Susanna Liu

In October 2011, I was teaching a section of Directed Studies Literature. About a dozen students and I were discussing Book 4 of Virgil’s “Aeneid,” the episode in which the gods demand that Aeneas, destined to establish Roman rule in Italy, forsake his beloved Queen Dido of Carthage, and occasion her despair and suicide. After a typical DS back-and-forth about the significance and effect of various aspects of the poem, we came to the scene where Dido’s sister Anna realizes that she has unwittingly provided assistance to Dido’s death, before she exclaims, “Comitemne sororem / spreuisti moriens? Eadem me ad fata uocasses, / idem ambas ferro dolor atque eadem hora tulisset. … Exstinxti te meque, soror” — “In death have you rejected the sister who attended you? You ought to have summoned me to the same fate, the same agony from the sword and the same hour ought to have taken both of us. … You have destroyed yourself and me, O sister.” Among the students a young woman mentioned that she had read this passage with her twin sister in high school. Her sister shortly afterward had experienced an inexplicable emotional breakdown, which ultimately resulted in her taking her own life. She shared with the class the special personal significance that the Dido episode had for her; her twin sister’s suicide must have been only a few months before she came to Yale.

The class was dumbfounded. Through the convenient lenses and filters of collegiate lit crit, it isn’t difficult to keep the discussion going about the themes, historical background, structure and such that inform the epic. But here was a manifestation of the raw and untamed emotion which was underlying the text, and which was being reactivated in the confines of an undergraduate seminar. No one knew how to respond. This is likely related to some basic dynamics of the classroom, which are inculcated in us from the earliest age and continue as we advance through life in interviews, press conferences and doctoral orals exams. We are always expected to give the “right” answer or response, or the “best” one — as if the trials of life can be reduced to some grand multiple-choice question, and we should never leave ourselves exposed to humiliation or subject to embarrassment or the appearance of ignorance. “After all, what will people think?” we wonder. In that lit seminar a zero had suddenly popped up in the denominator, and no one dared to offer an approach to solve the equation. Suicide does that: It makes everybody feel inept and eager to change the topic of conversation. One of the biggest frustrations some of my students have with me is that, contrary to their previous experiences, I often am unable to give them a right answer which they crave. I think that my role is to offer the right question, not the right answer, and the issue of suicide will probably always remain the greatest of unanswerable questions.

I asked my student gently, just to clarify, whether her own sister had in fact died in this way, which she confirmed. There is a need to maintain decorum within a classroom. For instance, a teacher should never pose trick questions, pop quizzes or anything that could make students feel diffident, humiliated or excluded. And certain discussion topics are sensitive, even taboo, which could upset a young group. That night I sent an email to the young woman to express my admiration for her composure and maturity in the way in which she had dealt with difficult issues in life and in literature. But I explained to her that, for all her classmates’ intellectual brilliance and academic accomplishments, they just did not have the experience and insight to process what she had said about the particular resonance she felt regarding Dido’s suicide. Then I told her the truth — a truth that I had never revealed to anyone in my over two decades at Yale — the decorum — that my father had committed suicide when I was 14, and that I had lost years of my own life to confusion, guilt, depression and general hopelessness and despair, fraught with fixations, obsessions and bad decisions. I assured her that she had a friend in the Classics Department — two, if you count Virgil — and that I would be happy to compare our experiences in person with her, if she thought it could help.

She did not immediately answer my note, and I started to kick myself for overstepping a boundary that maybe I shouldn’t have. Why should I bring up personal history at work, which maybe a student would consider intrusive? But during the following weekend, she did respond with sincere thanks, and we did schedule a productive chat together, which we both felt was beneficial.

During the past decade I have known about several suicides among our students. Each time it happens, I myself feel my own wounds reopen, as I also want to try to offer my consolation and experience to our community. But recollections of that awkward DS Virgilian episode come back to me; people here — even eminent psychologists, cognitive scientists and other experts — often seem as nonplussed as first-year DS students do by these almost unmentionable incidents. I have realized that very few can even discuss suicide, let alone conceive of the kind of despair which can bring people to take their lives. But I am compelled at least to try to share my experiences. As a happier Dido says in Book 1, “non ignara mali miseris succurrere disco” — “Not unacquainted with troubles, I am taught to help the unfortunate.” The pain and confusion that suicide causes within a family and larger community is incalculable. I offer my sincerest condolences to my colleagues and their families for our most recent loss, just as I hope that my own observations may help others. It seems that our joined community’s efforts have expelled the pandemic from our campus. Let us have a candid discussion from now on about this other scourge and let us deal with it, too.

My conclusion is certain: No young person should ever die in this way. Please, if you are contemplating such a possibility, this is as serious as any other medical emergency, and you require immediate treatment. To stop evading my own situation, my family has as many problems as Sterling has books. Here’s my life in a nutshell: Though I’m still not sure of the exact diagnosis, my father’s insanity became evident when I was seven years old. He was violent and moody, and my mother drank to compensate. I ran his mail-order business for him when I was a child after he quit his job. He acquired a pistol and declared that he was going to shoot both of us, but ended up shooting himself, alone in a foreclosed house. My mother became even more violent after his death, and I went off on my own as a teenager. I liked to read, taught myself a few languages, had a few jobs, got my GED and then a doctorate, and I’ve been teaching Greek and Latin at Yale for almost 30 years.

But what did all this do to me emotionally? It seems to me that people in suicidal environments can be oversensitive to life. I was. I had no sense of perspective and maturity when I was young, coming from such a background; I had learned that substance abuse and suicide were the solutions to my agony, and I have had too many lapses in these directions during my life. I didn’t even know what life felt like without pain and depression. It was not till I was 24 and was hiking in Switzerland for the first time that the lump I had always felt in my throat disappeared and I discovered how it felt to be normal. I must also say that in my darkest moments, special interventions have occurred, which I have felt were providential.

It took a long time for me to adjust to Yale. As my former colleague William Deresiewicz has observed, the central symbol for this institution could be the gate: The processes of inclusion and exclusion are constantly in force here, and it’s very easy to fall into the belief that even if you’re here, you’re really not good enough, like an impostor, and you don’t really belong. I had no idea about the social hierarchies that existed here, in addition to all the demanding intellectual work that is expected. It can be quite disheartening to see people constantly jockeying for position, and it is easy to feel isolated and hopeless. But I’m certain that I never could have produced the publications that I have if I hadn’t been here and enjoyed the dialogue with others that I have. Though I probably will never escape entirely from the unhappy home that I came from, at Yale I have found a new and productive life. I wish that I could impress this upon others, never to feel cut off, but always to reach out and realize that more unites us than separates us. It is devastating to contemplate the sorts of distortions and delusions that could motivate young people to take their lives. I’ll beg one last time from someone who has been there and back, please get help if you need it, please think of others and, in turn, please help others.

I used to take students from Yale Outdoors up to Sleeping Giant for snowshoeing. Once, as we were finishing a strenuous hike, we were about 200 yards from the trailhead, and the girls decided spontaneously to race the boys back to the road — snowshoes, snow drifts and all. I didn’t even try to keep up with them, and soon their hair streaming back from behind their heads and the crunch of all their snowshoes in the snow disappeared along a curve in the trail, and I was left alone. I stopped and watched my condensed breath ascend toward the branches above, which, like extended hands, seemed to be holding up a cloudless sky. I never found out who won the race.

Timothy Robinson |