Reading Woolson’s Suicide

Woolson decided to end her life when she was fifty-three, almost fifty-four, years of age. Her last year was full of pain and worry about how she would financially and physically manage to maintain her independence. It is easy to see that there was a complex set of reasons she chose to end her life. But was it a “choice”?

I have been reading a lot about suicide in the past couple of weeks. It’s a pretty depressing topic. But I want to find a way to understand Woolson’s death outside of the common perception of her having flung herself from her third-story window in despair over Henry James’s rejection or neglect. (It is amazing how often this version of her death—created by Leon Edel—is repeated, even by those sympathetic to her.) Women’s suicides have historically been understood as motivated by a lover’s abandonment. Think Ophelia or Charlotte Temple. Surely we can do better than this.

A couple of years ago, when my research was well underway but the writing had not yet begun in earnest, a group of Woolson scholars asked me how I would handle the suicide. Why did she do it, they all wanted to know. And so did I. This was, after all, the big question, bigger than anything else. (I might as well call the book “The Life and Death of Constance Fenimore Woolson”—but I won’t.) My answer then was, there were lots of reasons, not just one. Her health was failing, she feared running out of money, and she couldn’t continue to write. She felt as if she had reached a dead end.

The answer, as I write, is still much the same. But the more I look into the issue of suicide, the more complicated it gets. There are interesting parallels, I have found, with the deaths of other writers, especially Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway, who also feared they could write no more and killed themselves when they were older and running out of patience with life. How much does it change our perception of Woolson and her death if we see it in this context, instead of in the context of Henry James?

Perhaps the most interesting parallel I have found, however, is with the suicide of the feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun in 2003. A piece by Katha Pollitt in the New York Times Magazine alerted me to the intense debate about “rational suicide,” feminism, and aging that erupted after she took her own life, having declared often (including in print) that she had always intended to kill herself when she reached seventy. (She made it to seventy-seven and was by all accounts still physically and mentally healthy.)

Another article, “A Death of One’s Own,” suggests in its title alone how much Heilbrun’s death was read in the context of feminism. (Heilbrun was a scholar of Virginia Woolf.) However much Heilbrun’s decision has disturbed those who knew her, some have read it as the ultimate assertion of freedom of choice. Couldn’t Woolson’s suicide be read in a similar vein? Nonetheless, there are still many who read Heilbrun’s suicide as an admission of defeat and even as a tragic submission to patriarchal myths about women, aging, and death. (And of course it’s easier for us today than it was for Woolson in the 1890s to imagine fulfilling, useful lives in our old age.)

One scholar (Margaret Higonnet) has written, “To take one’s life is to force others to read one’s death.” As I have discovered, reading Woolson’s life was less complicated than reading her death. We may never know all the reasons for her suicide, or whether it was a rational decision or a result of mental collapse (as Henry James wanted to believe). But we can at least recognize that her suicide is a much more complex text to read than the familiar myth of woman-in-despair-over-lover-throws-herself-from-a-great-height (or drowns herself). Woolson was no Ophelia.

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  1. Anne, this is very interesting. When I have discussed the nurse’s letter with my husband, who is a gastroenterologist, he believes she had peritonitis, was in excruciating pain, and would not have lived much longer–days at most. Not sure how that impacts a reading of her suicide, but thought I’d offer it for what it’s worth.

  2. Well, this is embarassing. When I went over the letter again with Bill last night, he said it was very hard to say what her ailment was. He no longer believed it was peritonitis, since she seemed to be getting better. What seemed odd to us was the strength it would take to get out of bed, walk to the window, and open the carefully closed drapes, shutters and window in a person who hours before couldn’t turn herself in bed. Sorry, we didn’t have much to add.

  3. It took me ten days to get to reading this post, Anne, and when I had read it and was about to open up the comments, I expected there to be pages and pages of discussion. You can’t imagine how shocked I am that there are so few comments. I, too, think about Carolyn Heilbrun’s suicide, frequently in recent years, because I was so outraged by it. ‘Tisn’t that she didn’t have the right to dispose of herself anyway and anytime she wanted to — but her timing in terms of her son’s publication was what was really shocking about it. And as I have become sicker and sicker and more and more limited by rotten health I’ve fumed that if Carolyn was bored and wanted out, she couldn’t have used MY body as her ship out and left me hers so I could live better. But I don’t think Carolyn’s and Connie’s deaths are useful to compare or to think about in tandem. Their health and their material circumstances are too utterly different. You say you’ve been doing a lot of reading about depression. But you sound as if you’ve never lived it. I lived it for half a century. Until the age of 28 I struggled against committing suicide as often as I did anything else in my life. I have been told over and over by my psychologist friends that suicide in a biochemical depressive is “just” a side-effect of that disease. And it is often accompanied or rather preceded by a burst of energy, of elevated mood. Once the decision is made. . . . “Decision.” What if it’s just “I can’t stand the pain anymore and this is the only way I know how to stop the pain.” Not a desire to die but a desire to stop the pain and death just happens to be a side effect of the cure for the pain. I read somewhere that the earliest pre-modern human being remains thought to have been left by a person who committed suicide was someone whose teeth showed clearly what pain the suicide wanted to stop: the kind only a root canal will stop. I think that’s sort of what it’s like — killing yourself to stop the pain because there isn’t a technology developed yet that can stop the pain. Her brain needed a root canal, so to speak. As long as you are engaged in the battle to not kill yourself to stop the pain you are tense, all your muscles bunched up because you are engaged in battle. But when you decide to do it, to end the pain, your muscles relax, the battle ends, and you feel better. That’s how you get out of the bed and walk across the room and open the heavy drapes. . . . Because the battle is over and you have energy to use in another way. What a relief!

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