Largely autobiographical, this unique study is spliced with analyses of famous suicide case histories, as well as crisp commentaries on the extensive philosophical literature on suicide from the likes of Hume, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, and Camus, as well as insights from a cast of Buddhist sages.
Almost as far back as the author can remember, “the lull of death” was always there. At six, he made his first attempt to erase himself by purposefully steering his tricycle in front of an oncoming bus. He recalls making plans and details their execution: “I closed my eyes and ran into the street. Horns were blaring. I don’t know if the bus actually hit me, but […] [t]here was a commotion of adults, and I was on the curb. They took me into the school, and I was totally fine.” In the past, psychiatrists did not believe young children could be suicidal, but that view has changed. Martin obliquely uses his collision with the bus to fix the point that he is a member of an exotic tribe of individuals who seem born with an impulse to leave the world they have just come into.
As a wayward teen, and then as a shy and brilliant young man, Martin struggled to find his footing in life. A nervous Nellie, he almost always felt like an outsider. At 15, he joined his two brothers in Texas in their lucrative jewelry business. Money cascaded in and so did cocaine and ecstasy. In addition to drugs, the teenage diamond merchant drank with the Dionysian intensity of someone trying to forget both yesterday and tomorrow. All the while, the idea of suicide never left Martin, ticking like a clock in the back of his skull. Unable to tie himself to the mast, he would invariably hearken to the sirens and try to end his life by methods as varied as they were curious, from jumping off a building to hanging himself with his dog’s leash. All in all, he made at least 10 attempts to snuff himself out. When the leash snapped or he was talked off a ledge, it was off to one of many stays in a psychiatric ward.
For all his vices and craziness, Martin was privileged with an abundance of intellectual talents, as well as the financial support to keep him afloat. Sketchy on the details, Martin quit his job in the jewelry business and was admitted to—and eventually took a doctorate in—philosophy. Even then and later, when he secured a hard-to-get professorship in philosophy, his attempts to cut the kite strings of his life continued.
Skeptics will sneer: “Come on, it’s not that difficult to kill yourself. Martin’s self-destructive actions were just theater, cries for help.” Martin acknowledges the doubts: “It’s a fair question, if not particularly polite.” Those who have attempted, he writes, “know what people are implying when they ask that, and one response I could give is that, like most things, suicide is harder than it looks. Another is that, as with most things, the majority of successful suicides practice before they succeed.”
Eventually, Martin resolves that the only foolproof way to blow out the candle is to blow out his brains. He purchases two guns; while still working in the gem industry, he takes a bathroom break and sits with a Glock in his mouth. “I will always remember,” he writes, “the oily taste of the barrel and the clean machine smell of it that came up into my nostrils through my throat.” Martin performs this numerous times, turning it into a ritual of sorts, but just can’t squeeze the trigger. Fortunately, failures awaken him to the fact that alongside his desire to die there is an equally strong desire to remain within the buzzing hurly-burly of life.
In addition to being spellbound by death, Martin is, for a long period, a self-admitted alcoholic. Two marriages explode because he can’t stop drinking. He is bereft by the fact that, with good reason, his first wife will not let him see his children until she’s sure he isn’t boozing. There are lockups, ankle bracelets, drug tests, and a long and complicated involvement in Alcoholics Anonymous. In one of the book’s strongest chapters, “Drinking Myself to Death,” Martin expresses many cavils about AA but concedes that without the support of his brothers and sisters in the arms of the dependency, he might never have been able to drive past the cool, grotto-like bars where he once found some peace and laughs.
Camus famously announced that “[t]here is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” But in the same text, Camus observes that an act like suicide “is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. The man himself is ignorant of it. One evening he pulls the triggers or jumps. […] There are many causes for a suicide.” In the end, it is often something relatively trivial that nudges an individual over the bridge. Martin concurs. There is a jungle of reasons and motives behind the deathworks of a Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, or Anthony Bourdain. Schopenhauer observes that there is nothing cowardly or unreasonable about taking one’s life when the pain of existence far outweighs its pleasures. It is also clear that some people kill themselves to exact revenge or, in some cases, to prove that they are brave enough to carry through with the deed they have been threatening for years.
A lover of dialectic, Martin recognizes that there are reasons for taking one’s own life, but then adds that there might also be reasons capable of restraining a potential suicide. Throughout the book—written in a pleasant, conversational tone—it is as though our author is always looking for what to say to someone on the razor’s edge.
In her illuminating Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against (2013), the poet and philosopher Jennifer Michael Hecht provides a secular argument against ending one’s life and reminds us of the overwhelming evidence of cluster suicides, as well as the fact that suicides run in families. For that reason, she maintains that (excluding cases of agonizing terminal illness) killing oneself is not the victimless crime it is sometimes made out to be. Hence, her gentle plea for the despairing individual to try and stay.
Though, surprisingly, he never mentions Hecht’s book, Martin seems to agree with her argument, especially as he thinks and worries about his five children. Nevertheless, perhaps because those at the end of their rope are usually burning up in the cold flame of self-hatred, Martin is chary of moralizing and providing even more instruments of self-torture.
Now on his third marriage and splitting his teaching duties between the University of Missouri in Kansas City and Ashoka University in India, Martin humbly reports that he is much less haunted by his death wishes. Still, a serious student of Buddhism, which includes a conviction that consciousness cannot be dissolved with a razor and warm bath, Martin is aware that, everything being in flux, the lull of death could easily return.
An eminent Nietzsche scholar as well, Martin is well aware of Nietzsche’s dictum: if you have the why, you have the how in life. But the why can be pounded out of you when, at age 70, you are bludgeoned with one of life’s three punch combinations: financial disaster, crippling illness, and family strife. When that whirlwind strikes, the temptation not to exist might be a mite stronger than this book lets on.
Since Martin has been writing on the topic of suicide for years, he has been generous in informally counseling people afflicted with the view that life is nothing more than affliction. In the final chapter, he offers a loving and useful 40-plus-page collection of straightforward advice aimed at people with a flagging will to live. For example, it helps to remember that severe depression can cause us to lose our temporal perspective, intoxicating us with the conviction that change is impossible. Reminding yourself that “you can always kill yourself tomorrow” can provide a crack of breathing space. And then there is the age-old Buddhist advice not to panic about feeling panicked, but instead to observe your feelings without passing judgment on them. Also, get some exercise. (To paraphrase Kierkegaard: You can walk away from any problem, so walk, walk, walk …) Martin credits antidepressants with helping him find a new angle for thinking about his life. The coda to the book is followed by a long, thoughtful appendix, “Tools for Crisis.”
How Not to Kill Yourself is a riveting and inspiring read for anyone who has had to keep company with the chthonic feeling that the breath of life is a curse. Martin is one of the few members of the Socratic guild who is also a masterful writer of fiction. His knack for descriptions enables him to bring abstract concepts down to earth. Turning the final page, I had to smile at the last chords of this self-study since they seemed to encapsulate the pat-on-the-back spirit of a good book.
Martin waves goodbye, saying, “Maybe I’m starting to learn, if not how to live, at least how not to kill myself. Not to get all sentimental […] but look at us, here we are together, we made it. We don’t want to die, just yet.”
Gordon Marino is a professor of philosophy and the director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College.