Learning suicide in Sri Lanka, part II: suicide as separation

My last post in this series asked 'What kinds of cognitive and emotional capacities are required to develop in children before they fully appreciate the social and moral implications and consequences of suicide?' I've been thinking about this problem for a while now, and have to admit that the best answer I've come up with so far is, 'lots.' In this post, I'd like to focus on just one element of suicidal behaviour that the ethnographic record of self-harm and self-inflicted death suggests is crucial across cultures. This is the relationship between suicide and separation.

Raymond Firth was a social anthropologist who in the late 1920s worked with the Tikopia, a small group of Polynesians who live on an island in the south western Pacific Ocean. During his stay with the Tikopia Firth recorded a number of suicides and suicide attempts, on which basis he developed an approach to understanding suicide amongst them as a form of separation from the group. In so doing Firth rejected Durkheim's notion that suicides were caused by social disintegration or deregulation, and argued instead that suicide could be viewed as an act of protest or revenge in the context of what the suicidal individual thought to be unfair treatment, through an act that symbolised his or her detachment or separation from the group. This was expressed by suicidal people through their adoption of one of two methods of suicide, which for men involved canoeing out to sea and being overcome by exhaustion or waves and for women swimming out to sea and, rather gruesomely, being eaten by sharks.

Fastforward to a very different time and place – Sinhalese Buddhist Sri Lanka during the 00's – and suicide can be seen operating in a very similar way.

 

 

While for the Tikopia the act of leaving the island and heading out to sea symbolised their detachment from the group, in Sri Lanka the consumption of poison – by far the most popular method – can too be understood as a denial of sociality. In Sri Lanka, as in many societies around the world, relatedness is expressed through the sharing of food and drink. To be invited to dine with a group that is not your own is to be invited into that group, as a valued member. To decline to dine is to reject that invitation, something which is seen to be nothing short of insulting. In a similar kind of way, to consume poison in the face of another person's actions is to ingest a substance that rather than symbolising commensality expressly rejects relatedness through the possibility, or actuality, of death.

 

 

Examples of this are very common in Sri Lanka, and just one from my own fieldwork illustrates the various issues involved.

J, 30, was a married Sinhalese Buddhist male. At the age of 25 J had married a woman of whom his parents had not approved, and was subsequently disowned by his family. After the birth of their first child, J's wife migrated abroad to work. Following his wife's departure J began an affair with a neighbour, whose husband was also abroad. After three years J's wife returned to Sri Lanka. The couple experienced severe marital difficulties as a result of the reunion, with each struggling to adjust again to married life. Following an argument, during which the wife threatened to leave, J took an overdose of medication. Several months later, J's wife learnt about the affair, which was still on-going. The husband also found out, and threatened J with violence. Using money earned abroad, J's wife rented a second home and sought to end her marriage. Upon receiving divorce papers, J swallowed several känēru (yellow oleander) seeds.

In this case, J used repeated suicide attempts to control the choices of his wife and the future of their marriage. Two processes work in cases such as these in Sri Lanka, including feelings of shame and guilt and attempts to 'trump' a social form of separation (divorce) using a final form of separation (death). By attempting suicide J was able to make his wife feel shame and guilt, even though as the philanderer J was the person 'at fault,' because through her actions J's life was at stake. While both divorce and death represent an end of sociality, only death does so with any kind of irreversibility and so, morally, is the most inauspicious kind.

So much for the sociological explanation of suicide as a kind of separation that denies and thus controls sociality; but what kind of psychological processes might also be involved with this? In fact I submit that it is possible to turn, as Firth did with Durkheim, Freud on his head on this matter. A simplistic rendering of the Freudian view of suicide is that it can be understood as a reaction to depression brought on by maladaptive experiences of loss. This view can be traced back to Freud's discussion of melancholia and mourning, during which he discussed separation and its mastery through symbolic action as the birth of culture. The example Freud used – referred to as the fort/da game – was that of a young German boy who developed a habit of throwing things out of his cot when his mother left the room. In time the boy began to tie a piece of string to one object, by which he could pull it back. Freud suggested that by throwing things out of the cot the boy was symbolising his mother's departure, and that by pulling them back he was symbolising her return.

It is also in the overcoming of separation through symbolic action that, I think, we can explain Tikopean and Sri Lankan kinds of suicidal behaviour. If healthy emotional and social life is premised on the overcoming of separation anxieties, then the potency of suicide – a voluntary and often targeted act of separation – is clear. So too is the potency of suicide-like behaviours such as deliberate self-harm. Both sets of behaviour elicit separation anxieties in those who feel responsible for driving an individual towards enforcing or risking a permanent separation. This is the case whether the move is in actuality through suicide or symbolically through deliberate self-harm. Suicide and deliberate self-harm can be understood as elaborations of the fort/da game: an elaboration that seeks to wrestle control of a situation from the hands of others through a very potent questioning of sociality.

To return, then, to the question with which I began this post, 'What kinds of cognitive and emotional capacities are required to develop in children before they fully appreciate the social and moral implications and consequences of suicide?,' one must surely be that by one's own separation from others the sociality between persons – which for most of the time we take for granted – is called into question. Accompanying this realisation must also be the realisation that death is the ultimate, by which I mean truly irreversible, form of separation. Because we know that death anxieties develop from separation anxieties, the development of cognitive and emotional capacities around suicide as a kind of separation probably takes place in at least two phases. First, children learn that they can enact their own separation from others, and that this is undesirable for others. Second, children learn that they can enact their own death, and that as a sub-set of separation this is also (but also much more) undesirable for others.

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