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Sadly Troubled History

Sadly Troubled History: The Meanings of Suicide in the Modern Age

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  • Book Info
    Sadly Troubled History
    Book Description:

    In a study of nearly 7000 suicides from 1900 to 1950, John Weaver documents the challenges that ordinary people experienced during turbulent times and, using witnesses' testimony, death bed statements, and suicide notes, reconstructs individuals' thoughts as they decide whether to endure their suffering. Bridging social and medical history, Weaver presents an intellectual and political history of suicide studies, a revealing construction and deconstruction of suicide rates, a discussion of gender, life stages, and socio-economic circumstances in relation to suicide patterns, reflections on reasoning processes and intent, and society's reactions to suicide, including medical intervention.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-7682-7
    Subjects: Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Tables and Graphs
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-2)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 3-16)

    People everywhere are conscious of the passage of time, have memories, can imagine the future, and can reflect on life’s purpose. Why am I here? Why have certain things happened to me? What will happen to me in the future? Will my fortunes rise or fall? Is my life meaningful? These and other closely related questions frame the human condition. How people actually broach such issues remains elusive and exceedingly difficult to document. Nevertheless, their centrality to life demands that we grapple with them if we are at all interested in how people have lived their lives, imagined their material...


    • 1 Suicide as a Gauge for the Times: The Nineteenth Century
      (pp. 19-61)

      In an off-the-cuff remark, Thomas Szasz suggested that “the main bogeys of the nineteenth-century psychiatrists were self-abuse and selfmurder.¹ Suicide has been analyzed incessantly in the West since the early nineteenth century. National libraries list hundreds of titles. Emilio Motta’s bibliography on suicide (1890) recorded 647 publications from the sixteenth century to the end of nineteenth; 419 appeared after 1850.² Swedish suicide scholar Karl Dahlgren estimated in 1945 that there had been four thousand publications up to that year.³ Norman Farberow’sBibliography on Suicide and Suicide Prevention, 1897–1967listed approximately thirty-five hundred titles.⁴ Libraries today hold an astonishing number...

    • 2 Epistemic Communities and the Suicide Problem: The Twentieth Century
      (pp. 62-100)

      The pre-eminence of French suicide studies waned after World War I. Momentum shifted to American social scientists, who wrote about suicide in relation to their country’s brief but explosive history. During the 1920s and 1930s American sociologists regarded cities as laboratories for comprehending deviance. Anxiety over nonconformity and all forms of violence spilled over into suicide studies. Suicide and homicide rates were discussed as reciprocal phenomena drawing on a fixed pool of violence; if homicide rates were low, suicide rates would be high.¹ Race and suicide became particularly topical in the 1960s, following urban rioting. Race, racism, and the historical...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. 101-106)

    • 3 Bearings on a Temporal Compass: Rates, Seasons, Cohorts, and Motives
      (pp. 109-161)

      For inquiries into health, crime, suicide, wealth, class, race, and much else, social historians rely on data collected by modern bureaucracies. Routinely generated statistics are essential, but investigators who enlist government data must proceed cautiously, conscious of bureaucratic error, bias, and informants’ reticence.¹ Transparency about the generation, collection, and publication of sources is essential, and so too is transparency about the methods of compression and restatement applied by researchers to temptingly accessible but tainted published tables. This chapter reviews the sources for and modes of collection of official suicide data; it also remarks on standard techniques for restating them, and...

    • 4 Work and Troubles: Men and Motives
      (pp. 162-212)

      At the end of the previous chapter, alterations across the life course came up for discussion. As men and women aged, motives changed. Young men tended to have romantic and character motives; middleaged men typically experienced unemployment, money shortages, and alcoholism. The elderly had medical complaints. Although exceptions drifted into all age groups, trends remained unmistakable. Several patterns changed with the decades. Alcohol abuse fell off before the mid-century; unemployment and money problems waned remarkably during the 1940s. To some extent, the drop in suicide rates during wartime in a few countries may reflect the good economic times; Australia and...

    • 5 Sorrows and Burdens: Women and Motives
      (pp. 213-256)

      For as long as suicide statistics have been collected and studied, much has been made of the lower suicide rates for women that prevail in many jurisdictions around the world. In the two studied here, the ratio of men to women was approximately four to one (in New Zealand 79.2 per cent men and 20.8 per cent women; in Queensland 83.0 per cent men and 17.0 per cent women). Writer after writer presumed that there had to be a connection between the low rate and an alleged protective wrap of domesticity. This thesis served the conservative bias of nineteenth-century suicide...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. 257-262)

    • 6 What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted? Intentions, Decisions, and Acts
      (pp. 265-303)

      Try as we may, it is impossible to access the conscious self - let alone the subconscious self - of other people. When someone says, “I feel your pain,” we are skeptical. No real empathy - the power of projecting ourselves into another individual’s situations and feelings - can be achieved, for we remain inside our own skin. Farmer Rob Roy Patterson puzzled about his own motives for suicide, and he knew others would too. “The Coroner will say insanity - who shall know whether he’s right or wrong? Perhaps he will also say that drink has caused it -...

    • 7 Managing Mental Crises: Psychiatry and Suicidal Patients
      (pp. 304-344)

      A historical account of mental illness grounded in the experiences of hundreds of people treated at home, in private hospitals, and in public mental hospitals can depict ties between society and psyche. It may do so, first, by personalizing connections between social circumstances and emotional trauma. Second, it can associate social norms to people’s critical self-evaluation; stock-taking can adversely affect mental health, especially among individuals already experiencing symptoms of mental illness. There is no reflection without the mirror of society. Third, a historical account can disclose how men and women looked down upon mental illnesses and their treatment and can...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 345-358)

    Historians, psychoanalysts, and psychotherapists deliberate over people’s words. Words are significant in fields that strive to comprehend the human condition. Suicide studies gain from seeing in abundance the words and circumstances of individuals caught in life’s troubles; social history gains because suicide inquests let us glimpse tragedy, hear people, and sense emotions from shivers of defeat to surges of rage. Social historians would do well to invigorate the past with a feel for emotions.

    Whether the purpose is to comprehend suicide or detect a pulse in social history, there are challenges to working with the inquest files, even though they...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 359-428)
  11. Index
    (pp. 429-447)