SOURCE: Yale University Press

Yale University Press

November 20, 2013 10:16 ET

New Book on the History of Suicide Published in Time for International Survivors of Suicide Day, November 23, 2013

STAY: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, by Jennifer Michael Hecht

NEW HAVEN, CT--(Marketwired - November 20, 2013) -

"Stay is more than a must-read -- it's a cultural necessity." -- Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

At a time when suicide rates in the U.S. are rising sharply, a leading public critic reminds us of the compelling reasons people throughout time have found to stay alive.

More people now die of suicide than in car accidents. In the past 10 years, suicide rates among middle-aged Americans have risen sharply, rates are increasing among young people worldwide, and, in the U.S. military, we're losing more soldiers to suicide than to combat. Families, friends, neighbors are left behind to grieve, with the suffering sometimes reverberating through generations. Despite these distressing realities, the subject of suicide, long a taboo, is infrequently talked about. In Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It (Yale University Press; publication date 12, November 2013; $26.00 hardcover), poet and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht channels her own grief for two friends and fellow poets lost to suicide into a search for history's most persuasive arguments against the irretrievable act -- arguments she hopes to bring back into public consciousness.

Hecht demonstrates that other societies in history have given individuals more support in their struggles with suicide than we get in our secular modern culture, and she argues that we must do better. Many people think that without the conviction that there is a God who has outlawed suicide, everyone is free to choose death if they are drawn to it. Hecht reveals the compelling nonreligious arguments against suicide. Firstly, suicide is morally wrong because it does profound damage to one's community, in terms of causing often lifelong pain and, even more dramatically, in terms of suicidal influence -- studies show that one suicide very often leads to more suicides. Secondly, we owe it to our future selves to survive: we must not let one of our moods kill off all the others. These ideas have appeared throughout history, in various forms.

From the Stoics and the Bible to Dante, Shakespeare, and such twentieth-century writers as John Berryman, Hecht recasts the narrative of our "secular age" in new terms. She shows how religious prohibitions against self-killing were replaced by the Enlightenment's insistence on the rights of the individual, even when those rights had troubling applications. This transition, she movingly argues, resulted in a profound cultural and moral loss: the loss of shared, secular, logical arguments against suicide.

In a position that some will find controversial, Hecht argues that suicide is quite simply wrong, from a secular point of view. Today there is a culture war that places, on one side, religious people and ideas of sacredness of all life, and, on the other side, secular people who advocate the right to take one's own life. Rarely is the distinction made between despair suicide and suicide prompted by fatal illness. Why is the progressive, secular side of this debate so comfortable advocating that healthy people should feel free to take their own lives? In Stay, Hecht argues that in the fight against dogmatic religion, secular culture wrongly included despair suicide in its collection of rights. Many secular thinkers have written that suicide is wrong, and have given exquisite arguments, but their ideas have gotten lost in the overheated culture war. Despair suicide is too important an issue to allow to be decided by accidents of history.

Stay is written for everyone interested in this fascinating history, for those concerned with modern ideas about right and wrong, and for those who struggle with suicidal feelings. Hecht makes a strong moral claim here, based in history, philosophy, and science, but she does so with deep compassion for those suffering -- and with personal understanding of what she refers to as her own dark times. She holds that the arguments against suicide are not only a negating barrier to the act, but also a route by which to feel one's importance in the community, one's value to others and to oneself. People experiencing depression or terrible setbacks often feel that they are a burden and that they would be doing the world a favor by committing suicide. Hecht tells them that their suicide would be the real burden -- encouraging our children, our siblings, and our friends to do the same -- and that by courageously staying alive they give us all a great gift. We all contribute to the feeling that there is meaning to the human project and people who are tempted by suicide but resist it are special contributors to that faith in life. Hecht insists that we all owe them our gratitude. She hopes that knowing we are grateful will help them to stay.

By examining how people in other times have found reasons to stay alive when suicide seems a tempting choice, Hecht makes a persuasive case against suicide. Writers throughout history have given us conceptual barriers to suicide with which we ought to be familiar, as a culture. People are influenced by ideas, and ideas that encourage people to live can save lives. For many readers, Stay will be an anchor, a necessary and bracing volume in the human struggle to find meaning in existence and the will to survive and be happy in a difficult world. 

About the Author

Jennifer Michael Hecht is the author of three volumes of poetry and three history books, including the best-selling Doubt: A History and The Happiness Myth.

Hecht's work has won major awards in intellectual history and in poetry, and her essays and poetry have recently appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, New Yorker, Paris Review, and New Republic.

Hecht is a fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities, and she teaches poetry in the graduate program of the New School in Manhattan. She blogs on the website of The Best American Poetry, and her latest book of poems, Who Said, is also being published this November.

Advance Praise for STAY:

"The title of this book is an imperative against the departure that is suicide, and its contents provide a learned, illuminating look at the history of what is perhaps the darkest secret in all of human behavior." -- Billy Collins

"Jennifer Michael Hecht addresses the problem of suicidal nihilism with intellectual sophistication and poetic subtlety. An impassioned defense of life and rejection of self-slaughter (as Hamlet termed it), Stay is an important book." -- David Lehman, Editor, The Oxford Book of American Poetry

"In this moving and meaningful book, mythology, poetry, history, and personal reflection all combine to persuade us to stay right here, among the living." -- Alan Wolfe, author of Political Evil

Yale University Press is a premier scholarly book publisher of art, architecture, business, economics, environmental studies, history, law, literature, philosophy, political science, psychology, reference, religion, science, and world languages titles.

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