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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue