How many good poems does it take to make a poet?

evapicola_1-03 SYLVIA PLATH in an interview was asked how she first began writing poetry, what sort of thing did she write about when she first began?  Sylvia Plath’s reply:

“Nature, I think: birds, bees, spring, fall, all those subjects which are absolute gifts to the person who doesn’t have any interior experience to write about. I think the coming of spring, the stars overhead, the first snowfall and so on are gifts for a child, a young poet.

Twelve year old Eva Picová had the “interior experience” Sllvia Plath speaks of — it’s called the Terrezin concentration camp, renamed Theresienstadt by the Germans. It’s called premature adulthood at gun point.

Theresienstadt concentration camp, a transit camp for children and the elderly who were eventually packed into cattle cars pointed towards Auschwitz and their death. Also a camp for men and women selected for forced labor. Beatings, torture, starvation and disease were commonplace. Eva Picová lived through a typhus epidemic, seeing her friends and others succumb to the disease.  She saw adults saw her parents suffer, saw them agonize, languish, struggle under the brutal and terrorizing treatment wielded by the Nazis.

The adults at Theresienstadt manage to provide art and writing classes for the children. Despite severe congestion, food shortages and compulsory labor, the extensive educational and cultural activities in the ghetto reflected the prisoners’ will to survive the unsurvivable; provided a distraction from their eventual selection to the gas chamber, a distraction from the harsh bare-bone living conditions; gave them, especially the children, a voice to resurrect hope from despair.

A Dr. R. Feder gave Eva Picová’s poem to the State Jewish Museum in Prague. She most likely wrote more. She was allotted one more year to do so.

You can find a collection of children’s art and poetry from Terezin in the book titled “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.” Included is Picová’s poem.

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IF EVA PICOVÁ DID SURVIVE THERESIENSTADT CONCENTRATION CAMP I IMAGINE THAT SHE WOULD CONTINUE TO WRITE POETRY, JOINING THE FEW SURVIVOR POETS AND WRITERS WHO GAVE US A PERSONAL HISTORY OF THE UNIMAGINABLE, THE ABSURD, THE MERCILESS. WHO GAVE US THE TELLING OF —  FINDING THEIR OWN VOCABULARY/VOICE TO EXPRESS WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO BE THE CHOSEN PEOPLE — THE PRIMARY PARTICIPANT IN THE FINAL SOLUTION — WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO WITNESS AND ENDURE THE NAZI’S SYSTEMATIC DEDICATED SLAUGHTER OF 6 MILLION JEWS. THEN & NOW —

Poet and writers born from the Holocaust.

  klugerboth-10Ruth Klüger  (born 30 October 1931)  is Professor Emerita of German Studies at the University of California and a Holocaust survivor. In Auschwitz, Kluger composed poetry in her head and, somehow, knew there would be a future for her after the war. Ruth and her mother along with a girl they adopted in Auschwitz were lucky and resourceful: they survived, and when her mother died in 2000, Kluger “felt a sense of triumph, because this had been a human death, because she had survived and outlived the evil times and had died in her own good time, almost 100 years after she was born.”

Her book “Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered” was named one of the year’s 10 best books by the Washington Post, 2001. Winner of the Thomas Mann Prize and the Prix Memoire De La Shoah

Ruth Kluger, an amazing women; her chutzpah, insight, honesty, creativity, survival instincts comes through In her book and everything else she takes on. Ruth Kluger didn’t call it quits after escaping Auschwitz. Risking her own life she help save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust by smuggling them on ships into Palestine.

The following:
SPIEGEL, a German publication interviews Ruth Kluger. Nov 7, 2006

SPIEGEL: Ms. Klüger, at the moment you have a research post at the University of California in Irvine, and before that you were a guest lecturer at the University of Göttingen. Do you sometimes go back to your home town Vienna?

 Klüger: Yes.

 SPIEGEL: But the emotions you experience in Vienna must be very different to how you feel in Göttinge

Klüger: Yes, what is strange is … how should I put it? Our personalities are such that we instinctively rely on our own experiences rather than using our brains. For me Göttingen is not a Nazi town, even though I know that Braunschweig is very nearby…

 SPIEGEL: Braunschweig is of course where Hitler was made a German citizen in 1932.

Klüger: Exactly. But Vienna reeks of anti-Semitism. For me every cobblestone in Vienna is anti-Semitic. If I hadn’t fled with my mother and her friend in time, by the end of the war I could have ended up in Bergen-Belsen. But I have never been there, and I don’t go to these concentration camp memorial sites.

SPIEGEL: These memorial grounds are certainly not built with you in mind.

Klüger: It is just not my camp.

SPIEGEL: But you do you travel occasionally to Vienna?

Klüger: I did a guest professorship there. It was very unpleasant. The people I had to work with were awful.

SPIEGEL: So you believe that anti-Semitism is still deeply ingrained in the city? That it will always be there?

Klüger: Vienna will never be rid of anti-Semitism. I have the feeling the city doesn’t even want to be. When I got the invitation to go there, I couldn’t help thinking: “This is the university where your father studied.” And the first few weeks I was there, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that my father was standing behind me. I kept asking myself what he would have said if he had been there. And after a few weeks I knew what he would have said: “You are pretty stupid to have come here.”

select for the complete interview

Nelly Sachs  (10 December 1891 – 12 May 1970)

nellysachs-06 a Jewish German poet and playwright whose experiences resulting from the rise of the Nazis in World War II Europe transformed her into a poignant spokeswoman for the grief and yearnings of her fellow Jews. She fled to Sweden in 1940 with her mother just before being deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp, and lived in Sweden for the rest of her life, emotionally unable to face the idea of returning to Germany.

In 1966 she was awarded the Nobel prize for literature (for her “German Jewish” poetry).

Her following poem questions the unfathomable  — all of the German, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Romanian people who had a ‘hand’ in the Holocaust.

HANDS  by Nelly Sachs

Hands death’s gardener,
you who from the cradle-camomile of death
growing on the hard paddocks or hillside,
have bred the hothouse monster of your trade.
Hands, what did you do,
when you were the hands of little children?
Did you hold a mouth organ, the mane of a rocking horse,
did you cling to your mother’s skirt in the dark ….
You strangling hands, was your mother dead, your wife, your child?
So that only death was left for you to hold in your hands,
in your strangling hands?

Abraham Sutzkever sutzkever1_2-07was one of the great Yiddish poets of his generation who evoked the nightmare of the Holocaust with images of a wagonload of worn shoes and the haunting silence of a sky of white stars.

He was forced to dig his own grave at gunpoint; his newborn son was poisoned by the Germans in the ghetto hospital. Less than a year later, Sutzkever wrote a poem from a child’s viewpoint begging its mother to:

Strangle me with your Mama fingers

That played On my willow cradle.
It will mean:
Your love is stronger than death.
It will mean:
You trusted me with your love.

In 1941, he and his wife were sent to the Vilna Ghetto. Ordered by the Nazis to hand over important Jewish manuscripts and artworks Sutzkever and his friends hid a diary by Theodor Herzl, drawings by Marc Chagall and other treasured works behind plaster and brick walls in the ghetto. On September 12, 1943, he and his wife escaped to the forests, and together with fellow Yiddish poet Shmerke Kaczerginsky he fought the Germans as a partisan.

Paul Celan “There is nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German”

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Paul Celan was born in Czernovitz, Romania, to a German-speaking Jewish family. The death of his parents and the experience of the the Holocaust are defining forces in Celan’s poetry and his use of language.

Celan was imprisoned in a work-camp for 2 years, until February 1944, when the Red Army’s advance forced the Romanians to abandon the camps, whereupon he returned to Czernovitz shortly before the Soviets returned. At that time friends recall Celan expressing immense guilt over his separation from his parents, whom he had tried to convince to go into hiding prior to the deportations, shortly before their death.

After escaping the labor camp, Celan lived in Bucharest and Vienna before settling in Paris. In Paris, he translated poetry and taught German language and literature at L’École Normale Supérieure. Though he lived in France and was influenced by the French surrealists, he wrote his own poetry in German.

Celan’s poems often contain brief, fractured lines and stanzas, with compressed and unpredictable imagery, with the forms of the poems echoing the difficulty of finding language for the experiences he witnessed. Celan received the Bremen Prize for German Literature in 1958 and the Georg Buchner Prize in 1960

Celan committed suicide by drowning in the Seine river in Paris, April 1970.

His most famous poem, the “Todesfuge” (Death Fugue)

Death Fugue

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink
we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Marguerite
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling
he whistles his hounds to come close
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
he orders us strike up and play for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margeurite
your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped
He shouts jab this earth deeper you lot there you others sing up and play
he grabs for the rod in his belt he swings it his eyes are blue
jab your spades deeper you lot there you others play on for the dancing

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday and morning we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margeurite
your aschenes Haar Shulamith he plays with his vipers
He shouts play death more sweetly Death is a master from Deutschland
he shouts scrape your strings darker you’ll rise then in smoke to the sky
you’ll have a grave then in the clouds there you won’t lie too cramped

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday Death is a master aus Deutschland
we drink you at evening and morning we drink and we drink
this Death is ein Meister aus Deutschland his eye it is blue
he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete
he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air
he plays with his vipers and daydreams
der Tod is ein Meister aus Deutschland
dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Shulamith

Primo Michele Levi always wore a short-sleeved shirt with a suit, even in winter, so that his prison tattoo was exposed whenever he removed his jacket.

primolevi number-05

Primo Michele Levi, an Italian Jewish chemist and writer, the author of several books, novels, collections of short stories, essays, and poems. His best-known works include “Survival in Auschwitz”, his account of the year he spent as a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. For the last forty years of his life Levi devoted himself to attempting to deal with the fact that he was not killed in Auschwitz. “The worst survived, that is, the fittest; the best all died,” he said.

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Campo di Fossoli was a deportation camp in Italy during the Holocaust taken over by the Germans. On 21 February 1944, Levi and other inmates were transported in twelve cramped cattle trucks to Monowitz, one of the three main camps in the Auschwitz concentration camp complex. Levi spent eleven months there before the camp was liberated by the Red Army on 18 January 1945.

Of the 650 Italian Jews in his transport, Levi was one of twenty who left the camps alive. The average life expectancy of a new entrant at the camp was three months.

Levi died on 11 April 1987, when he fell from the interior landing of his third-story apartment in Turin to the ground floor below.

The coroner ruled that Levi’s death was a suicide. Oxford sociologist Diego Gambetta, “If Levi wanted to kill himself he, a chemical engineer by profession, would have known better ways than jumping into a narrow stairwell with the risk of remaining paralyzed.

CENTRO PRIMO LEVI NEW YORK (CPL) is a New York based organization inspired by the humanistic legacy of writer and chemist Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz and contributed significantly to the post-World War II debate on the role of memory in modern societies. CPL fosters and supports those interested in Primo Levi’s work, the Italian Jewish past as well as those interested in current perspectives and conversations about the Italian Jewish community today. It offers programs, publishing and networking activities and provides links to libraries and museums, academic and scholarly updates and a monthly newsletter. CPL is a dynamic and informative English language portal offering information and resources on Italian Jewish culture and history to audiences around the world.

A poem at the beginning of his book “Survival In Auschwitz”

 If This Is a Man

You who live safe In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud,
Who does not know peace,
Who fights for a scrap of bread,
Who dies because of a yes or a no.

Consider if this is a woman
Without hair and without name,
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.

Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts At home,
in the street, Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.

Suicide Paradise

Cascadilla gorge bridge

So: the deal, pact, commitment I made with my self if I didn’t return home with the job I wouldn’t return period, end of story. I’d jump from one of Cornell’s bridges, the Cascadilla gorge bridge, the Fall Creek bridge, convenient, it’d take me less than five minutes to get to either one of those breathtaking views once the meeting was over.

“No chickening-out, Howard.”
“No problem, I won’t.”

Taken from the pedestrian bridge looking down into Fall Creek gorge.
credit: dennieorson’s photostream

We, Kay my wife and I spent seven years on a farm in Interlaken New York, 20 minutes outside of Ithaca, New York, home of Cornell University. We made a hand-ladled goat cheese, sold to specialty food shops, supermarkets, restaurants in Manhattan and throughout the Atlantic and mid-Atlantic.  Great experience, stressful, sold lots of cheese, acquired a great reputation with cheese mavens and foodies. Profit margin, invisible.

Challenging life events during that time: my daughter committed suicide, a close friend, an cinematographer, was murdered while filming in Puerto Rico, a good friend’s son, bipolar, committed suicide, Kay’s mother and father passed on. Both of us were on antidepressants, me for a debilitating fatigue precipitated by Lyme disease, Kay’s depression most likely from a bad string of DNA.

The inevitable straw that broke our back: in the middle of finishing an addition to the creamery we lost our milk supply, went belly up, down the drain, bankrupt. In no time we ran out of money.  Had to beg for cash from family, scrounge money from friends, could not find work, felt isolated, in fact were isolated, depression no meds could fix, humiliated, angry, furious; if I could keep it up for furious, furious is what kept me going. I was looking for a fight, needed someone to beat the crap out of me. Kay and I, we both went into a tailspin. I never gave suicide a deadline till that morning.

Cascadilla gorge

Back then there
weren’t any physical
deterrents to impede jumps.
Clear sailing.

Cornell campus is plush with elegant mature plantings embellished and tended too by skilled, schooled landscapers; then to top off the scenery greenery they have two infamous wondrous gorges; the Cascadilla gorge and Fall Creek gorge, framing the campus to the north and south, formed over 2 million years ago by the endless, relentless fury of water and ice racing, pushing downward, carving, cracking, grinding, rocks, pebbles, sand, again and again, over 100 ft deep in places, creating spectacular haunting towering cathedrals, offering plants cracks in its wall to take root in, luring cliff swallows to nest in its crevices and mesmerizing folks, students, faculty, any one standing on one of the bridges looking over the edge facing down into its awesome beautiful terrifying abyss, beckoning. The vista so powerful you can feel engulfed by it, absorbed.

“Ithaca is Gorgeous.” You find this phrase printed on sweatshirts, T-shirts, mugs. You might also see the phrase “Ithaca is Suicide.”
And “suicide” is also expressed as: “gorging out.”

Thurston Ave Bridge

The campus has suffered six student suicides in the 2009-2010 academic year, three of them from jumps off the Thurston Avenue bridge. Two tragedies were back-to-back, one on a Thursday, one Friday. According to CNN, the university worked to become a model of suicide prevention after gaining a nickname, legitimately or not, “Suicide University,” in the 1990s.

The university’s mental health initiatives director, Timothy Marchel, told CNN that he did not know what may have prompted the recent wave of suicides was unclear, as Cornell had no suicides from 2005 to 2008. CNN reported that the school has consistently fallen within or below the national average, according to Karen Carr, the assistant dean of students at Cornell.

Cornell spent brainpower brain-picking, from the 1940’s to this current decade, masticating on the profile of a jumper and his or her predictability, as did psychiatrist and social-orientated professionals. Administrators hemmed and they hawed: what measures should they take to curb a jumper from jumping?  When fences were first suggested Cornell balked. Why bother? If someone intent on committed suicide by jumping off a bridge is discouraged by a fence they’ll eventually find some other way to off themselves. Not true, as evidence will bare-out.

Another consideration for nixing fences: Cornell, part of the student body and citizens of Ithaca were concerned with bridge esthetics: a fence will mess up the view. True but what holds more value, is more precious, a life or the venerable view. Don’t ask that question to a parent who lost a daughter or son to the gorgeous gorges.

Three students committed suicide by jumping from bridges within a month of each other. According to the newspaper, 27 people committed suicide between 1990 and 2010 by jumping from the bridges, including 15 students

Temporary Fences

Bridges lend
themselves to passion suicides — spontaneous combustion
verses
premeditative suicides — slow leak

My daughter was a plotter, her suicide premeditative. She wrote letters, gave her things away, carefully picked the hour and the means. My suicide, one of passion. I gave it a go as I headed out the door, no goodbye note.

There are those who display the classic symptoms of so-called suicidal behavior, who build up to their act over time or who choose methods that require careful planning. And then there are those whose act appears born of an immediate crisis, with little or no forethought involved. Just as with homicide, those in the “passion” category of suicide are much more likely to turn to whatever means are immediately available, those that are easy and quick.

 Excerpted from: The Urge To End it all.
Scott Anderson. NY Times

Back
to
my
suicide

Left the meeting, got into my car, drove off. I got the job; that would take care off us for 5 months. As I turned onto route 89, the scenic route along Cayuga Lake toward Interlaken, to the farm, it hit me; an adrenalin jolt to my gut, my being, my pact, my commitment, the deal to jump. If I didn’t get the work, instead of holding this steering wheel heading home, at this very instant I’d be cascading down into the gorge heading to my certain death. In one blinding flash I stop breathing, no longer was at the wheel. I jumped, dropped, fell through the car seat to the bottom of the gorge, then off to the great beyond and back again, my hands once more on the wheel.

Stunned, wiped, zombie-like, running on empty, scared shitless. “I came close to killing myself.” Driving back to the farm I was sure I would have jumped, gave myself no choice, signed on the dotted line, written in stone, a deal is a deal, loose face if I didn’t hold-up my end of the bargain. I could not face the future without a future. Fortunately the coin turned up heads, don’t have to put my commitment to the test, a reprieve. I’m driving back facing Kay, 2 German Sheppards, Sweet Pea and Winter, 5 cats, Brewster, Little Bear, Squirrel, Minky, Edwena, our goat Albert and Stinky the Bankruptcy.

When ever I think of life on the farm when I was on the verge of committing suicide, when it could have gone the other way, I find myself trying to talk my self out of the jump.

“ Howard, you know you could have never made that jump.”
“ Easy for you to say that now, Howard. Try it back then in the Gloom
n and Doom, the Sturm und Drang.”

Note: bridge of my own choosing. 

All the time we spent going to and fro from Cornell’s dairy department back to the farm, driving over Cornell’s bridges, over the gorges, I never thought of them as a means to my end. They were nothing but beautiful. Never heard or read of the bridges described as a “suicide magnet.” When I came to consider suicide I came to it all on my own, my choice of method my own. No suicides were flagged in the media that provided inspiration or reference, no external prompt. It was a simple one on one transaction. There I was. And there it was. “Make it and they will jump.”

◊◊◊

 From cradle to bridge. 

Cornell Alumni, Jakub J. Janecka

What drives Cornell Alumni, Jakub J. Janecka, 33 years old, to return to Ithaca ten years later after graduation and take a dive into the Cascadilla Gorge? Witnesses described his jump as headfirst.

What does a headfirst dive tell us: determination: nothing will interfere: allows no change of heart: quick and unfailing.  How long ago did Jakub J. Janecka entertain self-immolation; a passing thought as he walked over a bridge when a Cornell student, then rekindled years later by one bad month or by years of depression? Sudden impulse? Gradual realization?

Jakub J. Janecka received a Bachelor of Science in biology from Cornell University and a master’s degree in theology from the University of Scranton. The past spring, before he jumped, he earned a master’s degree in biology from Catholic University of America.

What an awesome combo — biology and theology. He had to be quite a bright unique person given this marriage of two apparently opposing views of the world. No doubt he had much to offer. I would have looked forward to meeting him. There must be others who enjoyed his company; yet no sign of contacts or friends on the social net work except a facebook friend, Jane Goldschmidt, most likely a classmate of his at Catholic University of America.

Deciphering God’s DNA

Deciphering God’s DNA, a rare specialty for a student to pursue. Jakub J. Janecka, born in the Uherske Hradiste, Czech Republic, went to grade and high school in Lake Ariel, PA. With Jakub we have the makings of a passionate, exciting, brilliant, fascinating soul. What the fu__ went wrong. How could anyone taking-on the miracles of life and the miracles of God want to off himself?

Let’s find out how, think it through, write a film script or novel based on Jakub’s life, a dramatization patching together what is known of him, which is scant, and fill in the unknowns guided by creative instinct, sensitivity, psyche, pathos and passion; find the conflict, the relationships, see where it takes you. Follow Jakub from cradle to bridge. If you’re a  filmmaker, writer, novelist, its yours to take on.

Jakub J. Janecka return to Ithaca to seek his destiny, to find a bridge, his bridge, the bridge with his name on it, the bridge he envisioned when he decided to commit suicide, envisioned as he drove from somewhere to Ithaca, New York. He must have known that a jump from a Cornell bridge would make news, get him attention. Is that what he sought? As it was he received minimal attention. Several one-day announcements in the local papers.

Three responses to Jakub J. Janecka death.

1, A mention in the blog “Cornel Watch”: The Strange Case of Jakub Jan Janecka: The name of the body found yesterday in Cascadilla Gorge has been released, and the details may shock you. His name is Jakub J. Janecka of Lake Ariel, PA, and he graduated in 1998. Why Cornell alum would such make an eerie pilgrimage to Ithaca to commit suicide is as strange a question as it is tragic.

2. Dennis Cheng a friend from high school: “Jakub was one of my closest friends in high school. He was a brilliant student, bringing a much needed international view to a backwards, rural Pennsylvania public school. He was always one of those people that kept appearing in random thoughts, a name from the past to try to hunt down. I always pictured him doing big things. I learned of his untimely death today, too late to attend his service. I am sick over it.  My thoughts are with his family. He will be missed by many.”

( Two close high school friends never kept in touch with each other since they graduated. Jakub finally made contact with Dennis through his obituary piece in the newspaper. Not much of a friendship. )

3. Eight years after his death I ask: what about his close friends, his family. He has a brother and sister both with the title of doctor; did they know what he was going through? What was it that turned Jakub against Jakub?

Was his pain so quiet, so hidden from his family, friends that none of them saw it?  Did anyone look at his face to read, “ I’m not okay! Help!” Did he seek help? Was he a loner, terribly shy? What went bad for Jakub? Was it a sudden alteration in sugar levels, hormones, neurotransmitters? I imagined myself with Jakub, grabbing his shirt collar, trying to drag him back off the bridge. He had to be spent, blinded, tortured by pain, depression, despair when he took that bullet dive.

If there were fences installed on the bridges at the time Jakub returned to Cornell he might still be with us, he might have survived long enough to get help. I will miss Jakub J. Janecka based only on the compelling fragments of what I know of him; but that’s enough.

◊◊◊

Sylvia Plath & The British coal-gas story.

For generations, the people of Britain heated their homes and fueled their stoves with coal gas. While plentiful and cheap, coal-derived gas could also be deadly; in its unburned form, it released very high levels of carbon monoxide, and an open valve or a leak in a closed space could induce asphyxiation in a matter of minutes. This extreme toxicity also made it a preferred method of suicide. “Sticking one’s head in the oven” became so common in Britain that by the late 1950s it accounted for some 2,500 suicides a year, almost half the nation’s total.

The mining and export of coal was a major industry in Great Britain and proved to be responsible for “the execution chamber in everyone’s kitchen,”

Those numbers began dropping over the next decade as the British government embarked on a program to phase out coal gas in favor of the much cleaner natural gas. By the early 1970s, the amount of carbon monoxide running through domestic gas lines had been reduced to nearly zero. During those same years, Britain’s national suicide rate dropped by nearly a third, and it has remained close to that reduced level ever since.

How can this be? After all, if the impulse to suicide is primarily rooted in mental illness and that illness goes untreated, how does merely closing off one means of self-destruction have any lasting effect? At least a partial answer is that many of those Britons who asphyxiated themselves did so impulsively. In a moment of deep despair or rage or sadness, they turned to what was easy and quick and deadly — “the execution chamber in everyone’s kitchen,” as one psychologist described it — and that instrument allowed little time for second thoughts. Remove it, and the process slowed down; it allowed time for the dark passion to pass.   The Urge To End it all.  By Scott Anderson. NY Times

Sylvia Plath

“outcast on a cold star, unable to feel anything but an awful helpless numbness. I look down into the warm, earthy world. Into a nest of lovers’ beds, baby cribs, meal tables, all the solid commerce of life in this earth, and feel apart, enclosed in a wall of glass.” 

Written by the British poet Sylvia Plath, 6 months before she sealed the windows and doors to her kitchen, turned on the gas and knelt in front of her stove. If she had natural gas, instead of coal gas would the outcome differ; before she could find a convenient, easy, sure-fired means of suicide her doctor could have her placed in a psychiatric hospital as he was trying to do before she committed suicide. He was in the process of finding her a bed in an over-filled psychiatric hospital — any day now, a bed for her. Natural gas could have bought him and Sylvia more time? What would happen after a hospital stay and therapy? Don’t know, more poems and extra years she would have never had with goal gas; still eventually suicide, some would say inevitable.

The  message

Don’t make it easy for the jumper. Create an obstacle. Buy them cool-off time. Read the entire NY. Times piece, “The Urge To End it All” by Scott Anderson.  You’ll find research shows that most of the would-be impulsive jumpers — those who are quick to suicide, those who often don’t have time for goodbyes or suicide notes — once the attempt is thwarted they loose interest; they won’t attempt to fulfill the act again.

Most importantly, there is the scientific research on means restriction, which suggests that bridge barriers are an effective tool in suicide prevention,” she said. “Five or 10 years ago, there weren’t any articles on this. Suicide prevention as a discipline is maturing.”   Susan Murphy, Ithaca Times

A few chuckles and research demonstrating no plan B

Following is Scott Anderson’s interview of Richard Seiden, a professor emeritus and clinical psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley School of Public Health, best known for his pioneering work on the study of suicide. Much of that work has focused on the bridge that lies just across San Francisco Bay from campus, the Golden Gate.

“At the risk of stating the obvious,” Seiden said, “people who attempt suicide aren’t thinking clearly. They might have a Plan A, but there’s no Plan B. They get fixated. They don’t say, ‘Well, I can’t jump, so now I’m going to go shoot myself.’ And that fixation extends to whatever method they’ve chosen. They decide they’re going to jump off a particular spot on a particular bridge, or maybe they decide that when they get there, but if they discover the bridge is closed for renovations or the railing is higher than they thought, most of them don’t look around for another place to do it. They just retreat.”

Seiden cited a particularly striking example of this, a young man he interviewed over the course of his Golden Gate research. The man was grabbed on the eastern promenade of the bridge after passers-by noticed him pacing and growing increasingly despondent. The reason? He had picked out a spot on the western promenade that he wanted to jump from, but separated by six lanes of traffic, he was afraid of getting hit by a car on his way there.”


Excerpted from: The Urge To End it all.
Scott Anderson. NY Times

The Education of Cornel University
Tuition: 27 suicides

1990-2008: 21 deaths from jumpers, 15 were from Cornell.
These figures differ from source to source

2009: Three students, bridge suicide:

February 17, 2010: Brad Ginsburg, bridge suicide

March 11, 2010: William Sinclair, bridge suicide

March 12, 2010: Matthew Zika, bridge suicide

Nov 21, 2011: Brad Ginsburg’s father sues Cornell

2012: The University is now working with the City of Ithaca to install nets under six of the seven bridges on or near campus. The seventh, the Suspension Bridge over Fall Creek Gorge, will be enclosed by protective netting.

Bridge Security

What do you think? Howard Ginsberg got a case?  

Ginsberg has got to be asking himself where is “my responsibility in my tragedy.” “What signs might I have missed?” “Could I have intervened if I paid more attention?” Once loosing a child, life is forever soiled, scarred, diminished, unacceptable, cruel, bitter.

Should Cornell bare all the blame? Can the courts divide blame? It took many years and a prominent body count before Cornell finally went the whole nine yards and installed proper suicide deterrents on the bridges. But there was a learning curve for all of the Universities when it came to student suicides; no one got it right the first time around or the second.  How should that effect the courts decision if not at all? It’s easier to see Cornell’s culpability, not for public consumption Howard Ginsberg’s.

Barbed wire fence credit: http://www.samuelmcquire.com

An artist’s rendering of vertical steel-mesh nets draped over the Suspension Bridge.

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Footnote

Chain-link fences on Thurston Avenue Bridge. Since the installation of the fences, they have been both decorated and vandalized by students.