Distress Calls

How real should representations of suicide be?

(Note: This essay deals directly with the topic of suicide.)

Throughout my life, I have resisted going to therapy. I’d come of age seeing the men in my family, my father and his father, succumb to cocktails of depression medication given to them by doctors who didn’t know what else to do. With age, these men would invert into sullen versions of themselves. Both had been diagnosed with depressive disorders they did not have a name for until they immigrated to the States from West Bengal.

The genetic links between depression across generations have been long contested, and vigorously, but there is some scientific justification for the suspicion that this disease can travel. I wanted none of this. I have been to a psychiatrist only once, in my freshman year of high school. The experience was terrible: I felt squeamish knowing my honesty was subject to someone else’s ruthless critical scalpel, and I found her brusque and dismissive. She seemed deeply frustrated with my inability to articulate my pain in a manner that sounded cogent or truthful, and in turn, I grew more impatient with myself.

Since then, my aversion to formal therapy has fermented into principled obstinacy: The world is teeming with bad therapists, I decided, just like the one I encountered. I grew up with a deep shame and distrust of this formalized American practice of splaying your anxieties open for strangers — a fool’s errand in my family’s eyes, born of a luxury few in India had.

I did not want to grow into one of my family’s many ceremoniously diseased men. Instead, I would sustain myself with the romantic belief that sadness jettisons itself into genius rather than destroying the creative will, as it had in the Sens before me. I would resist.

I first began to contemplate suicide as early as my first year of middle school. I would speak about it casually in the lunchroom, as though I was professing a desire to become an astronaut. (I lost many friends that year.) There were moments during high school in which my macabre fantasies would intensify and flare, but they soon leveled to a slow, simmering constant in my adult life, subject to periodic ebbs and flows.

For as long as I can remember, stories of sad folk have doubled as therapy for me, filling the vacuum created by my opposition to actual doctors. It began with music: I was one of many gay teenage dweebs who salved himself with the songs of the Smiths. Morrissey pacified me through ninth grade, the year I began to realize that the sadness I had felt in bursts and fits would not retreat, and I would have to get better at taming them if I were to stay alive. But when 500 Days of Summer came out in 2009, with the Smiths prominently on its soundtrack, I suddenly felt as if their music was no longer my own.

So I graduated to movies. I wanted to attribute this shift to something like emotional maturation; I was now ready to digest the frankness and honesty of the moving image. I sought solace in the anguish of certain performances: Jane Fonda as the weary, wised-up cynic in They Shoot Horses, Dont They? (1969), or Alan Arkin as a listless, solitary mute who turns a gun on himself in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968). I can go on. You get it.

One night in late October this year, I saw Antonio Campos’s film Christine. I watched it as I imagined it was meant to be watched: in a dark theater, alone. The film is one of two this year (the other is Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine) about news anchor Christine Chubbuck, a gaunt, willowy woman who shot herself in the head with a pistol on live television in 1974. “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts,’ and in living color,” she declared, “you are going to see another first — attempted suicide.”

The power of a suicide narrative would be in expressing how deadening depression can feel — the debilitating stillness that makes you silo yourself from the world and renders banal tasks insurmountable

If Chubbuck’s death, like any suicide, posed a question — Why did she do it? Christine positions itself as an answer by trying to tell the story of what got her there. Campos’s film depicts her as paralyzed by unrequited romantic longing for a male coworker and sidelined by the “if it bleeds, it leads” philosophy of her employers, which she believed caused them to overlook her rigor and dedication to journalism. Her life was her work; her bosses’ attitude toward news depleted her very purpose for existing.

Screenwriter Craig Shilowich has spoken lucidly of his own battle with depression and the varied ways it colored his understanding of Chubbuck’s story, allowing him to fill in the blanks that her own spotty public biography introduced. However, I can’t square these sincere intentions with how conceptually misguided the film felt to me. Campos and Rebecca Hall, the actress who plays Chubbuck, formulated her character aesthetically. She seemed to me a tensile, fidgety wallflower whose eyes roll like marbles on a hard floor. Where everyone else reads as “normal,” she is an exclamation point announcing her difference, with two thick, brown smears of hair for eyebrows and a monotonous, halted way of speaking — a robot in a sea of humans.

Is this the outside worlds idea of depression? I thought to myself when I saw Christine in the film’s first frames. A state of such obvious exaggeration that it externalizes and speaks its isolationism aloud? Because of this coating of artifice, I could not shake the feeling that this film was a stunt or a failed artistic experiment in conjuring empathy for a woman who could not bear to live. It toes a fraught line between exploitation and exposition, and I felt it ultimately teetered toward the former. Like Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), another film that depicted a suicidal newscaster, Christine muddles its insight with the gestural clowning of panic and despair. It’s a depiction of suicidal ideation in scare quotes.

The world has been scrubbed clean of evidence of the actual Chubbuck’s suicide, her last request of the world. The absence of the real footage inspired the cultish fascination around her death that filmmakers have now harnessed, culminating in a restaging of the lost climax. I worried that the film seemed to disrespect Chubbuck’s memory, because it felt that a real woman’s very specific story was deliberately recreated to fill a vacuity of real footage, amounting to a somewhat ghoulish, ineffective portrayal of her life.

This points to a persistent problem with how to package the narrative of a suicide, and the slow, plodding steps that lead to it. What medium works best to depict this? And what would it mean for such a narrative to “work,” anyway?

Universality, Hall claimed in a New York Times interview this October, is key to Christine: “A lot of people go through life trying to perform normalcy, and I think you can relate to that.” Yet I walked out wondering whom it was made for and why. Wasn’t I the target demographic, someone who has clamored for that quotidian state of happy normalcy he has observed in others but has never known himself?

For those who are lucky enough to never have experienced a lifetime in this mindset, the potential power of a suicide narrative would be in its ability to express how deadening depression can feel — the debilitating stillness that makes you silo yourself from the outside world, the casual way it encroaches upon the territory of everyday life and renders banal tasks insurmountable.

For those like me, who wrestle with depression on a stiflingly regular basis, a narrative like Christine could give us a plane through which to better understand our maladies and the impact it may have on our loved ones.

The film’s climax — I will give it this much — is truly shattering. Christine’s final act is filmed in a long shot, a self-conscious attempt not to sensationalize. I couldn’t connect with the film until this scene, which unfolds as a series of rapid jump cuts between the newsroom and Chubbuck’s mother (J. Smith Cameron), proudly watching her daughter’s newscast from home. Seeing her daughter shoot herself behind her right ear, Chubbuck’s mother recoils. The terror that washes over her mother’s face in the moment is the horror of realizing she doesn’t know her own daughter and that she no longer has time to make amends. This is a kind of pain I would never want to subject my own mother to — something I can often lose sight of in the cloud of my agony.

What could possibly attract people to seeing or hearing about the aftermaths of actual suicides? Often it’s assumed to be a matter of morbid curiosity. (This was the latent assumption in coverage of the quest for Chubbuck’s actual suicide video.) And the most obvious line of defense can seem to ring hollow: that an attraction to subreddits and other online communities dedicated to the stories of dead, murdered, or missing persons is just one long, drawn-out gesture of empathizing with tragedy, as if to say, I swear I care about the people who are hurt.

The stigmatization of these sites is understandable. But the empathy can be real. It was these subreddits and forums that first acquainted me with a trove of 911 calls deep in the recesses of YouTube, on a thread asking people to list the most chilling emergency calls they had ever heard. These calls ran the gamut. One, for example, features an elderly woman who suspects a man is circling the perimeter of her house. As the 911 dispatcher asks her questions, the intruder pounces upon the woman, who lets out a curdling scream as the line goes dead.

The stigmatization of forums and subreddits dedicated to troves of 911 calls is understandable. But the empathy can be real

But the call that became my most unsettling earworm involves a young girl named Nicky, who called 911 after finding her brother dead of a apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound. “Help me, my brother’s dead!” she screams. The dispatcher, a woman, asks what her name is and to clarify her statement. Nicky explains that he killed himself. How did he do it? With a gun. Is she home alone? No, she’s with her sister. The dispatcher proceeds with brisk, practiced efficiency. Nicky can barely speak. “Why’d you do it?” Nicky wails to her brother. It is a horrific scream. The dispatcher pleads with Nicky not to hang up. “I won’t, just crying,” she responds, then screams again, and her words become unintelligible. A few beats pass until the father picks up the phone. He sounds exasperated upon finding his son’s body.

This clip was part of a larger cobweb of 911 tapes on YouTube: football player Junior Seau’s girlfriend finding his body after his gunshot suicide is one of the more famous. But where Seau’s tragedy feels very specific to the brain trauma he suffered playing football, Nicky’s call had no backstory. It gave rise to endless fictions that felt real and drew me close. I first heard Nicky a few nights before seeing Christine, and I couldn’t stop listening. I’d sunk into a parody of myself that night: alone, in my bed, staring at a blazing laptop screen and listening to the aftermath of death with quasi-religious fervor, as if it were a song by the Smiths I listened to at 15.

The call squared my thinking on the hypothetical grief of my family. I bookmarked the clip, knowing it could be a strong deterrent to what I’d inevitably think about in the future. Perhaps, I thought, it could become a talisman that could ward off suicidal ideations. I would revisit it whenever I felt useless. It would be my medicine.

The veracity of the Nicky call is also unconfirmed: The call appears six minutes into Eames Yates’s Suicide, a 2001 HBO documentary. George Deuchar, then the director of Suicide Intervention Training in New Orleans, played the 911 tape for new operators in the city’s police department, presenting it as if it were real. But nothing online, in the Reddit threads or in Google searches or in news archives from 2001, has yielded any proof of its authenticity.

Regardless, I was not alone in finding it therapeutic. “Anytime I feel like doing myself in, I shall listen to this again,” one person wrote in a Reddit thread. “I need to know what happened to this family,” another writes. And another: “I feel maybe I could go through an eternity of misery before I could ever do this to someone.” One more: “The sound of this child makes my heart feel like it is physically breaking in my chest.” And finally: “This video just changed my mind. This is the video that just made me decide I don’t want to end my own life anymore.”

The comments suggest that there are many more people online like me, who don’t necessarily make their presence known on Reddit or YouTube but still seek refuge in these sorts of unflinching representations, in the unspoken pain of Nicky’s brother and the bereft family he has left in his wake, as a kind of therapeutic deterrence. Who was Nicky’s brother? Why did he kill himself? Was his story like my own? We all found our space for therapy as listeners in these questions.

“Anytime I feel like doing myself in, I shall listen to this again,” one person wrote, regardless of the call’s blurred provenance. The mediating technology itself facilitates an ambiguity that makes this artifact potent

For representations of suicide to have this deterrent effect, it can be essential that they seem real. But how can it be ethical to seek refuge in a real person’s death? Blurring the provenance to the point of ambiguity, as this call’s digital footprint does, perhaps offers one solution to this problem. The mediating technology itself facilitates an ambiguity that makes this artifact potent. I (along with some of the internet) had done the basic homework to see whether this clip had a true story attached to it. We were unable to conclusively debunk the call’s truth, and this allowed the activity of listening to it to not devolve into an exercise in pure exploitation.

In this way, this stark 911 call is the foil to Christine, which feels like artistic guesswork about one specific woman’s path to taking her own life. The call has the benefit of feeling very real without as much of the downside of exploiting a known tragedy like Chubbuck’s or Seau’s. Its effectiveness as medicine is not contingent on its authenticity. I’m not sure that this clip would retain its therapeutic charge if I knew it were tethered to a real family’s story. Rather the internet has laundered this call’s origin to the point where its backstory, if a backstory exists at all, is a gaping question mark. Yet the finished product remains indisputably believable enough to prompt deep empathy.

It bears noting that most links to this video are affixed with content warnings of some sort, stressing that such audio is double-edged for a good number of people who suffer as much as I do. For many, this 911 call may be the exact opposite of medicinal, further ammo for acting on suicidal impulses. I wouldn’t begrudge anyone a trigger warning; I consider myself lucky that these sounds do not send my mind plunging into such a flight of dark despair that the only way out is a fantasy of my own death. This clip offers me a chance to exorcise the darkest of my impulses. After listening to it, I feel clean.

I realize it’s foolish and irresponsible to rely on these images and sounds alone. (Writing this, I can hear the truism hurled at me by friends — get help, you need help, and similar refrains — cycling through the reader’s head.) But reducing my brain to a calculus of serotonin collapse terrifies me, and the threat of dependency of medicine frightens me, given what it has done to the men in my family before me.

Thinking of my family’s predicament, I am reminded of what Siddhartha Mukherjee, a Bengali man like me, wrote for the New Yorker in March in his gorgeous frankenstein of personal essay and scientific reportage, “Runs in the Family”: “Madness has been among the Mukherjees for generations … and at least part of my father’s reluctance to accept [his nephew’s] diagnosis lies in a grim suspicion that something of the illness may be buried, like toxic waste, in himself.”

Reading Mukherjee’s words, I am reminded of how difficult it is for some of us, Bengali or otherwise, to speak of what plagues us after having come of age in households that lacked the vocabulary to speak openly of mental health issues. Some childhood refrains are difficult to shake, such as the one I learned growing up: that therapy is a privilege afforded to those without the fortitude or grit to deal with it themselves.

It’s no wonder I turned to movies. But I have started to grow distrustful of films that tackle mental health. They can possess theses that are so airtight that they repel the identification necessary for them to spark empathy and self-recognition. There is more charge for me in the 30 seconds of Nicky’s 911 audio than in the entirety of Christine. The call is frank, not stylized, and this honesty invites release. The intensity of Nicky and her father, compelling and convincing in its complete detachment from a backstory, affords me so much latitude. Nicky’s dead brother does not speak a word, but I can hear myself in his silence.

Mayukh Sen is a writer who lives in New York. He has written for New York magazine, VicePitchforkthe Fader, and elsewhere.