Architectural Gem, or Suicide Magnet?


Mickey Kaus confesses that he, too, was worried about the temptation to jump to his death from New York University's Bobst Library, and argues that certain architectural wonders need anti-jumper retrofitting. Meanwhile in The New Yorker, Tad Friend has a very interesting article about Golden Gate Bridge suicides and survivors, and the various unsuccessful attempts to make the government erect a safety fence or net. I'm sure there's a metaphor there somewhere.

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  1. Hey, if you are going to kill yourself, you might as well pick a pleasant, scenic spot at which to do it.

    Friend’s article is good except of its cite of a blatently tendentious study:

    “Dr. Seiden?s study, ?Where Are They Now?,? published in 1978, followed up on five hundred and fifteen people who were prevented from attempting suicide at the bridge between 1937 and 1971. After, on average, more than twenty-six years, ninety-four per cent of the would-be suicides were either still alive or had died of natural causes.”

    Yes, people who don’t want to commit suicide don’t want to commit suicide — even if they wander up to high places and allow themselves to be talked down. People who do want to commit suicide often do commit suicide and so it’s very difficult to find out whether they would have changed their minds.

  2. Hm, you know, when I was at NYU, I was always told that the weird optical-illusion floor pattern at Bobst was designed to somehow deter people from jumping… precisely because it was such a popular spot to do just that. Guess it didn’t work.

  3. Kaus is a complete imbecile. Architectural malpractice indeed. Anyone so feeble minded as to be induced into leaping to their death over the view needed to go anyway, one less exceptionally stupid person. Too bad Mickey was insufficiently swayed.

  4. While it’s certainly true that many people who want to commit suicide can be pursuaded not to, and eventually end up deciding they want to live, I suspect they’re generally pursuaded by direct human intervention rather then “anti-jumper retrofitting” or whatever. No matter how many railings youput up, it’s still never going to be very hard to knock yourself off, if you’re willing to apply yourself to it. Hence, it’s not the effect you have to try to prevent with suicide–completely impractacal–but rather, its the cause you have to go after.

    It almost seems like that by leaving popular jumping ‘unprotected,’ you increase the chance that would-be suiciders would go there and be noticed and dissuaded by some one else who realizes what is about to happen…As opposed to all the popular spots being closed down, then they would have to go somewhere obscure where there wouldn’t be anybody else around.

    This subject reminds me of a speech the headmaster gave a few years ago back in prep school (i don’t know why he gave it, or why he thought it was his perogative to lecture about the subject) where he said the real case for gun control is that the widespread availability of firearms makes it too easy for people who want to kill themselves to go and do it before they can get the help that would have changed thier minds. It was only impressive in that I’d never heard that angle before (though I’m sure its been out there) and the statistics he quoted showed the number of gun-related suicides is pretty significant even when compared to the number of gun-related homicides. I didn’t accept it as an argument for control though, because I think in most cases people would still turn to some other method of suicide before seeking treatment/help if a gun wasn’t readily avaible.

    And I can’t help but wonder if looking into the barrel of a gun might have changed some people’s mind more so then the prospect of swallowing a bunch of pills or sitting in the garage with the car running would have. IMaybe it’s just a personal thing, but it seems to me pulling the trigger (having seen so many murders on TV, having fired a gun myself, etc…) would be about the hardest way to do it.

  5. No matter how many railings you put up, it’s still never going to be very hard to knock yourself off, if you’re willing to apply yourself to it.

    This is true subject to its premise: “if you’re willing to apply yourself to it.” But the fact of the matter is that many people who attempt suicide do so impulsively(*); it’s not something you “apply yourself” to like paying off your student loans. Putting barriers on the Golden Gate Bridge might check some of those impulsive decisions.

    Secondly, it’s pretty clear that there’s something about the suicidal way of thinking that causes suicides tend to model themselves on other suicides. That’s the reason you might find a string of suicides at one particular high school: one serves as the model for the next. Accordingly, it might help decrease the suicide rate in SFO if every other day there wasn’t a headline, “Man jumps from Golden Gate.”

    (* The counterargument expressed above is that studies suggesting suicidal behavior are based on people who were talked down and therefore didn’t really want to commit suicide. Some studies are based on persons who were talked down, but others are based on people who actually attempt suicide and fail — e.g., by shooting themselves in the head. See, for example, this study.)

  6. I have a “beautiful place to die” thought every time I’m at the falls in Yosemite. Maybe they should put a huge chain link fence and net up there.

  7. You know, NYU, if it’s really worried about this, could follow the lead of my alma matter, the University of Texas at Austin. The infamous tower (yes, the tower that Charles Whitman shot all of those people from in the 60’s) was reclosed in the 70’s because of a rash of suicides. Stressed out undergrads decided that the tower was a fitting, symbolic place from which they could meet early demises. So the tower was closed to the public, and until 1999 or so, students were not allowed to visit the top.

    But they reopened on the following theory. After constructing huge railings that would be difficult to scale, they only allow people up there as part of pre-arranged visits. You have to get a ticket in advance. A security guard will accompany you, but more importantly, you go up only as part of a group. The theory is that people always try to commit suicide alone – going up with a group will psychologically deter people from committing suicide there.

    Don’t know if it’s a sound theory or not, but it seems plausible.

  8. I have a “beautiful place to die” thought every time I’m at the falls in Yosemite. Maybe they should put a huge chain link fence and net up there.

    Yosemite isn’t in the middle of a city of a million-plus people, nor is the Golden Gate Bridge a natural wonder.

  9. We went through this conversation about ten or fifteen years ago in D.C. Some prominent pillar of the community lost a son or daughter who leaped to his or her death off the Taft Bridge into Rock Creek Park several hundred feet below.

    The bereaved family appeared before the city council and gave all this moving testimony about how the suicide of their kid might have been prevented if this and that railing had been in place. The council could not withstand the teary eyedness of the story, and we spent a grazillion dollars putting anti-suicide railings up on all the major bridges over the park. This was at at time when our schools couldn’t afford new roofs and were 100 degrees inside in the springtime because of antiquated HVAC systems.

    No, to my knowledge nobody has jumped off those newly equipped bridges. But people still manage to kill themselves around here somehow and their parents still grieve them pitifully. (And the schools still suck).


  10. The difference between an attractive suicide location and an unattractive one is the amount and quantity of meaning a jumper can invest. Desirable locations have symbolic significance to the jumper at the time the decision is made. Everyone wants to suffer like a poet.

    I can’t help but think that this is an argument to the effect that we shouldn’t create architecture that can be invested with that kind of significance. What a depressing thought.

    I would add that a tower or bridge that reaches high, only to be chained with safety nets, is also symbolic.

  11. Er, make that amount and quality …

  12. Ugh. I walked across the Manhattan Bridge last week, which I had never done before. The pretty old blue railing, an integral part of the bridge’s architecture which is less than 5 feet high, has had added to it a hideous chain link fence that curves some 10 feet overhead. The old observation decks which allowed one to stop and admire the view south to the Financial District without obstructing the other foot traffic on the bridge have been closed off as well. It adds the oppressive ambience of an abandoned lot to the magnificent bridge and its gorgeous view.

  13. First off, very interesting article, thanks for the link.

    Second, I know(knew) a guy who killed himslef recently and I subsequently heard a lot about suicide. Many people who kill themselves do it in a place where their parents will (or could) find the body. this supposedly is not done to hurt the parents, but is more of a “return to the womb/childhood” kind of idea. The guy I knew did this, and also set up an elaborate system (supposely with hand made parts) to make sure he hung himself when he did the final deed.

    Perhaps there is a difference between the determined suicider and the impusive suicider? If so, then setting up suicide barriers would be a good idea, if impulsive folks cen be deterred, while the determined suicider will kill himself with whatever is at hand.

  14. I am going to kill myself if I have to read more posts by people who are commenting on an article hey obviously didn’t read.

    Thanks, alkali. Your post talked me down from the bridge.

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