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  • To Be or Not to Be:Suicide in Literature for Young People
  • Lynne Rosenthal (bio)

The statistics are chilling. Suicide is the third greatest killer of the young in the United States today. The 1984 U. S. Monthly Vital Statistics indicate that in 1982, suicide occurred in 200 children between the ages of 5 and 14, and in 5,025 young people between the ages of 15 and 24. Of accidents, the first major killer in age group 5-24, an undetermined number are in fact suicides as well. Data further suggests that over the past 20 years, there has been a steady increase in the rate of child and adolescent suicide, so that the projected rates by the year 2000 show a 13% increase from 1978 among ages 10-14 and a 94% increase in ages 15-19. While this study does not account for population growth or changes in the number of people in a particular age or racial/ethnic group, it highlights the seriousness of the threat to the young and to society as a whole today and in coming years.

According to Dr. Cynthia Pfeffer, President of the American Association of Suicidology, suicide is a "multi-determined, very complex symptom that arises from the interaction of intrapsychic, environmental and biological factors" (214). Basing her analyses in large part on "psychological autopsies" of suicides—that is, on interviews with relatives and friends—Pfeffer concludes that hormonal imbalances, an environment of severe parental conflict, symbiotic parent-child relations which make individuation difficult—all can contribute, particularly within an inflexible family system, to promote hopelessness, depression, and suicidal tendencies.

As the ego increasingly fails to "maintain a stable balance between forces promoting positive and negative perceptions of oneself and others," the individual may attempt suicide in order to destroy the false self that has been introjected; as Karl Menninger observes, the act may combine in one person "the murderer and the murdered" (Pfeffer 378). While in some instances, the suicide may wish to reunite with the image of a loving figure lost through death, in each case, "death is perceived as a peaceful alternative and resolution to intense psychological suffering." According to Edwin Shneidman, a well-known suicidologist, as effects become "too painful," during moments of "the suicidal episode" there evolves a "psychic constriction" in which suicide is seen as the only hope (16). [End Page 19]

In Too Young to Die, one of the most explicit of the growing group of non-fiction books written to help teenagers recognize and counteract suicidal impulses, Francine Klagsburn adds to the roster of possible causes of suicide the breakdown of the traditional family, anxiety about nuclear war and other pressures resulting from the rapid social and technological changes of the post-World War II era. She points to the "American Fairy-Tale," which leads adults to prize material possessions more than ideals or personal values and to define happiness as "What you do, not what you are," as central in pressuring the young to achieve high grades and deny needs and conflicts at the expense of innate interests, talents, and the integration of the self. Included in her book is a poem written by a high school senior two weeks before killing himself which begins, "He always wanted to explain things. / But no one cared. / So he drew . . . And it was all of him, And he loved it." But when he went to school the teacher told him to draw like the others. Then "he wasn't anymore, / He was square inside. / . . . And the thing inside him that needed saying didn't need it anymore. / It had stopped pushing. / It was crushed. / Stiff. / Like everything else" (42).

The loss of joy and consequent depletion of self so poignantly described in this poem by a young suicide was identified almost 200 years ago in another period of rapid social change by William Wordsworth whose "Immortality Ode" traces the process by which "shades of the prison house begin to close upon the growing boy," shutting out innate joy as he is taught to model himself on others "as if his whole vocation / Were endless imitation." In Book V of The Prelude, this "model...


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