Self-Help for the Woody Allen Crowd

Jennifer Michael Hecht's 'Stay' offers arguments against shuffling off one's mortal coil. REUTERS/China Daily

He has slipped past death -- and yet he wants to die. In the 1986 Woody Allen movie Hannah and Her Sisters, protagonist Mickey Sachs learns that he does not have cancer, which he feared was on the verge of taking him to the great perhaps. This reprieve, though, only makes him miserable -- he understands that he has won little more than a stay of execution. "Do you realize what a thread we're all hanging by?" he asks a perplexed co-worker. Mickey decides to cut the thread by killing himself, but the suicide attempt goes awry. Flustered, he bolts into a movie theater, where he has an epiphany: "What if there's no God, and you only go around once and that's it? Well, you know, don't you want to be part of the experience? You know, what the hell, it's not all a drag."

That it's not all a drag and you might as well get on with life's vagaries is the strikingly simple and convincing argument of Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It by Jennifer Michael Hecht, one of the more unusual books I have read. And though I had not been planning to shuffle off my own mortal coil, Stay proved strangely inspirational. It is, I suppose, self-help for the Woody Allen crowd.

Hecht wrote this book from within the caustic fires of personal loss: a poet by profession, she lost two colleagues, Sarah Hannah and Rachel Wetzsteon, to self-slaughter in quick succession. In the wake of their suicides, Hecht penned a furious blog post that, in February 2010, turned into a Boston Globe article that bears the same title as her new book. And all three deliver the same succinct message: "I'm issuing a rule. You are not allowed to kill yourself."

This is an important message for a nation that, as Hecht notes, is in the midst of a suicide epidemic. The figures suggest that as many as 22 veterans may be killing themselves per day; meanwhile, Psychology Today recently noted that "middle aged Americans are turning to suicide in alarming numbers." In 2010, 38,000 Americans ended their own lives -- more than died in car accidents.

While not insensitive to people who use suicide as a way to end the suffering of terminal illness ("end-of-life management," she calls it), Hecht brands suicide an immoral act that robs society -- and the self-killer -- of a life that is certainly more valuable than what it may seem in that dark moment. It solves nothing, complicates everything. "When a person kills himself, he does wrenching damage to the community." No man is an island, the poet John Donne wrote, and no life is lived apart from other lives.

This is not an easy argument to sustain, and some will surely accuse Hecht of eliding and eluding arguments in psychology, psychopharmacology and sociology, not to mention the quotidian fact that life sometimes just sucks. This is true for everyone, but only for some is it a signal that life is no longer worth living. Stay considers some broad reasons for why people kill themselves, though it didn't leave me with an understanding of why Ernest Hemingway put a shotgun into his mouth on the morning of July 2, 1961.

But this book is about those who may yet be saved. "I assign no blame to those already lost," Hecht writes. "I only feel sorry for them." Her argument is that it -- whatever dark truth that pronoun signifies -- almost always gets better, which is why suicide has been called a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

The theme song to M*A*S*H is called "Suicide Is Painless." The act "brings on many changes," says a haunting voice. Wrong, says Hecht. Suicide only brings oblivion.

Woody Allen may be just slightly wiser, on this topic at least, than the plethora of philosophers (Wittgenstein, Camus, etc.) Hecht summons in her defense. Here he is in the opening of Annie Hall, describing the paradox of human existence: "Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly." Enjoy while it lasts.