by Edwin S. Shneidman
American Psychological Association, 2001
Review by Peter B. Raabe Ph.D. on May 22nd 2002
Suicide is the most powerfully
taboo topic of discussion in North America at the present time. Not only do many people find it impossible
to say the word suicide aloud in
public or even among family and friends, but also our institutions promote this
silence by willingly omitting the word from official coroner statements and
medical reports. But as most mental
health workers know, and as common sense will tell you, the only way you can
begin to develop a solution to a problem is to have an understanding of the
problem in the first place. Edwin
Shneidmans book, Comprehending Suicide,
is an excellent place to begin a development of that understanding.
This book is an unusual book,
unlike any other Ive ever read. While
its a fascinating source of information for anyone interested in the various
issues surrounding suicide, the books content is not a collection of
comprehensive in-depth essays on the topic of suicide. Instead its more like a collection of book
reviews, or very informative catalogue of books about suicide published during
the previous century, selected by one of the foremost experts in the field of
Thanatology (the study of death) and
Suicidology. The books subtitle
is Landmarks in 20th
Century Suicidology. These landmarks
are books which Shneidman considers outstanding and memorable for various
reasons, and which he recommends as the ideal sources of information for anyone
wanting to come to a better understanding of both the act of suicide and the
individual who contemplates or commits this act.
Shneidman begins each chapter with
a brief and non-technical review of the book he is about to highlight in the
chapter. After each of these reviews
Shneidman surprises his readers by including the full-sized original title page
of the book he has just introduced as well as its complete table of
contents. He then offers an excerpt of
no more than half a dozen pages, complete with original footnotes, and, in one
instance, a partial list of references.
The book contains a discussion of, and excerpts from, thirteen different
books which make up its thirteen chapters.
These chapters are grouped into five sections titled Historical and
Literary Insights, Sociological
Insights, Biological Insights, Psychiatric and Psychological Insights,
and Insights on Survivors and
Volunteers. Unfortunately Shneidman
doesnt devote a section, nor does he have much to say about philosophy. There hasnt been very much written about
suicide by 20th century philosophersmost contemporary philosophers
feel the discussion of suicide belongs to psychologyand Shneidman confesses
that he believes the ruminations of philosophers were never meant as prescriptions for action (8).
A common but sadly misguided complaint.
There is also an epilogue in which Shneidman summarizes his own beliefs
about suicide, some of which were previously expressed in his
review/introduction to each chapter/book.
The book ends with both an author index and a good subject index.
Again, the reader wont find much
in-depth information about suicide in each chapter. Shneidman states clearly that
the purpose of this book is to inflame the imagination and interest of
each reader, to move the reader to seek out the original sources, to find. .
. nuggets, solace, understanding, even
tranquility; to know that there is no
simple answer to the enigma of suicide. . . (4). But by presenting these excerpts and a brief discussion of
writers like Durkheim, Menninger, and Aaron, Shneidman does more than simply
whet the readers appetite. In effect
he is saying to his readers, These are
the best in the field. These are the
books I suggest you read. His book is
therefor a rich gold mine for anyone researching the topic of suicide.
I respect what Shneidman has done
with this book for two reasons: first,
he has offered his expertise and his own knowledge of the literature of the
entire field to his readers. And
second, he is not afraid to go against the contemporary fad of defining every
human behavior in medical model terms.
In his review of the book highlighted in chapter six, The Neurobiology of Suicide, he openly
criticizes the currently prevalent urge to reduce suicide to biology and simply
write it off as some sort of mental illness preventable with medication. He offers this chapter with the cautionary
note that what biology has measured on the laboratory bench is not suicide as
such but general perturbation. . ., that
is being measured is concomitant and
not causative. . ., that physiological values are being related
to syndromes that are peripheral to
suicideschizophrenia, and alcoholismand to depression, which may or may not
be isomorphic with suicide, and
that the bilogizing of suicide is an
integral part of the medicalization of what is essentiallyso I believea
phenomenal decision in the mind
(italics in the original;
72-3). But this raises the
question, Why would he recommend to his
readers a book whose central premise is one with which he disagrees?
He does the same thing again with
his book choice for chapter 7, Karl Menningers Man Against Himself. Shneidman
writes in his review/introduction, It
is regrettably accurate to say that many of the Freudian orthodoxies in the
book are realistically beyond defense and that there may not be many provable
statements in the book (90). So why include it? Interestingly, Shneidman justifies it by saying, because it is a landmark volume that has had
enormous impact on thousands of American homes. The fact that Shneidman takes this position, offers these
cautionary remarks, but then still recommends these books to his readers as the
best in the field, illustrates the writers open-mindedness and his unbiased
approach to the matter under discussion.
In other words, Shneidman created in me, his reader, the feeling that
this book can be trusted to give a fair and balanced perspective.
While Shneidman presents and refers
to numerous examples of scholarly discussions in the field, some of the
excerpts he has chosen include case studies, segments of personal diaries, and
survivor accounts which offer an insight into the very human, emotional, and
personal side of self-destruction. With
this volume Shneidman has done something more important than merely show his
readers that there is no simple answer to the enigma of suicide: he has introduced to his readers the various
possible answers to the question Why? that were offered by a variety of 20th
century researchers and writers. I
found this book easy to read, well organized, and an excellent starting point
for further reading and contemplation.
© 2002 Peter B. Raabe
Peter B. Raabe teaches
philosophy and has a private practice in philosophical counseling in North
Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of the book Philosophical
Counseling: Theory and Practice (Praeger, 2001).