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: 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 did I, obsessed with non-places, not know about the Trafford Centre?

My wife had booked us all in to a showing of the latest Bond film at the IMAX Cinema at the Trafford Centre. “Why the Trafford Centre?” I taxed her. She looked at me as if I were a complete ass, but refused to enlighten me. 

Last year I bought a copy of J G Ballard’s last novel, Kingdom Come, a dystopic tale of the near future in which bored suburbanites descend into anomic violence as they retreat inside a giant shopping mall. Predictably, I bought my copy at the Bluewater shopping mall in north Kent, on the outskirts of London. Bluewater held the title of Britain’s biggest shopping mall for a number of years and it is surpassing large: a huge circular corridor that has become a destination. I asked a police officer where the Waterstones was and discovered she was a good old-fashioned bobby-on-the-beat – her beat having been, for seven years, to walk slowly around and around . . . Bluewater.

But I wasn’t fettered by Bluewater’s surly gravity, any more than I was galvanised by rampant consumerism. Novel purchased, I took a cab over the soaring Queen Elizabeth II Bridge to Essex, where I alighted at Bluewater’s twin establishment: the Lakeside shopping mall in West Thurrock. I headed for the Lakeside branch of Waterstones, where I . . . well, you guessed it: I returned my copy of Kingdom Come. This surreal little exercise was undertaken for the BBC Radio 4 documentary Malled: Sixty Years of Undercover Shopping, and I’ve detailed it here purely in order to illustrate this point: I have more than a passing interest in shopping malls.

This is why the events of a fortnight ago, when Family Self went up to Manchester for what is termed, I believe, a “city break”, seemed quite so bizarre. My wife had booked us all in to a showing of the latest Bond film at the IMAX Cinema at the Trafford Centre. “Why the Trafford Centre?” I taxed her. “It’s in Trafford, which is five miles from the city centre.” She looked at me as if I were a complete ass, but refused to enlighten me. My revelation came later, when we were wandering the rococo halls of the Trafford Centre, marvelling at the lashings of gold leaf applied to the serried columns as our soles slapped on the Italian marble flooring. My wife couldn’t believe that one such as I, obsessed by what the French philosopher Marc Augé has named “non-places”, didn’t know about the Trafford Centre.

But I didn’t – it was a 207,000-square-metre hole in my map of the world. I knew nothing of the bitter and protracted wrangling that attended its inception, as successive planning applications were rejected by ever higher authorities, until our Noble Lords had to step in to ensure future generations will be able to buy their schmutter at TK Maxx and then sip their lattes at Starbucks without having to brave the harsh Lancashire elements. Did I feel small as my savvier spouse led me through these storied halls? You bet your waddling, wobbling, standing-still-on-the-travelator bum I did. How could I not have known about the great central dome of the Trafford mall, which is bigger – and statelier – than that of St Paul’s? How could I have been unaware of the Orient, Europe’s largest food court, with its seating for 1,800 diners, served by a plethora of exciting outlets including Harry Ramsden’s, Carluccio’s and those piquant bun-pushers, McDonald’s?

Actually, the Orient completely bowled me over. The Trafford Centre’s imagineers point to the nearby Manchester Ship Canal as influencing this wholly novel and utterly weird space, which is formed by a sort of Möbius strip of 1930s ocean-liner design, being at once superstructure – railings, funnels, tables arranged to simulate the deckchairs on a sun deck – and interior. However, nothing like this ever cruised by Runcorn. Not that I object to this, any more than I objected to the cluttered corridor full of orientalism – noodle bars, sushi joints, all-you-can-eat Chinese barbecues – that debouched from it and led us back into the weirdly glistering main retail areas, with their ornamental griffins and neoclassical columns bodged up out of medium-density fibreboard.

The Trafford Centre’s imagineers also make great play of design features – such as the aforementioned griffins – that are meant to tie the humongous mall to its hinterland (these are the heraldic symbols of the de Traffords, who used to own hereabouts), and to the north-east’s proud industrial heritage. But this is all ornamental balls; the truth is that the Trafford Centre’s ambience is so sumptuously wacky, it could quite reasonably be twinned with Las Vegas.

While the rest of the family went in search of retail opportunities, I watched the Mancunians process. It occurred to me that if there were any influences at work here – besides the Baudrillardian ones of hyperreality and simulation that underpin so much of the contemporary built environment – it was the presence of a large British Asian community. The only people who didn’t look out of both place and time, wandering about among all the gilded pomp and crystalline circumstance, were women wearing saris, shalwar kameez and burqas. Tracksuit bottoms and hoodies just didn’t cut it – although, I concede, come the breakdown in civil society anticipated in Kingdom Come, this pseudo-sportswear will come into its own as the perfect pillaging outfit.

Next week: Lives of Others

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State