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  • Histories of Suicide: International Perspectives on Self-Destruction in the Modern World
  • Barbara T. Gates (bio)
John Weaver and David Wright, editors. Histories of Suicide: International Perspectives on Self-Destruction in the Modern World. University of Toronto Press. 2008. viii, 360. $75.00, $30.95

Spanning two hundred years of history and five continents, Weaver and Wright's Histories of Suicide is an ambitious book. In their volume we are introduced to information about Great Britain and several countries of the former Commonwealth, as well as about Russia, Japan, the United States, and Peru. The volume's approaches are nearly as varied as its geography. Because they shift from criminology, to classic sociology, to medical assumptions, to anthropology, it is sometimes difficult for a reader to move comfortably from one set of observations to the next. The book might therefore best be read not consecutively or straight through but instead mined for specific information about its several subjects. Many of its thirteen essays predictably focus upon prime sociological issues like class and gender, and most utilize traditional historical records such as commission reports, the proceedings of coroner's inquests, and national reports. Others aim for less frequently discussed subjects and documents. Such a potpourri inevitably leads to some unevenness in the offerings.

Nevertheless, there are interesting commonalities among the essays. For example, race is foregrounded in "This Painful Subject': Racial Politics and Suicide in Colonial Natal and Zululand,' where the Indian population is examined vis-à-vis the black population. People of Indian descent were considered leaders in the incidence of suicide, primarily in supposed response to colonial conditions that robbed them of dignity. But Julie Parle, the author of this piece, finds that black South Africans were largely ignored during the periods of segregation and apartheid and that white suicides were more likely to have been covered up. Therefore the assumptions about the greater degree of Indian suicide in these timeframes may need revision. This enlightening essay is complemented by an essay on race and suicide in America, by Andrew. M. Fearnley, which deals with misperceptions of the incidence of depression among blacks between 1865 and 1945.

Gender, another popular category in contemporary historical analysis, is discussed by Howard I. Kushner, who challenges the conventional, altruistic, neo-Victorian views of women's reasons for suicide in an increasingly modernized world, where women's roles often duplicate rather than complement men's. Kushner also advises caution in use of statistics in making generalizations about suicide, a subject taken up by [End Page 250] Jonathan Richards and John Weaver in their 'Murder-Suicide in Queensland.' Their essay mistrusts data alone, suggesting that there is much to learn from the words of perpetrators and witnesses of suicide. This reader found their concentration on motives refreshing after the many analyses of statistical and detailed 'official' evidence.

Motivation also has an important place in essays like "Overwork Suicide' in Twentieth-Century Japan,' by Junko Kitanaka, who looks at Japanese suicide less as a demonstration of gallantry and pride than as an expression of exhaustion from overwork. As postwar Japanese and their descendants worked to restore their nation and its image and to compete in world markets, he suggests that some drove themselves to death. Kitanaka notes that in the consecutive ten years after 1998, 30,000 victims of suicide were recorded. Because of this increase, he suggests, Japanese psychiatry has been forced to re-evaluate the nature of the act. Kitanaka's essay on Japan points to the importance of culture in studies of suicide, as does Kenneth M. Pinnow's essay, 'Suicide and Social Integration in Bolshevik Russia.' According to Pinnow, theories of individuality are of little use in his kind of study, where the collective is considered the living entity and individuals only its members. Individuals comprise both the collective's 'greatest resource and its greatest threat' (202), since acts of self-destruction are also destructive of the group.

Such a diverse collection of essays might prove too daunting for the reader if it were not well introduced. But instead of simply preparing for each individual essay to follow, the editors' introduction takes care to make comparisons and contrasts and provide...


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pp. 250-251
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