Who Is To Blame For A Suicide?

Yesterday I was driving around in my hometown and listening to the radio. The DJs did a segment on the suicide of Jacintha Saldanha, a nurse in a hospital where Kate Middleton was being treated, who was pranked by some radio DJs and tricked into giving out Middleton’s medical information.

The DJs on my hometown station put a caller through and asked for her opinion. She said that it’s not at all the DJs’ fault that Saldhana clearly had issues and that they shouldn’t have lost their jobs because of what happened. Furthermore, it was “irresponsible” of Saldhana to kill herself and leave this whole mess behind.

Lesson one: never listen to the radio in Dayton, Ohio.

Lesson two: people have a lot of trouble with grey areas and blurry lines.

(Of course, I mostly knew both of these things already.)

It seems to be very difficult for people to form an opinion on this tragedy that isn’t extreme. Some say that the DJs were just doing their jobs, the prank was completely harmless, just a bit of fun, and Saldanha was messed up and crazy. Others say that the DJs are terrible people and should be blamed for Saldanha’s suicide. The latter seems to be the minority opinion.

I don’t think that the truth always lies between two extremes. In this case, though, I feel that it does.

Suicide is a complex phenomenon and the suffering that causes it–and that is caused by it–makes it even more difficult to comprehend. A particularly painful fact that the friends and families of people who kill themselves sometimes have to face is the fact that suicide often has a trigger. Sometimes, that trigger is other people.

I remember reading a young adult novel called Thirteen Reasons Why a few years ago. The novel is very serious for a YA book, and the premise of it is that a teenage girl, Hannah, has killed herself and left behind a set of audio recordings in which she explains to every person who was implicated in her mental troubles what it was that they did.

One was addressed to a guy who found a poem she wrote and spread it all over the school. Another was to a guy who took photos of her through her bedroom window. By the end of the book you get a picture of a girl who was just completely used and marginalized by almost everyone she interacted with.

And yet–this is the part that some readers, judging from the reviews, didn’t get–Hannah is not supposed to be a wholly sympathetic character. You’re meant to feel sorry for her, but her actions are meant to make you uncomfortable. The tapes she leaves behind seem a bit vindictive. And at the end you learn that two of the major triggers for her suicide were that she failed to stop a rape at a party and that she allowed her friend to drive drunk–and hit and kill someone.

So, who’s to blame for Hannah’s suicide? Her classmates were cruel, yes. But they didn’t know what she was going through. And she could’ve saved herself a lot of guilt had she intervened and stopped the rape and the car accident, but can you really expect a terrified teenage girl to do that?

The point of the book, to me, is this: you can’t blame anyone. It’s comforting to think that you can, but you just can’t.

Similarly, the Australian DJs who pranked Saldanha could not have known what would happen. In fact, even now we don’t really understand. Although she reportedly left a suicide note, we don’t know what it says, and we don’t know what kinds of personal struggles she might’ve had leading up to her death. To their credit, the DJs have said that they’re heartbroken and sorry.

But blaming Saldanha is sick and cruel.

And while I don’t blame the DJs for her death, I still think they shouldn’t have done it.

The thing is, we live in a world that presumes that everyone is “strong” and mentally healthy and capable of dealing with whatever life throws at them without falling apart. This is why people like Saldanha are blamed and exhorted to “just work on their issues,” even after they’ve died.

We assume that people are always capable, for instance, of refusing repeated sexual advances, ignoring social coercion and proselytism, dealing with mental health issues without ever being taught how, overcoming pervasive racial inequality, facing the humiliation (and, sometimes, terror) of street harassment, suffering through targeted online hate campaigns, refusing to believe it when magazines tell them they must be thin, and so much more. We expect them to do all this without anger, because anger is “counterproductive.” So, of course, is mental illness.

We expect people to conform to an ideal that includes emotional strength, confidence, and resilience, and we refuse to concede that few people are able to live up to this ideal all of the time. How much do we expect a person to bravely, stoically handle? I’m not sure there is a limit.

The DJs assumed, whether consciously or not, that Saldanha would either see through the prank or be able to deal with the international attention she would receive for falling victim to it. As it turned out, she was not.

At The Daily Beast, Kent Sepkowitz writes:

With the recent focus on bullying sparked by suicides of young people who were hectored as outcasts, a new or newly articulated risk factor for suicide has gained currency: humiliation. Though certainly related to hopelessness and to real or threatened financial embarrassment, humiliation is its own very private experience, with its own equally private triggers. How and why certain events might brutally transgress honor and dignity in one person yet the same events barely touch the next, remains inscrutable. In this particular tragedy, it seems a sense that she was being publicly ridiculed—humiliated—somehow pushed Ms. Saldanha over the edge, an edge previously defined and maintained by her tremendous pride in her work.

Why do we expect people to deal with public humiliation for our own entertainment?

I would hope that rather than limiting the discussion to what these particular DJs should or should not have done, we expand it to talk about the exploitation and degradation that modern media thrives on. That these DJs would even think to go through such trouble to obtain someone’s private medical information is ridiculous. That there is a market for that information is ridiculous. I’ve long believed that celebrity gossip is unethical, but when it sets off a chain of events that ends in a suicide, that becomes even more apparent to me.

Not only is it impossible to blame any individual person in this awful story, but to do so would be to miss the point. Something in our culture–in the ways we relate to each other and in the ways we expect each other to be strong–is broken.

If I absolutely had to lay blame on something, it would be that.

The Case Against Celebrity Gossip

Credit: jezebel.com

Celebrity gossip bothers me.

I think it’s both interesting and sad how we assume that accomplished, well-known people exist for our consumption. That is, we not only consume the work they produce; we consume their lives themselves.

We expect them to be perfect and demand apologies when they fail, but we also gleefully feed on the news of their failures, perhaps encouraging them to fail if they want to be noticed.

When celebrities fight back against the culture of gossip and paparazzi, as they often do, we claim that by being so famous and “putting themselves out there,” they “deserve” the stalking, the intrusion of privacy, the destructive rumors and exposés, all of it.

It is, if you think about it, a victim-blaming sort of mindset.

And so, things that are absolutely unacceptable and legally punishable when done to an “ordinary” private citizen are just a day in the life of a celebrity.

I understand and uneasily accept that as long as there’s a market for celebrity gossip, tabloids will continue to exist. I think the onus is more on the public to learn that violating people’s privacy is wrong than on tabloids to willingly shut themselves down. However, I do reserve a harsher judgment for media outlets that trade in celebrity gossip while simultaneously branding themselves as progressive–or, worse, feminist.

Jezebel is a blog that I read loyally because it often (not always) features great writing and brings things to my attention that I may not have learned about otherwise. I read it with the understanding that the writing is often unnecessarily snarky and dismissive (the pot calling the kettle black, I know), and that some of the posts are best fact-checked elsewhere.

I know this about Jezebel, and I accept it. What I have more difficulty accepting, though, is that the same site that provides women with vital information about terrible politicians, interesting perspectives on sex and dating, and summaries of important research…also publishes things like this. And this, and this, and even more disgustingly, this.

It’s fashionable these days to consume things “ironically”–pop music, bad television drama, Twilight and Fifty Shades. Celebrity gossip, too, falls into that category of things people like “ironically.” This, I think, is why you often see it on blogs like Jezebel. Perhaps people think that reading it alongside articles about institutionalized sexism somehow makes it better.

Some might disagree with this criticism of Jezebel because it does not explicitly label itself as a feminist blog. Perhaps that’s a fair point. However, whether or not it labels itself as such, it unquestionably has a feminist perspective, and more importantly, it’s ironic that some of the issues Jezebel criticizes in its more serious pieces–body snarking, fashion policing, slut shaming–are things that it does in its celebrity coverage. (This has been written about already.) Perhaps avoiding the “feminist” label is just a way for Jezebel’s writers and editors to cover celebrity gossip without feeling guilty.

But is it possible to consume celebrity gossip ethically? According to an article in this summer’s issue of Bitch magazine, yes. The article, called “Gossip Grrrl: Can Celebrity Gossip Ever Be Feminist?”, was written by media scholar Anne Helen Petersen (and is, unfortunately, not available online). Petersen acknowledges the issues with celebrity gossip, such as the fact that it’s a form of social policing and prescribes the ways in which people (especially women) are allowed to be. She writes, “In most celebrity coverage, the dichotomy is clear and consistent: men go on a bender, women go crazy. Men ripen, women decay.”

But the question Petersen ultimately answers in her piece is not the one that is posed in the title. Celebrity gossip itself is not feminist. In fact, as Petersen points out, is it explicitly antifeminist. But the act of consuming celebrity gossip is a different matter entirely.

According to Petersen, we should consume celebrity gossip while acknowledging the problems with it, examining our own reactions to it, and keeping its historical context in mind. She provides a personal anecdote about learning that Leonardo DiCaprio and Blake Lively were dating and feeling irrationally annoyed by it. However, instead of taking her reaction at face value, she examined it:

I don’t like that someone who “means” what DiCaprio means to me (the first heartthrob of my teenage years, Romeo + Juliet forever) is linked with someone who “means” what Lively does (inexperienced, inarticulate, lacking in talent). I can look at my reaction even more closely, understanding my frustration when handsome, talented, seemingly intelligent men my age persist in courting women far their junior who don’t seem to be their equals. Is my reaction necessarily fair? No. But unpacking my reaction to a romance between two celebrities helps me understand my own issues with men dating younger (beautiful, lovely-breasted) women. In short, mindfully consuming celebrity gossip helped me make sense of my own biases.

What I took away from this article is that there are ways to consume celebrity gossip intelligently and mindfully, while learning about ourselves and our society in the process.

However, merely reporting the gossip (and I use the term “reporting” loosely) is not the same thing at all.

I know the mental contortions that people who love celebrity gossip sometimes use to justify it. It’s just for fun. Not everything has to be all serious and political. I don’t support it financially, anyway. It would still exist even if I stopped consuming it. The celebs deserve it.

Not everything has to be all serious and political, but many of our choices do have serious and/or political ramifications. And I know it’s never pleasant to be confronted with the fact that something you love is problematic. I also know that most people who like celebrity gossip have little interest in consuming it the way that Petersen describes.

But I think that refusing to participate in the invasion of another person’s privacy is more important than a few minutes of entertainment. Sorry, but I do.