The Rumpus Interview with Jennifer Michael Hecht

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Jennifer Michael Hecht has had two careers as a writer. She’s a poet who has published three books, including 2013’s Who Said. She has received many awards for her poetry, including the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award, the Tupelo Press Judge’s Prize, the ForeWard Magazine Poetry Book of the Year, and the Felix Pollak Prize. Her poems have appeared in many publications including the New Yorker, Poetry, the Paris Review, and multiple volumes of Best American Poetry.

Hecht is also a historian and philosopher. She holds a PhD in the History of Science from Columbia University and, in a series of books including Doubt: A History, The Happiness Myth, and The End of the Soul, she has looked at the way that the modern world has examined and taken a broad historical view of various issues. Her most recent book, Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, just came out in paperback from Yale University Press. As in her earlier books, she examines the history of Western civilization and considers how many cultures have thought about suicide, and the ideas against it, which recur throughout.

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Rumpus: Like a lot of people, Stay really hit me when it first came out. I know that the book started with a blog post that you wrote in response to two people you knew who killed themselves.

Jennifer Michael Hecht: We’d been close in graduate school. We were all getting out PhD’s at Columbia at the same time. They were in the English department and I was in history, but we were all poets and so we got to know each other. We’d been close back then and continued to see each other—as New York poets will do—at parties and readings. I stress that it’s not like they were in my life all the time. Partially what makes that important is how hard it hit me even though we weren’t so tight anymore. They happened about a year and a half apart. That made me develop what ultimately became a kind of new idea. I don’t know about other people, but I certainly don’t wake up in the morning with an idea that’s contrary to everything that’s been done before that I feel brave enough to put it out there and fight for it.

After the first loss I wrote “No Hemlock Rock,” which Garrison Keillor subtitled—like an old jukebox parenthetical—”don’t kill yourself.” I think it’s cute. It is how people remember the poem. When I wrote that, I was talking to myself as much as anyone else. I’m one of the many people who will get some suicidal ideation when I’m feeling deeply distressed. I’ve been in therapy for a long time and I’m a talk therapy booster. I know that it’s helped me tremendously with very specific things that have gotten better or disappeared entirely. But still, those thoughts come to my mind. That has to be mixed with the fact that I was becoming a sort of minor atheist priest. I wrote a book on the history of religious doubt and my book Doubt came out before the “New Atheist” burgeoning. I didn’t know there was this big atheist movement out there at all. I got invited to give talks and my book was more historical and poetic than similar talks that were often rabble-rousing and reductionist and religion hating. Mine were based more in the human experience. People were asking me intense life questions. Sometimes of course, I said I don’t know. But there were times when the reading that I’d done allowed me to help a lot. For example, a couple came up to me and said, we’re atheists but we want to give our son a bris, is that okay? Who was I to answer? I could tell them of periods in history where there were vibrant Jewish communities that had chosen to not circumcise and there were vibrant secular Jewish communities where they continued to do these rituals. Just to give them historical perspective on how you can make sense of life and keep it rich and beautiful and tied to history—even if it’s something that breaks ties with your grandparents, say. The combination of that and how, well, alone and without resources I sometimes felt made me think a lot about what resources secular people have. How they’ve seen the world in the past that gave them more access to the available hope that a human community can have. When I was feeling very down once between my two friend’s deaths I read Mary Karr’s Lit. Have you read it?

Rumpus: I have. I thought it was very moving.

Hecht: I found it extremely moving and a good friend in a sad mood, but she starts out an atheist and ends up a Catholic. I knew that was not going to be my story. It gave me a lot to think about the ways that we structure hope and community and meaning.

In writing Doubt I was surprised by two things: the coherent nature of the story of religious doubt and disbelief—that is, the great thinkers praise each other across the centuries; and the amount of useful ideas about life and meaning generated by doubters and atheists across history. Some highlight friendship, some family, some children, some sensuality, some art, some bearing witness, some embracing the absurd. And Doubt: A History is an assemblage of those ideas and an attempt to see the nuances of these claims and the personalities and social contexts behind them. I gave attention to how these often unusual lives were lived as well as their ideas.

So my experiences as a person and as an engaged public scholar drew me into thinking about suicide in a community. Or to say it more personally, how a suicide of an old friend can devastate a whole lot of people. Online it was clear that a lot of people were feeling the way I was. Rachel killed herself on Christmas in 2009, and it was two weeks later that I just sat at desk and wrote that blog post. I was really thinking of other poets. I was in shock. After my first friend died by jumping I had these dreams, and also this waking imagery, of trying to catch her. Sometimes succeeding and sometimes coming up with her empty coat. That was just my particular brain’s fantasy. I talked with other people who had known her and they said very similar things. They had similar dreams and similar waking fantasies. That obsession with wanting to have saved someone who is now beyond saving flipped in my mind to saving the people that I could still save. Saving somebody who is standing on a roof right now. I don’t who they are and I don’t know where they are, but I know they’re there.

I was writing on the Best American Poetry website back then once a week and I was talking to the other poets who I thought might be reading. It was emotional, but I put all these historical and philosophical ideas in it. That blog post went around a lot. The Boston Globe contacted me and they published the piece on the back of their Sunday Arts and Ideas section. I got a ton of mail. That sealed it for me that this is something I needed to research and to check all my facts. I always tell people the way to write a book is to sit down and try to write what you know that most of your friends don’t know. When you check all your facts, you’ll find that about fifty percent of them were slightly ill-remembered or out of context. I knew that even though I was going on facts, I had to go back and look at those facts again. I didn’t find anything that controverted what I had come up with, but I certainly found things that I hadn’t thought of that broadened the ideas. I was excited as a historian who becomes interested in ideas. Why was Christianity so against suicide? It grew out of ancient Judaism and ancient Greek culture and neither of those were violently against suicide—or barely said anything against suicide. So where did it come from? I realized that it was really coming from the overdoing of martyrdom. When Constantine makes Christianity no longer illegal in 313, the church changes its mind about self-made martyrdom. It’s no longer supporting the cause, it’s deleting the members. Its first rules are saying you’re not on god’s list of martyrs if you’re doing it for your own reasons. Then they start to get stricter and stricter. By the early modern period Luther underlines the notion that suicide is always the devil. That gives people a metaphor in that terrible struggle of feeling like you’re in a battle with these two sides and you have a reason to try to hew towards god’s side. It’s not the way you want people to save their lives, but if it gets somebody through the dark night, it’s worth at least thinking about.

Rumpus: I love your book Doubt and I’m of a similar religious—or rather, non-religious—mindset. But I was fascinated that the person who perhaps articulated the best reasons against suicide was Thomas Aquinas. He articulated three reasons to not commit suicide and the fact that god disapproves was only one.

Hecht: I was fascinated by that, too. Part of the reason I went into writing Doubt was I had a persistent curiosity about how people who were so philosophically sophisticated like Aquinas and like Augustine could have been these great fathers of the church. The more I learned about them the more I realized that in different cultural contexts things mean different things, but DoubtI certainly didn’t lose my profound respect for their minds. When you read Aquinas, he’s awesome coming up with these beautiful ways of structuring ideas and realigning what you think goes together. I was still surprised to find that yes, he has three reasons. One is community and one is the self and then only lastly, the god idea. Clearly if you know the person believes in god and you’re trying to get them to agree with you, if you can just say, god says no, you’re giving them a lot. That’s what gets picked up by, if I may say, lesser minds.

Rumpus: That notion that suicide is against our nature (which he articulates) rang very true to me.

Hecht: It’s very hard to put this kind of truth into language without compromising what you really believe. I was going to say that the objective world exists, but I’m a bit of Kant-ian, Schopenhauer-ian, and I don’t know how much our minds are creating the world we see. Set that aside and say, there’s the world of facts. Then there’s the world of human experience. In the world of human experience, we can say that some things are true. I think it’s true that human beings feel love, even though it’s much fuzzier claim to make than how much water expands when hot. Is it also true to say that our nature requires us to preserve ourselves? I’m not sure it’s true in the same way that it’s true that love exists. I do think that it is persuasive. It’s persuasive that what we can see across history and across our own moods and across our own lifespans across our varied personalities it does seem like self-preservation is something that is a vital, true thing. Like I said, it’s a little hazier than love, but for me, to my mind, I don’t think love is hazier than the length of a meter. I think it is a provable reality because I take human experience as just as real as the physical world. Right and wrong is very tricky. Right and wrong are always going to be context based. As is love. As is the expansion of water under heat. Quantum mechanics throws us into at least a little respect for the ineffable. [Laughs] I’m sorry if I’m getting too broad but it’s that I find these notions beautiful and compelling.

John Stuart Mills says if you want to walk across a creaky bridge, go ahead, you want to take drugs, go ahead, but he says very explicitly, you’re not allowed to sell yourself into slavery. Because that controverts what the whole community is doing—defending the ideals of personal freedom. Today free speech is limited at the point where you start limiting other people’s speech. I will say that right and wrong is largely based on doing right by people around you and doing right by yourself. There are other definitions of right and wrong, but they do not hold the kind of sway that this notion of harm does. It seems clear to me that at least on the bookshelf of ideas about this there had to be one that pointed out there is a strong argument for suicide being wrong by any definition of right and wrong that can be conjured.

I love to quote Emerson, “our moods do not believe in each other,” because it highlights something that we all have experienced. When things seem bleak, they seem like they have always been bleak. That you’ve always been a loser and that you will continue to be one. I think when you’re happy you actually can remember that sometimes you’re not happy, but it’s hard to remember how bad. Just to say to ourselves, hey, we’re not always the same person. If you feel like you’re making a decision that you normally wouldn’t make, that doesn’t mean you’re in the wisest place. That means you should wait until tomorrow and see how you feel. On a nuanced level this is about the reductive nature of the modern idea of the self. I’m pointing out that we are neither distinct individuals, because we influence each other so much, and neither are we consistent individuals across time. We would do well to have some respect or at least practice having knowledge that if you do irrevocable things in your worst moods, that’s something one should rethink.

Rumpus: I love your book The Happiness Myth and not to oversimplify the book, but your argument is that every culture defines happiness in a specific way, but across time and culture, you can also see that people know the same essential things make us happy. I kept thinking of that reading Stay, where people have always been talking about these same ideas of why people should not kill themselves.

Hecht: Right. An almost ever-present idea in enduring happiness doctrines is “remember death.” It makes life better if you do not try to suppress that knowledge. And similarly this idea that for the sake of the community you must not kill yourself.

Hecht: The Happiness Myth idea was very strong with me too in thinking about how the culture can give you ideas about what you should be doing that just seem so true, but all you have to do is look over the fence to see how it’s been thought of in other ways. I talk in The Happiness Myth that today we have this temporal prejudice. Today we just have this constant arrogance, I guess because we went to the Moon and beat tuberculosis, which are very impressive things, but why should love have changed substantially? It’s bizarre. When you ask history to tell you about how it is to be human, a lot of things shift every decade and a lot of things shift every century, but some things are just bedrock and keep showing up. Those seem to me to be the things that will give us something a little closer to deep human truths. History for me seems like such a rich place to go to see what is human and what sense we’ve made of things—both in terms of what changes and in terms of what doesn’t change.

When you’re looking at human beings across the planet, across centuries, and you start to see some real consistency, it does suggest that there’s something there worth looking at. Of course these things have to be nuanced. Obviously there are bad things that were repeated for a long time thatHappiness Myth we’ve started to think of in a new way. I think that’s progress. I agree that Stay is very connected to some of the ideas that were solidified for me in doing the thinking for The Happiness Myth.

Rumpus: That notion of self-preservation. I kept thinking about the fact that if you put suicide barriers on bridges, it makes a difference. In my own life, I know that there have been many, many times where if there was a button next to the thermostat when I was tired of being alive, I would have hit it—but to actually kill myself was more than I could manage.

Hecht: There is a lot in what you say here. This only addresses part of it, but it is important to note that more than half of the suicides in the United States are gun deaths and more than half of the gun deaths are suicides. I get letters form people who tell me that they have guns for hunting, but they leave them at a friend or family member’s house because of their depression. They know that they could still go to their friend’s and get the gun, but they don’t.

Rumpus: Having a gun, particularly a loaded gun, is as close to having a button like that as exists.

Hecht: That’s exactly right. Women attempt suicide more, but men complete suicide more and we think it’s because men have more guns. I would put right next to having means, which gets a lot of press and attention, just having already thought it through and rejected it. For example, women with young children get depressed—prepartum, postpartum. It’s very widespread. Having a baby does not mean that you’re suddenly happy. It means you’re more likely to have some real blues. Then having to care for the children when life isn’t going well can also be—I speak as a mother of two—incredibly depleting at times. Exhaustion makes people not able to think clearly and yet for women with young children, their suicide rate goes down. We already know that it’s a no no. That means that an idea can function. I have other examples, but that’s one.

One example is my own. My suicidal thoughts used to frighten me and would make me think that this is something I was supposed to be considering. Did I have to have a good reason? Did I have to figure out whether my contribution was worth my pain? I don’t think about any of that anymore. I have the thought and I swat it away the same way I swat away road rage. You get mad and for a second you do think, I wish my rival would drop dead—but it doesn’t occur to you to do it. Of course there are murders and there are suicides, but we don’t let children grow up and have to figure out whether murder is wrong. We tell them. It just seemed to me such a simple thing to think it through and at least tell people that this is wrong.

Rumpus: Last year when Robin Williams committed suicide, a lot of the response frustrated me and made me angry. Just the way people talked about suicide, that now he’s free of the pain.

Hecht: I think laying out the details of how someone killed themselves is not usually a good idea, but I’m glad—but saddened—that I know he sawed at his wrists first with a dull knife. That just shows you that this was impulsive. He hadn’t been carefully planning this. If he had been consistently set on this, he’d have made a plan for an effective method; for the images left behind in the minds of loved ones; for the physical mess (consider the scene if the knife method had worked); and for the financial and therefore familial consequences. Instead this looks like an impulsive act from a bad place he was in at that moment.

All that stuff about his release from pain. “You’re free now, Genie,” or whatever the line was. Our culture is in a complete pendulum swing of thinking of depression as a biological thing. Some of it’s political. We understand that trauma and neglect are a profound part of what leads to misery. That means that if you can work on the trauma and neglect you can get better. Right now the biological illness idea is dominant—partially to explain our use of psychopharmaceuticals. These are not drugs like with penicillin where you find this bug in you, you take penicillin and the bug goes away. We haven’t found that depressed people have lower serotonin than everybody else. This is a drug that acts differently (and I’m not against these drugs), but it is a drug, and how does a culture tell itself that it wants everybody on drugs? To describe it as a biological illness, which then certainly suggests that suicide is the endpoint of this biological illness. But that’s not what we see. When you do the research there’s just a tremendous amount of evidence that some depression comes from short term humiliation or loss. Someone gets broken up with or demoted at work. I’ve talked more about the army since I wrote the book but a full third of the military suicides are never deployed. I’m not saying the war is unrelated, but more than half of them were found to have noticeable loss of an important relationship or humiliation at work within three months [of killing themselves]. That really suggests that we should be on alert for making irrevocable decisions during a period where we feel humiliated. To tell ourselves that every human being goes through periods where we feel humiliated and it’s the worst, but it passes. You have to hold on. Just having heard that notion gives you strength.

Rumpus: Stay came out the same year as your poetry collection Who Said, and many of those poems seemed influenced by your thinking about depression and suicide and dealing with these same issues and ideas you tackled in Stay. How do you think about the relationship between your nonfiction books and your poetry?

Hecht: My PhD is in the history of science and I often bring up that a lab is just a place where you control variables. That’s why there’s all the glass and metal, because they’re easily cleanable. You’re just controlling variables so that instead of saying, hunh, for some reason this dog is sick, you work to isolate a single cause for a single effect. It’s all about reducing variables. Real life is always over-determined. It’s always millions of variables at once. Poetry to me is that. Poetry is where I don’t even have to pay attention to grammar or logic or consistency. I can just try to tell the truth about what I’m seeing and thinking. I don’t even have to worry about exactly how it works, if at the end it feels true. I love history and I love following arguments and seeing new sides to ideas and trying to put them in clear terms. All that is great, but the poetry is not a decorative aside. It’s the heart of me. I guess I should also add that I’ve been lecturing all over the US and elsewhere for over a decade now and these talks—on the History of Atheism, or the History of Doubt, or Historical Insights into Happiness, or The Arguments Against Suicide, etc.—and the conversations I have with people afterwards, have become profoundly important to me. They are a live-action experience where poetry, history, philosophy, humor, psychology, and community conversation all come together in a thrilling and insight-generating way. Everything feeds into those events and encounters and a lot that is new and inspiring comes out of them.


Alex Dueben's work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Believer, The Poetry Foundation, The Comics Journal and many other publications. He is working on his first novel. More from this author →