Suicide Is Not an Act of Cowardice

A radio host’s tweets have resurrected a dangerous myth to disparage a celebrated novelist.

David Foster Wallace circa 2002
Janette Beckman / Redferns / Getty

David Foster Wallace, who took his own life in 2008, was a courageous man. He was a university professor, a prolific writer of essays and novels, and a MacArthur Foundation Fellow, but none of those things made him notably brave. What made him brave was that he accomplished what he did while fighting a major depressive disorder, and survived it until he was 46. He achieved even as he struggled to balance the disruptive side effects of his medications with their life-preserving qualities. Many who face depression know that private struggle.

But John Ziegler, a pundit, radio talk show host, and writer for Mediaite and The Bulwark, thinks that Wallace was a coward whose suicide demonstrates that his work is not credible. Twitter is the perfect forum to say angry, mean, ignorant things, and that’s where Ziegler shared his view of Wallace:

This is contemptible, but there may be two reasons to give Ziegler a break. The first is that Wallace utterly savaged him in a column here at The Atlantic in 2005, and Ziegler has never gotten over it. In a ruthless and brilliant portrait, Wallace captured the banality and smallness of Ziegler’s life as a bomb-throwing right-wing radio host. Wallace had a rare talent for portraying human frailties, and he limned Ziegler as a huckster selling insipid resentment alongside “male enhancement” pills and hair restorers.  It was a column ahead of its time; it could have been written about half of the programs on the air today. The Wallace who nailed Ziegler to the wall would have had no difficulty recognizing, for instance, Alex Jones. (Ziegler has arguably moved on. Bless President Donald Trump, the safety school for angry pundits of all political stripes and levels of ability: Ziegler has since transitioned to the popular and undemanding anti-Trump-conservative beat and the somewhat more esoteric Jerry-Sandusky-was-framed beat.)

The second reason to give Ziegler a break is that his malice-tinged ignorance is common. Every time there’s a suicide in the news, the Courage Experts appear, explaining that taking your own life—especially if you have a family—is cowardly.  The deaths of Robin Williams, Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, and many others all inspired such judgments from people lacking either insight or human empathy. These people have something in common: They haven’t experienced major depression, and don’t care to make the effort to grasp what it’s like.  Like Ziegler, they see suicide as “selfish,” a decision reached through a self-interested calculus of pleasure and pain, with no consideration given to loved ones left behind.

But that’s not what depression is like at all.  Wallace understood it, even though his understanding wasn’t enough to save him.  In the novel Infinite Jest, he wrote this remarkably evocative and accurate description:

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

Depression lies. It lies relentlessly and seductively and convincingly. The lies, like the fire of Wallace’s parable, separate you from hope, from faith, from your loved ones.  Imagine the worst day of your life. Maybe someone you loved died, or betrayed you. Maybe you lost a job you loved or were publicly humiliated or failed some essential obligation. Remember how it felt? Imagine, for a moment, feeling that way almost all of the time. Imagine it’s always there, a hard angry fist in the pit of your stomach, from when you wake to when you sleep. Imagine that the few moments when you forget and don’t feel that way offer little solace, because suddenly you remember, and the pain and hopelessness surge back like a tsunami. Imagine hearing inexorable lies in your own voice, telling you that you’ll never feel better, that you deserve no better, that if there are people who love you, it’s only because they don’t see how worthless you are, and that they would all be better off without you. Imagine that you can’t conceive of any way that the pain can end unless you die. It’s not cowardly to fall prey to that. It’s human. Resisting that, persevering, excelling, creating art when you feel that way, like Wallace did? That’s goddamned epic. Wallace isn’t a coward for falling; he’s a hero for standing as long as he did.

Inadequately treated depression reaps us mercilessly. It’s the tenth leading cause of death in America.  The suicide rates have climbed steadily for decades. But there’s hope. There’s always hope. You can help your friends and loved ones find their way back to that hope. Talking with depressed people, offering them help and steadfast support, gently but firmly leading them to pursue and maintain treatment, and keeping in touch with them are all effective ways of reducing suicide risk. Depression lies, but you can be the one in somebody’s life who counters those lies with the truth.

Decent people can also help by not making things worse, and by avoiding cruel and thoughtless stereotypes. When you announce that people who have died by suicide are cowardly, you’re sending a message to depressed people fighting suicidal thoughts. The message isn’t one of perseverance. It’s one of worthlessness. When you say that the victims of suicide are cowards, you’re telling depressed people that they’re weak and contemptible for what they feel. You’re reinforcing the lies they’re already hearing in their head. You’re making it less likely, not more, that they’ll seek help, and you’re not facing responsibility for your actions. That’s not brave. That’s cowardly. If John Ziegler can feel shame, he ought to.