Hats off to Vice magazine. It’s rare for a fashion shoot to manage to be grotesque in such a variety of ways. But their ‘Last Words’ piece, in which seven female writers are depicted in an array of charmingly vintage outfits at the moment of their suicide by young models, is staggeringly nasty. We have a waif-like, blonde-haired Virginia Woolf wading into a river in a flowing white gown; a glossy haired Sylvia Plath kneeling in front of an oven; and, perhaps my personal favourite, the Taiwanese author Sanmao hanging herself (according to the caption, the model wears a Vivienne Tam dress and Erickson Beamon necklace.).
Below each photograph is a scattering of crucial details: name; date of birth; age at death; and, of course, method used to kill themselves. (Here, I have to say, Dorothy Parker seems to have been a bit of a disappointment to Vice, with the article reluctantly admitting that she died of “natural causes”; but, it hastily adds, this was “despite several unsuccessful suicide attempts, the first in January 1923, at age 23, by slitting her wrists”. Phew, well done, Dorothy. You just about squeaked in.)
Where do we even start? With the reduction of seven clever, influential women to one final, desperate act? The article makes no mention, obviously, of any of their work. Or with the blithe way Vice exploits this kind of suffering for a fashion shoot? With the lack of insight into the anguish of depression? Or even with the sheer absurdity of the whole thing? It’s reassuring to see, for instance, that Iris Chang found time to apply her pillar box red lipstick perfectly the morning she shot herself in the head, and that Elise Cowen’s lovely Jenni Kayne shoes weren’t scattered too far when she jumped to her death out of a window.
Surprisingly – and once again, congratulations to Vice on this – I’m not sure these things are the most shocking aspects of the shoot. The worst thing is that it is dangerous. Glamourising suicide is deeply irresponsible. As the Samaritans’ website states, “certain types of suicide reporting are particularly harmful and can act as a catalyst to influence the behaviour of people who are already vulnerable”. It points out that over 60 research papers have noted this link between the depiction of suicide in the media and imitative behaviour.
This is something I was anxious about myself whilst writing my first novel, which deals with suicide. It is an issue that anyone tackling the subject must consider. A person may study a beautifully rendered image of a woman wading into a river, and find that suicide begins to seem rather appealing – a graceful, poetic act. But there was nothing graceful or poetic about Virginia Woolf’s death: no one who has read her heartbreaking final letter to her husband Leonard could view it as anything other than frightening and desolate. There is nothing glamorous about being in so much pain you want to die.
It may sound extreme, but romanticising suicide can and does lead to deaths. And these deaths are not stylised and glitzy in the manner of Vice magazine, but ugly and desperate and lonely. That’s what real suicide looks like.
Rebecca Wait’s debut novel, The View on the Way Down, is out now (Picador, £14.99)
Update: Vice.com has removed the shoot from their website