David Foster Wallace, one of the greatest American novelists of all time, has a hugely popular quote about suicide…and it’s dead wrong.
On September 12, 2008, David Foster Wallace wrote a note to his wife, stacked an unfinished manuscript on his desk, and hung himself from the back porch of his Claremont, California home.
Wallace didn’t talk a lot about his personal struggles with depression, choosing instead to explore it through his characters. As people scrambled for answers in the wake of his death, they would find his thoughts on suicide in his greatest work, Infinite Jest.
Here’s the bit everyone latched onto:
“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
If you’ve ever stood at that window with the flames lashing at you, then you know what he’s talking about it. It’s instantly recognizable. It’s perhaps the aptest description ever written of what it feels like to be suicidal. It could only be written by someone who has felt it.
But it’s also dangerously wrong.