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Review of "Comprehending Suicide"

By Edwin S. Shneidman
American Psychological Association, 2001
Review by Peter B. Raabe Ph.D. on May 22nd 2002
Comprehending Suicide

Suicide is the most powerfully taboo topic of discussion in North America at the present time.  Not only do many people find it impossible to say the word  suicide aloud in public or even among family and friends, but also our institutions promote this silence by willingly omitting the word from official coroner statements and medical reports.  But as most mental health workers know, and as common sense will tell you, the only way you can begin to develop a solution to a problem is to have an understanding of the problem in the first place.  Edwin Shneidmans book, Comprehending Suicide, is an excellent place to begin a development of that understanding.

This book is an unusual book, unlike any other Ive ever read.  While its a fascinating source of information for anyone interested in the various issues surrounding suicide, the books content is not a collection of comprehensive in-depth essays on the topic of suicide.  Instead its more like a collection of book reviews, or very informative catalogue of books about suicide published during the previous century, selected by one of the foremost experts in the field of Thanatology  (the study of death) and Suicidology.  The books subtitle is  Landmarks in 20th Century Suicidology.  These landmarks are books which Shneidman considers outstanding and memorable for various reasons, and which he recommends as the ideal sources of information for anyone wanting to come to a better understanding of both the act of suicide and the individual who contemplates or commits this act. 

Shneidman begins each chapter with a brief and non-technical review of the book he is about to highlight in the chapter.  After each of these reviews Shneidman surprises his readers by including the full-sized original title page of the book he has just introduced as well as its complete table of contents.  He then offers an excerpt of no more than half a dozen pages, complete with original footnotes, and, in one instance, a partial list of references.  The book contains a discussion of, and excerpts from, thirteen different books which make up its thirteen chapters.  These chapters are grouped into five sections titled Historical and Literary Insights,  Sociological Insights,   Biological Insights,  Psychiatric and Psychological Insights, and  Insights on Survivors and Volunteers.  Unfortunately Shneidman doesnt devote a section, nor does he have much to say about philosophy.  There hasnt been very much written about suicide by 20th century philosophersmost contemporary philosophers feel the discussion of suicide belongs to psychologyand Shneidman confesses that he believes the ruminations of philosophers  were never meant as prescriptions for action  (8).  A common but sadly misguided complaint.  There is also an epilogue in which Shneidman summarizes his own beliefs about suicide, some of which were previously expressed in his review/introduction to each chapter/book.  The book ends with both an author index and a good subject index.   

Again, the reader wont find much in-depth information about suicide in each chapter.  Shneidman states clearly that  the purpose of this book is to inflame the imagination and interest of each reader, to move the reader to seek out the original sources, to find. . .  nuggets, solace, understanding, even tranquility;  to know that there is no simple answer to the enigma of suicide. . . (4).  But by presenting these excerpts and a brief discussion of writers like Durkheim, Menninger, and Aaron, Shneidman does more than simply whet the readers appetite.  In effect he is saying to his readers,  These are the best in the field.  These are the books I suggest you read.  His book is therefor a rich gold mine for anyone researching the topic of suicide.   

I respect what Shneidman has done with this book for two reasons:  first, he has offered his expertise and his own knowledge of the literature of the entire field to his readers.  And second, he is not afraid to go against the contemporary fad of defining every human behavior in medical model terms.  In his review of the book highlighted in chapter six, The Neurobiology of Suicide, he openly criticizes the currently prevalent urge to reduce suicide to biology and simply write it off as some sort of mental illness preventable with medication.  He offers this chapter with the cautionary note that what biology has measured on the laboratory bench is not suicide as such but general perturbation. . .,  that  what is being measured is concomitant and not causative. . .,  that physiological values are being related to syndromes that are peripheral to suicideschizophrenia, and alcoholismand to depression, which may or may not be isomorphic with suicide,  and that  the bilogizing of suicide is an integral part of the medicalization of what is essentiallyso I believea phenomenal decision in the mind  (italics in the original;  72-3).  But this raises the question,  Why would he recommend to his readers a book whose central premise is one with which he disagrees?

He does the same thing again with his book choice for chapter 7, Karl Menningers Man Against Himself.  Shneidman writes in his review/introduction,  It is regrettably accurate to say that many of the Freudian orthodoxies in the book are realistically beyond defense and that there may not be many provable statements in the book  (90).  So why include it?  Interestingly, Shneidman justifies it by saying, because  it is a landmark volume that has had enormous impact on thousands of American homes.  The fact that Shneidman takes this position, offers these cautionary remarks, but then still recommends these books to his readers as the best in the field, illustrates the writers open-mindedness and his unbiased approach to the matter under discussion.  In other words, Shneidman created in me, his reader, the feeling that this book can be trusted to give a fair and balanced perspective.

While Shneidman presents and refers to numerous examples of scholarly discussions in the field, some of the excerpts he has chosen include case studies, segments of personal diaries, and survivor accounts which offer an insight into the very human, emotional, and personal side of self-destruction.  With this volume Shneidman has done something more important than merely show his readers that there is no simple answer to the enigma of suicide:  he has introduced to his readers the various possible answers to the question Why? that were offered by a variety of 20th century researchers and writers.  I found this book easy to read, well organized, and an excellent starting point for further reading and contemplation.


© 2002 Peter B. Raabe

Peter B. Raabe teaches philosophy and has a private practice in philosophical counseling in North Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of the book Philosophical Counseling: Theory and Practice (Praeger, 2001).

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