This FAQ post almost definitely contains spoilers, and it is highly recommended that you read the story it refers to before reading this. These questions are about the short story “Vague But Compelling Gestures of Strong Disagreement”. For the actual short story itself, please point your browser here.
Why is ‘Stanley’ yet another over-represented cis-gendered white able-bodied male?
I’m glad you asked. Basically, because, according to modern popular analysis, he’s exactly the kind of person who ‘has it all’. He’s already got white privilege, male privilege, hetero privilege, able-bodied privilege; the epitome of ‘mainstream’ ‘normality’, the people that apparently the ‘system’ makes life easy for. The idea was to give someone everything (externally-speaking), and show that all these privileges are only privileges to a point – they have no bearing on the amorphous demons of the soul. If I’d made him anything else, it’d be all too easy for someone to read it differently, and I think clarity is important.
Are you going to top yourself?
No. Well, I have no plans to do it at this stage, anyway. I mean, it’s always an option, isn’t it, but currently life is pretty good, all things considered. Besides, I don’t think I have the absolutist mindset required for that kind of commitment: I mean, what if I changed my mind halfway through? Plus I’m a total chicken with a serious aversion to pain, and all the suicide-options seem to be a bit scary. But in all seriousness, when (my life-partner and Cosmik Wife and best friend) Nalin first read this story, that very question was the first thing she asked, all worried and wide-eyed, and I had to convince her that, no, it was actually just a made-up story, coz, y’know, I’m a writer and stuff.
So it’s all just made-up rubbish then?
Well, no, not really that either. The part about wanting to write the story and not being able to get it out for some reason, is true. The story that the “Me” character describes is indeed a story that I’d been wanting to write for ages, that’s all true too. That the first person I knew to kill himself did it by hiding around a bend in a railroad is also true (and we were in English Lit class together, etc). My brother is a real train driver. The crossing at Ruthven is really unsupervised (at least, it was when I had the idea for the story). And I am, every now and then, genuinely crushed by the overwhelming breath-constricting obsidian ceiling of existential meaninglessness, so much so that the only light at the end of the tunnel is that one day I’ll be dead. It happens more often than I’d like, this inky black enveloping horror, and the certain knowledge that one day it’ll all be over (life, I mean) is perversely the only thing that helps me through it – ‘this too shall pass’, as the Buddhists say.
So yeah, it’s all true as well as being totally made-up. Um. I try to be as honest as I possibly can in my writing, but at the same time, it’s not like 100% autobiographical or anything. I think any writer balances that tightrope between authenticity and total bullshit, don’t they?
Are you pro-suicide? What kind of monster are you?
Those are actually two totally different questions: I’m on to you, mate. But I will answer them both.
I think, on the face of it, I guess I am pro-suicide. I mean, we’re all only here for a limited time anyway, aren’t we? The one thing we can absolutely guarantee in our lives is that it will one day all be over. The End is coming, and it’s either by our own hand or not. Now, there’s lots of talk about euthanasia and ‘dying with dignity’, but only for old people or ‘terminally-ill’ people. As far as I can see, given we’re all ‘terminal’ – none of us are getting out of this alive – we all deserve the same amount of dignity regarding our own deaths, at whatever point we decide that it’s no longer worth the struggle. I mean, who am I to say ‘no, you need to stay alive’ to anyone? It’s not my place to interfere; I mean, it’s not like suicide is ever a light decision. This is not a fickle whim. It’s not like someone wakes up with a bit of a sniffle and decides to end it all. Things must be pretty fucking dire for someone to actually really properly decide to actually really properly end it all, and I kinda feel like it’s not my business to try to convince someone that they’re wrong, that they shouldn’t feel the way they feel, and that their own life is actually not theirs to take. If someone is feeling like ending it all, by all means, it’s their business, their decision, and I really have no right telling them to stick around. Not my biz.
(Yes, every life is precious. But, well, let’s face it, there are a lot of us around. One less isn’t really going to make much of a dent. In fact, even if 1 billion of us all decided to do ourselves in simultaneously, there’s still more than 6 billion of us left to carry on.)
When I look at it, all the arguments against suicide seem, to me, to be selfish ones offered by the people left behind: ‘but what about the children / yer mum / me?’ When my mum died (at 56, of cancer), sure, I was totally miserably sad about her dying – but I was also happy that her suffering was over. Would I really prefer her to be alive and in pain, or dead and oblivious? I can’t help but think I’d rather her be gone than suffer so much (she really wasn’t having a very good time at the end there). Of course I miss her – but my personal feelings aren’t the only ones (or even the most relevant ones) to consider. Same with suicide: let’s focus, not on our own feelings, but on the genuine feelings of the specific person whose life we’re talking about here. Is it actually better to struggle every day, to ‘fight the battle with depression’ for years and years, than to just disappear? If so, how? Certainly, it doesn’t seem better for the person who has to fucking struggle every day for the rest of their life just to exist. I’m just not convinced. As far as I can tell, it’s best to let everyone pop off whenever they want. It’s their life. Only they can decide whether it’s worth living or not.
(And is it really that much better for someone to accidentally fall off a cliff and die, than deliberately leap off the same cliff and die? Why fetishise accident over choice? Why fetishise life – no matter how horrible – over death?)
So, given that people are going to do it anyway, and kinda seem to have a basic right to do it, it seems to me that the real issue is making suicide a bit nicer. In three ways: 1) making sure it actually works (suicide survivors are often permanently disfigured, and still have to suffer whatever it was that drove them to try to opt out in the first place); 2) making it less awful for the people left behind; and 3) removing the social stigma.
1) Is an obvious one. For every one person who is successful at removing themselves from this mortal realm, something between 19-25 people fail, only managing to severely disfigure themselves (losing limbs, destroying organs, damaging brains, etc, depending on the methods of exit employed). Now, if I decide to end it all, I don’t want to wake up and find that all I’ve done is lose my legs and soil my underpants. We need some sure-fire fool-proof absolutely guaranteed method of getting out of here, some kind of prescription-based lethal injection we can just purchase when we decide, as grown adults, that it’s time to move on. I mean, sheesh, if we can do it for Fluffy, why not ourselves?
2) As it stands currently, all the options are a bit yuk for those left behind: who wants to come home to see mama swinging from a rafter, or papa’s cerebellum decorating the rumpus room? Blood and vomit and arteries and shit and train-splatter are all majorly gross things for loved ones to experience. It’s not fair on them, it’s not pleasant for anyone, and do you really want everyone’s last memory of you to be the one where you look like an extra from The Walking Dead? Again, a lethal injection might leave us with no muss, no fuss. No more suicide notes ending with “please excuse all the blood”; nothing but clean sheets and a smile.
3) Imagine a world where, when you decide you’ve had enough, your loved ones gather around you, offer you their final words of kindness and solidarity and support, light a few candles or put on your favourite tunes or whatever, and engage in some sort of respectful severance ceremony, some kind of warm official ceremonial goodbye. And then you jab yourself with a needleful of ‘Soft Farewell’TM and slip into unconsciousness and eventually the void. No shame, no vilification, no coercion. Imagine if it was just a normal thing that everyone did: imagine if people chose their own deaths as much as they choose their own holiday destinations. Would that really be so bad? (Even if you had no loved ones to speak of, the idea of vanishing slowly within a cocoon of warm oblivion sounds preferable to trying to slice open the right artery or fall from a high enough bridge. You’ve got to go some day, might as well make it nice. Self-determined. Clean. Thorough. Dignified.)
“But Mat,” I hear you ask, “if suicide was socially-approved, legally-sanctioned, easily-accessible, no muss, no fuss, and non-controversial, more people would see it as an option! We’d have more suicides! And that blood would be on your hands, Blackwell!” To which I respond, “Well, sure, maybe, but as a non-controversial, socially-approved activity, that’d only be as shocking as saying more people were playing Bingo, or more people are putting fucking butter in their coffee. They’d’ve gone with approval and dignity instead of furtive secrecy and shame. They’d’ve made a choice about their own lives, and that would be okay with everyone, because we’d all be mature adults who respect other people’s decisions about what to do with their own personal bodies. And their blood might be on my metaphorical hands, but at least it wouldn’t be all over the literal real-life bathroom for their literal real-life loved ones to have to clean up. Besides, a lot of really fucked up sad sad people would no longer be with us, so, overall, society would be a happier and more highly-functioning place. You’re welcome, buddy”.
And what kind of monster am I? It turns out I’m that kind of monster.