To Kill A Mockingbird

Looking to fiction for insights on suicide:

There is a paperback edition of To Kill a Mockingbird on our bookshelf. I found it wedged between two larger volumes. The cover is well worn, suggesting that this is a book worthy of consideration.

To Kill a Mockingbird was required reading for my son, Nicholas, during his final years at secondary college. There are comments in the margin – “Scout tells it like an adult but from a child’s point of view” – and some passages are underlined, although it is not clear why – “Inside were two scrubbed and polished pennies” and “We found a crocker-sack full of turnip greens.”

To Kill a Mockingbird was first published in 1960. It is regarded by many as a masterpiece of American literature and has been widely read.

To Kill a Mockingbird is primarily about a young, intelligent though unconventional girl, Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch, and the racial tensions that existed in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama during the 1930’s.

I recently came across a leaflet from a local bookstore featuring a list of their one hundred top selling books. It included To Kill a Mockingbird. I was familiar with many of the titles but had only read thirteen. I thought it was time I added to this number.

I always imagined ‘To Kill a Mockingbird‘ to be a dark and harrowing tale, delving into the unrelenting suffering and hardship of African Americans. The book does tackle racism – the intergenerational prejudice and hatred toward African Americans – but it does so with honesty, humour and humanity. To Kill a Mockingbird is a powerful portrayal of what it means to stand on the side of truth.

There are many reasons for seeking out good literature. It is said,

The beauty of good literature is that everyone who reads it can take something out of it which no one has before.

I have an interest in suicide, more particularly, understanding the causal factors that lead someone to end their life. This became a priority following the death of my son, Adam. I wanted greater clarity as to the WHY.

I also enjoy reading fiction. Fiction allows you to explore other worlds through stories that exist only in the mind.

It was this fusion of interests which prompted the question, “Can we look to fiction for insights on suicide?”

To Kill a Mockingbird has three references to suicide.

Crazy Addie

Inside Radley Place lived a malevolent phantom. People said he existed, but Jem and I had never seen him. People said he went out at night when the moon was down and peeped in windows. When people’s azaleas froze in a cold snap, it was because he had breathed on them. Any stealthy small crimes committed in Maycomb were his work. Once the town was terrorised by a series of morbid nocturnal events: people’s chickens and household pets were found mutilated; although the culprit was Crazy Addie, who eventually drowned himself in Barker’s Eddy, people still looked at the Radley Place, unwilling to discard their initial suspicions.

Who is Crazy Addie and why is he called ‘crazy?’ I guess anyone who, under the cover of darkness, mutilates people’s chickens and household pets, qualifies.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines crazy as ‘not mentally sound: marked by thought or action that lacks reason.’

Crazy Addie is clearly not of sound mind and his actions caused distress to a lot of people.

‘Crazy’ is an emotive term and not one often used to describe someone who is suicidal. It is true, people who are suicidal often struggle with mental illness. Their thought processes are distorted. One writer uses the term ‘muddied’ to describe this mental confusion. People who are suicidal are subject to self-destructive states of mind where the critical inner voice overrides any positive suggestion, insisting that an end to life is better than searching endlessly for other solutions.

Crazy Addie knew what it took to end a life. He derived some odd satisfaction from killing animals in such a brutal fashion.

Thomas Joiner developed the interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidal behaviour. He says people can override the self-preservation instinct by developing a fearlessness of pain, injury, and death, acquired through a process of repeatedly experiencing painful and otherwise provocative events.

Crazy Addie’s nocturnal activities suggest he had a capacity for suicide which he realised later by drowning in Barker’s Eddy.

Young Sam Merriweather

Aunt Alexander, in underlying the moral of young Sam Merriweather’s suicide, said it was caused by a morbid streak in the family.

I never understood her preoccupation with hereditary.

Suicide is always a tragedy. Whatever the factors that lead someone to take their life, there must be a better way.

Youth suicide has a devastating impact on families and communities. There is a shared sense of guilt and failure; fueled by an awareness our best attempts to help were ineffectual.

There is some evidence to suggest suicide runs in families where a family member has taken their life and there is a history of mental illness – major depression, social anxiety disorder, or substance use disorder. Both family history of suicide and family mental illness are important risk factors, but they still only account for a small number of suicides.

In Sam Merriweather’s family there was a history of melancholy or dark moods. We refer to these symptoms as depression. Depression is a mood disorder that can lead to suicidal thoughts. Untreated depression increases the risk of suicide.

One of the Spender ladies

In a far corner of the square, the Negroes sat quietly in the sun, dining on sardines, crackers and the more vivid flavours of Nehi Cola. Mr Dolphus Raymond sat with them…drinkin’ out of a sack.

“They say he never got over his weddin’,” said Jem. “He was supposed to marry one of the – the Spender ladies, I think. They were gonna have a huge weddin’, but they didn’t – after the rehearsal the bride went upstairs and blew her head off. Shotgun. She pulled the trigger with her toes.”

“Did they ever know why?

“No,” said Jem, “nobody ever knew quite why but Mr Dolphus. They said it was because she found out about his coloured woman, he reckoned he could keep her and get married too. He’s been sorta drunk ever since. You know, though, he’s real good to those chillin’ -”

We aren’t told who Dolphus Raymond was supposed to marry apart from the fact that she was one of the Spender ladies.

Her suicide was triggered by the discovery that her future husband was having an affair with a coloured woman, a relationship he wasn’t planning to end any time soon.

She felt rejected. The heartache and humiliation were real. And there was no escaping the shame.

When we experience rejection, we feel isolated or cut off. This sense of disconnection and loss of significance produces feelings of unworthiness. The accompanying shame and humiliation give rise to thoughts of being at fault or not good enough.

Recent research suggests that rejection and a sense of failure can lead to suicide. Norwegian researcher, Mette Lyberg Rasmussen, found that young men, in particular, who had suicided had harboured feelings of rejection and were burdened by not having succeeded in achieving their goals.

Fiction never sets out to provide a detailed explanation of why someone might choose to end their life. It does provide a narrative which can offer context for suicide and a launch pad for further thought and discussion.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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