'Stay': Robin Williams and the Argument Against Suicide

Fans gather at a bench in the Public Garden in Boston which was featured in the Robin Williams movie "Good Will Hunting" Brian Snyder/Reuters

I don't often return to a book I've already written about, but the apparent suicide of actor Robin Williams made me think of a book I covered in the fall, Jennifer Michael Hecht's excellent Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It. The crux of Hecht's highly unusual argument is that when "a person kills himself, he does wrenching damage to the community." Evidence of that damage is plentiful today on Twitter, where the fans of Williams are expressing their incomprehension and grief. They feel that they have been robbed, that his was not a life to end right now, and not like this.

Hecht's book is a history, but above that, it is a plea. There is something refreshing, strikingly life-affirming, in her conviction that "the world needs us to stay alive." Suicide robs both your community but also your own future self, Hecht writes, a future self that may yet overcome seemingly insurmountable pain. The title of her book is a faithful summation of the argument it contains.

Hecht is a philosopher, not a psychologist, and some have been bothered by her assertions, especially the suggestion that one can philosophize oneself out of suicide. She writes, for example, that "the depressed person is convinced that she will never come out of it. But even that person has had periods of happiness. It is the nature of existence that this happiness will return – if we stay around to enjoy it." This formulation may lack nuance for some, a full understanding of the pain felt by chronic depressives like Williams, who also reportedly struggled with addiction. As Adam Plunkett wrote in a negative review in The New Republic, "Hecht's muddled logic has not taught us philosophy, and, worse, it gives her readers the false impression that the problems are easy. They are anything but."

Yet the widespread grief over Williams's death does suggest a theft that should be prevented at all costs. "The arguments against suicide ask us to commit ourselves to the human project," Hecht writes. It is a noble vision, though not always a possible one.