kind of a not-funny story: ned vizzini, youth fiction, and suicide

It's so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself.

That's the first line of Ned Vizzini's excellent 2006 youth novel, It's Kind of a Funny Story. By the time I read the book this year, the author was already dead. Vizzini committed suicide last December; he was only 32 years old.

Those facts alone are tragic. But now that I've read this book, I find Vizzini's death even sadder. On some level, I chide myself for that: every person's life is of equal value, and every early death is a loss. But we feel the way we feel, and Vizzini's suicide feels, to me, inexpressibly sad, a monumental loss.

Vizzini wrote youth fiction in a natural, straightforward voice, with deep insight and wry humour. It's Kind of a Funny Story is a slightly fictionalized account of the onset of the author's depression as a teenager, and the five days he spent in the psychiatric unit of a hospital in Brooklyn, New York. It's a funny book, often poignant, sometimes very moving, always very honest. It's an excellent book, and was made into a very good movie in 2010.

Vizzini's work touched the lives of millions of young people. We can be sure that untold numbers of teens and young adults with depression recognized themselves in Craig Gilner, the intrepid narrator of It's Kind of a Funny Story, who is trying to save his own life, trying to believe that his life is worth saving.

Vizzini was a very talented writer, and was hugely successful. He found the kind of success as a youth author that I used to dream of - that I worked very hard for, but did not achieve. It's easy to speculate that Vizzini's early success contributed to his depression, but I think those easy answers are just as easily wrong. He was depressed. He sought help, he got help, but eventually his depression overwhelmed him. This happens to successful people, and it happens to people whose depression prevents them from ever achieving success. It happens to talented people, and it happens to ordinary people. For every Ned Vizzini, David Foster Wallace, and Anthony Lukas who kill themselves, there are thousands more, whose names we never know.

Suicide is called many things: cowardly, selfish, crazy. I find all of these judgements strange, and wrong. One of my little missions is, when I hear or read someone speaking ignorantly about suicide, to  always counter with a more compassionate perspective. Empathy really shouldn't be too difficult: imagine being in so much pain that death seems like the only option.

There is another thing about suicide: shame. In most western countries, suicide is among the three leading causes of death of people between the ages of 15 and 44, and the second leading cause of death between ages 10 and 24. And these figures do not include suicide attempts, which are much more frequent. (Figures from WHO and NIMH.) Most of those deaths also represent survivors: the loved ones left behind. I know many people whose lives have been touched by suicide, including my own and my partner's. Yet it's still rarely spoken of. Many families still change the cause of death in obituaries and fabricate stories for family history. Attitudes about mental illness have changed and are changing, but the stigma associated with suicide speaks to how much work remains.

I wish Ned Vizzini was still here to write more great teen novels, or to do whatever else he wanted. I hope his work has made life a little more bearable for some of his readers.


Nova Canadian said...

It's true, Laura, that suicide is painful and tragic. Much of life often feels the same way. I know that many call suicide a selfish action, saying that one should never be so self-absorbed as to impose such pain on others. But I also know some who live painful lives, who don't want to commit suicide, but keep the idea kind of "in their back pocket," just in case. Life is painful and sometimes it is helpful to know that there is a way to relieve that pain.

laura k said...

I think it's incredibly self-absorbed to call suicide selfish. No one owes anyone else their life. No one can shoulder another person's pain. I just wish everyone had the help they need to get through, but in the world we live in now, that is not the case.

Dharma Seeker said...

If selfishness is being primarily concerned with oneself, and having a disregard for others, suicide is selfish. I didn't always believe this. When my cousin killed himself a year ago today I was grief stricken but not angry. Having struggled with severe depression, feelings of worthlessnes and considering myself a burden, I understood. I wasn't angry until his suicide note came to light (the police took it as "evidence", assuming my aunt had seen it - she hadn't - so she wasn't aware of the note until a couple of months after he passed). In his suicide note he went to great lengths to outline what kind of funeral he wanted, the music he wanted played, what he wanted done with his remains (see the pattern here? what HE wanted). Not a word of love or comfort for his mother or his sister. Not an "I love you", or "thank you" or "I'll be ok". Not a word that might give them some semblance peace or comfort. One can argue that he didn't owe them that (I disagree), but there is no denying that he was only thinking about himself. It was incredibly selfish.

laura k said...

A man is in enough pain to need to end his life, and we should stand in judgement of his suicide note? I think not. I would rather assume that I cannot know what was in his heart or his mind, what his mental and emotional state were, as he stood at the brink of death. I would rather assume that he was doing the only thing he could do.

It's reasonable to assume that a person on the brink of self-inflicted death may not be thinking and behaving completely rationally.

The suicide of a loved one is a very difficult and painful thing. IMO judging the person's actions as if it were all about us, and our own feelings, can only make it worse.

Dharma Seeker said...

I don't see it so much as standing in judgement as it is an observation. I talked about this with my parents several months ago and my Dad said he's attended many suicides over the years and many people do consider the survivors in their suicide notes. My cousin just wasn't one of them.

laura k said...

Reading and re-reading your comment above, it's quite clear that it is a judgement. You're entitled to that, of course. But pretending it's just an observation - as if it's neutral - is a bit silly.

Dharma Seeker said...

*shurgs* and you're entitled to your judgement of my thoughts Laura. A spade is a spade, unless we're using different definitions of selfishness. He was thinking of himself and had a complete disregard for how his actions would affect others. Nobody's condemning him for that, he probably didn't have the capacity to be anything else, but it doesn't change what was.