Whatever side of the fence you fall on in regards to the admittedly strange circumstances surrounding the death of Kurt Cobain, few could argue against its inimical impact- one effectively demonstrated in Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher series. The graphic novel features a character named Eugene Root, later called Arseface after a botched attempt to pay homage to the late Nirvana frontman, leaves him both alive and horribly disfigured.
The poetry of self-slaughter is often celebrated in reference to the works of William Shakespeare. The 13 notable suicides present in his plays, Brutus (Julius Caesar), Cassius (Julius Caesar) Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra) Charmian (Antony and Cleopatra) Goneril (King Lear) Juliet (Romeo and Juliet) Lady Macbeth (Macbeth), Ophelia (Hamlet) Othello (Othello) Mark Antony (Antony and Cleopatra) and Portia (Julius Caesar) are all consequenced by shame and despair. However, unlike the model evidenced by Cobain, Wallace, and Hemmingway, they are not framed with the too gifted for this world motif. I think the late post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh introduced the kind of voluntary march to the maggots that is most compelling to the current generation.
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Conflicting reports shadow the details of the dutchman’s death, just like Cobain’s, and the archetype that links them are toxic in the same way. To a lesser degree perhaps, Cobain suffered a perpetual state of anguish and his solution to this has been echoing for twenty-five years. What was likely a panicked retreat to him, was a lyrical farewell to the rest of the world: True genuises don’t stick around.
Similarly, Van Gogh’s posthumous success retconed the society that did not understand him as villainous short-sighted fools. These results are particularly attractive to teens and adolescents, a period defined by an appetite for attention. Recently Ladders reported on the unfortunate spike in suicide rates among this very demographic after the release of the popular Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why.
Kyle Schnitzer of Ladders wrote, “Research published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry said there was nearly a 30% increase in suicide among America’s youth — ages 10-17 — in the month that followed the show’s first episode, which aired on March 2017.”
The show’s plot revolves around a high school student named Clay after he discovers seven cassette recordings left by his friend and unrequited love, Hannah following her suicide. Each tape corresponds with a different person that contributed to Hannah’s death. The story is set in motion by a three-minute-long sequence depicting the young woman’s suicide in graphic detail. This inclusion of this scene intended to demonstrate the tragedy and horror of Hannah’s decision to its full potential in the hopes that young viewers would be deterred from emulating it. Unfortunately, a series of studies suggested the contrary, urging the showrunners to respond with the following:
“As we ready to launch Season 3, we have heard concerns about the scene from Dr. Christine Moutier at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and others, and have agreed with Netflix to re-edit it. No one scene is more important than the life of the show, and its message that we must take better care of each other. We believe this edit will help the show do the most good for the most people while mitigating any risk for especially vulnerable young viewers.”
While it is by no means the job of an author to have our well being in mind while determining the beats that best articulate their work, the premise of 13 Reasons Why represents why the allure of suicidal ideation is so persuasive to young people.
The appeal for many has to do with the notion that when we’re gone, the party sort of stops, while the attendants gather to make sense of it all. Moreover, it puts the potential of our legacy on ice. While you all prepare to spend the rest of your lives wondering whether or not I would have been the next Orwell, I’ll be at the rickety stool store, drafting my note. The truth of the matter is, however strong the temptation is to lionize the dead, it will always cow to an alliance of grief and betrayal, time will make sure of this. That isn’t to say that the pitch is always possible to reject or even always selfish to consider.
Netflix and the showrunners made the right decision to remove Hannah’s controversial suicide scene but if it’s on the authors to be mindful of the impact of their work, it’s on us consumers to be mindful of the caution in cautionary tales.