“Hey, you okay?” the woman sitting next to me on the 7 up Rainier asked for what I realized then was not the first time. Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides had sucked me in the way I’d heard novels do to people. People read novels to escape, friends had told me, and now I got it. Until the end, when the narrators I’d spent the last two hundred and 40 pages getting close to, feeling the feelings of, seeing through the eyes of, reading the thoughts of, made it clear that they thought suicide was selfish. I’d just finished writing some thoughts about that.
“No,” I said, looking at my bus riding partner for the next 10 minutes. “I can’t put this book down because I want to see how the four sisters left after their youngest sister’s suicide killed themselves, not rooting for them not to.”
The woman smiled. “That’s Jeff’s fault, honey, not yours.”
“Jeff” is how Jeffrey Eugenides introduced himself to me last fall when I attended a reading and talked to him afterward. If you were to ask me who in a room full of men would have written about teenage-girl suicide for his debut novel, I probably wouldn’t have pegged him so that’s the first mystery: how did Eugenides come by such a premise for a writing project?
I was thoroughly under his spell (until the last few pages), even during the winding backstories, even as he revealed a world more similar to my own than different. He didn’t grab my attention with mythic creatures or unfamiliar physical laws and processes but by making the familiar, albeit past, world glint with strangeness. We all knew girls like the Lisbon sisters in high school, even decades after the time of The Virgin Suicides in the early aughts when I attended; we were all somehow acquainted with the roving eyes and infatuated minds of teenage boys, too. And yet, who are these girls? And who are these boys, with their treehouse shrine and their meticulous, lawyer-esque documentation and their detached obsession with the dark beauty of the suiciding sisters (that’s not a spoiler alert; the suspense of this story is somehow not tied to agnosticism about how it ends, since you know by page 20, or the title if you’re super aware, what that is)?
This story made my heart race and my palms sweat, even though the main mystery was how each girl would create her own death. You know they’re going to; you know by the end, they’ll all be dead by their own hand. I remain conflicted about whether or not the reasons their lives are over should be the other mystery. Eugenides presents a typical set of reactions to suicide, though you might not be able to name them off the top of your head. When you read them, though, you know. You’ve likely had these reactions yourself, if you’ve lost someone to suicide – which, is growing more and more likely. It’s good to see these reactions – denial, collapse into despair, explanation, moralizing, etc. – laid out in front of you. It’s not good that, however inadvertently, they seem to reinforce this notion that we cannot ever know why someone takes their own life.
This is a nice story we tell ourselves to distance any responsibility we may have. After all, most of us would be horrified sick to play a role in the suicide, which as Eugenides so superbly puts it is “deeper than death,” of another person, especially one we loved. If we “can’t know” why someone ends their own life, then it might follow that we couldn’t have known they would and couldn’t, then, have been expected to intervene. But the only people who stand to benefit from the idea that suicide is always and ever a mystery are the people who might be left behind by it someday. We can’t always know, to be sure, but we sometimes can and to claim otherwise dismisses the people who attempted to communicate – we call this “reaching out” these days – before their deaths and wrote notes for others to find after. I’m not saying The Virgin Suicides should have included suicide notes, but, for such a smoldering brilliance, I was surprised it didn’t do more (or hardly anything) to challenge the scapegoat called unknowability.
“So, back to you being not okay.”
“Did you read it?” I lift The Virgin Suicides toward my face.
“Around the time it first came out. Messed me up for months.” The woman’s mouth kept working but it emitted only phantom words.
“What disturbed you the most?”
It took me until her stop to come up with words of my own because going back to my okayness is really going back to mystery number one: why did Eugenides, why does any writer, choose to write about suicide? And who are the people that choose to read about it? I do both.
“That at the end, I was jealous.” Unexpectedly. I’d thought that darkness was finally behind me.
The woman tucked her chin like she was on a dive block waiting for the gun to go off at a swim meet. I thought I heard her whisper something that sounded more like understanding than just empathy, but it’s possible she said nothing at all. She leaned as the bus jerked to a stop and, when she realized we were parting ways, she raised her face to look into mine and held out her fist. I thought it was for a bump so I awkwardly pressed my knuckles into hers. She flipped her hand under mine and poked a piece of paper into my palm and then squeezed my hand.
I didn’t have time to look at it until I was off the bus: it was her name and number. That it was not one more cheap exhortation to call the National Suicide Hotline, or one of those empty phrases most people have no intention of personally acting on, like “you are not alone,” gave me more hope than I was prepared for. I’d thought my days of eager positivity were behind me, too.
Reading about suicide in public is not necessarily a cry for help. Writing about suicide isn’t, either. But if/when it is, the appropriate response is not to brush it off as “just” a cry for help as if there’s something pathological about needing help, but to answer.