Blog editor Cara Anna has this week’s post, but first, a few new things worth checking out. Both The New Yorker and The New York Times had pieces on suicide, with the New Yorker one especially thoughtful. Attempt survivor Pat Risser spoke last week at a national suicide prevention event (at about an hour into the video). The Associated Press profiled attempt survivor and Army veteran Joe Miller.
And an interesting new group called the Lived Experience Research Network “advocates for increased accessibility in research and evaluation settings, social justice, and policy change” on behalf of mental health consumers. They’re starting by taking on discrimination in higher education. And now, this week’s post:
This weekend, I had the startling experience of watching someone else tell my story. Word for word.
New York City has a stage group called The Civilians, a “center for investigative theater,” with original works often constructed from interviews. In February, they approached me for a production that would explore the subject of death. I met a staffer at a Brooklyn coffeehouse and, sitting among the laptops and eavesdroppers, told her what had happened. I was in a filthy mood. I later realized it had been almost exactly two years since my latest attempt. Maybe that explained it.
The Civilians move quickly. An e-mail came two weeks ago, inviting me to the show. The actors were scattered across a darkened, gym-sized space, and the few hundred of us were told to walk from one to another at certain cues and listen to their monologues. It was clear they had interviewed a futurist, fortune teller, an oncologist, a self-styled vampire, a crime reporter and many others. It was designed so we couldn’t get around to them all.
I began to worry that I would miss myself. But from time to time as the show went on, the spotlight would pick out an actor in the crowd and all of us would pool around them for a longer monologue. One woman talked about delivering a stillborn baby and learning that he’d been buried in a potter’s field, in a grave with about 20 others. She had never held him. In the audience, some people started to cry.
And then the spotlight picked out a petite blonde woman in a button-down shirt and jeans. “I was 8 years old,” she began, and that was all I needed. I hurried around the edge of the crowd and planted myself where I could see.
I hadn’t known what to expect before walking in. Maybe there would be dramatic music, weighty gestures, the overused image of someone with their head in their hands. It was nothing like that. The woman _ she turned out to be Nina Hellman, an Obie-winning actress for her off-Broadway work _ was simply being me.
She spoke my words. She used my cadences. When I cursed at one point, she was surprisingly forceful. She was even funny. I hadn’t expected laughter from the crowd, but it fit.
She was good. It took a bit longer for me to realize something else: I made sense. At this distance, hearing the story outside myself for once, it did sound like it had been a difficult time. No one in the audience snorted or whispered, “Loser.” Interesting. I sure have.
We often tell our stories on a small scale, one on one. We relive what happened while glancing at the therapist, watching to see what they’ll note down. We pick our way across the looks of concern, even fear, from family and friends. We feel stared at. We worry we’re being judged. God knows what we must sound like.
What this show did was something that still seems like a fascinating idea, 24 hours later. It took a wild variety of stories and put them on an equal stage. The man who survived a near-death accident, the woman who frequently had out-of-body episodes and once had to be ordered back in, the young man who learned how to prepare bodies for the casket, the hospice worker, all of us came off as having had an unusual and sometimes very challenging time. (Two others _ the funeral home worker and a man with late-stage cancer _ mentioned in passing that they had once tried to kill themselves.)
With actors in our place, the audience could focus on the stories without being able to pick apart the people behind them. The interviewees could watch someone we’d never met stand up for us, get us, without comment. It was freeing. Some of us met our actor or actress afterward with thanks and a hug.
In the real world, a very small number of attempt survivors regularly speak in front of audiences about their experiences. I don’t know how they do it, over and over. “I’m tired of talking about suicide!” one of them once told me. He’s told his story hundreds of times, and yet he was doing it again for me.
Someone has to do it, right? Maybe this show hinted at another way. There will always be a need for people to step up and tell their own stories, but “Be the Death of Me” is an intriguing step between that and what’s always seemed to be the only other choice: fiction.
The Civilians often tour their shows and make them available for others to stage, so these stories should live beyond two nights in Brooklyn. But what if someone created a similar show focusing on the still-unfathomable world of having wanted to die? Like “The Vagina Monologues,” which was based on dozens of interviews and took a touching, funny, dead aim at a taboo. Or in the spirit of the new theater company in New York, the Apothetae, that wants to explore what The New York Times calls “the upending of expectations” about disability.
I don’t mean story after story of detailed suicide attempts. Instead, it could be a way to expose a mainstream audience not just to the idea that we can talk about this openly, but to some of the more absurd or unfair parts of this world _ watching therapists back away, a great many things about the psych ward, and so on.