Suicide and success

Phillip Hodson has written an interesting article  in The Independent on the tragic and untimely death of Gary Speed.  He is attempting to address the apparent contradiction of people who, on the surface, appear to be successful, have it all, and yet, behind all this appear to have profoundly troubled private lives – so private in fact that not even those close to them are aware anything is wrong until tragedy strikes.  To quote Hodson:

Logic suggests that people who behave like this are either subject to catastrophic mood swings or have the ability of long-term sleeper spies to lead a double life. If the former, you’d expect there to be some sort of advance indication of turmoil. If the latter, you’d want a posthumous explanation. Alas, there are often neither – as I sometimes have to explain to bereaved families.

Hodson also points out that much of our current thinking about the mind ‘remains alarmingly simple’, by which he is referring to a cognitive model in which ‘the mind’ is regarded as a form of data processing system which interprets the world.  In this model there is no room for the unconscious.  However, as Hodson goes on to argue, such explanations fail to explain such tragic occurrences as the suicide of Gary Speed – and many more like him.

Behind much of the bewilderment regarding such events is often an assumption that a person’s public face is all there is – even in the privacy of a person’s home and family.  In other words, if someone appears to be ‘successful’ (which is very much a culturally bound and socially constructed concept in the first place), to be happy, to be content with their lives, have a lovely husband or wife or partner, lovely children and so on, then this must be who they are.

However, I think we have to be careful not to jump to the opposite conclusion, i.e. that beneath surface appearances, behind the persona, the false self, lurks someone or something else.  This someone or something can sometimes be portrayed as being decidedly unpleasant, aggressive, and so on.  On the other hand this someone or something can be portrayed as being more ‘authentic’, the ‘real’ self.   This is often how Freud is (mis)interpreted and, to be fair, is the way he sometimes tried to describe the idea of the unconscious, e.g. as a ‘basement’.  The critical point here, though, is that ‘surface’ and ‘below the surface’ are not two separate domains.  One is the effect of the other.  In Lacanian terms the unconscious is an effect of language – the ‘gaps’ between the words.  Whenever one speaks one is also not speaking, i.e. not saying something else.  This is a very different notion of the unconscious to that of a ‘dark, subterranean world’, which is often how it is portrayed in popular writing.

So, returning to the question of why ‘successful’ people commit suicide.  Rather than trying to make sense of this in terms of arguing that beneath the surface of an apparently successful life there resides a deeply troubled individual, which is one way to read Hodson’s article, and, I suspect, how many people are going to interpret this act, perhaps we could start by looking at what being ‘successful’ actually does to a person, i.e. psychologically, subjectively.  In other words, it’s not so much that ‘success’ is a ‘front’ or a way of hiding a person’s vulnerability: rather, it’s precisely ‘success’ that makes them vulnerable, depressed, anxious, or even suicidal, in the first place.