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Air date: December 29, 2013
[00:01:35] BRAD LISTI: Okay everybody, here we go again. This is it, this is Otherppl. This is moving at the speed of sound. This is me podcasting for you. Thanks for tuning in. I’m Brad Listi, here in Los Angeles, for… this: the final episode of 2013. [Applause] Another year in the books. Three-hundred-and-sixty-five turns of the earth. The next program—the next time I speak with you—it will be New Year’s Day 2014.
[00:02:01] Today’s guest is Jennifer Michael Hecht; she has a new book out called Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It. It’s available now from Yale University Press. I spent my holidays reading this book… for reasons that many of you are likely aware of. On December 19th, Ned Vizzini took his own life in Brooklyn [New York]. Ned was a very gifted writer. He was a guest on this show just last year in Episode 131. And I consider him a friend.
You know, I didn’t know him very well, but I did know him, and I got a chance to spend some time with him on four different occasions over the course of the last year of his life. He sat right here in this room with me last December, and we had a really good talk. So, losing him is a terrible heartbreak. And losing him to suicide only compounds the sense of tragedy… because Ned was very open about his struggles with depression and suicidal ideation. He wrote about these difficulties in his work, and his books are beloved, and they’ve helped a lot of people and will continue to do so. Especially young people. But, you know, unfortunately, Ned was not able to win his battle against depression, and he made the decision to leave.
So… what to say about that? You know, I think, first of all, my heart goes out to everyone who feels the loss—especially Ned’s family, who have been on my mind almost constantly since I heard the news. His wife Sabra, his son Felix, his parents, his siblings, and his close friends. You know, I’ve lost people close to me to suicide, and I know what it feels like, unfortunately.
[00:04:16] I actually arrived in New York City on the day that Ned died. Just a coincidence. I was there for a family vacation, as I mentioned on a previous episode. And I didn’t learn the news about Ned until the following day, on December 20th, which happened to be the 18th anniversary of my friend Judd taking his own life back when we were in college. So…not a good day for me, apparently. And, you know, just generally speaking the holidays are a tough time for human beings.
I know I’m never going to forget where I was when I heard that news. I was in our hotel, and my wife and daughter were taking a nap, and I was on the computer, and I read the news on Twitter. My heart just broke. I felt…I felt sick. And I spent the next two hours reading, and I wrote some emails to friends of mine here in town who were closer to Ned than I was, letters of condolence, and I just thought a lot about his family.
[00:05:32] So, it’s just awful. It’s a huge tragedy. And I think it was a preventable tragedy—I have to believe that. I think that’s why I wanted to talk to Jennifer Michael Hecht on today’s program. I want to discuss suicide openly right now with someone who’s taken the time to really investigate it and think about it, because I know it’s on my mind, and I know a lot of us in the literary community have been thinking about it over the holidays because of Ned…or just because of the holidays. And Jennifer’s book makes a really compelling case for staying alive and for persevering in the face of pain and difficulty, and it illuminates the obligation that we have to one another as human beings. It’s a deeper obligation than we might sometimes realize. Because, you know, like I said, I didn’t know Ned Vizzini very well and yet, I feel his loss so acutely. It’s very painful for me. And it’s very sad, and frankly, it’s a little scary to consider—and I know that I’m not alone in feeling this way.
To watch the outpouring of grief and affection that unfolded online in the aftermath of his death was extraordinary. From friends and fans, and coworkers, and acquaintances, and strangers—I think we all feel it when something like this happens. Or, the vast majority of us feel it when something like this happens. And I can’t help but think of writers in particular when we lose one of our own like this. All of a sudden, there’s this sense of commonality and community that comes into sharper focus, at least for a little while. It does that for me anyway. And I guess I just hope that as we all go forward, we will remember how much of an effect—how much of an impact—we have on one another…through what we say and what we write, and what we do. And if that sounds hokey, I don’t give a shit. And I dedicate this episode to the memory of Ned Vizzini. And I dedicate it to his family.
[00:08:12] My guest today, once again, is Jennifer Micahel Hecht. Her new book Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It is now available from Yale University Press. I’m really happy to have her here on the program, and I hope you guys enjoy our talk. So, here she is. This is Jennifer Micahel Hecht and her new book, once again, is called Stay.
* * *
[00:08:37] JENNIFER MICHAEL HECHT: I am in Brooklyn…and I’m sitting at my desk in the sort of basement and looking out the windows at the trees—most of them bare, some with a few leaves—some blue and white clouds.
[00:08:50] BL: Okay, well, there’s some sort of sadness as here you say you’re in Brooklyn, because one of the main reasons that I wanted to talk with you is because an author who’s been on this program—I consider him a friend…I didn’t know him well, but I did know him, and I know his wife—took his own life in Brooklyn, just before Christmas, and it’s been on my mind ever since. And it’s Ned Vizzini, a terrific writer and a good guy, and it’s just very sad. And I thought that—and I know a lot of my listeners are feeling this as well—I thought that it might be useful to have a discussion with somebody who has really dug in and done a lot of thinking and a lot of good writing on the topic of suicide.
So I want to say that right off the bat, ’cause that’s really what’s—that’s what brought me to your book, which I read over the holiday. [Laughs] A nice Christmas read, you know. But really, you know, really useful. And this is something that I should say that has touched my life before Ned. I have experience with this. I think that the profession of writing is obviously—it’s got its history with this kind of tragedy, and I thought that we should talk. So thank you for taking the time.
[00:10:10] JMH: I’m delighted.
[00:10:11] BL: I guess a good place for us to start with you is to ask about your own experiences with suicide, which I know guided you towards writing this book.
[00:10:25] JMH: Yeah, absolutely. I had two friends who I—we all knew each other when we were up at Columbia getting our Ph.Ds. They were studying poetry, and I was in the history department, but because I was already writing poetry, we got to be friends. You know, I was sort of close with one of them for a while, and the other one, it was always a light friendship, but I kept seeing them for thirty years. We all lived in the same town, we were all poets, and I stayed close with one of them for a little while. But by the late [Oughts] I wasn’t closely in touch with either of them, but when I heard that the first one, [Sarah], had taken her own life, I was devastated…and not just for her and our past and all the things that means, but also because I had been going through some depression that included a certain amount of suicidal ideation—you know, I never got anywhere near wanting to do it, I have two kids and that can be very protective—but I was mortified.
[00:11:38] I’m also a slightly famous Atheist. I wrote a book called Doubt: A History that the whole secularist movement took up—I didn’t even really know there was one when I wrote it—but it made me into somebody who, unlike a lot of the other secularist speakers, was very much into the sort of poetics of life. I even invented the idea of poetic atheism to distinguish a kind of atheism that’s very interested in the arts and in meaning, and in philosophy, and poetry. So, I was trying to figure out a way for a secular person to parse suicide. And I was getting somewhere. And then, Rachel did it, too. And I was floored, because she and I had mourned Sarah together—
BL: So, wait, Sarah was the first? I’m sorry.
[00:12:34] JMH: Yeah. Sarah was the first, and then Rachel. And so, when it happened with Rachel—it was about two weeks later—and I sat down and I wrote a blog post that was completely from the heart. It had all the ideas that I’ve been thinking of for the year and a half since the first one. And, it kind of went viral. It told people not to kill themselves. That it was wrong, and that meant [that] staying alive, even when you felt useless and miserable, was this huge contribution to society. Suicide is very contagious. When one person does it, more people in the community will do it—there’s been hundreds and hundreds of sociological and etymological studies that show this to be the case. So, that was sort of my grounding point.
[00:13:25] BL: Well, I was going to say, too, ’cause my first experience with suicide was in college when a close friend of mine—we had been on a study abroad together, and like two weeks after we got back—out of nowhere, he killed himself.
[00:13:40] JMH: That’s hard.
BL: Yeah, it was an interesting juxtaposition of events because I think that the peak of my youth was the final two or three weeks of that study abroad—we had such a good time. And I went from that feeling to suddenly being utterly just, you know…
[00:13:57] JMH: Blown away…[it] blows you apart.
BL: Yeah, and then the other thing I wanted to say, to touch upon a thing you were talking about earlier, is that up until that point I had never considered suicide. Ever. And once he did it, suddenly I found myself being like, “Why not do it? This is a possibility now.”
JMH: That is the effect. That is a very common effect.
[00:14:20] BL: Right. And I never, fortunately, I’ve never come close, but I wrote an entire novel about it—it was obviously stuck in my head, it became a fixation. And I think people who have lost somebody close to them in this way, it’s impossible not to have it become a preoccupation, and you have to guard against the contagion.
JMH: Right. Exactly. You have to guard against the contagion, and really—I haven’t said this in a lot of places, or maybe anywhere but—one of the ways I think of the book is, I worked up a bunch of ideas, a philosophy, that works for me…I no longer fear my own suicide. Now, I don’t go around letting people know that I was ever close enough to fear it, but I was. It was scary. It would come into my mind unbidden and I had to get rid of it—I had to have some reason to get rid of that thought, and I didn’t always have a reason to get rid of the thought. It was something that’s been written about through history, that many people spend their whole lives vacillating on this question, and the vacillation is worse than anything else.
[00:15:41] So, I really wanted to come up with some good ideas. I thought clearly about them, then I did some research on them and I found some great minds echoing or saying something adjacent to what I was thinking. And I put it all together in the hope that somebody who knows that they might feel this way at some point, or somebody who doesn’t know, but it might happen, reads it and it serves as a sort of like a gate of a bridge, a conceptual barrier, that lets you not do it. And I remind people all the time: we’re animals, and we have homicidal thoughts—we have thoughts, I’d love to kill that guy, [BL Laughs] but we don’t even begin to worry about whether we should or not, because we, very early on, put down a line for ourselves: I totally don’t kill. That’s out of the question. That’s not who I am. And I think we can do the same thing with suicide, where you’ve thought it through and then you’re done thinking it through, and then you can just use the certainty.
[00:16:52] The wonderful thing is that suicidal impulses—though they may return and return and return—they’re not really long-lasting in any given period. They just seem to go away, the real feeling of doing it.
BL: Well, that’s the thing with thought, you know? Is that, you have these thoughts. If I’m being honest about myself…when I’m at my lowest, or if I’m really frustrated—it usually happens in a frustrated state of mind—I have almost these cartoonish thoughts of suicide, where I’m like, I feel like I’m like Wile E. Coyote or something. And I just get—’cause I think that I have a strong streak of humor, like dark humor, in my makeup, and so if I’m just getting pummeled by life, I will sometimes have these really dark thoughts that are I think maybe it’s—what do you call it?—like instinctive self-protection to make it a little bit cartoonish. It feels a little bit like a softening, but I imagine myself like blowing up, almost like in the desert, like Wile E. Coyote. [Laughs] That’s a really strange thing to admit, but—
[00:17:55] JMH: It’s an interesting one. Well, one of the purposes of this book also, that I didn’t realize going in, is to let people know how common these thoughts are. I mean, it’s a big part of the human make-up to sometimes have a thought like that…either a very serious dark one, or a lighter one, but people today have overemphasized the medical explanation, the biological explanation, of suicide and depression. Certainly of suicide, ’cause there are a lot of people who kill themselves who aren’t depressed—they just met a major setback, can’t deal with the idea of facing someone about it, and has a gun nearby, and that could sometimes do it. But, certainly [with] depression, we sort of see it as this medical thing, so that we see suicide as inevitable. Once it happens we say, Well, that person was just so depressed, and that was biological, and that just had to happen, but we look through history and we see so many contradictions to that. For one thing, there’s never been more meds—you know, psychodynamic meds— and different kinds of therapists and social workers, and the suicide rate has skyrocketed. In the last ten years alone, it’s shocked observers ten years ago by hitting thirty-thousand a year in America, and last year it came close to forty-thousand. These are insane numbers. We lose more people to suicide than to murder. We lose more people to suicide—until you’re about forty-four—than to almost everything but accidents…and in some places, suicide is outdoing accidents, too.
[00:19:50] BL: Well, so, respect to people and their medical conditions—like you talk about depression—I think about my friend Judd, who took his own life when I was in college…and you know, one of the big problems or challenges with suicide grief is not knowing quite why. The only person with the answer is the person who’s no longer here.
[00:20:20] BL: What’s so crazy is that I found out about Ned on the—to-the-day—eighteen years after Judd took his own life. The holidays are a fraught time. It was kind of grim in that way…just kind of sad. A sad day. I find myself thinking more and more, as the years go by, that it just was a really shitty night and he made a shitty, destructive decision, and that if he would have just hung on, it would have passed and I think that’s often the case—if you could just wait it out.
[00:20:53] JMH: Yes. I hear from people all over the place—you know, parents describing the loss of their daughter ten years later and having it come down to Yeah, somebody stole her bike that day. Yeah, she had a bad day. You know she was a brilliant artist, but she had a bad day. And they were the means. It’s extraordinary how—well, for one thing…we have moods. Human beings have moods—we fall in love, we fall out of love, we hate a movie, then we love it, we love a book, then we hate it. Everything about what we believe changes sometimes when we meet someone who we find terribly attractive. There are a lot of us in here—a lot of individual selves inside each of us, and there’s some continuities. But think about it: suicide is letting one of your moods murder all the others. It’s not fair. It’s just not fair. Your future-self has a right to live—to get over what you’re feeling right now, and to live. And your past-self made all these plans and did all this work…and it wasn’t doing it so that one mood could take it all away. And if you think about that—give it a pretty good amount of thought—it really does kick in when you’re feeling bad and you do say to yourself, Okay, my task right now is not to have to decide whether I’m going to kill myself or how to do it. My task right now is to just stay alive. Just stay alive, be useless, be a burden. But there’s no way you can be as much as a burden as you would be if you took your life. No way.
[00:22:40] Sometimes, lots of people are crying and useless—it happens. Even if you’re not a classically depressed person, sometimes you need the bed for a couple of days. And there are times when people feel, Look, I’m useless, and they can base that on very little…we all know how self-hating we can be at times. They can base this on very little and decide that they’re useless, and if they’re useless, they’re just using up resources, and that it’s a reasonable decision to get out of the way…except that they are going to ruin the lives of all sorts of people, both the people who love them—which I don’t tend to concentrate on, ’cause sometimes people kill themselves to hurt the people they love, right? Hurt the people close by? But if you realized that not only those people, but if you’re a middle-aged white woman in an apartment somewhere feeling like life isn’t worth living and you take your life, it’s going to happen again, another middle-aged woman who you probably, if you could see through some magic window, you would be rooting for her to come out of the funk and start painting or something, and find new love, and learn to garden, and, you know, find the things that give people joy and life, and sometimes we don’t have access to that, but we have to have some sort of grownup inside of ourselves that says No, and we have that grownup for things like murder and things like a lot of self-destructive things…but nobody’s talking about suicide. And once we start talking about it, if we talk about it well, the numbers go down—we know this. Because if there’s a suicide in a particular community, and people go in and really work over the community in terms of talking about not killing themselves, the suicide rate doesn’t spike, and otherwise it does. So we know good talk can help.
[00:24:32] BL: Okay. So, what about—just to use another literary example—what about really intense cases of mental illness or neurochemical disorder? Like David Foster Wallace, I remember reading about him in the aftermath of his suicide and the amount of medication he was taking, and just how grim his medical condition was. You know, I guess there’s some debate as to whether or not these drugs—I don’t know—it seemed like he couldn’t live without them and then once went off them, he couldn’t then restart them…You know, I don’t understand all that stuff well enough to—
[00:25:08] JMH: Yeah. Look, one of the things we all have to be hyper-aware of when we go on and off drugs is that before we go off them or before we go on, we have to say to ourselves, I’m not going to let this kill me. If I start to feel terrible, I’m going to—at worst—get hospitalized, but I’m not going to let this experiment kill me. You have to go in with that really in the forefront of your mind. And you have to tell somebody else that you don’t want it to kill you and that you might need help.
[00:25:39] : The drugs work for a lot of people, but they have side-effects that people don’t like, and sometimes they work so well that one thinks one doesn’t need them anymore and you go off them and sometimes you get a good six months before you feel bad again. [David] Foster Wallace had been on a drug for a very long time and he felt a little bit like it made the world cloudy, and he went off it, and that’s when he suicided. Before that, you can find mentions in his writing about how he felt that he finally beat the whole suicide thing…he’d gotten off drugs, and he’d gotten off alcohol, and he’d made a lot of progress, and you know, he was in a happy situation and we know he loved a lot about his life—we also know that there were things, that writing was frustrating, he loved his students, but yeah, he went off the drugs and it did change his brain chemistry and he didn’t have a sort of network set up around him to make sure that he survived that, and that’s what happened.
: The other part of your question is, what about someone who it’s not even very periodic, that they’re miserable all the time…that’s very rare. Most people who even suffer for a two or three-month depression—which is a long one—will also come back and have three months or six months of feeling good… and drugs keep changing, and keep going to therapy, and you know, it doesn’t have to be an endless cycle. My point is if a couple of doctors and a couple of family members look at you and say, If you need to be done with this, we can understand it, you’re in a different category. If your family members look at you and say, All this suffering is so much. If you really want to kill yourself…you know, if the suffering person brings it up and other people aren’t arguing against, well, then you’re in just sort of the category of euthanasia where you have a disease that’s killing you and it’s not even really suicide—the disease is killing you, you’re just changing how it does it. I think that that is infinitesimally rare in comparison to the great bulk of suicides. Infinitesimally.
[00:28:06] : I mean, the vast majority of Army suicides and in the Army/military last year, more people died of suicide than combat, and most of them were not—their friends and family say they did not seem depressed—but more than 52 percent had lost a major relationship within the last three months. And they were all eighteen. So, you know, you gotta do a little work here to make sure that people who are not super ill don’t think thoughts of suicide mean they’re super ill, and then, therefore think, Oh, I should just end it because these thoughts of suicide mean that I’m profoundly mentally ill—it’s not the case.
[00:28:54] BL: Okay. So, let’s try to—I want to try to like, slow this down for a second and zoom in on the actual experience of these really intense negative emotions. Because, you know, an emotion is a body’s response to a thought, and a thought is a form of energy, and a suicidal thought is dark energy. [Laughs] It’s negative. I mean, am I making sense so far?
[00:29:21] BL: I was just going to say, like, how do people take care of those dark thoughts? You just watch it? You just say, There it is, I’m going to let it pass. I’m going to stick around? Do you know what I’m saying? How can people cope with those dark thoughts?
JMH: Well, there’s two things. One is—it’s a bit of a gambit, but it seems to be true. I have a whole chapter in the book Stay talking about how so many great minds and people of great courage, talk about their periods of depression as what made them strong enough and wise enough to do what they later did—so there are ways in which we feel sometimes like, I’m doing nothing today but not dying. I lie in bed but I don’t enjoy it. I can’t anything. I’m just depressed, right? You can have in the back of your mind that even if you don’t understand it, this experience may enrich your later life.
[00:30:24] : Adding to that, I can also say: It just sucks. It’s terrible. Grief is awful, and depression is essentially grief. It’s grief for what you wanted, what you expected the world to be—it’s agony. And, no I can’t fix the agony. What I can do is say, I know that if you kill yourself, other people will die. And that means if you don’t, you’re saving some lives. For me, that’s an active enough thing that—you know, a lot of the reasons that, as you say, writers kill themselves—poets and writers, long track record—the numbers aren’t actually that standout when you compare them to other professions at other times but they’re there. I believe it’s got nothing to do with the writing; it’s that deeply introspective people, people who have sadness in their hearts and disappointments in their childhoods and in their experience growing up, trauma or neglect—these people are drawn to writing, drawn to poetry—and their need to prove themselves to the world, their need to get the approval that they weren’t getting when they were growing up, that is what drives them to be such prolific and fantastic hardworking artists who get results and get fame. And then we’re shocked that [they get all that] fame, and they kill themselves. Well, no, no, the same thing killed them that gave them all that art and all that fame. They were running towards some kind of affirmation that was going to take the pain away. And that’s why sometimes when people are really hitting it big, you have to be most worried about them, because they just found out that hitting it big didn’t help the pain, cause it doesn’t, the pain is there from before. You can work on the pain in therapy, or you can live around the pain, but you’re not going to get rid of the pain with fame and accomplishment; we know that easily, because the people who get fame and accomplishments either kill themselves or keep working the treadmill, keep waiting for it to happen. It’s a very tricky situation.
[00:33:07] But I think one of the first steps is recognizing that life is painful. You know, at certain ages and at certain places and certain times it’s not. But it’s painful. And, you know, one of the worst problems of an alcoholic is that they don’t think that it’s supposed to be painful, so they’re constantly trying to fix it. You know, if you know that it’s painful, umm, the idea that you want to die is also a little bit quieter, because… Ah yeah, it’s painful… it’s painful today, isn’t it? Yes. But are there possibilities for a good moment today? Yes. Is it worth it to me? Yes.
[00:33:44] BL: Well, yeah. One of the things that I lean on that helps me, is I always––it’s always helpful for me to remember that if I didn’t know what pain was, I wouldn’t know what happiness was. Like, you can’t have one without the other. If there were absolutely no pain, then I wouldn’t know what happiness was.
JMH: Right, I agree.
BL: Because you have nothing else to compare it to, you know?
JMH: I just wish the ratios were reversed.
BL: [laughs] Right. Right.
[00:34:06] BL: So—and I want to ask you to elaborate on something you said earlier—about how if somebody takes their own life, other people die. Because I think this part of your argument in the book is something that might take some readers, um, a longer time to get around to. Do you know what I’m saying? Because it seems like it’s a deeper argument that might require some long thought to come to terms with. I tend to agree with you but I’d love to hear you kind of––
[00:34:36] JMH: I guess, to come to terms with, but for me, I was just completely overwhelmed by the data. You know, I put in a small fraction of the studies that I found that showed this, and you know, that chapter is pretty thick of one after another, looking at these communites that have suicide clusters, and doing really careful work to see: Was it that one was following the next? And finding that to be the case over and over again. You know, the other argument for it is maybe, you know, something was disappointing for the whole group, and they each killed themselves for their own reasons, but that doesn’t turn out to be the answer. The people who do it know each other, or are the same age and gender, or are the same profession––they see themselves in the person who did it, and over and over we see these clusters start up. And for each one of these people, I don’t know, a couple hundred people suffer for the rest of their lives.
[00:35:44] BL: Ugh. The survivors. I mean, you know, I think about my friend Judd and what a good guy he was, and I think about, um, just how devastating it was, and will always be for me, and for all of his close friends. And I knew him in college, I’m friends with people who grew up with him, and then of course there’s his immediate family, his parents and, you know––I have a daughter, I can’t even imagine.
JMH: Yeah, that’s a point I make a lot. If someone who’s sad doesn’t kill themselves, they’re saving your child’s life. They’re taking that idea of suicide a little bit out of the culture and by just staying alive, they’re saving your child’s life. Maybe not the specifics, but certainly, if you want your niece to survive her dark nights of the soul, you’ve got to survive yours.
[00:36:34] JMH: The rates of, if the parents do it, the children’s rates are three times as high. Um, there’s no question it’s a profound influence. And we can change it. I mean, obviously there’s not more mental illness in the last ten years. And in terms of the economy, the downturn wasn’t a full ten years ago and it [suicide rate] was already going up before this ten year period I’m mentioning. So, some of it is people copying other people––the way we stop smoking together, the way we get heavier together, the way we decide to have three children or four or two, the way we decide to not wear hats anymore. We follow each other in these profound ways.
[00:37:14] BL: Well, there’s also evidence that you point to in the book of celebrities taking their own lives, you know that’s an instance here as well.
JMH: Oh, yeah. There’s great evidence for that, and that’s been going back to the sixties, Marylin Monroe killed herself and the suicide rate in the country went up 12 percent.
[00:37:33] JMH: And it’s well documented even back before they had good statistics, there’s clear knowledge––certain books were banned, like the Sufferings of Young Werther was banned in many countries, because not only was the suicide rate appearing to go up––no one was counting, but it was appearing to go up––but also, these young men and women were dressing in his, Werther’s, yellow waistcoat and holding the book open to the page where he kills himself… I mean, it was very clear what was happening.
[00:38:04] BL: That’s back in the day when books were right at the center of the culture. [Laughs] I can’t imagine that happening, you know…
JMH: That’s right. And that’s where the story was. But you know, when somebody famous does it––and you know, I’m sorry that fame comes with responsibilities, but it does, and it’s scary. It makes an impression on other people. It’s interesting that Seattle was so up on this that when Kurt Cobain killed himself, they did a lot of community outreach and the suicide rate didn’t go up, but the calls to the suicide help hotline went up like crazy. So, we know it affected other people, but the talking worked.
[00:38:47] BL: I think there’s a line in the book where you’re quoting Camus, and he’s talking about his suspicion that more than half of the human population is really thinking about this, vacillating between, you know, wanting to live and wanting to die… that doesn’t seem that far off to me. I think a lot of people, maybe even a majority of people, have this as some kind of mental preoccupation, or, like, a deep philosophical question. And when you have a high-profile suicide, particularly if it’s an artist or somebody, I don’t know, who’s moved you or who you look to for guidance or relief or whatever, it’s a powerful negative when they wind up taking their own life. And it reconfigures the order of, I guess, what you might consider possible… Or if you happen to be teetering on the edge, maybe it makes you think it’s the right decision or whatever, and it’s a hugely destructive act.
[00:39:49] JMH: Yeah, it is… And you know, once they’re gone, I don’t blame anybody. I mean, I’ve never had that feeling of they shouldn’t have done it because of––I just feel like look, these ideas exist. Some of them are mine, but most of them, I was able to find beautiful explications of them through history. Through philosophers and people of the world, and artists, and poets, and… Nobody should die without having heard the arguments. Nobody should die without having heard the argument against suicide. I mean, if you hear them all and you’re still making your own decisions…okay…then we ought to move onto something else.
[00:40:35] But just as a bare minimum, right now in our culture we’re doing a disservice to each other. In most other cultures throughout most of history, there was a robust argument against suicide. If it was that suicide was something the devil wanted and God didn’t, then at least, I mean, you could read them. Then people say, “The devil and god fought within me all night, but we vanquished the devil, and we we’re glad.” So, this woman from the 1600’s had––or I think a little earlier actually, 1500’s maybe––she had a model in her head with which to resist suicide. She had a “helper” model, and she was also able to sort of stigmatize that feeling of wanting to as just a small part of her, or as not really a full part of her, and she survived it.
[00:41:32] : Now, you know, most people today, if they believe in God, they don’t believe in the kind of God that would be mad at them for it, or that is so against it. Through most of history the church was so against suicide that it––I talk about this a lot in the book––that it would torture the corpses and keep the estate away from the surving familes, so there were real strong reasons not to kill yourself. And the ancient world, though it had a few suicides that it thought well of, as the ancient Hebrews and the very early Christians, um, they also had really strong arguments against. The ancient Greeks and ancient Romans wrote beautiful descriptions of how we should see ourselves in this world and how we should hang on, and how it’s wrong to kill yourself.
[00:42:25] BL: You know, in the historical part of your book, I was kind of struck by how many major figures from history that you alluded to, that had taken their own lives. I wasn’t aware of this. [Laughs] You know? Or, it just wasn’t at the front of my mind.
JMH: Had taken their own lives? Like, who?
BL: Well, I mean, so, you know, there’s Socrates, of course I was aware of, but then––
JMH: Right. But still, that was sort of, we wouldn’t call that suicide today. That was a very, sort of forced execution. We called it suicide ’cause he didn’t mind so much, and he did it with such grace, and he drank the hemlock, but they handed it to him, and you know, he’d gotten the sentence to die in the court of law, so that’s one.
[00:43:09] BL: It should be said as well, though, that he was anti-suicide to his followers as he was on essentially death row, or whatever, you know.
BL: It wasn’t that he came down on the side of this was a good thing.
JMH: No, not at all. He told his friends and students around him that they must not do this, unless they, too, are called to do it by the state. Um, yeah, he said it was wrong and what one had to do was stay at one’s post and trust the world and trust each other, and keep going.
[00:43:42] BL: Okay and so, now did Plato and Aristotle—forgive me for not remembering, I have a horrible memory. [Laughs} I read this like two days ago and I already forget but—I know Seneca was another one…
JMH: Also ordered by Nero to kill himself.
BL: Okay, and then Plato and Aristotle, how did they die? [Laughs]
JMH: Uh…natural causes.
BL: Natural causes, okay, so they escaped the legacy.
JMH: That’s right. [Laughs]
[00:44:07] BL: But, I don’t know. You know, and with regard to the history of suicide and how thought has evolved, you know, you do a really wonderful job of tracing it—that’s a part of the discussion that I was not aware of, in depth. And where do you think, is there any way to encapsulate it…You’re obviously working with a long arc, but is there a way to encapsulate where things were and how they’ve changed and where we are now, you know, as a culture and a society?
[00:44:35] JMH: Well, yeah. I can give you one of the very broad stories. Which is that, the ancient world had many good arguments against suicide, including Seneca. Seneca wrote brilliantly on how bad depression and boredom feels; it makes you feel better reading his misery. And he also wrote things…he wrote once that he wanted to kill himself, but he thought of his aged father and the courage that he would no longer have to bear up, that his father would have to bear up twice as much, and that’s when he says, “Sometimes it is courage just to live.”
[00:45:22] : So, the ancient world was of two minds about it. There was a time and a place, but mostly people shouldn’t. And it seems like mostly people didn’t, ’cause they lived in very tight communities and were not alienated and it changed things. Then when the Christian world takes over, it takes over relatively pro-suicide, too, in a way. Many scholars have seen Jesus as a suicide…
BL: And I should interrupt you. That interested me. I wasn’t aware of people thinking that.
[00:45:53] JMH: Yeah, well, he says, and in John it says, and there are lots of places where Jesus says, “No one takes my life, I lay it down on my own ground.” Now, if you’re 100 percent sure that you’re going to another place, it’s a little different, but not that different. Many people commit suicide 100 percent sure they’re going to another place. But it’s been suggested that the martyrs that followed, was a sort of suicide cluster, because many of them didn’t way to be killed someone else, they killed themselves, and in the 300’s, the church council first started to strike from the records of martyrs anyone who really wanted to die for their own reasons. And then fifty years later there was another edict saying, Not only are you not on the martyrs list, you’re excommunicated from the church if you kill yourself, even if you kill yourself under the guise of being a martyr.
[00:46:54] : It got more and more extreme. You know, Aquinas, who’s at the end of the middle ages, he said, “God says no,” but he added, um—it was Augustine in the early part of the middle ages who said, “God says no,” because he said “thou shalt not kill” in Deuteronomy. And so that was the Ten Commandments, and so that was enough to know you shouldn’t kill yourself. But Augustine adds to it, the two secular reasons that you owe it to yourself to stay alive, and that you owe it to your community, but the God argument was just too strong to go with and everybody went with that, so that by the time you get to the Enlightenment, even before the Enlightenment for about fifty years, there had been sort of, uh, these rationalist clubs where they questioned every aspect of religion—all the…virgin birth and saints, and everything—and they also questioned the church’s stance on suicide.
[00:47:58] : So, by the time of the Enlightenment, rationalist thinking was on the side of a lot of these people called “Libertines” because part of what they were thinking was going to disappear when the church finally disappeared, was any kind of sexual rules. You know, they didn’t know that some of these things like murder, for instance, would end up being bad. See, that’s no problem for me to know, because I believe that people made up morality and then made up religion around it. So of course the morality still stands in a lot of cases, even after you get rid of the church.
[00:48:30] So, the Enlightenment fought vociferously…mostly two people, um, David Hume, who’s a genius but seemed to have been writing an almost satirical paper, because he doesn’t argue how a person feels killing themselves or what they do to other people, what they do to their future life, he just talks about how the church is wrong. He says, “ Oh, I’m not allowed to kill myself, cause God doesn’t want me dead yet? Then what if a rock is falling on my head and I step away, am I also sinning?” He writes these funny things. They’re all directed at making fun of the church prohibition.
JMH: And Baron d’Holbach in France does the same thing. These two essays both seem to argue that if anything goes wrong, you should go ahead and kill yourself. They really are sort of satirical pieces, but they took over, and it became one of the sort of liberal progressive ideas along with the right to free speech, the right to self determination and occupation, and the right to kill yourself. One of these things does not belong; it’s not quite the same thing, and we shouldn’t be treating it that way. The right to take your own life if you’re en extremis and in agony and pain and dying, is one thing. But there’s very little reason to put despair suicide and euthanasia suicide in the same world, and I think that’s where we’ve gone wrong.
[00:50:03] BL: Well, okay, ’cause what comes to mind for me is the individual versus the collective, and the way that, you know, back in the day, when you were talking about older times or ancient times, the close-knit communities that people lived in, and how that mitigated against suicide. And then I think of modern times where people can feel really alienated, even living in Brooklyn or New York City, you know you’re in your little one bedroom apartment and you’re among all these people, and yet, there’s not enough human connection.
[00:50:39] BL: And when you feel that sense of isolation, or you view the world through the prism of individualism—that we’re not interconnected, that what we do does not affect other people, or that I’m my own little self, I’m my own little pod, and you know, I’m me and you’re you, and there’s nothing connecting us— I think that’s an objectively false view and I think that it’s also a big part of the problem. We need to find a way to build communities.
JMH: I’m 100 percent with you. It’s something I thought before I wrote the book, but boy did it come through in the book. That even just thinking about the other sad people out there, whom you can help live by living, gives you a little bit of a community. I know it does, as bizarre as it sounds, because it’s done it for me. I feel low sometimes, and I think about the other people who are feeling low and I have some solidarity with them. But then, in the broader sense that you were speaking of…absolutely. We have to make community. It’s a pain in the ass, you gotta look for parking, you gotta miss your shows, but you gotta do it.
[00:51:45] BL: Well, I think especially in the secular world. Like, you know, I have my problems with organized religion, but one of the things I envy for people who are able to participate and enjoy it, is the fact that they do have a community, and it’s sort of ready-made. You walk in the door, there’s people there, you’re of a like mind, you can eat donuts together, you know. And for people who are largely secular, it takes more work to find a community, and to create the kinds of community rituals that I think can help sustain a person and can enrich a life.
[00:52:17] JMH: Yeah, no question. There are lots of ways to do it. But well, even church takes action, you gotta get up and do it. There’s all sorts of people––well, AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] is an interesting one in this country that brings people together and they feel very open and connected––but there are all sorts of secular meetings where they sing secular uplifting songs or play great music and yeah, that broadens out to other things like going to concerts and going to plays…
[00:52:57] BL: Well, you know, it’s funny that you mention concerts, because I was thinking of that when I was reading your book, and I was thinking along these very lines with regard to community. And I think to myself, boy if somebody’s feeling low, and if somebody is entertaining suicidal thoughts, one of the best things that you can do is just go to a concert. Because––especially if it’s uplifting music, like don’t go to a death metal show. [Laughs] But maybe you do, maybe that’s a way for you––
JMH: Right. Maybe you do. Maybe get some of the heat out.
BL: Right. But I’ve always found a very palpable, positive charge from all that human energy. I think back especially to when I was an adolescent, right around the time my friend Judd took his own life, how central music and the live music experience was to our lives at that stage in our lives. And I think it was kind of like––I always, you know, I view it in retrospect as kind of an attempt at secular church, you know? We wanted to go sing––
[00:53:52] JMH: Oh, yeah. I wrote a thing about that in my book The Happiness Myth, just sort of an anthropology of us, of the things that we do in order to have what we think of as a good life and how historically specific that is to our moment. And one of the big things I talk about is that one of the best things about religion was just people getting together and singing and dancing. And just getting together and saying the same things. And any opportunity to do that––sports is good, too, if you’re into it––but nothing’s as good as a concert. ‘Cause you can sing a little, you can dance a little, the music’s uplifting, and you get the same feelings that you get in any large community. A demonstration, again, is something that you believe in, you just feel that feeling of a crowd and––[Emile] Durkheim spoke a lot about this. Durkheim the great—a hundred years ago he formulated the modern terminology for discussing suicide. He still thought very highly of it. It’s funny, that in his very long tome called Suicide, which I read all of in graduate school and I read all of again for this book, and only in the very end, the last couple of pages, does he think about the morality of the issue and comes up with, it’s wrong. Suicide is wrong because it breaks the human project, that we’re here not just to live and die and have as much fun as we can and maybe make it better while we––no, there’s a human project, and keeping up the beauty of it, keeping up the meaning, is a very invisible but extremely real part of our lives.
[00:55:40] [Ludwig] Wittgenstein said something very different, but that comes out the same. He said, “If suicide is allowed, then everything is allowed.”
BL: And Wittgenstein, we should add, had lost what, three siblings to suicide?
JMH: Three out of four of his brothers and one of his cousins killed themselves. And these people were rich. They were among the richest families of Europe. But they had some terrible weltschmerz, they were just in pain, and Wittgenstein thought about suicide his whole life. But he referenced the hundred-year-old words from [Arthur] Schopenhauer, who suggested for very different reasons that one must not kill oneself; just as I mentioned, that as an example of how people can, in fact, be influenced by words and ideas to stay alive and they’re glad they did.
[00:56:30] BL: Well, that’s a good point, because we’ve been talking about how the negative charge of suicide behavior can be contageous, but there is also a positive contageon, you know.
BL: You can spread the message and can, like, you know, these kind of thoughts can help people decide not to. So, there’s a reverse effect.
JMH: Sure. I get emails every day––well, not every day—but every three days I get around three telling me, Thanks! You got me through the night. Some of them are sort of charmingly undecided so they say, So far… [Laughs]
[00:57:00] JMH: But still, I get these emails. They don’t say much, so it’s not too overwhelming. Sometimes they do, but yeah. They say thanks for the ideas, so I know they’re helpful.
BL: You know what I also think about? I remember doing research for the novel that I wrote and I was reading about the Golden Gate Bridge, which is, like, kind of an infamous suicide destination––there’s even been a documentary about it that I haven’t been able to watch, it’s just so heartbreaking––but I remember reading about it, and there was a guy at, I believe in Berkeley, like a psychiatrist or someone along those lines, [who] did a study of people who have survived their attempts…
JMH: That’s right. I have that in the book.
[00:57:44] BL: Well yeah, people who survive their attempts usually––
JMH: For something like twenty-six years later, they followed up on these people, and 94 percent of them were either still alive or had died of natural causes. Ninety-four percent of people who were––they weren’t thinking about it, they were climbing, they were going to be done, and somebody caught them and stopped them or they did it and they survived. There’s one guy who tells us that the second after he jumped, he said to himself, “All my problems are curable except that I have just jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge.”
BL: Right. I remember that.
[00:58:24] JMH: And you realize from all the 911 calls, there are millions of them, saying I’ve just taken a bottle of pills and a bottle of booze, because sometimes people need to see it up a little closer before they realize this is a bad, bad idea. But yeah, it’s really important to note that so many people who make it through the bad moment, never go and do it again.
BL: If you could just wait it out. If you could just hold on.
JMH: Yeah. But 52 percent of gun deaths in this country are suicide, and 52 percent of suicides in this country are gun deaths. So, there’s no question, if you have a gun in the house and you have that bad moment, you don’t have enough time.
[00:59:13] BL: Yeah… I don’t understand guns. That’s another show but I mean––
JMH: [Laughs] Yeah.
BL: It seems like a bad thing to have in the house, personally, but that’s just me. So, I want to ask you, you mentioned booze and a bottle of pills, and you know, a lot of times suicidal behavior goes hand in hand with substance abuse…
BL: You know, I say that I’ve lost two friends to suicide, I include…I mean, it’s kind of––I guess this is a question for you. Do you consider people who are drug addicts who kill themselves with drugs and alcohol to be––is that a form of suicide? Or is that a misperception?
[00:59:47] JMH: Well, we’re a little bit into the sort of poetics of semantics because, you know, we all know that if you cut your calorie rate to an extraordinary degree so you look like skin and bones you’re likely to live longer, so are all of us who are not doing that killing ourselves? Obviously this thing is a continuum, and yes, you can look at a person who is drinking and drugging and say they’re killing themselves. There’s certainly, when you have single car car crashes, with a person who was depressed or just suffered a reversal, sometimes it’s inane to not call it a suicide, you know? Even though we can’t tell.
[01:00:30] : But, there’s also the simple fact that we are all struggling, and we make different decisions to try to mitigate the pain, and to make it easier to be human beings. Some of those…[Laughs] you don’t live very long, and of course that’s not a good idea, but there’s something extremely different in how the community perceives and experiences the loss. They still know the person did it, but there isn’t this feeling of a person walking away from life, saying, you know, even the high isn’t worth it anymore. Even anything isn’t worth it anymore. So, I think culturally there’s a big difference. In terms of the individual? It’s hard to say, right? If they end up dead anyway, young and having not allowed their future self to unfold… it’s a hard one.
[01:01:37] BL: It also makes me––you talk about human suffering as just kind of a primary fact of life. Life is painful. And it’s an unavoidable thing. And I think the only way that I can imagine, that I know of to…
JMH: Cope with it.
BL: …cope with it, is to lean into it. And I think that…
BL: You know, I’ve been guilty of this in my earlier years, I see it around me in my community, whether it’s my community at large or my community of friends. I see a lot of people drinking and taking drugs to excess as a way to self-medicate and to numb themselves against pain, and I worry that when it comes to suicidal ideation, or you know, the really darker sides of human nature, that these things, they have their temporary relief, you know symptom relief, but ultimately they wind up causing damage and making things worse. Like that’s just…
[01:02:32] JMH: Yeah, it certainly seems so. I mean, you know, I’m not against all drugs all the time, but––
BL: Neither am I.
JMH: But using them to excess seems like a bad, bad way to go. And it is certainly true that many, many suicides were drunk when they did it. You know, the inhibitions are down, clear thinking is down, and…
BL: Or they were hungover, you know? [Laughs]
BL: The hangover almost seems worse. It’s like the dark morning after or whatever it is, you know?
[01:03:05] JMH: I actually haven’t heard that, I’ll have to look into that, but definitely drunk. Yeah, I bet pot doesn’t increase it, but drunk definitely gives you the feeling of, you know, those moments of total despair and you can’t think clearly, and you’re very, you know, this-moment-bound, the same thing that makes you not go home and get some sleep so that you’ll be fresh in the morning to do what you need to do, that kind of forgetfulness of the future, I think can also add into that sense of, well, I might as well just kill myself.
So yeah, if you’re depressed, either stay away from the alcohol or make sure there’s nothing in the house that would make it easy. That works to a weird degree. I found some amazing things like, in the ’90s, the UK stopped selling Acetophenone, Tylenol, in large bottles. They now make where you have to like six at a time in these tight little bubble wraps, so you would have to go to a bunch of different pharmacies, buy a whole bunch of these––you need about fifty to go. And then you have to un-bubble-wrap fifty, and guess what? The suicide rate went down.
BL: Make it inconvenient.
JMH: Make it real inconvenient.
[01:04:25] BL: [Laughs] So, before I let you go, I thought that maybe like a logical way to close would be to ask you what, you know, if there’s anybody listening who might be dealing with suicidal thoughts or struggling with this kind of darkness, you know, what is your message to them? Like, in your book and right now?
JMH: Yeah, I mean, I put all my best ideas in the book, and the book gives me solace, and, so there’s just that. And I don’t mean all of them just being just ideas. Sometimes reading about sad people who struggled against it, reading their stories, is its own therapy. So for that reason I say: read the book. But you know, the other thing to do is just try to realize if you could think of how devastated you would be if someone who you knew, even if you didn’t really love them, even if they weren’t that close anymore, how it would hurt, and then realize you mean that to a whole lot of people. And so, when you feel like you don’t know what you’re for, you have to wait and find out. And you have to let it be okay, that sometimes you feel useless, sometimes most of us feel useless. And then the celebrities who seem to be constantly [needed] and so they don’t feel useless, instead they feel like they’re not loved for who they are. So, we at least know that people around us are there because they like us. We really have to be able to make it through the very worst times so we can do the deeper philosophy that most people are quite capable of. They just need the same guidance other philosophers have needed, which is a little history of philosophy and a little history of behavior.
[01:06:21] BL: And then, finally, to people who are survivors, or people who are, you know—I’m thinking of Ned’s friends or fans who might be reeling from this—but there are obviously countless other situations that are similar. Like, what’s the message to people who are feeling the grief and who might be in danger of the contagion infecting them, you know? What do you say to them?
JMH: Well, one thing is we tell them about this contagion and say, you know, don’t let it get you. We say it with a little more sophistication and detail helps, but even just there’s a contagion involved, don’t let it get you, is a pretty good place to start.
In terms of pain and grief, it’s, grief just has to get lived through. It’s a pity, but if you drink to dull it, then the same grief is there for you when you stop drinking. There’s really no way to deal with grief other than to go through it.
Talk therapy is something I believe in tremendously. I’m quite at odds with our society thinking everything is so medical right now, but if you need a little help with Prozac or something like that, go do that for a little while, it’ll help with the grief. But for me, I think talk therapy is the best way. Also, just recognizing that you’re part of the human experience and part of the human experience is grief. And sometimes you have to just live through it. You know, either by doing something productive that takes your mind off of it. If you’re in a place where you can garden, garden. But some of us just feel so bad we can hardly get out of bed when we’re stuck with that kind of grief, and that means you just have to wait it out. Well, we waited out the flu. You gotta try.
[01:08:25] BL: Right. And reach out to friends. Don’t hesitate to reach out. I think a lot of people who might be in a dark place, you know, don’t realize that if they just picked up the phone and were honest with people close to them, that they would have more support.
JMH: I agree, but I totally understand why they don’t so much of the time. They don’t want to be a downer, they don’t want to be a burden, they imagine what the friend is going to say and they say to themselves, oh, I can just say that to myself and they, you know—it’s [that] there are a lot of blocks against it. So if you don’t feel like you can reach out to friends, just find a way to get out there among other people, for whatever it is you’re inclined. But music is a good way that we mentioned earlier, but also things where they expect you every week is a very nice thing. Take an easy freeform dance class or join a singing group or do something where they expect you every week, ’cause otherwise it’s hard to go, you know? But, yeah, all of this takes a certain amount of work when you’ve been really hit by grief. But I say a lot of things in the book about what different writers and scholars have suggested as ways to reconfigure what’s going on in your life so that it’s happier.
[01:09:52] BL: Okay. Well, I certainly appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. I really enjoyed your book, it was helpful to me over the holiday as I’ve been thinking a lot about Ned and his family and his friends, and also thinking about my own experiences losing people this way. So I really appreciate it. I hope that the book reaches people and I certainly wish you well in whatever comes next.
JMH: Thank you so much. It was a very interesting conversation, I really enjoyed it.
* * *
[01:10:20] BL: Alright, folks. There you have it. That is Jennifer Michael Hecht. Go get her latest, it’s called Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It. It’s a very illuminating and intelligent and life-affirming book. I highly recommend it. You can find Jennifer online at jennifermichaelhecht.com. She’s on Twitter, where her handle is @freudeinstein, and she’s also on the Facebook.
I also feel compelled to mention that if you’re feeling suicidal right now or have been experiencing this and you need help, the Suicide Hotline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This is a free service available 24/7. If you do need someone to talk to, please reach out. The number once again is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
[01:11:06] : And if you would like to learn more about the life and work of Ned Vizzini, please visit nedvizinni.com. As many of you know, I reposted his episode, #131, in its entirety last week—otherwise it only would have been available via premium subscription [Note: premium subscription is no longer active, and all episodes of the podcast are available for free]—and I wanted to make sure that everyone had access to it, free of charge. After doing that, a few listeners contacted me expressing confusion, asking why I didn’t do a proper introduction to the reposting, a kind of eulogy or some sort of notice that it was a memorial episode, and the reason for that is pretty simple: I was out of town in New York, and I was away from my recording equipment, so I apologize for this. I just figured in the moment that I would put the episode back up as soon as I could for people out there who might wanna hear it, people who might need it. So, I hope that’s okay.
[01:12:03] : I hope you enjoyed this show. I don’t know how to close it out. It’s like a tough one to figure out how to close. Thank you guys for listening. Thanks to Miles Davis, uh, John Coltrane, and the rest of those guys for this music. Thanks to Jennifer Michael Hecht for taking the time to talk. And thanks to Ned. May he rest in peace. And uh… Happy New Year to you guys. Be Safe. Enjoy yourselves. Obviously, life can be pretty tough sometimes and… I don’t think we need any more evidence at this point, but, uh, the good news is, uh… it’s tough for all of us. Is that good news? [Laughs]
No one’s alone in suffering. Suffering is a reality of our existence, but what’s also true is that there are ways out of suffering that do not involve harming ourselves. Everything’s temporary. And we’re all interconnected. I’m getting, you know, I understand I’m getting weird here near the end, but we are all interconnected in a really deep way. It’s really difficult to talk about this stuff without sounding like an asshole. So… we’re interconnected. I hate to break it to you. [Laughs] Be good to yourselves. Be safe on New Year’s Eve. Be good to one another. And I will talk to you in the new year.
[01:13:31] : Oh, by the way, this “Auld Lang Syne” is Guy Lombardo. Is it Guy Lombardo? Hang on a second. Let me try to figure this out. Yeah, it’s Guy Lombardo and his orchestra. It’s not Miles Davis. Miles Davis did the first two songs. The transitional songs. So, Happy New Year. I’m just going to keep talking…just a flailing close to a very difficult episode… Happy New Year. Bring on 2014, that’s what I say. I’ll talk to you guys soon.