Suicide in Young Adult Fiction

Suicide stories are the new hot thing in young adult fiction.

A few titles on this topic have been released in the past — 13 Reasons Why being the most well-known — but a huge number of these books have been released in 2015 so far, including I Was Here, All the Bright Places, My Heart and Other Black Holes, Playlist for the Dead, When Reason Breaks, and The Last Time We Say Goodbye.

Individually, these books (at least, the ones I’ve read) are generally emotional and poetically written, winning accolades and movie deals. But as a group, these books reveal a few patterns that really need discussing. There’s no harm in a whole slew of books on depression and suicide if the subject is handled sensitively and realistically. But these books must be written very carefully, as they have the power either to help a reader in need, or to crush that reader further. And although individually these books are very good, as a group, they show trends that are somewhat worrying.

One key issue is what perspective the book is from. There have been a couple of books recently from the perspective of the suicidal character, but most of these books are about a friend or sibling of someone who committed suicide, left to try and figure out why. These are interesting and emotional stories, definitely worth telling, but if they’re the majority of stories about depression and suicide, then there’s a sense of othering as a result. The protagonists try to piece together the mystery of another’s suicide because they can no longer ask them about it, but that’s a narrative choice, where the answer is often “we can never really know.” The suicidal characters themselves do not get a voice. We don’t get to learn about their feelings and their fears in their own words, from their own perspective. It’s all through a filter of someone who is not suicidal, not depressed, and who has to understand everything through their own feelings of anger and grief and guilt.

This is even somewhat true in books where a suicidal character initially does get perspective chapters. In All the Bright Places, for example, both perspective characters are initially suicidal, but one perspective vanishes from the book several weeks before that character actually commits suicide. Or in My Heart and Other Black Holes, both the perspective character and the other protagonist are suicidal, but the perspective character move away from her suicidal thoughts, while the non-perspective character doesn’t. In the most egregious examples, it suggests that an author wants to use suicide to create an angsty, literary book without actually engaging with the realities of suicide for the suicidal person themselves. In the better examples, it suggests an unwillingness to grapple with the darkest, messiest parts of the plotline. Either way, it often creates a sense of “otherness” for the suicidal character and wraps the actual emotions and motivations of suicide in mystery.

These books also almost always have an extreme amount of premeditation. Characters find suicide partners, they go on suicide forums, they go out of their way to acquire obscure methods of death, they schedule suicide note emails or even leave elaborate puzzles for their loved ones to solve. The elaborate puzzle trope is perhaps best represented by 13 Reasons Why, where a suicidal girl has sent a package to the thirteen people she blames for her death. Not only does this plot detach us from the suicidal character herself, it turns her into a rather loathsome figure, one who was incredibly cruel in death. Even those who leave nicer notes can come off as unsympathetic, as we wonder why they didn’t tell their friend what was going on before they died, or even why they had to leave a game behind instead of just being honest. All in all, it presents suicide as a puzzle to be solved, something others experience that we must unravel to understand.

And when we do get to see inside the suicidal characters’ heads, the reasons are usually pretty clear-cut. While stories about a friend’s suicide usually conclude that “she was depressed” or “we’ll never really understand why,” stories about a suicidal protagonist typically give really intense reasons why that protagonist might want to end his or her life. Their father is a murderer. They’re mourning a sibling’s sudden death, or they even feel responsible for that death. They face abuse at home, and suicide seems to be the only way out. This may make for more obviously interesting stories, but it also creates a sense that depression and suicidal thoughts should be connected to some massive, validating event. Those who are depressed without any clear and intense reasons why, or whose reasons are less dramatic, seem unreasonable in comparison, and the idea that suicidal thoughts are a symptom of mental illness is lost behind an implicit sense of “justifiable depression” and “unjustifiable depression.”

This is not to say that I think the authors intend to send this message. Not for a second. And each book in isolation is just that — a story of a particular character and a particular situation that the author wanted to tell. But taken as a group, there’s a definite narrative in these novels about the sort of people who can be suicidal, and the sort of people we can identify with. It is somehow easier to read the story of a girl who’s suicidal because her sister died in a car crash than it is to read the story of a girl who’s suicidal because she suffers from depression, and so the books avoid grappling with depression’s real darkness. Those with “good reasons” get to tell their own stories and have their own voices heard. Those with more mundane reasons are overlooked as protagonists, and their pain is shown through the filter of another. The focus is on the effect their pain has on others, rather than on the pain itself.

02 comments on “Suicide in Young Adult Fiction

  • Lars Sjöström , Direct link to comment

    I am only guessing, but parhaps the family and friends of people who have committed suicide are more willing to express their feelings, while people who have attempted suicide might be more willing to put it behind them.
    I might be wrong but I am quite certain that loss is more difficult to get over than depression, and this is reflected in literature. Just like many nobel lauretes in literature are refugees, because loss means so much it makes literature. I agree that mental illness and depression without a simple explanation are important matters. I am looking for a good end to this comment but I am in a hurry,

  • Alexa , Direct link to comment

    I saw a quote somewhere that said, “The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.” I think that’s the problem with these novels you’ve pointed out – depression, clinical depression as well as other mental disorders that can lead to suicide, does not make sense. There often isn’t a reason for it, it just happens to people. Hardship without reason, without resolution or justice, are not things people often enjoy reading about.

    Loss makes for great literature, many of the greatest literary pieces are about someone losing someone. Stories about people coming to terms with someone else’s suicide are more prevalent because you can turn them into something that makes sense, and that’s what people want to read. One of the most revolutionary things about the author behind Hyperbole and a Half coming out about her depression was her also saying that her story didn’t have a neat happy ending. She may have come out of the darkest part of her illnes, but she’s still fighting. I think the shift towards more appropriate portrayals of suicide and depression will come when people are ready to face that fact that real life does not always fit into a tidy narrative.

What do you think?

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