My wife is used to the kinds of research I do for these articles, but even she raised an eyebrow when I brought home James Hillman’s book Suicide and the Soul. “Is there something I should know?” she asked. Yeah, I think so. I think there’s something we all should know, not just about individual lawyer suicides, but also about how they mirror the collective, transformational death occurring in our profession.
Hillman called suicide “the urge for hasty transformation” – referring to the death of an individual psyche under the stress of personal transformation. In a postscript written 40 years later, Hillman added insights about the communal nature of suicide:
Once we have grasped that involvement [in relationships with others] is fundamental to the soul, we would be inescapably connected by definition, turning and twisting the threads of our fate with the souls of others. Others are entangled in your death as you are in theirs. Suicide becomes a community matter.
No suicide dies or takes his life alone; the rest of the community dies and takes his life with him. We don’t want to hear that. We quickly deny any personal responsibility, avoid the topic, turn away when it comes up. Hillman explains our response this way:
This [community aspect] helps account for the common reaction against those who attempt suicide. They are not welcomed with sympathy by family, friends or clinic, but rather are met with anger and disgust. Before we sympathize with a person’s plight or pain that may have occasioned the attempt, we blame; we find ourselves spontaneously annoyed, outraged, condemnatory. I do believe this all too common response points to the enduring strata of the psyche that we all share, call it our archetypal humanity. We are societal animals, as well as having individual destinies. Something insists we belong to a wider soul and not to ourselves alone.
This is why lawyer suicide stories are so disturbing to those left behind – such as the CNN story that prompted this series, or this one about a prominent Washington, D.C. lawyer who shot himself in his office after changing his voice mail greeting to say, “As of April 30, 2009, I can no longer be reached. If your message relates to a firm matter, please contact my secretary. If it concerns a personal matter, please contact my wife.”
Can’t you just see yourself doing that? I can. Change the voice mail message, set up an out-of-office email reply, write a memo about the status of pending cases… be the consummate professional to the end. A comment in that story is illustrative of Hillman’s individual/community insight:
To some his final act was a rebuke to what his beloved profession had become—a statement made in the very office he had been told to vacate.
The legal profession is a controlled access community, and once we’re in the club we have a lifetime membership. (“Once a lawyer always a lawyer.”) When one of our members is lost, we all lose. We can gloss over the statistics and get back to work, but we cannot remain unaffected.
Concerned bar leaders have written monographs such as this one, detailing the causes and signs of individual psychological distress and exhorting us to notice who’s not bearing up so well. They have their place in promoting help for the afflicted individual, but they do not reach the terminally fearful dynamics of communal transformation. For that, we need to also examine the systemic context which allowed – or maybe even promoted – that level of individual distress in the first place.
To be continued.