time Traveler's Wife. Audrey also wrote a haunting and fascinating book called Her Fearful Symmetry. Suicide happens to take a prominent role in that book as well. As for the graphic novel, The Night Bookmobile, I have a mixed review (that includes spoilers). In the author's note, Audrey says that this is the first part of a larger work. I look forward to the continuation of the work, for reasons I will state in a moment.

The basic concept is that there is a Library out there that houses everything you have ever read. Receipts, bookmarks, fliers, novels, articles, everything. And there is a librarian who manages this collection. Every time you read something, it's added. You may or may not ever encounter this library, but Alexandra, the teller of this tale, comes across hers (housed in an RV) when she's out walking late one night. She soon becomes obsessed with finding it again. She spends the next nine years wandering Chicago looking for it, reading voraciously, and wondering what her personal librarian thinks of her selections. When she encounters the library again, and then one more time 12 years after that, she begs to become a librarian too. She is refused, told she cannot, that the rules won't allow it. Then she goes home and kills herself. She takes some pills and slits her wrists and is immediately welcomed to the afterlife by her librarian who congratulates her and assigns her the library of a young girl who has just read Good Night Moon alone for the first time. He has been reassigned to a non-reader, which he finds disappointing, but still, he's glad to see her. I'm simplifying, of course, but that's the basic story. Did she know that death was the only way into the library business? And if so, why was her life so unsatisfactory that she was unwilling to just wait it out? I suppose that's what obsession is.

So, huh. Audrey's afterword is very interesting, and explains in more detail the concept behind this story. I do love the idea that these personal libraries are kept somewhere and by someone. What has each of us read that we've never discussed with anyone, either because it's a secret or because we've just forgotten? And how many books have I read that have slipped my mind so completely, but that I'd be joyous to find on a shelf somewhere?

But the suicide really gets me. And, as my dad so thoughtfully pointed out, the suicide as entry ticket to immortality or a heaven-like space, well, that really gets me too. Not that I am a religious believer that suicide sends a soul straight to the fiery depths. But here it is almost a necessary right of passage to the next, desired stage of existence. That's DARK man. Very dark. And by the way, what happens to Alexandra's library after she kills herself? Does she no longer get to add to it? In the earlier frames of the book, when she first finds her library and personal librarian, he is reading while sitting at the wheel of the RV. Does his reading material get stored somewhere? OR does he only get to read material from Alexandra's library, in which case, couldn't that just be torture? If part of the delight is to peruse the shelves filled with all you have read, then it would be a great loss to die and begin to manage someone else's collection. I would think Alexandra would rather stay alive, contribute to her own library, and look forward to a once-a-decade encounter with it. Now, as cool as it sounds, she is just going to sit around the afterlibrary and watch little Sarah Rebecca learn to read. It'll be years of Clifford the Big Red Dog! Awful. I think maybe she didn't know what she was getting herself into.

This sounds like criticism, and in a way it is. I hate to say anything negative about the work of Audrey Niffenegger, because I think The Time Traveler's Wife is one of the most perfect books I have ever read (and re-read about 4 times). As much as I may question this new book, CLEARLY it's an interesting concept. Otherwise, I wouldn't have so much to say about it. This is what I meant when I said I'm really into the larger work that she's creating. Where will she go with it? Some of my questions may be answered in the future.

So here I am on a Friday afternoon, pondering the many forms that suicide has taken in library-related discussion this week. Weird. Very.

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