The Suicide Set List
It is common knowledge that youth suicide rates in New Zealand skyrocketed during the second half of the eighties and the first half of the nineties. I had the misfortune to be young during this period, which also saw a massive rise in unemployment, a dip in the average wage, big cuts in benefits, and severe restrictions on the rights of trade unions. For many young people, it wasn't the easiest of times.
During 1989 and 1990 there seemed to be almost an epidemic of suicides and what coroners call 'suspicious deaths' at Rosehill College, and I would regularly attend the funerals of classmates. As a snotty-nosed, self-consciously alienated fifth former who listened to The Clash and The Smiths, I tended to blame the spate of suicides on vague concepts like 'the system' and 'bourgeois teachers'. Certainly, the principal of our school, who was fond of lecturing us about equally vague concepts like 'discpline' and 'responsibility', seemed outwardly unperturbed by his institution's growing reputation as a death trap.
What I didn't know in 1990 is that the principal for whom we used to invent unwitty nicknames like 'Mr Robot' knew the name, grades, and background of every one of Rosehill's thirteen hundred students, felt personally bereaved every time one of his charges suicided, and tried to stop the flow of deaths with a variety of increasingly deperate measures. After one death, our principal became so desperate that he descended on the school library and began to remove any book with a reference to suicide in it from the shelves. Sylvia Plath flew into the dustbin, followed by Camus, before one of the school's English teachers took her distraught boss by the arm and quietly pointed out that his plan would force him to dispose of much of Shakespeare. That way lay madness.
In our society, many people like to respond to suicide in the way that my old school principal initially did. The media seldom announce and publicise a death by suicide, for fear of creating a 'copycat effect'.
As the nineties went on, Rosehill College experimented with a new tactic to cope with the threat of suicide: a special group was set up for vulnerable students, where they could talk about their problems and get help from professional agencies. The group was dissolved after one of its founders and leading members committed suicide.
In a fine essay prompted in part by the loss of his own son, the senior New Zealand sociologist Dave Beddgood calls for the open discussion of suicide, rather than a 'tyranny of silence'. Bedggood defends the controversial 'Yellow ribbon' movement, which organised high-profile boxing matches to raise money for suicide prevention and which talked openly about suicide. He complains that Yellow ribbon, which was a grassroots initiative by people who had lost friends and family to suicide, was 'hounded out of existence' by arrogant health professionals. Bedggood argues that youth suicide will decline if young people are empowered to discuss and deal with the issue:
We can see that on the many [web]sites where people talk openly about suicide. The majority of responses are painful, confused and fatalistic – symptomatic of alienation. But there is also much expression of love, sympathy and hope for the future. While these sites are helping to talk about suicide they lack direction towards organized systematic prevention. We need not only suicide prevention groups on the internet but the mobilization of young people in schools, the workplaces and in the wider society to actively intervene in the causes of depression and suicidal behavior.
The Yellow Ribbon peer based approach has the potential of providing the missing link and filling the black hole in the official orthodoxy. Young people need young people to talk to and to support one another. It is a terrible indictment on our society that we do not act on the strongest evidence that we have, that young people talk to young people.
I'm not sure what I can contribute to the sort of process Dave describes, as I'm most certainly no longer a 'young person' in even the most tendentious sense of the phrase, but I thought I'd mention that the forthcoming issue of Landfall, New Zealand's longest-running literary journal, includes my poem 'The Suicide Set List', which looks back on the spate of suicides at Rosehill College in the late eighties and early nineties. The characters in the poem (and it is a poem, not a short story, whatever the editors of Landfall think) are composites of a number of students who were at the school with me, rather than identifiable individuals.
The Suicide Set List
A few days, a few weeks later, I remember stopping, in the doorway, and looking back, at my unmade bed, at the coffee mug that smelt of stolen vodka, at the posters advertising gigs I was too young to see, at the stack of half-read novels on the desk, at the record that had rolled out of its cover across the room until it leaned against the turntable on the floor, like a tyre waiting to be fitted.
I remember thinking that, if I were to walk out the door, jump on my bike, and ride, fast, downhill, through the rain, through the first red on Takanini Strait, then the random objects of my room would become sacred, inviolable. Instead of shouting at me to tidy up, my mother would stand silently in that doorway, and cry, and then chase the cat off the bed, and carefully lean the record my father had put away back up against the turntable’s blown speaker. All my friends would come to admire the room, making mental notes to buy their own copies of the books on my desk, to listen again to the bands advertised on my wall. All of them except you, who knew better.
We used to joke about it, riding through the cemetery, on the short cut from the tinny house back to Youngs Cres. We’d shout song titles at each other as the headstones sped by, until we’d assembled a set list, a mix tape you swore you’d make. You even asked your Dad, who was still practicing law then, to help you write a will. He’d laughed, at the idea of you leaving anyone money, but you’d only wanted to put down some of your best jokes. Don’t Fear the Reaper. Bela Lugosi’s Dead. I Am the Resurrection. Your favourite, Another One Bites the Dust, which you wanted us to play while your coffin was being carried away. It would be, you said, like playing DJ at a family function. It would be a last stand, against sentimentality. Against boorjwah morality. A way to say fuck you to them all, without having to see them shake their heads, to see them walk away. Yeah, right, take another toke, I’d say.
Your sister said the undertaker was a hippy. I said he was just tight. He wouldn’t pump you full of formaldehyde, said that the scent of decay was better than the smell of chemicals. You, who always loved to fill yourself with chemicals, must have felt cheated of a last hit.
Your body already felt cheated. Your body had grown from a tiny smooth animal that did nothing but cry and shit, into a skinny boy who dropped catches in the covers and went regularly over the handlebars of his bike, before at last reaching something like regulation size. Now it had lost its right to bulge and wrinkle, to grow grey hairs and varicose veins, to expire in an overheated hospice bed surrounded by bored great-grandchildren and the clicks and flashes of incomprehensible machines.
As it lay on the stainless steel tray, waiting to be fed to the fire, your body took a sort of revenge, living its lost decades in a couple of days, ageing a few years every hour. Your skin turned yellow, then pale green, as though it were registering some disease of the old. The rope marks on your neck and jaws darkened and deepened, until they looked and smelt like bedsores.
You never made that mix tape, and I didn’t tell anybody about it, at the planning meeting, the day before, in the messy room you left. I was afraid that your parents, who had always warned you about me, so that they could warn you about yourself, would think I was making the songs, making your set list up, the way I made the bust at the tinny house up, the way I made the fight with Sean Sands up. I let your mother and sister burn their own CD, even downloaded some stuff they wanted, but didn’t have – something by Enya, and I Will Always Love You. I was making a last stand, I guess, for boorjwah morality. I remember crying and singing along with the others, as you creaked along that conveyor belt into the fire we couldn’t see.