by Jonah Raskin
Bateson, John: The Final Leap: Suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge, University of California Press, 2012; ISBN-13: 978-0520272408; $309 pages; $29.95.
(Swans - June 18, 2012) The Golden Gate Bridge celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2012, though none of the festivities acknowledge the fact that Louis Levine, Rafaello di Regolo, Agnes Harrington, and Drederick Bisordi -- plus more than 1,500 other individuals -- have killed themselves by jumping from the span, beginning in 1937. All of their names can be found in John Bateson's The Final Leap, the first book to explore the subject of suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge. According to Bateson, the bridge across the Golden Gate is the most popular destination in the world for individuals who want to terminate their existence. Perhaps it is, though I wonder if he has accurate information about suicides in China and India, where the suicide rate is higher than the world rate and where suicides are on the rise. Of the 500,000 people who kill themselves on the earth every year, 20% are Indians. They make up 17% of the world's population.
In Bateson's The Final Leap, the facts, along with the names themselves -- Bruce McBain Austin, Quong Lee Jew, Alga Jones, and David H. Zimet, along with those mentioned in the above paragraph -- tell much of the story. Almost every nationality is represented and no year has come and gone without a suicide, though there were only 4 in 1937 and just 6 in 1938. In 1970, suicides spiked; 37 people jumped and died that year. In 1969, only 17 people plunged to their deaths. The numbers declined in the late 1980s and then rose again in the mid-1990s. In 2010, 32 people jumped from the bridge and died. Bateson doesn't offer a satisfactory explanation for the patterns, though he has plenty of facts about the construction of the bridge and about the workers who died building it. Jumping from the span, he writes, is the equivalent of jumping from the 25th-floor of a skyscraper. It's a long way down. The bodies of many of those who jump are never recovered, though their cars are found abandoned in the parking lot adjacent to the bridge.
Bateson's life work has been suicide prevention. His new book is aimed specifically at preventing suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge. What he would like very much please is a physical barrier to prevent individuals from jumping to their deaths. It seems like a reasonable demand. I don't believe that it would make the bridge any less attractive to drive or walk across, and the State of California or the Golden Gate Bridge District, ought to be able to find the funds to construct a barrier from one end to the other. It ought to save lives, and how can anyone in their right mind argue against the saving of lives?
Of course, those who really want to commit suicide will find other places to jump, or to hang themselves. Some won't leave their own homes. They'll swallow dozens of pills, crawl into bed and go to sleep, never to wake again. Human beings, and Californians in particular, committed suicide long before the construction of the bridge a mere 75 years ago, and they will go on committing suicide if the bridge were to be destroyed in an earthquake tomorrow. There are dozens of other places in the Bay Area where one can end it all, but the Golden Gate Bridge seems to lend itself to suicide. Its location on the edge of the Pacific Ocean and at the doorstep to San Francisco -- you can take a bus there for $1 -- makes it a convenient, affordable destination for those who want to take the final leap. Sometimes, the bridge can even look like a big advertisement for suicide. Individuals with high levels of anxiety never drive across.
In The Final Leap, Bateson touches on the larger social and psychological issues connected to suicide. In the bibliography at the back of the book, he provides a long list of books on the subject: A. Alvarez's A Savage God, George Howe Colt's November of the Soul: The Enigma of Suicide, and the classic study by the pioneering French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, entitled simply Suicide. Bateson might have given a least a nod in Durkheim's direction in his text. It's too bad he doesn't look in more depth at the literature, but his focus is on the bridge that links San Francisco to Marin County. Many of Bateson's findings are similar to Durkheim's: suicide rates on the bridge are higher for men than for women; higher for those who are single than for those who are married; and higher for people who don't have children than those who do. San Francisco seems like a natural place for suicides because it has a large number of single men without children. It's also at the end of the continent -- if you're coming from the east -- and, as a geographical terminus, it resonates with those seeking the termination of their life journeys.
Marriage and children provide a sense of connection, belonging, and love; they can and do undermine the will to commit suicide. But a law that made it a crime to be single and childless would probably lead to more and not to fewer suicides. Single men forced to marry and to have children would probably be driven to take their own lives. Marriage might feel like hell.
There's the sick and possibly anti-Semitic joke often told by Jews themselves that begins, "Why do Jewish men die before their wives?" The answer: "Because they want to." Durkheim learned from his studies that Jews and Catholics were less likely to commit suicide than Protestants. Their religion inculcated a sense of guilt and offered more ethical and psychological deterrents. Durkheim also discovered that suicide rates dropped during wartime and rose during peacetime. But wars, especially world wars, can seem like suicide on a global scale and en masse. Paul Johnson, the British historian and author of Modern Times, calls the twentieth century "The Suicidal Century." Indeed, reading about genocide, the Holocaust, the dropping of atomic bombs, "ethnic cleansing," "killing fields," civil wars, biological and chemical warfare, and global pollution does suggest that human beings have been determined to annihilate not only their own species and all others, but the planet earth itself. As a species, we commit suicide quickly on battlefields and we commit it slowly by smoking cigarettes, pouring alcohol down our throats, and eating fatty, sugary "things" that increase the possibility of heart attacks and cancer that shorten out lifespan.
Bateson doesn't draw conclusions about the connections between ethnicity, race, religion, and suicide. But the names on his daunting list of individuals who have jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge suggests that they come from many different cultures and religions. One wonders what Iva L. Mazurek, who committed suicide on the bridge in 1960, had in common with Epitacia Santos, Pyung Chung, and Adolph Roy Urbie, who clearly came from backgrounds different from one another and who also committed suicide in 1960, a year in which only 11 people were known to have jumped into San Francisco Bay and killed themselves.
"Understanding why people die by suicide is critical in preventing it," Bateson writes in an appendix entitled "Explaining Suicide." He goes on to say, "no two individuals -- even identical twins are exactly alike" and that "while circumstances may push one person to the brink...the same circumstances can result in different choices for others." Human beings have been killing themselves for thousands of years and you'd think that more would be known about the subject. In some cultures, as scholars and novelists have shown, it's an honorable way to go. But suicide is still largely uncharted territory and in many ways an ongoing mystery. There's no pill to prevent it and no known therapy guaranteed to divert individuals from their suicidal paths, though anti-depressants and talk therapies have helped some.
The stupidest notion I have ever heard on the subject of suicide is "revolutionary suicide," as it was called by Huey P. Newton, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party. In the 1960s and 1970s, Newton wanted angry young black men to point their guns and fire them at police officers, whom he viewed as members of an occupying army in ghettoes. It was suicide because those individuals were sure to be shot and killed by the police, who had bigger guns, more guns, and more officers to fire them than members of the Black Panther Party. Newton himself did not die in a gun battle with the police. He became a crack cocaine dealer and was shot by a member of a rival gang. So, in a sense he committed suicide, though it was by no means "revolutionary."
In my own family, only one person has ever committed suicide -- as far as I know. Her name was Sarah; she was an aunt on my mother's side of the family, and she threw herself from the roof of a building in New York in the 1930s. For years, no one talked about her and certainly not my own mother. I only learned of Sarah's existence from my Aunt Lenore who had married into the family, and who had secrets of her own to keep. Lenore had married once before her marriage to my uncle. When I asked my mother why her older sister, Sarah, had committed suicide she said she didn't know, and "Where did I learn about Sarah?" she wanted to know. When I asked her older sister Ada, she said, "It was the Depression and she was out of work." Someone else in the family told her, "She was jilted by a lover." That's all the information I have. I have never seen a photograph of her or anything that belonged to her, and she's a kind of ghost who haunts me. I have created a whole world around the two stories I've heard, weaving them together in my own mind into a narrative about love, the Depression, and suicide.
Years ago, I tried to exorcise Aunt Sarah's ghost by writing a novel about a young woman who commits suicide by throwing herself from the roof of a building. I could never finish the book because it seemed to me that everyone around my main character, whom I called Roxanne, had contributed to her final leap. By legal standards they weren't guilty of murder, but it seemed to me that they were culpable. They bore responsibility. It also seems to me that the Golden Gate Bridge District is culpable in the deaths of 1,500 individuals. It will continue to be culpable for as long as it refuses to heed John Bateson's clear, loud, unambiguous cry for the construction of a life-saving barrier.
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About the Author
Jonah Raskin is a professor emeritus in communication studies at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine, The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age, and For the Hell of It: the Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia. (back)