Notable Essay of 2010, The Best American Essays. Published in the anthology Going Mental: Essays on the Fringe, 2013; and The Missouri Review, Fall 2010. Finalist, Iowa Review Award for Nonfiction, 2010.
One afternoon during the fall of my senior year, I found myself camped out on some industrial tile near the Hamden High School pool with a spiral-bound reader, halfway through Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Concrete Relations with Others” and already drowning in his words. Pursued-pursuing. Transcendence-transcended. Being-in-Itself. I was highlighting a chapter of Sartre’s philosophical treatise while waiting for my girlfriend’s swim meet to begin, but every time I made it through a few sentences, I found it difficult to breathe.
The previous spring I’d announced, with an insolence I now find amusing, that you couldn’t learn anything in high school, and I’d enrolled in a college philosophy course. Though I was convinced I’d come under the sway of Big Ideas, I was actually more concerned about my clothing. I’d just perfected my wardrobe: worn sneakers and trench coat, straps on my bag kept loose so it swayed when I walked, as if I’d figured out how to say what all my friends were saying—“I don’t care”—in my own special way. What had won me respect at a performing arts high school didn’t fit in across town, though, and as I walked up Grove Street to Yale and spotted students in penny loafers without socks, I tugged self-consciously on my lapel. Early Grunge, or Late Preppy? I was terrified because I didn’t know whom to copy.
I’d hoped studying philosophy would help me avoid predicaments like this by teaching me to make rational decisions instead of copying others, but after wading through Plato, Descartes and Kant, philosophy started to seem as freighted and convoluted as the lives it sought to clarify. I was determined not to give up, though, as we moved on to Sartre. I understood him to be saying that in order to know we exist, we need a person outside ourselves (an “Other”) we can treat as an object. We can be turned into an object ourselves by another’s gaze, transfixed and unable to see the world except in their terms. The implications for intmate relationships were depressing: even a lover’s caress is doomed because the moment of ecstasy obliterates the intimacy of love as we retreat into ourselves. As far as I could tell, Sartre didn’t offer evidence. He insisted, but he did so on such a rarefied level that agreeing or disagreeing was impossible. I was lulled by the music of his words and his incantatory pronouncements: The Other’s look fashions my body in its nakedness, causes it to be born, sculptures it, produces it as it is, sees it as I shall never see it. . . .
I was saved that afternoon of the swim meet when I looked up from my reading at a sea of yellow-and-green jackets moving toward the pool. I followed them in to watch the meet. As Patty prepared to do a reverse something-or-other, her toes on the diving board, her back to the pool, I was struck by how pretty she was, in a way I hadn’t noticed before, and by the fearless way she sliced the water and the flirtatious way she wrung her hair out afterward and glanced my way. Suddenly I could envision how the rest of the day would unfold. We’d find ourselves entwined on her bed celebrating her victory, her sister downstairs, her parents conveniently gone, me miraculously confident, Modern English on the radio promising I could “stop the world and melt with you,” till we got naked and had sex and realized as we neared orgasm that Sartre was right: we were treating each other as Objects and retreating into ourselves!
A few weeks later I asked my TA to meet me downtown at Beinecke Plaza. My best friend, Derek, and I often ended up there after devouring a pizza at Naples or seeing a movie when we couldn’t bring ourselves to return home to the suburbs yet but had nowhere else to go. He was schlepping back and forth between parents. I was struggling to relate to my girlfriend. We were both wandering around, trying to find a bench where we could be alone for a while and suppress the searing indignation which comes when teenagers realize that adults—everyone from parents to the government—make decisions that affect them, and they have no say in the matter. The air had a fatalist tang on nights like this because even in the midst of our anger we realized we couldn’t live without grownups, so talking became a way of documenting Shit We Can’t Do Shit About.
During the patter of these conversations, I’d gaze around the plaza: at night a lunar pall was created by floodlights on a few acres of marble. Then I’d look out over the railing at Isamu Noguchi’s sunken garden, with its pyramid, circle and cube on a notched field. I’d been staring at it for years, yet still sometimes felt as if I’d landed on a sci-fi version of the wrong planet.
When my TA appeared at the plaza, I asked him to suggest an author who’d written critically about Sartre. I was desperate. I’d been in a funk since reading “Concrete Relations with Others” and was growing paranoid, joking that the homeless guy glaring at me from the heating grate was stealing my subjectivity.
The TA got a whiff of my desperation and seemed bewildered. “Is this for your paper?” he asked.
“Huh,” he said, glancing away. “I’ll . . . get back to you.”
Now, as I look back on myself slouching on the railing, despair cascading off me, one thing is clear to me: without an antidote to the book I was reading—an antidote my TA was unwilling to offer—I was powerless to extricate myself from the philosopher’s spell.
After my first year teaching at NYU, a number of instructors and I squeezed around a conference table too big for the room, doing what faculty do at workshops: role-playing and trying out lesson plans on each other.
I was openly unexcited when a friend handed out an essay from The New Yorker that she wanted to use in class. “Documents” by Charles D’Ambrosio is ostensibly an act of literary criticism—each section interprets a different text—but the texts are actually freighted personal communications: one is his brother’s suicide note, and another is a poem written by his unstable father.
I was a better reader by then and could see how the writer pulled me in despite my efforts to resist, dropping tantalizing details about his life when you least expected them. For example, when he writes about spotting his brother Mike outside a café, he casually explains Mike’s limp by mentioning that he’d injured his pelvis trying to “kill himself by jumping off the Aurora Bridge.” Wait, now. Is he offering literary criticism or talking about an attempted suicide? Doling out exposition like this didn’t allow me to step outside the narrative and evaluate it. Instead D’Ambrosio immersed me in his way of thinking. He couldn’t make sense of his family, and while reading, I couldn’t either.
This is how he describes his brother Danny’s suicide note—he calls it “not so much a note as an essay”—which he’s scrutinized for years:
All the struggle is still there in the headlong sentences that tumble toward his signature, in the misspelled words and syntactical errors, in the self-conscious language of a boy starved for love and trying, instead, to live a moment more off pride. The note has the back-and-forth of a debate, of words equally weighed and in balance, of a slightly agonized civility.
The “agonized civility” of the essay we were reading snuffed the air from the room, which is what D’Ambrosio himself experienced while reading his father’s letters. In a masterful bit of manipulation, the literary criticism here is a ruse, allowing the writer to transfer what he felt onto us while we are distracted with the “syntactical errors” of a suicide note. But maybe he was doing too good a job. Our director questioned the wisdom of bringing an essay to class that dealt with suicide: students might not recall its particular rhetoric the next day but might remember how they felt drowned while reading it.
“You’re assuming a student would read an essay about suicide and then go out and do it?”
“No,” she said, turning to me. “But, yes.”
That previous fall, at the end of my second week teaching at NYU, an undergraduate named John Skolnik jumped from the tenth-floor balcony in Bobst Library, where I taught, down onto the atrium floor. Students studying two floors below said they felt the crash. Four weeks later, after Stephen Bohler, eighteen, killed himself the same way, the administration reacted with a mixture of silence and paranoia. Getting to class was surreal. Elevators only opened onto the fifth floor, where my students and I were met by a security guard, his arms out and knees bent like a linebacker past his prime, trying to spot which one of us might vault toward him and over the railing. From there we were herded into the stacks and walked up a back staircase to class—where what we discussed left less of an impression than what it took to get there—only to return an hour later, lining up behind a velvet rope between two bookshelves, as if an airplane had landed just around the corner and we were getting on it, till the elevator opened and an administrator unhooked the rope, pointed to the open doors and instructed us to go directly “aboard.”
I overheard students in line trying to make sense of the double suicide, blaming the intense academic environment or the anonymity of the city, or of the university, usually ending with a clichéd “They would have done it anyway” designed to end discussion. Theories emerged about the atrium floor, made of interlocking white, gray, and black tiles modeled on a pattern found in a Renaissance villa. Students claimed that if you looked down it could make you dizzy and cause you to fall over the railing. Others argued the opposite: the pattern, which resembled spikes if you squinted the right way, was designed to protect people by scaring them back from the edge. When they mentioned Bohler, the second suicide, they obsessed over the fact that he’d been on mushrooms, implying that he’d hallucinated his way up to the tenth floor, climbed the railing, and jumped because he thought he was diving into a pool. Maybe his suicide wasn’t a suicide at all but a bizarre and coincidental accident. These rumors helped my students explain to themselves why they were being guarded in their own library, but they made little sense. NYU was no more academically intense than other schools in the city, yet there wasn’t a rash of suicides elsewhere. There hadn’t been a suicide at NYU itself for years. No one wanted to consider the simpler and more troubling possibility: though the two students didn’t know each other, their suicides were so alike that it looked as if the first jump inspired the second. Maybe suicide was contagious.
I’d been exhorting my students to describe in their essays the world as they found it, not as they wanted it to be; I was trying to teach them to analyze evidence in a dispassionate way. But maybe there was a limit to this way of thinking, because we had to ignore evidence about the suicides in order to get up to class and learn how not to ignore evidence. The administration’s behavior suggested it, too, thought too much open deliberation might be dangerous, and though students complained that Skolnik’s suicide wasn’t widely acknowledged till the second one took place, the administration refused to hold a public memorial for either of them for fear that it might inspire copycats. After class, while waiting for the elevator, my students fell silent as they ran out of rationalizations, and we could hear the sound of hammers and drills below. Workmen were screwing Plexiglas panels into the railings of the third-floor balcony and working their way up eight levels. After they were finished, a library with books started to feel more dangerous than a hockey game.
Unfortunately, the suicides continued elsewhere. A week after Bohler jumped to his death, Michelle Gluckman, nineteen, yelled, “I can’t take it anymore” at a party and jumped from a sixth-floor apartment window near Washington Square. Three months later, on a Saturday evening in March, Diana Chien, nineteen, jumped from the roof of her midtown apartment building after arguing with her boyfriend. Incredibly, a New York Post photographer captured her mid-flight, upside down, wrapped in what looked like a sheet, and once the editors discovered she was an NYU student, they ran the picture a second time on the cover with a sensational headline: “Death Plunge No. 4: NYU’s Grief.” Still it wasn’t over. On June 18th, before our faculty workshops that summer, Charlene Lat, twenty-four, jumped from the roof of her apartment building. The day before classes began the next fall, a sixth student, Joanne Leavy, ran from her apartment after arguing with her dad, took an elevator to the top of the Tisch building on Broadway and hurled herself off the roof. On the way to teach my first class, I looked down at a makeshift memorial for her near the building entrance, with flowers, votives, and pictures of her taped to the façade. The new school year was starting just like the old one.
Suicide contagion is sometimes called the “Werther effect” after The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Goethe. When it appeared in 1774 it reportedly caused a rash of suicides, along with a fad for wearing clothing like the protagonist’s, before being banned. Written in diary form, it catalogues the obsession of the gentleman Werther for his friend Lotte, who is betrothed and then married to another man. It has all the trappings of Romantic literature: a guy with too much time on his hands pines for an unrequited love, torturing himself by spending time with her and then, inevitably hurt, vowing to stay away. Lotte and her husband Albert watch Werther slowly talk himself into suicide. A third of the way through the book, he’s already pointed a pistol at his head—he’ll use it later to kill himself—arguing that it’s a justifiable response to his suffering. Sometimes Werther’s mania makes him so disturbingly alive that I covet the feeling a moment, forgetting how quickly his intensity will burn out. Mostly, though, he seems like a case study in the value of early intervention. According to a faculty handbook issued by NYU after the suicides, if a student expresses an impulse toward self-harm, even if it’s in a piece of writing and there’s no “immediate, visible plan or intent,” faculty are required to call a hotline for an assessment from a healthcare provider. Goethe’s novel made him an overnight sensation, but had he submitted part of it for my class, I would have been forced to report him.
Seeing the Werther effect firsthand made behavior itself seem like a contagion to me, transmitted from person to person and text to person, and I wondered what was going on. Maybe we covertly engage in many of our daily activities—reading, gossiping, listening to music—in order to synchronize our moods with each other. If so, they’re a bit of a ruse, like the literary criticism in “Documents.” If so, I’m relieved I no longer have a copy of Sartre’s book looking down at me from the shelf. We should be careful what we read.
I close my eyes and see Patty leap off the diving board and do a reverse pike, hugging her knees as she spins and then exploding downward at the last moment, her hands eager to slice the water. Sometimes the image morphs when she’s in midair, and it’s no longer her but me, copying her trajectory, though not her grace, after waiting behind other once-a-decade adventurers to jump off a tall rock during a rafting trip down the New River. I’d sprinted off the edge in my life preserver, limbs flailing, and was stunned at how quickly I accelerated, sure as I went under that I’d reached terminal velocity.
A few years before that trip, on Good Friday in 1997, I experienced a palpable feeling of communion when I sang Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion with two hundred other singers as part of the Choral Arts Society in Washington. We’d spent months synchronizing our breathing, matching our vowels and vibrato and timing our ending consonants within a fraction of a second. Now, in matching tuxedos and black dresses, we stared at the hands of Helmuth Rilling, who’d flown in to conduct the performance. The opening of the piece is haunting and fiendishly complex—the chorus is divided in two, with eight separate vocal lines, and a ninth, a children’s choir, which enters at the climax. We were anchored by a pedal tone pulsing in 3/4 time and couldn’t help swaying to it as we invited the audience, in the opening lines, to join our lament at the suffering and death of Christ. Though I no longer believe in God, I still have a religious experience sometimes when I sing, which makes me think belief isn’t a thought so much as an act, even if it’s a communion not with the divine but with the lost souls beside me.
I feel a different kind of togetherness when I attend a Yankee game, chanting with fifty thousand fans to taunt the opposing team. At other times I’m not even in control of my actions. When I marched down Pennsylvania Avenue during a demonstration against the first Gulf War, for example, I heard a roar behind me. For no apparent reason, demonstrators had started screaming and raising their hands in a wave that rolled toward me like thunder, and as it passed I found myself screaming and raising my hands with them, wondering why I was doing it.
I sometimes doubt whether even my desire to study philosophy in high school originated in me. Growing up I was under the impression I’d inherited my dad’s philosophy books, but the truth was much less precise. My mother didn’t have the heart or energy to throw them out when he died, or the time or curiosity to read them, so after a series of moves they’d ended up in my room. I can’t remember whether seeing the books every day interested me in the subject, or whether my interest in the subject had always been there. During the fall if my senior year when I was sick with bronchitis, I spent afternoons in the yard outside my basement apartment reading my dad’s copy of Kant’s Prolegamena with an afghan and cup of tea, hoping my dad’s marginalia might reveal a trace of him. He must have given up, since his marks disappear halfway through the book, but the image of him struggling over the same ideas I struggled over made me feel closer to him than ever, as if a common thread between us was the failure to understand. At times, I think, we welcome an influence on our behavior—a gentle tug from the distance doesn’t always pull us down—because it’s the only way the dead exist for us anymore.
A sociologist at Harvard, Nicholas Christakis, looks for what he calls “social contagion” across a different kind of space—a virtual one—on social networks like Facebook and MySpace. Though we can see how our craving for the latest clothing or smartphone flows may be fed by social networks, we might be surprised at his other findings. Obesity spreads through social networks too, probably because when a friend gets fat—even if we only see him once a year—it makes us readjust our view of what a normal body looks like. Christakis has found that the same contagious effect applies to happiness, depression, drinking habits, smoking cessation and possibly criminality and altruism. There is a complex interplay, he says, in how our ideas and desires influence the social network we belong to, and how our acquaintances, even those a few degrees removed from us, influence our ideas and desires.
We’re not entirely passive in this. Though we can’t access our emotions directly because they’re not a conscious response to a stimulus, we can manipulate them through the choices we make. We go to great lengths—unwittingly, most of the time—to regulate and control our moods. A student of mine who couldn’t make herself cry after her boyfriend dumped her, watched The Notebook knowing that would do the trick. I can’t make myself laugh, but I can throw rocks into a stream with my young nephew, knowing his squeals of glee will make me laugh. More recently, I’ve learned to restrict the music I listen to and the books I read. Pink Floyd stays out of sight unless I want to feel comfortably numb, and though I’d rather read philosophy than go to the beach, many books remain untouched on my shelf. I bought Fear and Trembling fifteen years ago, thinking Kierkegaard might be able to articulate the causes of my melancholy better than I could, but I’m afraid reading him would just add to it.
I try not to think about this when I’m in a windowless classroom in Bobst, teaching expository writing to freshmen, because I’m trying to get them to think more, not less. I teach them to describe their evidence so vividly that it comes alive. Otherwise, why would we read their essays? What I don’t tell them is that the very details that compel our attention and engage us emotionally can snuff out the insights they’re trying to convey. Essays are convincing, in part, because they’re structured like stories, and when they have a well-drawn protagonist I’m often spellbound when I look down. I keep telling myself this shouldn’t be true, and dutifully grade my students on the complexity and soundness of their ideas—which I forget in thirty seconds. While I’m distracted by the syntactical errors of their thinking, however, what they’ve indelibly communicated, when they’re good, is a portrait of themselves on the page struggling to understand.
This fall, early on a Tuesday morning, six years after the first suicide, a student named Andrew Williamson-Noble took an elevator to the tenth-floor of Bobst, scaled the eight-foot panel, and jumped. I was instructed, when my class met there a few hours later, to tell my students about the suicide, discuss it if they wanted, then give out the hotline number and turn toward the welcome distraction of work—a ruse that didn’t work very well. In a room a few feet from the balconies, we couldn’t help wondering if we’d see signs of the fall on our way back to the elevators. Equally unsettling was the thought that we wouldn’t see signs of him at all—that a life could so quickly be wiped away. One of my students, James, collapsed in tears when he heard the news and ran out to call his parents. His classmate Brian didn’t even make it to class. He’d taken time off after high school to get his life together and had already seen a body fall through the air from his sales desk at the Empire State Building. He’d glimpsed the aftermath of Andrew’s suicide too, and it sent him spiraling down. I eventually pulled both students aside, assessed how they were doing and urged them to call the hotline. For me, the small shift to adulthood isn’t just about learning that I may drown in a philosophy book and should curate my moods. It’s about realizing that I can listen to a boy like the one I was once, feel the despair cascading off him, and not be pulled down. It’s exhausting to do this and maintain my balance, but I can.
After class these days I walk onto the balcony and look out at the panels that guard the atrium, then at the books encased in glass.*
* As I finished these words, a week before the start of another semester, a professor of computer science at NYU named Sam Roweis jumped from his sixteenth-floor balcony a block from the library.