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Jesse Bering on why suicide is a distinctly human behaviour

Taboo topics: Bering has battled “the call to oblivion”. Photo/Guy Frederick

Taboo-breaking writer and academic Jesse Bering takes his personal struggle with suicidal feelings as the starting point for a timely examination of the complex problem of self-harm.

Chapter one of Jesse Bering’s A Very Human Ending: How Suicide Haunts Our Species finds the author in a very dark and, he argues, very human place. The scene is pleasant enough: the woods behind Bering’s former home in upstate New York. He is walking the dogs and considering an oak tree, “built by a century of sun and dampness and frost”. It seems to beckon. “It was the perfect place, I thought, to hang myself.”

Bering is 43, a research psychologist and director of the centre for science communication at the University of Otago. When he took that troubled walk in the woods in his thirties, he’d had a stellar career as an academic in the US and Ireland. He’s also a writer of some style and wit of popular science pieces and books with arresting titles: Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? and Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us. He has contributed to Scientific American, Playboy, SlatePlayboy? He had a column – Promiscuous Minds – on the magazine’s website.

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“I find myself attracted to taboo topics because I think the human response to them is fascinating. I wouldn’t say I like watching people squirm,” he muses a little unconvincingly on the phone from Dunedin. It’s about control, he decides “in terms of being in the position to guide the conversation rather than subjected to it”.

He grew up gay in Ohio, an experience that might make you wish to take some control of the conversation. “I’d had fleeting suicidal feelings since my late- teen years,” he writes. His experience has helped form a singularly non-moralistic attitude to humanity’s infinite, sometimes problematic, variety. “Not only being gay but also just being a very sensitive child and a solitary figure and very analytical in nature,” he says. “That lent itself to social difficulties growing up. A lot of that emotional residue has stuck with me and has influenced the way I see other people and the problems they’re experiencing.”

He is, reviewers point out, unafraid to grasp the nettle. In Perv, Bering writes about a woman who has a relationship with a flag named Libby. He also writes about paedophiles. He’s for a less demonising, more pragmatic and harm-reducing approach to deviancy.

Jesse Bering at age seven, 1982.

Now, he’s tackling another fraught topic: suicide. He has written about the subject before, in Scientific American. “A very brief piece on the psychology of suicide was the one that generated the most reader responses, from people who could really empathise with the mental states that accompany suicidal feelings that I articulated in that piece.” This time, it’s personal. He has felt “the call to oblivion”, fleetingly, since he was a teenager. “It’s an incredibly intense experience to be suicidal and I felt like I had enough distance from it at that time to be able to put it in perspective.”

Still, it must have been tough. “Hmm. I don’t like the word cathartic but it did have those qualities to it. It was a very challenging book to write emotionally, as you can probably appreciate. But I gravitate to some pretty heavy topics anyway, so it was in my wheelhouse.” His wheelhouse: “Me delving into a really thorny literature and trying to articulate controversial points without having to devote the rest of my professional life to these issues.” He’s glad he’s finished with it.

Including personal experience in a science-y text, however accessible, is an audacious move. He has form when it comes to sharing. “Once you go public with the story of how you masturbated as a teenager to a wax statue of an anatomically correct Neanderthal … there is no going back,” he writes. That startling anecdote first appeared in Perv. “I didn’t want to write a memoir or autobiography about my own suicidality,” he says. “But to write it without inserting myself somehow, and my own experiences, would have felt too clinical or forensic and cold. I just wanted to let the reader know that I was there with them, sort of holding their hand through a complicated conversation.”

The book can be blackly funny. There’s a controversial “pro-choice” Swedish website that lists methods, including an elaborate, excruciating attempt at dismembered-body-as-art. “Suicide will always flop as performance art,” he writes. “The critics will write you off as a desperate bore with no future … Oh, and also, ouch.”

Bering at home in Ohio at age 15, 1990.

You have to laugh. “Well, the subject matter itself is inherently grim. I didn’t want to write a dark book. I wanted it to explain why suicide, ironic as it sounds, is something that makes us distinctively human.”

What makes us human: the book is as much about that as it is about suicide. He cites the psychological concept called theory of mind, the ability to get into someone else’s. “We are thinking, almost constantly, about what others think,” he writes. “And what we ourselves think. And about what others think we think.” That ability makes us human. As he writes in Scientific American, “It’s a blessing, because it allows us to experience pride, and a curse, because it also engenders what I consider to be the uniquely human, uniquely painful emotion of shame.”

It makes us, says Bering, the “natural psychologists” of the animal kingdom. Animals don’t kill themselves, despite tales – Bering cites a heart-rending few – of animals apparently ending it all out of grief or despair. But surely dogs feel shame, if those online compilations of remorseful canines who’ve eaten the couch are any evidence. “Yeah, who knows, maybe,” he says, laughing. “We co-evolved with dogs so their mannerisms and behavioural traits are a reflection of how we responded to them ancestrally. I think it’s probably anticipation of punishment. I don’t necessarily think it’s worry about us judging them.” It doesn’t mean animals other than humans don’t feel emotion. “It just makes them lucky not to have to undergo the torment of others’ eyes on them, judging them as tormented individuals.”

So, we are “the ape that jumps”. The why of it is complex. Not all suicide, says Bering, is associated with mental illness. “It’s true that the vast majority of people who kill themselves are at least in a fleeting bout of depression. But whether you view that as a mental illness or a psychologically adaptive response to the environment, these are questions that have not been resolved in the field.”

Neuropsychiatrists and suicidologists have isolated a specific type of neuron that could be responsible for suicidal intent. There’s the possibility of evolutionary adaptation. When individuals have low reproductive potential and pose a burden to kin, suicide may make sense. “I think those arguments are something that we have to take seriously, but it’s a fraught problem in the sense that people misunderstand that term ‘adaptation’ to be something that is good for the individual when, in fact, it’s just a mathematical term.”

US social psychologist Roy Baumeister.

The book cites some harrowing case studies. There’s the story of 17-year-old New Zealand schoolgirl Victoria McLeod. Living with her loving parents in Singapore, she kept a secret diary. “I think – and I know it sounds melodramatic – that I might not make it this year,” she writes. She was anxious about grades, her prospects in life. She jumps to her death from an apartment building. “I have so many opportunities,” she writes. “If some people were me, they’d be so happy.” The story is tragic, and frustrating. “I know. That did affect me quite deeply. You just want to reach out and grab her.”

Bering looks at the story through the lens of work by provocative US social psychologist Roy Baumeister, “his incisive analysis of what it feels like to want to kill yourself”. Baumeister’s article, Suicide as an Escape from Self, outlines a series of steps or stages of increasingly dangerous suicidality. They include much of what human flesh is heir to: feelings of falling short of expectations, self-loathing and self-blame, high self-awareness …

Reading about these very human responses that can push people to the edge feels oddly therapeutic. “That was part of my intention. My hope was that by helping people understand, intellectually, the problem of suicide, it will give them some distance to the problem and help them to see things a bit more clearly in terms of what’s happening in their own mind. The emotions that go into suicidal thinking are probably quantitatively rather than qualitatively different from the non-suicidal experience. There should be aspects that should be familiar to you even if you’re not actively suicidal.” Not everyone who is suicidal realises that they are. “Had someone asked me at my lowest if I was suicidal, I’d have said not,” Bering writes. “I’m not one of those people, said the pot to the kettle.”

The book feels timely. Suicide has been in the news: celebrity Anthony Bourdain, broadcaster Greg Boyed … “Yeah, a lot of high-profile cases.” How does he rate how the public discussion has been handled? “I don’t have some sort of moralistic view about how it should or shouldn’t be handled, to be honest. I think media have probably done a fair job at handling Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, Greg Boyed and these suicides that have cropped up recently. My only worry is more just a logistical one in the sense of [how] these exuberant dedications to them and praise make it seem to certain people, I think, a desirable outcome.”
Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, Greg Boyed. Photo/Getty Images

With suicide, any public discourse is fraught. Did he worry about the effects of a book that unavoidably discusses ways and means? “Yeah, I did, and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it, to be honest. I think it’s critical to understand the copycat effect and social contagion when it comes to exposure to the topic of suicide. But just simply trying to elucidate that is part of the problem itself. My argument is that having this sort of meta-awareness of how we are susceptible to contagion effects is important for stopping the contagion. You’ve got to understand the mechanisms to interfere with the process.”

So, silence isn’t really an option. The book addresses the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, which includes a graphic depiction of the suicide of a teenage girl and its aftermath. In tapes she leaves and flashbacks, Hannah remains a player in her social world after her death. Isn’t that a dangerous fantasy? “Honestly, I didn’t think about the show in those terms. But yeah, simply the idea that somehow you can wreak vengeance on those who have wronged you through suicide is the problem with the story. That is my concern, that you will somehow appreciate the impact of your death on them.”

For Bering, that moment in the forest came about when, burnt out with academia, he chucked in his job to devote himself to writing. His partner was unimpressed. “Juan, the more practical of us, raised his eyebrows early on over such an impulsive and drastic career move,” he writes. Juan was right. Bering found himself, “having turned my back on the academy, fresh out of book ideas, along with a name pretty much synonymous with penises and pervs …”

That period brought a certain celebrity. He went on American talk show Conan to talk about Perv. Bering is easy and entertaining company on the phone and on the page but he lives with debilitating social anxiety. “Writing allows me that sort of social playfulness that is difficult for me in real life,” he says. “I am probably pathologically introverted by nature, but I find myself attracted to topics as a writer that bring attention to me. There’s probably a sick dynamic there at the heart of it,” he muses. Conan must have been terrifying. “It was an experience.” Popstar Kesha went on before him. “She was walking off stage and her bodyguard was there and they thought that I was just some guy who was about to pounce on her or something. Like, immediately before I went to sit in the chair with Conan O’Brien, I was almost thrown off set because they thought I was a stalker.” He can laugh now. At the time he was at a low ebb. “What does a suicidal person look like?” he writes. “Me, in that Conan interview.”

Bering. Photo/Guy Frederick

In a way, he wrote the new book for himself. “I was writing it envisioning myself when I was 18 or 19, going through a lot of these issues, and what I wish I had heard at that time. Also, I was writing it for my future self, because I know I will run into these problems again, inevitably.” Why inevitably? “Just because I have these recurrent bouts of depression and anxiety and find myself in this state every once in a while. The best predictor of the future is the past.” It’s a safeguard.

What saved him when the oak tree beckoned was simple: he got the job at the University of Otago. He could stop trying to live off such articles as The Masturbatory Habits of Priests and pick up a regular pay cheque. He’s not complacent. “I therefore whisper this to you as though the cortical gods might conspire against me still: I’m currently ‘happy’ with life.”

He has no illusions about what his book can achieve. “I’m not a suicide-prevention researcher.” His advice tends to the pragmatic: beware of environmental triggers. That can mean getting rid of weapons, even a closet rail. “I think that’s especially true for younger people, who die by suicide oftentimes driven by a flash flood of emotions; these impulsive acts. Simply having a gun at your fingertips is a recipe for disaster.”

Some educational institutions these days build student accommodation without balconies. “Our university has certainly adopted that practice.” When you’re in loco parentis, cut the risks. “Absolutely.”

Bering and partner Juan Quiles on a trip to Oxford University in 2006. Photo/Bering family collection

There is worry about the effect of social media on young people. “You might find fluctuations, but from all available data, cross-culturally and historically, it [the suicide rate] is fairly consistent and it doesn’t seem like recent technological advances have affected that that much.” We haven’t been much good at lowering the rate. “That’s absolutely true.”

Bering offers a less forensic solution. We have evolved as social animals, he writes, “… sometimes our very existence hangs in the balance of what we think others think of us”. It’s what makes us human. It’s what can drive us to despair. So we need acceptance. We need each other. We very possibly need books like A Very Human Ending. “I do think it will help particular people that the message resonates with,” he says. “This sounds corny, but if it saves one life, it was worth it.”

A Very Human Ending: How Suicide Haunts Our Species, by Jesse Bering (Doubleday, $38)

Where to get help with mental health

Need to talk?: free call or text 1737 to talk to a trained counsellor, anytime.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757

Samaritans: 0800 726 666

Youthline: 0800 376 633  or email talk@youthline.co.nz

Healthline: 0800 611 116

This article was first published in the October 20, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.