Suicide is a terrible act. A person must be a dark place to even consider let alone commit it. It is a hollow act that stretches out to everyone close to its victim. Everyone feels its emptiness.
I have known three people who committed suicide. I do not take the issue lightly.
So when I read about Julie Burchill’s son committing suicide, my response was sympathy. Burchill is a well-known feminist writer in the United Kingdom. She posted about her son Jack’s suicide on Facebook.
Burchill appeared to have a adored her youngest son. According to an article about her:
She once described him as her Achilles’ heel — the one person capable of hurting her because she loved him so much.
That stands in stark contrast to how Burchill viewed her eldest son Robert. She has no real relationship with him. She left him with his father following their separation. At one point she attempted to bond with him, inviting him to live with her. However, she later changed her mind, telling Robert that he had to leave on weekends and later altogether.
Her divorce of Jack’s father also went poorly. Jack’s father Cosmo won custody. Jack was very close to his mother and the situation never really worked for him. Jack came to live with his mother in his teens, yet this does not appear to have improved Jack’s depression.
Burchill’s wild behavior continued, and that likely affected her son. No one can deny she cared for him. Those interviewed by the media confirmed this. However, there is a certain element of irony in Burchill’s suffering over her son’s suicide.
It comes from a 16-year-old article Burchill wrote for the Guardian titled ‘Suicide is a side-effect of affluence. You didn’t get many suicides in Jarrow in the 30s. It is one of those problems with no solution’.
Was I the only person cynical enough to think that a good catchline for the recently launched football initiative against young male suicide might have been “Don’t take it out on yourselves, lads – punch a woman!”?
In the article, Burchill rails against football players advocating for suicide prevention by claiming that men abusing women is more important than male suicide. She shows absolute disdain for the men and boys who take their own lives:
For a start, it’s a phony panic, catering to that lowest of modern male desires – to be a victim – for if we are to use the desire for death as a barometer of stress and misery levels among young people, then surely the fact that vastly more young women attempt suicide must mean that young women are still under far more pressure than young men. (Anorexia and bulimia, the scenic-route suicides, are still something like three-quarters female.)
That young men succeed in suicide more often than girls isn’t really the point. Indeed, the more callous among us would say that it was quite nice for young men finally to find something that they’re better at than girls.
She does not stop there:
No one is “in favour” of suicide, but when we interfere with people’s right to take their own lives, we are on very dangerous ground. The level of pain that must have been reached to make suicide an option must be unbelievable. Perhaps all it behoves any of us to do at that point is to make the death as comfortable as possible. (Teenage suicide is like teenage sex: if you don’t let them do it at home, they’ll go out and do it somewhere nasty and dangerous.) And suicide, like car theft, is a side-effect of peace and affluence. You didn’t get many suicides in Jarrow in the 30s, and until recently it was all but unknown in Northern Ireland. It really is one of those problems with no solution.
It gets worse. She wrote in response to previous criticism she received from parents whose sons committed suicide:
All of them demanded an apology. I’d advise them this time to save their stamps because, you see, I don’t care. I don’t care because most nights of the week I still dream of my dad, who I saw waste away almost to nothing, eaten alive by the tumours that were his retirement gift for working with asbestos. Every day, as his legs went, as his sight went, my dad would declare that tomorrow he would be taking the dog out; he clung to life like a dog playing tug-of-war for the biggest, juiciest raw steak in the world.
To ask me to feel sympathy with suicides after witnessing this is, I suggest, just as unfeeling and ignorant as my callousness must appear to you – like asking a starving African to sympathise with an anorexic. In a society still beset with the most vicious social deprivation and rampant cruelty to the very young, the very old and the very weak, the voluntary exits of a few hundred able-bodied young men each year are best dealt with as private tragedies rather than a public concern. Let them go.
Yet this is the woman who took to social media to get sympathy from strangers after her beloved son, the only son she apparently ever loved, killed himself.
The callous among us would tell Burchill to take her own advice and let Jack go. After all, he came from an affluent background. There are plenty of people who have suffered, are suffering, and will suffer far more than he ever did. She should have kept this a private tragedy rather than make it a public concern.
However, I am not interested in that. People change, and it is possible that her opinions on suicide have changed as well.
What I am interested in is what made her son commit suicide. There are a host of issues that lead people to choosing that path, and with so little information about Jack I cannot say for certain what made him do it. I can say that I suspect his mother’s views likely played a role. I cannot imagine anyone who would write the above vile would hold their tongue around their child. I imagine that despite her affection toward Jack, Burchill likely infected him with her misandry. Could he share his suffering with someone who thought male suffering was just another privilege?
If Burchill did not hold such disgusting views, Jack may have reached out to her for help. After all, his depression increased when he moved in with her. Despite whatever love they had for each other, that relationship may not have been all that healthy. Had Burchill not been so apathetic toward this issue, perhaps she would have noticed the signs and reached out to her son before he did the irreversible.
I would argue that suicide is often ethically justifiable. One USA general condemned a soldier who had committed suicide by describing suicide as the ultimate selfishness. Considering how the USA exploits generosity, selfishness was the more ethical option for that soldier. If the soldier had stayed alive, the general would have used him to torture and terrorize lots of innocent people.
“I have known three people who committed suicide. I do not take the issue lightly.”
I’ve known people who have committed suicide, and people who have attempted but failed. Attempting and failing looks like a bad experience.
I don’t mean to suggest that the issue should be taken lightly; I think it should be taken philosophically. I can’t philosophically prove moral realism. I can argue about the morality of suicide for hours and still not reach a conclusion, so I’ll refrain.
The issue of suicide fascinates me but does not horrify me. I realize that many people feel horrified by suicide, but I think those people can reach out to the intellectual support of history’s great philosophers, many of whom supported suicide. Notably, Socrates’ death was partially suicidal. Socrates had friends. He could have tried to escape. However, he believed that staying in Athens was better than staying alive. So, while it wasn’t a classic suicide, many Christians condemn Socrates for not making every possible attempt to stay alive.
The modern world might be less inspiring; people who commit suicide due to poverty, drug issues, emotional abuse, etc. might seem very different from Socrates. But I think the frequent use of suicide as an escape from the modern world is evidence that we need to look to pre-modern philosophers to understand why so many rational people choose death.
She says Robert started to go off the rails around age 15.
Which was right about the time she wrote that old article.
The article making it clear that she didn’t give a crap about depressed young men might well have been part of why he never went to her for help.
Suicide’s a difficult one for me because I’ve been there. On the one hand, I understand that the pain you feel and the urge to just escape it all can be overwhelming and the understanding that sometimes those left behind suffer less when you die than when you live. On the other hand, I also know that the decision is almost never made with a cool head and that the desire often goes away if you give it only a few hours.
I do think that someone who has weighed the options carefully and decided suicide was best should be free to choose it. But I also think that such people are very few and far between.
Someone should send her a copy of her own article. No more, no less.
Personally, if I was still on facebook, my reply to her mourning her son would be “Your son was merely collateral damage of you doing your best to publicly dismiss male suffering. Remember that. You caused his death, plain and simple. You are not the only one guilty of doing this, but you are guilty as sin regardless, as there is no diffusion of guilt no matter how large the group. I hope that the next time you’ll want to dismiss male suffering you will remember your son and reflect on what you have been doing. I won’t hold my breath though.”
That might be deserved, Elisa, but would it do any good? I hope that somehow this incident can turn her into someone who speaks for compassion and understanding, rather than a reason to punish her.
Julie Burchil has spent her entire career gleefully getting up people’s noses and laughing at them afterwards. So my sympathy levels are not as high as they might have been.
I live in hope that her views on suicide may have become more compassionate, but I’ve noticed that certain people are great at exempting themselves from the standards they set for others.
To be honest, as to the effect on her son, most of this is speculation, because we don’t know exactly what kind of relationship this poor fellow had with his mother, but whatever it was, it doesn’t sound too good. Maybe it was a number of things, often it is but they usually take their sorrows with them to their grave. Friend of mine did so and never told anyone why.
I have absolutely no respect for Burchill. She was arrogant, insensitive, bigoted (transphobic to boot – even her sisterhood pals were disgusted), and really rather dim. Certainly unable to empathise with people who had lost loved ones to suicide until now, but despite my contemporary for her, she has a fraction of my sympathy. Why? See below.
“No parent should have to bury their child.” Theoden – The Two Towers, Lord of the rings.
Let this man rest in peace.
A man who takes his own life deserves that much. He does not need to be a spectacle for a society that only thought he was a disposable piece of shit.