When the poet Anne Sexton committed suicide in 1974, a memorial service was held for her at the City College of New York, where her contemporary Adrienne Rich happened to be teaching. Rich didn’t know Sexton very well, but something about the death made her very angry. She had known Sylvia Plath at Radcliffe and watched the reactions of young female poets to Plath’s death, which amounted, she later recalled, to “an imaginative obsession with victimization and death, unfair to Plath herself and her own struggle for survival.” Seeing the writing on that wall, Rich produced an incandescent eulogy for this woman she didn’t know. The key part of it, the ranting part, begins, “We have had enough suicidal women poets, enough suicidal women, enough of self-destructiveness as the sole form of violence permitted to women.”
Her argument came to mind yesterday, when a Vice photo spread by Annabel Mehran crossed my social media feeds. Entitled “Last Words,” it’s terrible work, not simply for its depiction of suicide proper, but rather for the sheer laziness of it, its failure to engage the subject matter fully. The seven photographs show models playing women writers, some more famous than others, in the act of killing themselves. Sexton herself mercifully escapes this treatment, but Virginia Woolf, Iris Chang, Dorothy Parker, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (whose last name is carelessly snipped off), Sylvia Plath, Sanmao, and Elise Cowen do not. You may know some of these names better than others — Sanmao, for example, is virtually unknown outside her native Taiwan. There are varying levels of bad taste involved, the most egregious being Chang, who is not even ten years dead. But what am I saying, the purpose here is clearly not to think about their work. It’s to, you know, get you to think about fashion.
At this last task, by the way, the photographs fail utterly. The images are not particularly shocking or revealing. Probably the best compliment you can give them is that they don’t “glamorize” anything. They are bland, anesthetized, boring. The clothes in them are equally drab, and appear to be randomly chosen, without connection to the horror the photographer indifferently depicts. It looks like they took all of ten minutes to set and style the entire project.
Regardless, the Internet exploded in essays damning the photographs as “disturbing,” making suicide “cool.” The hearts of such critics are in the right place, but their argument is not. Much of the best feminist art asks questions about self-destruction and might not survive this test. The truth is that feelings of self-destructiveness are messy and disturbing. Take a look at the work of someone like Ana Mendieta, who often involved blood and gore directly. “She wants to feel the spray of blood on her skin,” a critic remarked of her retrospective. Or the imagery of Francesca Woodman, who would commit suicide at just 22 after creating these startling, haunting images of herself fading into wallpaper, the floor, the window. Taste had no dominion there, and perhaps it shouldn’t, since taste for a long time has meant that women should be quiet, demure, and obedient.
Breaking the social codes about depression and self-destructiveness is an enduring theme of women’s writing, including the women purportedly depicted here. Many of them wrote extensively about their own wishes for self-annihilation, whatever their eventual ends came to be. Thirty years before she died, Virginia Woolf was asking herself in marginalia, “Why do I write all about suicide and mad people?” Sylvia Plath answered that very question in her own way in The Bell Jar, “It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get.” Elise Cowen, who is barely known outside the small circle of those obsessed with the Beat Generation, left this behind, in a notebook: “Alone / Weeping / I woke weeping / Alone / In black park of bed.” And the truth is that women have long poured over this work, obsessed with it, because they identified with it. As Dorothy Parker put it in one of her best (autobiographical) short stories:
She pounced upon all the accounts of suicides in the newspapers. There was an epidemic of self-killings — or maybe it was just that she searched for the stories of them so eagerly that she found many. To read of them roused reassurance in her; she felt a cozy solidarity with the big company of the voluntary dead.
Please, everyone, resist the temptation to call that “cozy solidarity” morbid and wrap it up there. Of course, suicide is a frightening, terrible, unacceptable thing. But to be silent about it, to make it in bad taste to represent and speak about it, is not to address that too closely. As the writer Andrew Solomon once put it about a friend’s suicide, “Depression is a disease of loneliness, and the privacy of a depressed person is not a dignity; it is a prison.” Like it or not as a matter of taste, this recognition of predecessors is an attempt to break out of a very lonesome jail. Why do you think, after all, that these writers left these writings behind?
It wasn’t, after all, only Adrienne Rich’s frustration with suicide that made her speech so powerful. It was the way she managed to turn anyone’s identification with Sexton into a reason not to die.
Her poetry is a guide to the ruins, from which we learn what women have lived and what we must refuse to live any longer. Her death is an arrest: In its moment we have all been held, momentarily, in the grip of a policeman who tells us we are guilty of being female, and powerless.
Finding that sort of redemption in the dark does of course require groundbreaking work in the first place, though. So try a bit harder, will you, next time, Vice? Suicide is fair game for commentary — regardless how many others on the Internet cry otherwise when seeing this spread — but slouching indifference and sloppiness do not a real sensation make. To address these women’s life and pain, the work should at least be as smart as those featured.