Written with the same graceful narrative voice that made his bestselling National Book Award finalist The Big House such a success, George Howe Colt's November of the Soul is a compassionate, compelling, thought-provoking, and exhaustive investigation into the subject of suicide. Drawing on hundreds of in-depth interviews and a fascinating survey of current knowledge, Colt provides moving case studies to offer insight into all aspects of suicide -- its cultural history, the latest biological and psychological research, the possibilities of prevention, the complexities of the right-to-die movement, and the effects on suicide's survivors.
Presented with deep compassion and humanity, November of the Soul is an invaluable contribution not only to our understanding of suicide but also of the human condition.
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February 20, 2006
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Excerpt from November of the Soul by George Howe Colt
During the months that followed September 11, 2001, I could not help noticing what pains the op-ed pages of America's newspapers took to make clear that the terrorists who steered jets into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon were not real suicides. The implication was that these men had nothing in common with the troubled souls we think of -- and feel compassion toward -- when we hear the profoundly unsettling word suicide.
It is understandable that we would be reluctant to find any commonality between unhappy people who deserve our sympathy and mass murderers -- and, to be sure, there are great differences. And yet the terrorists were suicides, albeit of a particular but hardly unique strand in the history of self-destructive behavior. Indeed, the post-9/11 editorialists seemed unaware that for much of recorded history, suicide has been seen primarily not as a private act of desperation but as a public statement with a larger social meaning. Suicides have often been depicted not as miserable, helpless victims but as rational masters of their own fates, sacrificing themselves in the name of protest, idealism, or subversion by committing what the French sociologist mile Durkheim called altruistic suicide (a difficult label to apply to the events of 9/11, but, from its executors' skewed perspective, an accurate one). These terrorists were nothing new -- except, perhaps, in the magnitude of their destruction.
To find an analogue, one need look back only fifty years to the kamikaze, the Japanese pilots who flew their fighter planes into American aircraft carriers in the South Pacific during the waning months of World War II. One could, of course, look much further back, to the early Christian martyrs, who believed that by killing themselves they would receive posthumous glory and enter the kingdom of heaven in a state of blissful sinlessness. (Indeed, so many Christians killed themselves in the first few centuries AD that the church was forced to redefine suicide as a mortal sin.) By contrast, the contemporary terrorist earns cultural veneration for killing others, and his suicide is merely a lethal side effect. By the standards of antiquity, the September 11 hijackers could well have seen themselves as modern versions of Samson, who knew that when he pulled down the Philistine temple, he, too, would die.
At the same time, they -- along with the Palestinian, Iraqi, and Tamil suicide bombers who populate our front pages -- may not be as different as we might think from the despondent, often psychiatrically distressed people we consider to be "typical" suicides (as if there were such a thing). As time has passed, a more complex picture has emerged in which such terrorists appear to be neither selfless martyrs nor (as the 9/11 editorialists would have it) vindictive cowards but troubled young men and, occasionally, women who, finding little meaning in their lives, are psychologically and culturally primed to be swept away by a cause, especially one whose apparent largeness of purpose might lend them dignity. They are less akin, perhaps, to clear-eyed Cato and the other so-called rational suicides of antiquity than to those cultists who swallowed poisoned Kool-Aid and followed Jim Jones to their deaths in the Guyana jungle, or to the harried zealots in Waco, Texas, who, at the behest of a charismatic leader named David Koresh, fired on federal agents until they were themselves killed. In their confusion, rage, and feelings of powerlessness, they had something in common with the boys who turned their guns on their schoolmates at Columbine High School before turning them on themselves. In some ways, in fact, they may not be that far removed from any despairing person who looks, often in the wrong places, for something that will lend his life meaning and ends up finding death.