Interview by Michèle Dawson Haber
Clancy Martin’s How Not to Kill Yourself: A Portrait of the Suicidal Mind (Penguin Random House; March 28, 2023) is an extraordinary book that is persuasive in its message, generous in its authenticity, comprehensive in its scope, and refreshingly funny and self-deprecating at just the right moments. Martin approaches his topic from a variety of perspectives—the book is part memoir, part philosophical argument, and part self-help—but he has a singular objective: to save lives. He is a credible spokesperson for such a noble cause.
With no fewer than ten suicide attempts of his own, Martin knows not only the darkness and panic of the suicidal person, but he also knows the practical techniques and shifts in thinking that can give those who struggle reasons to live. Although principally aimed at those who suffer from suicide ideation, he also hopes to provide greater understanding to those who have lost loved ones to suicide. This is why I picked up his book. My father took his own life when I was an infant, and I have long wondered what led him to believe suicide was the only solution to his life’s problems.
Martin’s book provided me with the depth of understanding that I needed. Though a heavy topic, my takeaway upon finishing the book was not despair, but hope. Prevention is possible. Likely everyone knows someone who has had suicidal thoughts, and How Not to Kill Yourself is essential reading for those who wonder what they can do to help the people they love. At a minimum, read this interview. In our discussion, Clancy Martin was as generous with his insights and life-saving advice as he is in the book. As I have learned, one of the best things we can do to counteract this powerful and pernicious phenomenon is not to bury it in shame and fear, but to talk about it.
In addition to this memoir, Clancy is the acclaimed author of the novel How to Sell, as well as numerous books on philosophy, and has translated works by Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, and other philosophers. A Guggenheim Fellow, his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, New York, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Esquire, The New Republic, Lapham’s Quarterly, The Believer, and The Paris Review. He is a professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri in Kansas City and Ashoka University in New Delhi. Below is our interview.If you are thinking about suicide, please call or text 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the United States and in Canada as of November 30, 2023.
Michèle Dawson Haber: Clancy, thank you for writing this book, I’m certain it’s helping a lot of people. You write that the book is for three types of readers: someone who has attempted suicide in the past and is still struggling with suicidal thoughts, someone who may be considering an attempt right now, and someone like me who has lost a loved one to suicide. How challenging was it to write a book that would speak to readers with varying degrees of time and capacity to absorb your message?
Clancy Martin: That’s an excellent question. I think that for people who’ve lost someone to suicide, if you can give them an honest account of what it’s really like to have chronic suicidal ideation, then maybe they can realize this wasn’t as much about external circumstances or about the people they loved and who loved them—it’s much more about an internal struggle and they’d probably been suffering for a long time.
For people who have similarly suffered from chronic suicidal ideation, which the WHO estimates is about 10% of the world population, stigma and taboo are the obstacles. To know that someone else is suffering just like you are, and to be able to read someone else talking about what that feels like, ought to free you to talk to other people and liberate yourself from this kind of thinking and especially from acting upon it.
And then finally, for the person who’s in crisis right now, we know that there is nothing more helpful to them than making a connection with another human being who understands how they feel. Now you can only do that so much with a book—talking is best. But the next best thing to talking is just trying to write about your own experience as honestly as you can. When people sense that you are willing to be totally vulnerable, that is where the possibility of real human intimate connection takes place. When you lay all your cards on the table and say, look what a mess my life is, look how much pain I’m in, look how much self-loathing I’m dealing with—but if you feel like I do, trust me, you can wait another day. That’s what I want to say to the person in crisis. You don’t have to make the same stupid mistakes I’ve made. You can wait another day, you can go for a walk, you can reach out to someone.
And so, my hope is to serve all three of these audiences with my attempt to be completely honest and frank about my experience and to help them by establishing that intimate connection. As anyone who’s ever tried to write a memoir knows, really being honest with yourself about some of the most unpleasant things that you have ever done or thought or said to someone else, can be a little bit uncomfortable. But ask yourself, are you willing to put that stuff on the page? If I didn’t, I had significantly less chance of actually being of any help, the readers just wouldn’t have trusted me.
MDH: In the preface of the book, you tell your reader, “My attitude toward suicide has changed, in part through writing about it.” I’m interested in hearing more about the degree to which you wrote this book not only to help others, but also to help yourself.
CM: Just like a sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) will tell you that so much of their sobriety comes from the people they help, knowing that my writing helps others helps me too. I’m sure it’s part of the reason why I seem to be recovering from my addiction to suicidal thinking. I would never have guessed, but miraculously, since the book has come out, the constant menace of suicide has lifted immeasurably. I have whole days go by now when I don’t think of killing myself, which has never been true in fifty-six years.
Talking to other people who are in crisis—which I spend a lot of my day doing, lately—is also a huge help. Seeing that they have good reason to go on living helps me to see that I have good reason, and also just trying to care for them makes my life meaningful.
MDH: Wow, I’m so glad to hear that! How Not to Kill Yourself is such an interesting amalgamation of different genres—you write not just about your own experiences with suicidal thoughts and alcohol addiction, but also about the experiences of others (both writers and celebrities), as well as underpinning philosophical ideas. It’s an ambitious undertaking. Each one of those approaches could have stood on their own. For those who aspire to write hybrid memoirs that comprise more than one’s own experience, can you shed any light on how you arrived at your structure?
CM: Oh, it’s so nice to have a writerly question! What you want to do is make sure you’re clear on your theme and your central guiding question. My central guiding question was, why ought one not kill oneself? I had more than 1000 pages of material after I finished the writing, and I knew I had to cut.
I wrestled with two questions. One was, what do I feel like I simply can’t do without? And then the other question was, how can I maintain a solid narrative structure where the reader will go from one chapter to the next in the same way that you very much worry about when you’re writing a novel or a traditional memoir. I wanted to keep the flow going while having the right mix of my personal story, the more analytical sections, and the places where I’m looking at the lives of others. I had to shuffle stuff around a lot. My mentor, the great short story writer Diane Williams, says that writing has a lot in common with painting. Most people don’t realize that a painter will paint over things, then add and then paint over again, and so on. In writing, you need to move the writing around again and again, to shuffle until a structure emerges, so that there’s a momentum building that will carry the reader all the way along. That’s what I was striving for.
“What you want to do is make sure you’re clear on your theme and your central guiding question.”—Clancy Martin
MDH: When people talk about the phenomenon of suicide, it is not uncommon to hear, “we’ll never know why she did it.” In your book you suggest that this is a myth, that people kill themselves for reasons and the fact that reasons exist suggests that suicide is preventable. For those of us who have lost loved ones to suicide or those who have someone in their lives who is currently struggling, this is a crucially important point of inquiry.
CM: Well, the first thing we should say about that is there’s a companion myth, which is that it is always a spontaneous act, and if the moment had passed, she probably never would have been tempted. I’m sympathetic to the view that there is no such thing as a spontaneous suicide. I believe that a combination of belief structures and reasons are what get us to the point where we are thinking of taking our own lives. And it is thanks to this fact that I am certain that the vast majority of suicides can indeed be prevented. We can help people recognize the errors in their reasoning and in their belief structures.
If you look at the literature on people who have written about taking their own lives, it often comes down to self-loathing. We’re talking about people who are unable to bear themselves anymore, and when that happens, there’s a kind of closing of the blinders. They experience a pressure weighing down on them, an intense pain, and they only see this one option. To help such people we need to open their blinders a little bit so that they see that there is more than one option. We need to help them with techniques to lessen the pressure, so they feel less motivated to act and ease the pain. There are actually very simple techniques for doing this.
John Draper, one of the architects of 988—the mental health and suicide prevention crisis line—once said to me that ordinary people who have experienced suicidal ideation are in many cases better than mental health professionals at helping because they aren’t governed by concerns of professional responsibility. They can speak with a kind of frankness, immediacy, and intimacy with another person who’s struggling in a way that someone who hasn’t made an attempt cannot know.
MDH: I think many people are suffering psychological distress at this time in the history of our world. Are the techniques for combating such despair similar?
CM: A lot of people are dealing with overwhelming amounts of anxiety and are seriously asking themselves, do I want to live in this place? I tell my students that they give me hope and good reason to keep going, which is true. There are so many people striving to make the world a better place. I think we need our most sensitive and vulnerable people the most.
The whole key is just talking. And for those who are trying to help someone who is suffering, be willing to listen and not try to solve their problems. If you can keep that person talking, just the act of talking will help them start to see that other options are available to them. Just the act of talking will lessen the pressure and will ease the pain. And, if you can get them to go for a walk, the fresh air and a little bit of exercise gets the blood flowing through their body and will help as well.
There’s something called the Papageno effect from Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute, which says that if we have these kinds of conversations in a public way, like you and I are having, the suicide rate of everyone who is exposed to this conversation of ours will go down. Their suicidal ideation, if they suffer from it, will also go down. And the effect spreads out to the people around them. It’s an amazing thing.
MDH: That is amazing. Many people worry about contagion and that talking or writing about suicide might inadvertently encourage someone who has suicidal thoughts. Where is the border between what one might call “planting the seeds” and the healthy exploration and destigmatization of suicide?
CM: On the basis of the best evidence we have, there is no such thing as “planting the seed.” So don’t worry about that. Now of course, there is a thing called the “Werther effect,” which is that whenever we romanticize or sensationalize suicide that will cause the suicide rate to go up. When Robin Williams died, the sensationalist reporting of his suicide caused the suicide rate to go up in the U.S. by 10%. So, we have to be very, very careful about this as writers and as readers. I am profoundly grateful for the poetry of Anne Sexton and for the short stories of David Foster Wallace, but these are people you should not read if you are going through a rough patch. Writers are about four times as likely to die by suicide as the regular population.
If the line of work you’ve chosen involves emotional sensitivity, you have to be very careful with yourself. As Nietzsche says, the most important thing a human being can learn is her spiritual nutrition. As writers we must watch our spiritual nutrition and that includes the spiritual nutrition that we’re providing for others. If you feel like you’re writing something that might take a person in the wrong direction, as I worried about constantly with my own book, then you need to tell them when you’re getting to that.
MDH: Yes, I noticed that. I thought at the time, why is he including it if he knows how dangerous it is?
CM: The reason I did is that when someone’s a little more steady on their feet, I think that those very frank accounts can be the most helpful accounts of all. You can read about the Canadian novelist, Nelly Arcan, and her terrible self-loathing, and at the same time see how she was wrong about herself. She was just profoundly confused. And so, when you make that identification—I know exactly how she felt and I can see she was completely wrong—then a light bulb turns on and you think, maybe I’m wrong about me!
MDH: On the subject of free will, you say that we humans have the ability not just to make certain choices in life, but to control how we think about our lives. This reminds me of how memoir is often described as an account not merely of what happened, but of what the author makes of what happened. It seems to me that in the case of your book, both the message and the medium mirror each other in that the primacy is on the agency and the meaning-making of the actor or storyteller. Would you agree?
CM: I totally 100% agree, and I think it’s an absolutely crucial point for writers of memoir. First of all, you need to be extremely aware of the fact that you have this opportunity when you are writing about your own life, of looking at the meaning you have made in the past and the meaning that you are making on the page.
There is this wonderful teaching by the Buddha called the Parable of the Two Darts, which says that in suffering there are two darts. The first dart is the suffering itself. There’s nothing you can do about that dart; you just have to live with it. The second dart is how you react to the suffering, how you make meaning of the suffering, and all the conceptualizing you do about that suffering. The Buddha says that second dart is the source of all our problems. The second dart is under our control. The importance of this can’t be emphasized enough for dealing with the problem of suffering.
MDH: I really loved the parts where you talked about the power of telling one’s story. This comes up in the chapter where you describe your descent into alcohol addiction and your attendance at AA meetings. Since those times, you’ve found other ways to tell your story, including with this book. You write, “…for me, lying, hiding, shame, secrecy, and loneliness have been at the heart of the problem.” Can you tell me more about how all these ideas are connected?
CM: For people who have grown up in households where addiction has had a profound impact, or where people have suffered certain kinds of abuse, it is quite common that the lying, secrecy, and shame will become problems in their later life. And then, if you yourself fall into addiction, of course, as I did with alcohol, that further exacerbates your problems. This is why everyone who comes to me in crisis, I try to get them to start to journal. Not because they are necessarily wanting to pursue the absolutely thankless and lonely task of being a writer, but because writing is helpful. If you can’t be honest with other people, at least you can be honest with yourself. It’s a very good form of therapy and it’s free.
Once you start doing that, you become a little bit less afraid to trust other people. And once you’re a little less afraid to trust other people, you realize there’s less need to lie to them. And, as you become more vulnerable to other people, they accept you and you accept them, you start to realize that you don’t have to hate yourself. You realize that there could be some aspects of you worth loving, and the people who love you aren’t going to abandon you. That’s what goes on in AA meetings—everyone comes up stands up and tells their story and no one judges.
MDH: People who are considering suicide often come across your articles online and then seek you out. As a result, you are placed in the position of counselling people who are in deep crisis—not because you have medical or therapeutic credentials, but because you are a writer. We’ve already talked a bit about why this works, and so I’m wondering, did you expect this and how do you feel about it?
CM: Well, you know, I didn’t expect it when I wrote my first major piece about one of my suicide attempts in the Huffington Post. After that, people from all over the world started emailing me and saying, I was searching online how to kill myself and I read your piece and decided not to do it. I never expected such a thing. I was just trying to create the best art I could for my particular audience, my readers—that’s who I was aiming for. It has a powerful impact on you when people send you emails like that. And that was when I realized that I had to tell the whole story, because I’d only just told this little snapshot. I knew that when the book came out, there was going to be a lot more. Shortly before I was on the phone with you, I was texting with a military friend of mine who is in crisis and managed to convince him that he should wait and not act on what he’s feeling. This has become a very significant part of my life. But at times it has been really hard.
I can’t pretend that I didn’t know that this was going to happen, but I’m incredibly grateful for it and I don’t want to discourage anyone. I want to say to anyone who reads this interview: if you feel like there’s no one you can turn to, please google me, email me, and I will write you back. I know what you’re going through and we can get through it together—I promise.
“I’ve heard of children as young as three who have made suicide attempts. So, parents: don’t be afraid to talk to your children.”—Clancy Martin
MDH: Do you really want me to put that in writing?
CM: It’s important, at the end of the day, what’s one email against somebody else’s life?
MDH: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like people to know?
CM: I want people to know that suicidal ideation doesn’t start at a certain age. I’ve heard of children as young as three who have made suicide attempts. So, parents: don’t be afraid to talk to your children. And especially don’t be afraid to talk to your pre-pubescent and adolescent children about suicide because they probably have thought about it. They’ve encountered it in popular culture and the best medicine for that kind of thinking is letting them know that they can trust you and can come to you and talk. It could be absolutely life changingly important for them and for you that you have this conversation, particularly because the rates are skyrocketing right now among adolescents and they’re staggeringly high among LGBTQ youth. Transgender adolescents are especially vulnerable. So, if you have a transgender adolescent in your life, know that this is part of their world and try to help if you can.
MDH: Thank you so much, Clancy, for the great work you are doing