Clancy Martin has attempted suicide “five or six” times. “Those are just attempts that have landed me in the hospital and/or psychiatric hospital,” he says via Zoom from his home in Kansas City, Mo. “Attempts where I would say, okay, I was really doing everything in my power to kill myself, but I’m not counting those times when I had a gun in my mouth and wasn’t pulling the trigger. With those it’s maybe 11, something like that.”
Martin, who’s a philosophy professor at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, is trying to keep others from making their own attempts. That’s the impetus behind How Not to Kill Yourself (Pantheon, Mar.). Part memoir, part philosophy text, and part guidebook, it’s written by someone with firsthand experience of his subject. The book is both helpful and harrowing, asking readers to do what Martin says, not what he has done.
“I really hope that it can help us, just a little bit, to take us toward destigmatizing the act and help us feel a little more free to talk about it,” he says. “Once you’re talking about it and you realize it’s okay to talk about it, all that weight just starts to lift a little bit, and you start to feel less panicky, less urgent, and less scared.”
Martin, who grew up in Calgary, Canada, had a difficult life from the start. His father was a schizophrenic alcoholic who died under mysterious circumstances in a mental hospital. A stepbrother killed himself by leaping from a tall building when Martin was six; a stepsister also attempted suicide when Martin was eight. By that point, he was already experiencing suicidal ideation. “When I was a child and a young man,” he writes in the book, “I believed that killing myself would eliminate ‘me’ as I was.... I think of this as the ‘suicidally inclined’ stage of my life.”
Eventually inclination gave way to action; most of Martin’s suicide attempts ended with a stay in a mental hospital, where he got new meds, told his doctors he was feeling better, and, before too long, went home. Then he tried again.
These hospitalizations were actually the germ of the book. An editor from the magazine Epic reached out to see if Martin would like to write something. Martin pitched an essay about his time in psych wards—a sort of real-life One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Then, as he was writing, the editor’s daughter attempted suicide. Shaken by the experience, the editor asked if Martin would consider switching his focus to the reason he kept ending up in the hospital in the first place, and Martin readily agreed.
HuffPost ultimately ran the essay, titled “I’m Still Here.” The reader response was overwhelming. “There were emails from all over the world, some from people as young as 12 and 13, saying, ‘I was googling how to kill myself, and I read your piece and I decided not to do it,’ ” Martin says. He remembered some advice he once got from a friend: “You really ought to try to write something that helps people.”
Already a published novelist (2009’s How to Sell) and author of several philosophy books, Martin saw an opportunity to get more personal—to, as he says, “finally come out of the closet about all these things.” In telling his story, he realized he could help others change theirs.
Martin is also a recovering alcoholic, a condition he sees as connected to his suicidality. Some of the links seem obvious. As he writes in the book, “Heavy drinkers and drug users are much more likely to kill themselves than people who don’t have chronic substance abuse problems.” He cites a telling statistic: “About 25% of all chronic alcohol and drug users kill themselves.”
But in Martin’s view, there’s more to it than that. He sees suicidal thinking—or his suicidal thinking, anyway—as a form of addiction in itself. “I have come to understand that I am addicted to the thought of suicide and that lately I am what we might call a recovering suicide addict,” he writes.
That said, he also believes all people share some degree of a death drive. Well schooled in Buddhism, Martin points out that the Buddha himself viewed a desire for nonexistence as one of the three fundamental forms of suffering that constitute life—along with the suffering that comes from the desire for pleasure, and the suffering that comes from desire for life itself, which, as Martin writes, “is always slipping through our fingers.”
How Not to Kill Yourself shares some traits with Night Falls Fast, Kay Redfield Jamison’s equally erudite 2000 book that delves into the phenomenon of suicide and the author’s own attempt. Martin’s work, however, is a little more irreverent, if a book about suicide can be described as such. He sees dark comedy in his own life, and a sort of absurdity in his trials.
“The thing that’s so striking about Clancy is that he writes with a combination of absolute frankness, warmth, and humor that immediately draws you in, even with a subject as dark as this,” says Denise Oswald, Martin’s editor at Pantheon. “I never thought I’d laugh while editing a book about suicide, and yet I did many times. His wit and honesty have a way of putting you at ease, and by doing so, giving you permission to talk about difficult things.”
That is Martin’s goal: to get people talking, to reduce the stigma, and, hopefully, to save lives. He cites some alarming trends. Suicide rates are rising fastest in the U.S. among those ages 10–24, and among people of color, especially young Black women. And the rate of suicide attempts among women has been rising faster than those among men.
He also wants readers to know that suicide touches everyone, and that the book speaks to survivors of all kinds.
“For all those people who don’t understand suicide or are feeling guilty because someone they loved killed themselves, I hope they might understand it a bit better, not blame themselves, and maybe not be as angry at the person who killed themselves,” Martin says. “Maybe they can recognize that this wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment thing, and not spend their time trying to juggle the causes to get a different outcome. Accept the fact that this is a fight. This person was fighting for a long time, and they finally just couldn’t fight anymore.”
How Not to Kill Yourself is Martin’s way of continuing the fight.
Chris Vognar, a freelance culture writer, was the 2009 Nieman Arts and Culture Fellow at Harvard University.