Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Surviving Literary Suicide

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Surviving Literary Suicide

Article excerpt

JEFFREY BERMAN, Surviving Literary Suicide. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA, 1999, 290 pp., $60.00 cloth, $18.50 pbk., ISBN 1-55849-195-3.

Surviving Literary Suicide is a fascinating account of a course by that name, written by an English professor who is knowledgeable about the psychological and psychiatric nature of suicide, as well as its literary expression. Separate chapters deal with suicide in the novels, poems, and lives of six prominent literary figures, four of whom-Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton-committed suicide. The remaining two were Kate Chopin who wrote The Awakening, published in 1899, and William Styron, who wrote about his own depression and suicidal state, and many of whose novels were concerned with suicide. Styron graciously wrote a letter, included in the book, replying to one of the students in the class who had written to him about her suicidal impulses.

Surviving Literary Suicide is as much about the experience of taking and teaching the course, as about its content. The students kept a diary of their reactions, which they handed in weekly. As the title tells us, the class became the .survivors" of the deaths of literary figures, during which they went through a process of mourning, acceptance, consolation, and personal growth.

Berman is not a neutral observer; he is concerned about the possible influence of literature to encourage suicide, and interested in its positive potentials for preventing suicide. He succeeded, using the class discussions to affirm life and hope for overcoming the suicidal impulse. The students were engaged both intellectually and emotionally. Like them, I felt involved and pummeled by conflicting and paradoxical feelings.

Berman describes the prosuicide bias of many of the authors, as well as the critics who wrote about their works. …

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