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The complexities of a simple act

Don't moralize or stigmatize Scott's passing

Justin Chang has written about Tony Scott’s work, eloquently expressing the admiration that many of us felt. In the next few weeks, there will be a flood of other tributes, which is appropriate. There will also be a flood of theories about his death. Unfortunately, many of these will be inappropriate, because there are so many misconceptions about suicide.

A few years ago, one of my closest friends killed himself, and his widow discovered that there are numerous books on grieving and healing, but few about suicide. A rare exception is Thomas Joiner’s “Myths About Suicide.” He disputes the usual notions that it is an act of selfishness, cowardice or hostility; he says most suicides believe their action will be beneficial to their survivors. They’re trying to help.

The day after Scott’s Aug. 19 death, ABC.com reported he’d had an inoperable illness. That report was quickly denied by his family. It’s human nature to look for an explanation to unfathomable events, to reassure ourselves there may have been a reason and to convince ourselves it couldn’t happen to us. The Entertainment Industries Council last week sent a media advisory pointing out that there is rarely one isolated motive behind most suicides. Print and online headlines Aug. 22 included “Director Scott’s suicide motive still a mystery” and “Scott’s tragic end leaves Hollywood asking why.” Sorry, those are the wrong questions.

Maybe the quintessential Hollywood depiction is Norman Maine in the three versions of “A Star Is Born.” In each of the three, the character conforms to Joiner’s theory: Maine, down on his luck, kills himself, believing this will make things better for his wife.

Humans are surrounded with death every day, but it always comes as a surprise. Suicide is doubly surprising, even though we grew up watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a heartwarming story pegged to attempted suicide, swooned over Anna Karenina, and we all learned about the deaths of Cleopatra, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf.

There is still a stigma attached. Death is sad, but suicide is scary-sad. Tuberculosis and AIDS, to name a few, were once considered “shameful” deaths; survivors would often cover up the cause of death. That’s still true in some cases of suicide.

In 2010, Joiner told NPR that suicides are shocking because “they are often hard to see coming. They can come out of the blue from people who outwardly seem like they’re doing OK, seem like they’re going to work, seem like they’re functioning normally. But inwardly, they’re in desperate misery.”

Joiner says there are numerous risk factors for suicidal behavior: genetics, mental disorders, personality characteristics, too many others to mention. “But make no mistake, they’re forces of nature … They’re grave. They’re severe …”

Are there more suicides in the entertainment world than in other industries, or does it just seem that way? The creative mind is a mysterious place, capable of ideas that are inspiring — or dark and troublesome. I didn’t know Tony Scott, so I wouldn’t presume to guess what was going through his mind. We fans will never know and we don’t need to know.

Survivors are often filled with anger, which is totally understandable. What is not understandable is the insensitive remarks they sometimes have to endure. Joiner’s piece of advice on NPR to anyone dealing with mourners: Behave as if the survivor “lost a loved one to heart disease or to cancer or to stroke. You do the natural things. Well, you should do the natural things with these deaths, too.”

The EIC’s guidelines included the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255).

So keep the tributes to Tony Scott coming. His films were stylish, energetic and successful; he was liked and respected. His death is a loss to the entertainment industry. But don’t make it seem like a shameful loss.

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