Shame on Vice: There is nothing glamorous about being in so much pain you want to die

The Samaritans do great work offering guidance on depictions of suicide in the media and creative arts. I took them very seriously when writing my debut novel. Vice's glamorous depiction of women writers' last moments was depressingly irresponsible.

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

If any of the content of this story affects you, Samaritans are available to talk 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Virginia Woolf with her father Leslie Stephen in 1902. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How Tony Blair's disingenuous line on Iraq eroded our faith in politicians

Not the Chilcot Report by Peter Oborne reveals how Blair exagerrated evidence from the intelligence services to parliament – and the public.

In this incisive book, Peter Oborne calls the invasion of Iraq “the defining calamity of the post-Cold War era” and I am inclined to agree. Not long after the March 2003 attack, I interviewed Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister and UN ambassador for Iraq. He told me that he had visited President George W Bush in Washington a few weeks before the invasion and begged him not to go ahead with it. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein would, Pachachi warned, lead inevitably to civil war between Iraq’s two main religious groupings, the Sunnis and the Shias. Bush was shocked. According to Pachachi, he had no idea that any such division among Muslims existed.

Granted, Bush was an ignoramus – but you would have thought that someone might have explained this crucial fact to him. Pachachi turned out to be right. Iraq has fallen into a disastrous religious civil war as a direct result of the invasion and Isis, a more extreme force even than al-Qaeda, has come to the fore. Nearly 5,000 coalition soldiers died; many hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, perhaps a million, have lost their lives; and the man who led the whole terrible business didn’t know that the danger even existed.

Pachachi, like many politicians across the Middle East, found this puzzling. The US had never understood the Middle East, he said, but the British did; so why hadn’t Tony Blair warned the Americans what was going to happen? We know the answer to that: although Blair was far cleverer than Bush and had better advisers, his approach was always a subservient one. Like the entire British establishment, he believed that Britain’s influence in the world depended on sticking close to the US and he was prepared to be led around on a leash because he knew that this was the only relationship Bush’s people understood or wanted from him.

To “stand shoulder to shoulder” with Bush – at least, to stand closer behind him, head bowed, than any other national leader – Blair had to persuade the British people that Saddam posed a threat to them. Oborne, in fine forensic form, demolishes (his word) the notion that Blair was simply repeating what the intelligence services had told him about Saddam’s weapons and capability; he shows that Blair exaggerated and misrepresented the intelligence he was given.

Lord Butler, the former cabinet secretary who had investigated the government’s pre-invasion use of intelligence, said the same thing in a speech in the House of Lords in 2007. He described Blair’s approach as “disingenuous”: mandarin-speak for dishonest. Oborne quotes Butler at length:

 

The United Kingdom intelligence community told him [Blair] on 23 August 2002 that, “We . . . know little about Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons work since late 1988.” The prime minister did not tell us that. Indeed, he told parliament only just over a month later that the picture painted by our intelligence services was “extensive, detailed and authoritative”.

 

Oborne’s central point is that this dishonesty has done serious damage to the fundamental trust that the British people used to have in their rulers. There are all sorts of reasons why people have lost faith in politicians but it was the charismatic Blair – along with his head of communications, Alastair Campbell – who let us down the most.

Campbell is a former journalist who, even when he was the political editor of the Daily Mirror, seemed far more concerned with pushing a party line than with trying to report things truthfully. In May 2003, the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan accused him of “sexing up” the dossier on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Campbell was irate. In July, Dr David Kelly, the Ministry of Defence weapons expert who had briefed Gilligan, committed suicide. If, indeed, it was suicide – once you start losing faith in the ­official version of things, there is no end to it. And that is Oborne’s point.

Kelly’s death was followed by the scandalous Hutton inquiry, which managed to deflect attention from the questionable nature of the dossier to the way in which Gilligan had reported on it. However, although Kelly wasn’t a sufficiently senior source for Gilligan to base his report on, there is no doubt that Gilligan was essentially right: the intelligence dossier had been grossly hyped up. Campbell’s frenzied efforts to protect himself and Blair did huge damage to the BBC, the judiciary, the intelligence and security agencies and public trust in government.

Oborne’s excellent book is clear-headed and furious in its condemnation of Blair. But what about the Chilcot report, when it appears on 6 July? The ludicrous delay in publishing it has given people the expectation that it, too, will be a whitewash. Yet we are starting to get leaks that it won’t be – that it will be just as savage as Oborne would like. That is the only way we can start to drain the poison that has built up in our national life since Blair took the calamitous decision to follow the US into invading a country that its president knew zip about.

John Simpson (@JohnSimpsonNews) is the world affairs editor of the BBC

Not the Chilcot Report by Peter Oborne is published by Head of Zeus (208pp, £10)

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad