You’ve Read This Post Before


The Glossary, a Los Angeles-based audiovisual marketing firm, has reinvented David Foster Wallace as a motivational speaker. This “fine purveyor of STIMULATING VIDEOGRAMS” edited the best soundbytes from Wallace’s graduation speech at Kenyon College, “This Is Water,” and then dressed it up with video, trendy animated scribbles, and sprightly background music.

The Glossary included the lines from the speech that haunted Wallace’s readers after he hanged himself:

Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

Returned to its original context as part of an exhortation to graduates to work towards mastery of their own perceptions – considering, for instance, that the overweight woman losing her temper in a checkout line might have spent the night with a dying husband and was not, in fact, just put on earth to annoy everyone in line behind her – the passage serves as a sort of radical motivation in which reimagination is the only way to keep oneself alive. Some critics, including Leslie Jamison, in his review of a Wallace biography, have rewritten Wallace’s suicide as a piece of postmodern performance art, with the “terrible master” passage a snippet of autobiography concealed by being waved in front of a crowd.

The less esoteric version has Wallace suffering from lifelong depression, forced to go off his medication because of severe side effects, and then, after falling into an even more severe depression and restarting the poison pills, discovering that they were no longer effective for him. Apparently, even if you are a genius, you still also have to be a person and a body with an uncooperative brain. Irreconcilable differences are bound to occur.

What surprises me about The Glossary video that has gone viral this week is that people find Wallace’s views so inspiring and revolutionary. In essence, he argues that most people ricochet back to the same mental point of origin, the panoramas that are so familiar we have stopped seeing them; but by prodding ourselves to consider other versions of what looks like reality, we are free to become better masters of our minds. He also acknowledges that getting outside ourselves is difficult, exhausting work, and he admits that sometimes he himself is too tired to engage in it.

To me, this celebration of possibilities is as good a definition of creativity as I’ve ever come across – something like mental Cubism, in which all realities can be embodied at the same time. But it also makes perfect sense to me that Wallace’s call to reinvent and reenvision, and the massive effort it takes to do so, would come from someone who was suicidal enough of his life for a bullet in the brain to become a metaphor. With depression as the random point in space from which you view the world, death is always right in front of you, blocking your view. To survive, you have to imagine a different frame, in which the option of suicide is somewhere far in the distance, behind a closed door, somewhere you might visit sometime when you don’t have so many other things to do. Once you know where the door is located, though, it is impossible to forget it exists or how to open it.

In a speech at the 2011 National Book Festival, Toni Morrison briefly discussed her dissertation, which compared William Faulkner’s and Virginia Woolf’s conceptions of suicide. Faulker viewed suicide as the ultimate defeat, Morrison explained, while Woolf saw it as a reasonable choice, in her case a rational alternative to putting herself and her husband through another period of psychosis. I tend toward Woolf’s view, and, I would guess, so did Wallace. Wallace’s “This Is Water” speech offers instructions for making other choices.

However, it is a more than a little paradoxical that the speech has been appropriated by a marketing firm. As a former (mostly mediocre) ad writer, I’m in a position to know that the whole objective is to create materials that act as magnets, pulling thoughts in the intended direction without infringing on viewers’ certainty of their own free will. Within a few days, the video had attracted 2.7 million views, dwarfing the popularity of previous projects (and, incidentally, using audio of Wallace’s Kenyon speech without permissions). In an Adweek interview, the creators claim, disingenuously in my opinion, “Our main goal was to expose people to the content of the speech.” Later in the interview, though, the creators concede, “…as a tiny company in an industry filled with so much talent and competition, it’s extremely difficult to get your work noticed…so we’d welcome anyone who enjoyed ‘This Is Water’ to get in touch with us.”

I’m reminded of the perennially puzzling sentences, “This statement is untrue” and “Question authority.” Wallace’s legacy will almost certainly transcend this little ripple in the information ecosystem, but I’m also fairly sure its undertow is meant to pull us down into the water.

They Shouldn’t Have to Die to Get Our Attention

Several times a day, online news, a facebook status update, or another “It Gets Better” clip reminds me that bullying can end in death. Just the other day, I was at the doctor’s office, where a gigantic screen that dwarfed the room featured photos of a young teen who had committed suicide after being bullied. Pinned in my seat as the tearful mother described finding her son dead and insisted that she must tell her story to prevent similar tragedies, I wanted to weep myself. My emotions were mixed: horror and sadness at the mother’s loss and the tragedy of a young person’s suicide, a sense of violation that this story was forced on me at that particular moment, and outrage, not just at the bullies, but at the notion that bullying is only noteworthy when it ends in suicide.

I don’t need to enumerate the ways that bullying has become more public, and more permanent, than when I was a child. Bullying through note-passing and whispering in my own teen years has turned into a blowtorch of humiliation on social networking sites, and the virtual “Kick Me” signs are nearly impossible to remove. Dan Savage’s incredible “It Gets Better” project has drawn attention to the particular suffering of young gay kids, but it seems important to remember that most victims of bullying will never get media attention. With 30% of kids reporting that they have been the perpetrators or victims of bullying, according to a September 2011 report by the Democratic Independent Congress, the number of victims dwarfs the few dramatic and tragic stories reported in the media. The number of young people involved in bullying may be far higher, however, according to Dana Boyd and Alice Marwick’s New York Times editorial, “Why Cyberbullying Rhetoric Misses the Mark.” Boyd and Marwick observed and interviewed teenagers and found that, despite nearly unanimous insistence that bullying didn’t exist, that once the word “bullying” was changed to “drama,” the percentage of teens admitting their involvement “as victims and/or perpetrators” skyrocketed.

I don’t mean to diminish the anguish of those teens whose chose suicide as the final escape from their tormentors, nor the grief of their families and friends, and I applaud everyone who has released an “It Gets Better” video or has taken action to draw attention to the prevalence of bullying. But the problem is like the truth that the flea we see means that 300 more are lurking in the rug, and the media’s fetishistic fascination with death-by-bullying has the potential to cost more lives than it saves.

Here’s why: Put yourself in the mind of a bullied teenager for a moment. In their editorial, Boyd and Marwick discuss the rhetorical divide between the words “drama” (everybody does it) and “bullying” (which carries a gigantic stigma), “For a teenager to recognize herself or himself in the adult language of bullying carries social and psychological costs. It requires acknowledging oneself as either powerless or abusive.” In other words, a teen who admits to being a victim of bullying is implicitly acknowledging her position at the bottom of the social hierarchy, and, as Boyd and Marwick find in their study, “Many teenagers who are bullied can’t emotionally afford to identify as victims, and young people who bully others rarely see themselves as perpetrators.” As those of us who were bullied know all too well, the shame of admitting you’re the kid who is left out of every game and social event is bad enough.

The media portrayals of bullying suicides add to this shame, though, by sending the  message that teens aren’t really suffering – and that therefore they can dismiss their pain as unimportant – unless (or until) they’re considering suicide. Yet another way the media portrayals might be counterproductive is by creating an incentive for bullied teens to attempt suicide because they don’t see any other way to voice their pain or ask for adult help. In the 15-24 year-old age group, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 1 in 5 have “seriously considered” suicide in the past 12 months. Chances are none of them have said anything to an adult, and possibly not to anyone. I am not implying that suicidal kids are all bullied kids, but depressed or bullied teens (and adults, for that matter) are more likely to conceal suicidal thoughts than not. The message I am afraid that the media is giving kids is that they haven’t really suffered unless their trauma ends in suicide. Unfortunately, a dead child is beyond our help, but the living kids are all around us, telling themselves things really aren’t bad enough, or unusual enough, to be deserving of adult notice. The media’s fixation on the most extreme consequences of bullying has the potential to do further harm, in contrast to the “It Gets Better” videos, which offer encouraging messages of survival.

How many of the (admittedly few so far) readers of this blog were bullied themselves? And how many of us tell ourselves, “Well, if I got through it, so should they”? How many feel that the bullying went beyond being a rite of passage and crossed the boundary between painful experience and trauma? Sure, it gets better. Sometimes it doesn’t. And yet here we all are, still alive. But you know what? I’m pretty sure very few of us told. I’m pretty sure even fewer were taken seriously when we did. We can’t be everywhere, and we can’t see everything – but we can see past the media drama to the more subtle instances of suffering close to home, and when we do, we should be ready to listen.