Though I argued in my last post that a key question to ask a suicidal person is what he or she values more than life, I never thought to ask Martha this. So I do not know for sure what she would have said. But I suspect she might have said nobility.
I say this in part because of her paper on Hamlet that is on this site, Perceptive Madness in Hamlet and Ophelia. She wrote this at fifteen, seven months before her first suicide attempt and three years before her suicide. One of its subjects is suicide, particularly as discussed in Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy.
In Martha’s analysis, the question Hamlet asks in this soliloquy is “whether it is a nobler course of action to suffer through life or to commit suicide.” She writes, “He goes so far as to equate suicide with courage and failure to commit suicide with cowardice.” She notes that Hamlet himself does not choose suicide, but brings up one who does: Ophelia. Ophelia, says Martha, “chooses to take action against the horror of the world by killing herself.”
Though Ophelia is clearly insane at the time of her death, Martha does not use Ophelia’s insanity to rob her of agency, as some people do in suicidal cases. Since Martha’s death, I have heard various people say it isn’t the suicidal person who commits suicide, but the insanity, depression, personal demons or something. Martha would have had none of that. Ophelia’s choice, in Martha’s view, “is influenced by her madness,” but it is still a choice. “Ophelia,” she says, “concludes that it is nobler to die by her own hand than to continue to live in a world full of vice and suffering.”
I do not know for sure that Martha was motivated by Shakespeare when she killed herself. But I knew Martha, and the way she talks in her paper on Hamlet is close to the way she generally talked. Martha believed in greatness more than goodness, and strove to live on a high and noble plane. She had no fear of death but viewed with horror the moral corruption and the stifling of intellect she found in life and described in her paper. She got the term “horror” not from Shakespeare but from Conrad, whose dying Kurtz in Heart of Darkness sums up the world with the phrase, “The horror! The horror!” (She wrote an essay about Heart of Darkness and mentioned the book in her college application essay.)
Martha was under psychiatric treatment for the last three years of her life—including at the time she wrote on Hamlet. Her attitude toward psychiatry is summed up in her paper: “Rather than trying to suppress and treat insanity, society should find a way to appreciate and apply the insights gleaned from people who experience insanity.” Madness, in Martha’s view, gives Hamlet and Ophelia enhanced perception—a “sensitive intelligence” that allows them to feel deeply and penetrate intellectually.
I believe that, on her last night, Martha made her final stand against the horror of the world. It was insane, but in Shakespeare’s view, it was noble, the way a tragic hero would act. I share enough of Shakespeare’s view, and Martha’s, that I am strangely proud of her for killing herself, even though I wish with all my heart she had not.
Martha’s heroic view of suicide may explain why psychiatric treatment was so incapable of stopping her. She submitted to it because her parents and society forced her, but she never agreed with it. It never reached her. Indeed, on her last night, in a phone call about an hour before she died, she told me that what society calls illness—specifically mental illness—was better than health. She died dedicated to being mentally ill.
Martha hoped that society would appreciate and apply the insights gleaned from the insane. That is my hope too. First, I think we should appreciate Martha’s mad insights that nobility is better than life and that the world is a horror. We do not need to agree with them to appreciate them. Then we should apply them. Realizing that at least some people may be suicidal because they harbor similar views, and that they may be impossible to reach through conventional psychiatric means, we should find a way to address such individuals on their own ground—their own views of nobility and horror. I do not know what way that is, or I would have tried it with Martha. But I know the ways that failed with her, and I hope there may be better ways to try with others.