slider top

Writing about the unthinkable pain of child suicides

Edvard Munch: Despair (1894)

Interview by Mark Johnson

You’ve written about depression and mental illness for so long, I wondered if anything in this latest story, about child suicides, really surprised you?

The whole story surprised me. The fact of the matter is that if you read about many forms of mental illness you can say, ‘Well, I wouldn’t have wanted to be depressed, but in being depressed, I learned an awful lot of things I could never have learned in any other way.’ You can find strength and encouragement in the whole experience. But there’s no upside to having your child die by suicide. There’s no hidden lesson that makes you stronger and better. It’s just devastating.

Additionally, I was shocked at how confident these children were, and how young—as young as 5. When I was 5, I didn’t have a concept of suicide or understand that one could end one’s own life. But even if I had understood that wanted to do it, I don’t think I would have had the skill to carry it off.

The number of children who are suicidal is very underestimated. Lots of children don’t have the ability to carry it off, but I was surprised at how early the feelings could be that intense—even in situations where there wasn’t abuse, there wasn’t cruelty, there wasn’t anything. As a parent one always wants to believe that love will carry the day. But the reality I discovered is that, while love certainly can be very helpful, and children who come from abusive homes are more likely to kill themselves than children who come from loving homes, even with little children, love is not an adequate medicine.

You’d done so much interviewing and reporting; was it hard to structure the piece?

It was unbelievably hard. The first draft was 180 pages long—nearly a book. And I will ultimately write a book based on it. But I just had to get all of the material down before I could begin to organize it. And then I had to organize it before I could figure out what was expendable and what was absolutely essential to the story. I did work with my editor on that. He asked to see all of what I’d written and I gave it to him and then proceeded to discuss with him what was and was not crucial. I’d been so in the weeds with this material for such a long time that it was sometimes difficult for me to have the perspective that you could tell the story you wanted to tell and not use this statistic, or not use that anecdote, or not use this character.

I don’t think that I’ve ever seen as nuanced a portrait of a childhood bully. In fact, it was a shock to me that a bully would have experienced so much depression. Was that something that surprised you?

It absolutely was. I had no idea before Trevor died that he was in that kind of mental anguish. I thought of him as someone who inflicted mental anguish. I thought that the bullying behavior was cruel and maybe even psychopathic rather than recognizing it as despairing and desperate. So I was so shocked as I read the statistics: While suicide is highly correlated with bullying, it’s just as highly correlated for bullies as for victims of bullying. As somebody said to me, ‘It’s a very simple principle,’ but it had never crossed my mind before. Bullies are not very happy people. They’re socially isolated. They’re unpopular. People don’t want to be with them and so on. If Trevor had not been so bullying, the fact that he was brilliant and could be charismatic would have made him a super-popular kid. But his treating other people the way he did had the reverse effect. The tendency of bullies to be desperate was one of the real revelations.

(To read the full interview, please visit Nieman Storyboard.)