Sorrows of a Century: Interpreting Suicide in New Zealand, 1900-2000
John C Weaver
Bridget Williams Books, $60.00,
All of us seek happiness, Pascal declared centuries ago, even at the point of a warm gun. “This is without exception,” argued the author of the Pensées:
Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.
Yet for those who do hang themselves, who explode the bridge that can never be repaired, who leave their nearest and dearest hoping that the other side is indeed better than this one, mystery is the order of the day ‒ and only marginally less so in the current time than in the recent past when popular discussion of suicide was limited by convention and law.
We behold the jihadi, for example, who might happily go to one war, while happily avoiding another, and may well happily take his own life while he’s at it. We see him as if through a computer screen darkly, blowing himself to smithereens in Baghdad, Damascus or Tel Aviv, and hit the return key with a shrug. Yet, every day here in our own antipodean backwater, something of a similar order takes place, albeit without the psychodrama of packed belts, collateral damage or a grinding religious conflict in the background, and until now nobody has put together a work of popular scholarship about it.
Among rich-world countries, only four or, depending on how one calculates it, five nations (the United States, Japan, Finland, France and Sweden) have ratcheted up grimmer suicide records than New Zealand. In 2011, the latest year for which official data is available, there were 369 male suicides, or 16.6 deaths per 100,000 males; females accounted for 109 female suicides, or 4.7 deaths per 100,000. The Māori youth suicide rate during the same year was even more appalling, claiming 36.4 per 100,000 Māori youngsters. In all, nearly twice as many people took their own lives that year than the 284 who died on New Zealand roads during the same period. In 2011, as well, there were 2,647 intentional self-harm hospitalisations, equating to 61.1 hospitalisations per 100,000 New Zealanders. That’s a far higher figure than you would find in Syria or Lebanon.
How did it come to this? Where are the trend lines heading? What, if any, cultural and social factors were at play? Where in the world is a sufficiently skilled outsider with an intimate local knowledge to be found to help answer these questions?
John C Weaver, a historian at Canada’s McMaster University in Ontario, proves up to the challenge in Sorrows of a Century, a 456-page survey of coroners’ records from 1900-2000, along with the suicide notes and medical records of New Zealanders who took their own lives. The news he brings is not happy. He considers mental illness and trauma, sex, alcohol, romantic issues, violence, ethnicity, hard times and gender, and much else besides, in combing through relevant data (for reasons of academic stamina, the examination of coroners’ records was understandably limited to every other year) having to do with why people take their own lives in New Zealand. Readers will emerge uneasily better informed by the strenuous research and humane manner of the telling.
You may have already noticed, for instance, that I have eschewed here the still-common expression “to commit suicide”. That’s something I picked up from reading Sorrows of a Century. As Weaver points out toward the end of his study, that expression properly belongs to theology, to the idea promoted by some churches (and synagogues) that “self-murder” is a sin; indeed, there was a time, and not so long ago, that those who “committed” such a vile act could not be interred in consecrated ground. Weaver himself occasionally uses the expression in a vernacular sense, but he’s always careful to leave any religious questions to one side. Suicide has always been freighted with too much talk about the hereafter anyway. Weaver sticks to this side of the bridge. Which isn’t to say he can’t see that suicide is wrong, that it devastates a great many lives and subsists in no small part on the great lie that each person is an island.
Among the broader themes of particular interest, probably because the issue is closest to the current era but also because it marked a demographic turning point in the national conversation, is a section devoted to youth suicides from 1986 through until the final years of last century. The trend was significant because it marked a statistical move away from suicides among the elderly, who traditionally had led the field. But it also led to a kind of moral panic, Weaver argues, in which academic and popular commentators alike climbed over each other to describe “youth suicide rates as ‘shocking’, staggering and ‘disturbing’.” Rather like the more recent national conversation around child poverty, which gathered much static and not a lot else during the election campaign in 2014, this notion that New Zealand was experiencing a suicidal contagion, an epidemic, a plague, a psychological virus, obtained great media purchase only a couple of decades ago. There were times during the 1990s when it felt difficult to move sideways without bumping into another new newspaper headline devoted to it.
Weaver certainly doesn’t propose any drive-by answers while casting a disinterested eye on this unhelpful period. Instead, he underscores the exquisite complexity of the subject by shuffling through various themes ‒ parenting, learning disabilities, residential youth care, schooling and unemployment ‒ to show how a galaxy of influences at play, not simply the economic policies of such-and-such a political party, or the editorial imaginings of a headline writer playing the pipsqueak epidemiologist by offering trite either/or formulations. “Presenting the circumstances as either mental illness causing material hardship or vice versa seems profoundly unhelpful,” he writes in a typical passage. “Individuals had their own histories in which the combinations of stresses and predispositions were unique.”
Not that Weaver is beyond the occasional slip. They say ‒ and the author rather convincingly shows ‒ that everything one reads in journalism is to be believed except for the occasional subject one might actually know something about. But that same complaint can sometimes be levelled at studies such as this, too. His digressions into popular culture and dark music also have a once-over-lightly feel to them. He writes about Gloomy Sunday, a composition performed by Billie Holiday, as a suicide song that was “blamed for a string of suicides in the United States during the 1950s”. But even a cursory web search would show that Holiday’s version of the song came out in the early 1940s, that there were many other better-known versions in circulation at this time when it was supposedly weaving a popular spell, and that its reputation as an aural suicide pill has in any event pretty much been debunked as an urban legend. (A cursory web search would also have thrown up the correct spelling of Holiday’s surname.)
But that complaint is notable only because it’s unusual. Sorrows of a Century is an overwhelmingly formidable work, as tremendous a crossover academic feat as anything by a Jared Diamond, Simon Baron-Cohen or Steven Pinker. So put down that warm gun and be happy. Nothing quite like it has appeared in New Zealand before.
David Cohen is a Wellington writer.