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Alexis Hall

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Suicide Watch

Suicide Watch - Kelley York So I accidentally read this at the same time as Julio. Review comes with trigger warnings for suicide, suicidal ideation and the occasional glancing reference to sexual abuse. It also contains spoilers which are likely to comprise a significant chunk of my musings, so while I won’t be able to stick them in a tag, I will let you know when they’re about to hove into view.

Okay, are we sitting comfortably?

I think I was more positively disposed towards this than Julio. It was well-written, well-characterised, tender and thoughtful. People talk and hold hands, and behave in ways that felt emotionally authentic to me. Nobody casually rapes anyone in a way we’re secretly (or not so secretly) meant to find hawt. There’s no fuckdungeons, enemas, or anal fisting. Basically, the presence of the first things, and the absence of the second, is kind of all I look for in m/m these days. The fact that Suicide Watch is also quite good is just the cherry on the not horrendously alienating cake.

Here is one my favourite passages from the book:

I want to reach out to touch that hair. Slide my fingers through it. It's unkempt, but looks so soft. I want to curl up against him, around him, and tell him I understand. I don't have a family, and he's invisible to his. I want to tell him that I notice him, even if no one else does. His shoulders hunch up, fingers lacing behind his neck. I know what he would say to that. I'm not worth noticing. And I'm not sure I can stomach him taking something so heartfelt and sincere and tossing it aside, so I say nothing. We sit on the balcony, hip to hip, being sad together.


Which I think is lovely. So, yeah, if that tickles your fancy, go read.

However, there were also some things ... maybe quite a lot of things ... that troubled me. I tried to talk about them with H the other morning, and he kind of gave me a funny look, and was like “So you’re saying the book would have been better if it ended with three kids killing themselves?” Which, uh, is not what I meant at all. However, I think when you explore issues like depression, suicide and suicidal ideation, there are complexities and implications, which are unavoidable. And I’m not sure if they’re reconcilable with the expectations of romance. And while there isn’t any sort of miraculous wang healing in Suicide Watch, there is definitely a sense of positive change and hope which, while absolutely necessary, seems just a little bit too neat at times.

Spoilers ho, me hearties. You’ve been warned.

For the record, I’m not particularly troubled by the neatness of the ending per se (and I’d prefer to believe that a couple has a chance, than be convinced they’re going to fall apart the moment I close the book) it just didn’t feel like the natural conclusion to all the ambiguities preceding it. In short, I felt Suicide Watch engaged with a lot of quite challenging ideas, and then quietly backed away from them, whistling and looking sheepish. For example, the novel opens with the hero witnessing a girl called Jessica jumping off a bridge. She tells him nobody will miss her, and for the bulk of the book, this seems to be true. But right at the end, they randomly discover a blog Jessica’s sister is keeping, which contains a lot of references to Jessica, and how much she is missed and loved. And while that’s, y’know, nice - it kind of … transformers her, well, her suicide into a Big Misunderstanding. And maybe that’s the point, but sometimes, the fact is, life sucks and you die, and nobody cares. And I think getting into an evaluative space when you’re dealing with suicide is ... unhelpful. Jessica’s perceptions were her reality, and she killed herself.

I often felt the book was on the verge of drifting into this uncomfortably evaluative space - even if just by implication (rather than direct intent). Essentially the main character, the hero, and their friend Casper all want to die at the beginning of Suicide Watch. Vince is anxious, depressed (in the clinical sense of both) convinced of his own inadequacy and general worthlessness. Adam is basically suffering a case of Cartoonishly Bad Mother, which is cured when he moves in with Vince. (I wouldn't be bothered by CBM but everyone else in the text is drawn with grace and nuance - it is perfectly possible to be a rubbish parent without also being Maleficient). Casper has cancer. Vince doesn’t end up trying to kill himself. Adam tries, but fails. Casper succeeds - not by jumping off the bridge in the presence of Vince and Adam, as they’d planned, but by morphine overdose. Now while I absolutely didn’t want any of these people to commit suicide (and I’m not trying to say the book would be better if they did), the problem here is that Suicide Watch essentially us presents us with various cases of suicidal ideation and various examples of suicide, and it’s hard not to read judgements and messages out of those situations.

So we have Jessica, who basically made a mistake because she thought people didn’t love her and wouldn’t her miss her, but they did and they do. We have Adam who is deeply, profoundly unhappy and attempts to kill himself as a way to give to voice to that (he is painfully shy, and rarely speaks towards the beginning the book, initially communicating with Vince only by song lyrics). Vince thinks about suicide a lot, and comes close, but essentially finds ways to manage his mental health and finds reasons to live. Casper is already dying. I know it probably sounds like I am creepily pro-suicide here, but I am essentially against making judgements about the whys and wherefores of other people’s decisions to end their lives. I mean, yes, it’s bloody tragic whichever you way you (no pun intended) cut it ... but dying of cancer is not a ‘more’ legit reason to kill yourself than being lost, miserable, or mentally ill. For some people, depression is as incurable as cancer.

On a similar theme, Vince’s decision to accept help, accept love and struggle on with life is basically centred on the rhetoric of trying. And that’s a really problematic word for me in the context of depression. Asking a depressive to ‘try’ is just about the cruellest thing you can say to them. And I was uncomfortable with the implication that wanting to kill yourself goes away if you just try hard enough. I know that for some people suicidal ideation is more about wanting pain and fear to go away, then actively wanting to die, so if you can find ways to lessen the pain (physical or emotional) living gets easier. But this is what I mean about the difficulties of evaluative spaces. While being loved, getting a job, having friends can absolutely make a difference, you can’t really get quantitative about someone else’s pain, and what is a reasonable quotient for a human to bear before it’s deemed acceptable for them to jump off bridges.

This is further complicated by the portrayal of the Suicide Watch forum itself - this is where Casper, Adam and Vince originally ‘meet’, but it has an exceptionally creepy admin who goes around being creepy in all the ways, before it turns out he’s actively criminal. While I’m sure this is a danger of pro-suicide forums, I felt the melodrama of it fitted awkwardly with the tone of the rest of the book, and ... honestly ... I have high regard for pro-suicide forums. While I think there are always inherent dangers associated with places where anonymous, vulnerable people congregate (online or off) there is so much stigma associated with suicide and suicidal ideation that I think contributing to it is just bad manners. Those places honestly save lives, by creating a safe space where people can tal
k about suicidal ideation without judgement or bringing distress to friends or loved ones. Feeling suicidal is inherently and overwhelmingly alienating - alleviating that is already one step towards making being alive bearable.

I should re-iterate that these are not problems with Suicide Watch per se. A lot of them are the inevitable consequences of engaging with a complicated, emotional subject. Props, in fact, just for doing that, and for doing it in a way I found genuinely thoughtful and sensitive a lot of the time.

I should also mention Casper, because I really liked her. I briefly thought she offered an answer to the vexed question of how to give women a meaningful role in m/m. The first half of Suicide Watch is basically all about the friendship of three lost people, and Casper is just as narratively important as Adam. By the second half she’s become awkwardly facilitate-y, pushing Vince and Adam together, and becoming part of the multi-directional friendship-love-support bonds that connect them.

And then she dies of cancer.

And then they get a dog.