A Book About Suicide That Is Really About Living

If you are having thoughts of suicide, please know that you are not alone. If you are in danger of acting on suicidal thoughts, call 911. For support and resources, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text 741741 for the Crisis Text Line.

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem,” Albert Camus begins his 1942 essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” “and that is suicide.” It’s a statement to which I’ve long found myself attracted, for both its philosophical rigor (deciding to live, after all, is the ultimate existentialist commitment) and its willful posture of provocation. Let’s stop playing, Camus seems to be insisting, and get real about what matters. Of course, there is no indication that Camus ever considered taking his own life; his essay represents an extended thought experiment, addressing the conundrum of how to exist meaningfully in an absurd universe. Compare that with Clancy Martin, whose new book, How Not to Kill Yourself: A Portrait of the Suicidal Mind, starts with a blunt account of the most recent of the author’s many suicide attempts. “The last time I tried to kill myself,” he confesses, “was in my basement with a dog leash.”

Like Camus, Martin is a philosopher and a fiction writer; he teaches at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and is perhaps best known for his 2009 novel, How to Sell. In How Not to Kill Yourself, he seeks to understand suicide as both philosophy and impulse, interweaving personal history, his own deep reading in the literature of self-annihilation, and the ethical or metaphysical concerns that immersion inspires. The result is a work that feels sui generis. It is also a blunt and bracing read that people who have had experience with suicide may find challenging (if there’s any precursor, it may be A. Alvarez’s 1972 inquiry, The Savage God.) “All my life,” Martin notes, “I’ve feared and avoided physical suffering. It’s mental suffering that I wasn’t able to avoid—as indeed none of us can—and that was what motivated my suicide attempts. Precisely what I was hoping to prevent when I thought about my own death was worse pain. Self-harm? No thank you. Self-extinguish? Now you’ve got my attention.”

I cite that passage because, among other things, it’s funny—intentionally so. Martin may be, as he claims, addicted to suicidal ideation, but he is also aware of the incongruities of this addiction. Early in the book, he recalls a moment when, during an alcoholic blackout, he rear-ends another car on the highway. Martin takes off, veering first down an embankment and then, with two of his wheels destroyed, onto the frontage road. “I’ve got a video of pretty much the whole thing on a CCTV camera,” his lawyer later informs him. “It’s actually hilarious. You want to watch it? Might be therapeutic.” Martin clearly intends to make us laugh.

We can read this as a war story; How Not to Kill Yourself is full of those. And yet, the humor has a bigger point here: to introduce the issue of choice. As a result of the accident,  Martin is sentenced to a brief incarceration at a minimum-security facility, where, during intake, he is shown the door through which he might be tempted to leave. The decision to stay or go—in a therapeutic sense, at least—belongs to him. If he makes the latter choice, however, he is told: “‘Be aware that as soon as you do—and we have cameras and alarms, so we’ll know when you do—that a warrant will be issued for your arrest. But no one is going to stop you, and no one from this facility is going to chase you down.’”

The idea of free will and its implications galvanize Martin. “I felt like I was choosing to be there,” he observes of the prison, then connects this realization, this intuition, to “the Stoics’ ‘the door is always open’ argument in defense of the right to kill yourself.” In framing suicide as a choice rather than a compulsion, we may find an unexpected agency—though it should be quickly added that once genetics or psychiatric disorders come into play, the idea of volition becomes more complicated. For Clancy, though, throughout How Not to Kill Yourself, the notion of a choice becomes a central tenet, one he credits with his capacity to remain alive. “For the Stoic,” he explains, “the ability to commit suicide is the most fundamental and all but irrevocable expression of our freedom. Seneca puts his short version of the … argument this way: ‘A wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can.’” And yet, if this seems like a justification—death can be the wiser choice than living—it also contains its opposite. As he admits late in the book, “I’d always been free to do what I wanted.” For him, this has turned out to mean (much to his surprise, at times) staying alive.

That freedom should become the means of Martin’s reintegration (such as it is) feels almost redemptive, because he had often used that same freedom to make a different kind of choice. His first suicide attempt came at 6, when he intentionally stepped in front of a bus after school. He cites his father’s death in 1997 (a suicide itself, perhaps) as another point of origin; a few nights earlier, he’d refused to wire money so the older man could be released from a public mental hospital in Florida. In the aftermath, Martin began what he calls “the ‘gun-in-mouth’ phase of my daily morning suicide attempts,” a ritual that is precisely what it sounds like. That he never pulled the trigger had less to do with intention than it did with fear, he writes. If all of this sounds harrowing, that’s the whole idea; at times, reading How Not to Kill Yourself feels like the white-knuckle experience of fresh sobriety.

What does it feel like to live under constant pressure of death, in what the Austrian writer Jean Améry once called “the moment before the leap,” which Martin defines as “that instant in which one decides either to go on living or to die”? Améry, like Paul Celan and Primo Levi, survived the Holocaust only to die by suicide decades later. Again, Martin argues, this is the expression of a peculiar sort of freedom. “And how many minutes are left?” he writes, quoting Améry: “Maybe ten more minutes that one apportions to oneself. These minutes still let themselves stretch out into a deceptive eternity. Having already chosen to die, one is beset by the sweet enticement of life and its logic right up to the last second.” It is as cogent and (yes) rational an account of the mind existing in the shadow of its own self-destruction as I have read.

What Martin is revealing is a kind of nether state, in which the close contemplation of one’s impending nonexistence becomes at once expansive and unbearable. This is the place where things get serious. “Speaking for myself,” he confides, “especially at a certain stage of my life—say from puberty through my mid-twenties—suicide, despite my attempts, was still in some way a game I was playing … And while I was playing this game, performing this act for myself of the suicide who didn’t really want to die, slowly, slowly, over the course of the decades to come, I became more and more sincerely suicidal.” It’s a reminder to be careful of what you let yourself believe.

To highlight that, Martin turns his attention to a trio of writers who died by suicide: Édouard Levé, David Foster Wallace, and Nelly Arcan. All are his contemporaries who “provide the most detailed and intimate accounts I have found of what it feels like to continue living while frequently or even constantly wanting to kill yourself.” Nevertheless, and despite the power of their work (especially that of Levé, who died in 2007, 10 days after turning in his final novel, Suicide), this is the one place How Not to Kill Yourself falters. It’s not Martin’s esteem for his subjects that is the problem, but rather his decision to reverse engineer their books, looking for evidence in the material they left behind. If all three wrote about their desire to die, at times in excruciating detail, the approach still seems to me to be tricky and self-determined, a cherry-picking of the data, so to speak.

Perhaps the problem with this section is that, for all its overlap, How Not to Kill Yourself is, in the end, its own sort of book. I say that not because it is nonfiction and Levé, Wallace, and Arcan are invoked for their fiction, but because Martin has an opposing set of goals in mind. For all his focus on suicidal trauma, he is, most fundamentally, trying to write his way out from under it, to create a book not of death but of life. That becomes clear in the closing chapter, which ends with a personal checklist, a set of suggested strategies to deflect the suicidal impulse. These include the value of family connections, the use of exercise, the necessity of abstaining from alcohol or drugs. What he’s getting at is presence, in the world and in one’s head. To explore such a balance, he uses the words of one more writer, Sarah Davys, who, in her 1971 memoir, A Time and a Time, recalls two suicide attempts from which, she laments, “I have brought back nothing”—that is, no useful information about life or death. “This is how I seem to have spent much of my life,” Davys tells us: “edging forward step by step, always forcing myself to look down at the abyss beneath my feet.”

And yet, for Martin, there is, if not a way out, then a way (for the moment, at least) to live with the uncertainty. There is a way to make a choice. He recasts the 12-step bromide “One day at a time,” emphasizing all that is unknown about tomorrow. “I’m not sober for nine years,” he reflects, “or four years, or since my last relapse: I’m only ever sober today. You know, I’m also only ever alive today. In fact I’m only ever alive right now. I don’t know if I’ll make it to the end of the day—none of us do, whether we’re suicidal or not. Death comes when it pleases.”

Such a sentiment is as existential as any in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” although Martin’s terms are more down-to-earth. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” Camus insists at the end of his essay, an acknowledgment of the futility of his existence but also of the grace or consolation that comes from choosing to accept one’s fate. Martin has less use for Camus than I do, finding his conclusion “not entirely satisfying.” Yet both, I think, work in similar territory, in which in order to learn how to die, we must first, and most essentially, learn how to live.

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