Like many academic titles before, Dr. Robert Edgerton’s latest work, “A Comparative Survey of Suicide: Scandinavia, Asia, Africa, United States,” aims for objectivity. Some academics like to inflate the meaning of their findings with colorful or incredibly dense prose, but Edgerton’s straight-forward style encourages the facts to impact the reader. The closest he approaches to color is a ‘shocking’ before relating how a five year-old in Papua New Guiana attempted suicide.
On the surface, the work has nothing to recommend it. There are no praises from other authors on the back cover. The publisher obviously did not spend much money on its production. It is essentially two slabs of blue cardboard with computer paper glued in-between. The front cover is endearingly irrelevant: a rectangular box that holds a satellite image of a hurricane.
From the surface, the only attractive thing about it is its slender size. Fifty pages of content, sixteen pages for the bibliography, and six pages for dedications, acknowledgements, and copyright details. Edgerton probably could have written much more on the subject, but fortunately here he highlights the most pertinent facts for a quick and easy, but productive, read.
He first covers what one expects from a survey of suicide. Until 1700, it was largely known as “self-murder” in Europe. Some of the countries with the lowest suicide rates include Italy, Spain, Scotland, and the Netherlands. The highest include Austria, Japan, and Finland. For reasons Edgerton doesn’t try to determine, the Netherlands has a remarkably low suicide rate.
He then explores more minute similarities. The method of killing oneself varies across countries, races, classes, religions, and gender. LA and Vienna have an equally high rate of suicide, but thirty nine percent use guns in LA, to while Vienna’s gun rate is only at four percent.
Suicide in ancient Rome was praised only for warriors or higher classes, and it had to be done properly. Hanging was considered a peasant’s means to suicide, and was disgraceful. But stabbing one’s self in a Phoenician robe after hearing that your entire legion died was, to some extent, admirable.
Edgerton presents facts that have inferences for our modern attitude toward suicide. Suicide often occurs within families. Not only did Ernest Hemingway commit suicide, so did his father, brother, sister, and granddaughter.
Edgerton avoids generalizations, but some are so obvious it is difficult to not notice. The introduction of religion, in the case of Hinduism and Christianity, changed that culture’s attitude toward suicide. With Christianity, it became a sin against God. Until Norway was Christianized around 1,000 CE, suicide was viewed as an act of a weak person. Until the 1800’s, some places like Finland, considered suicide a capital offense.
In India, suicide was acceptable until it was vehemently opposed in the Upanishad verses around 2000 BCE. Though, even in the post-Upanishad era, it was acceptable if part of a religious ritual. For example, Sanyasins, those who achieved complete insight, were welcome to commit suicide.
As expected of a survey, “A comparative survey of suicide” lays the groundwork for future study. The book is still worth the hour or two it takes to read. It not only raises awareness, but is also quite stimulating, presenting the facts but leaving the “why” for the reader to answer.
@yourlibrary is a series of book reviews that looks at whatever material exists in the UAA/APU Consortium library. The series aims to raise awareness of the possibilities in the library. Suggestions are welcome at [email protected]