The Golden Gate Suicides

June 10, 2006

It's 6:45 am. I'm sitting looking out at a fog-filled view of the San Francisco bay area. Underneath, fog is covering one of the seven great wonders of the modern world: The Golden Gate Bridge. However, that fog is also covering a relatively unknown ugliness associated with that great wonder: suicide.

Since the bridges 1937 opening around 1,300 people have taken the 4-second fatal plunge into the seawater below. If the fall didn't kill them, the bay's unrelentless currents would most likely will just as they have to so many Alcatraz prisoners failing to escape.

On Sunday, at the San Francisco film festival, the movie "The Bridge", documented by Eric Steel, protrayed some of this absurdist horror. At 10,000 hours of filming all 365 days of 2004 the movie is boiled down to 93 minutes depicting 6 men and women taking the fatal dive – out of the 24 known suicide attempts made that year. In 2000, Kevin Hines took that jump and survived. He is now involved in speaking freely about his experience while campaigning like so many others to build a pedestrian suicide barrier. That's remarkable to me. I may be speculating here, but I'm assuming that at the time of Kevin's jump he had been thinking definitively, "It's time to go," but upon his failure to die a revelation hit him on the virtues of life. Could it be that what Kevin needed was actually… failure?

Sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote in his book Suicide that this act can come about in any conceivable circumstance. There is not one specific thing that seems to trigger the act. It's a culmination of innumerable unattended emotions surging in the person's heart and mind until it somehow convinces them that death itself is a solution.

Nonetheless the movie sparked some intense outrage, some outrage voiced by those who haven't even seen the film. It's the very idea they are repulsed by. And maybe that's why it should be shown in the first place. Whether or not this is actually a "snuff film" is irrelevant – the 9/11 footage spewed day in day out for the last 3 years is also "snuff" – what is relevant is that society shouldn't remain ignorant about the sociological problem of suicide. Far too long has suicide been viewed as a "psychological" problem. Yes, it is. But that's not the only thing it is. By suggesting that suicide is strictly a psychological problem is fallaciously saying that suicide is only a problem of the "individual." But when 2 dozen people have been taking their lives every year at the exact same landmark for the last 69 years suicide can no longer be merely a psychological problem. It's now an unfortunate by-product of a flawed society.

San Francisco and the rest of the United States society MUST evaluate this issue from a sociological perspective. School has just started for me and one of the classes I am taking is, you guessed it, Sociology 1A. Even though I've had a grand total of three classes so far I'm going to take the liberty of applying 3 main sociological/theoretical perspectives to San Francisco's Golden Gate suicide problem.

Functionalist perspective:
The basic premise of the functionalist perspective assumes that everything in a society has a function and therefore goes about explaining all behaviors of a society as having a social "purpose." Obviously, this inadvertantly legitmizes even the most blatant of problems like that of poverty and crime. Because of this, the functionalist perspective has been refined to explaining "social facts" through manifest and latent functions and dysfunctions.

Manifest Function:
As far as I can derive, the manifest function(s), which is to say an anticipated or intended function(s), of the Golden Gate as a suicidal landmark is that it, as grim as this may sound, gets the job done. In 69 years very, very few people have survived the 4-second drop.

Manifest Dysfunction:
The suicides themselves create a chain of reactions. Some of the people who've taken the fatal dive have been tourists and copycats. The notorious 'fame' of taking one's life on the iconic reddish-orange bridge should not come as a surprise to anyone. It might not be intended but it is certainly and unfortunately anticipated.

Latent Function:
Nobody wants to admit this but the Golden Gate suicides give it unintended popularity. Tourists and citizens alike are attracted to – just as much as they are repulsed by – the Golden Gate suicides.

Latent Dysfunction:
Well the most obvious unanticipated thing of these suicides is that it sparks such unimaginable interest that a filmmaker spends 365 days importantly chronicling a year of deaths and attempts at death.

Conflict Theorist perspective:
This is the harder to grasp perspective but considering its history and philosophical underpinnings it is also the most interesting, at least to me. Conflict theorists view the inevitable fact of conflict in a society, that of competition for resources by dominant and subordinate groups, and ask the basic question of "Who benefits at whose expense?" For the Golden Gate suicides, the conflict I see is the "will to meaning", the resource are the neccessities of life in San Francisco, and unfortunately the myraid of people who have benefited and continue to benefit at the expense of troubled citizens.

Viktor Frankl used the phrase the "will to meaning" in describing his logotherapy psychological theory as a way of coping with the circumstances of life. He suggested that one can get through even the most horrific ordeals if one finds meaning in the act. Now that I think about it, is almost seems to be a functionalist tactic applied to legitamizing psychological problems in one's life. As a Jew affected deeply by his experience in concentration camps during WWII he concluded that even suffering has meaning (which isn't a new conclusion by any stretch of the imagination, "meaning in suffering" is important to the Jewish faith according to Huston Smith in his book The World's Religions). If one fails to find this "will to meaning" then one views life as meaningless. Purposeless. Futile. Thus, suicide becomes viewed to be a viable solution to the absurdity of living. Albert Camus, one of my favorite French logicians, was fascinated by the concept of suicide in the way that it was a backlash at a meaningless existence. Nonetheless, as I said above of Durkheim, suicide can emerge from every situation. Depending on these circumstances, suicide can give meaning and be meaningful just as much as it can take meaning and be meaningless. The conflict is finding the right meanings in the struggle of life so as not to lose the fight. Suicidal jumpers fail to find these meanings and their social support systems, whether they are viewed as friends and family or society as a whole, failed as well.

Social support, however, is also a necessity of life. But it doesn't seem to be as essential as psychologists might think if it fails to curtail a jumper's final decision. In a large city, like that of San Francisco, the nexus between society and the individual is weakened and stretched. Those who really need civilian attention sometimes don't get it and thus feel ostracized. Just go to www.tenderloin.net to see how society is ineffective and unaffective. It's almost gluttonous. San Francisco surely has some amazing heart shattering beauty but associated with that extreme aesthetic comes heart breaking ugliness. The dominant group of society sucks the resources dry and has the power to ignore it's relatively unimportant inhabitants while the group goes about raising it's standard of living at the expense of those who really need and deserve attention.

The dominant group benefits by maintaining access to these resources but also benefit by the popularity of the suicides. Eric Steel, for instance, will benefit from thematically portraying the suicidal denizens diving to their deaths. I sincerely doubt the dozen or so suicides a year take more money from the landmark's annual revenue and I'd even wager that the cult fanbase of the suicides is part of the lure of the bridge. Who knows; but just about anyone will make money off of death if given the chance – another sociological problem altogether.

Symbolic Interactionist perspective:
Really, this is just as individualistic as the psychological justifications for suicide. Essentially, the SI perspective is how individuals experience, understand, and define what they and others are doing. The symbolic interactionist perspective is also interested in how individuals are influenced and how individuals influence others. Symbols play a dominant role in this model. Symbols being those to which we attach meaning and value to. For instance, "money" is a symbol for power, fame, wealth, and success.

For the suicidal, any number of symbols can contribute to their last act. The loss or gain of these symbols into their social interactions are important factors. For instance, there is the, if you ask me, misguided, perception that success is calculated by wealth. If one loses money, one is a failure. If we lose the symbol of monetary success, we may raise our chances of suicidal thoughts and thus suicidal behavior. Another powerful social symbol is 'love'. We struggle everyday in the pursuit of the symbol of love. However, the symbol is cryptic and interpretive, above all, subjective. In psychology, an important part in establishing a loving relationship is that of "consenual validation." We strive to be accepted by others, maybe not by society as a whole but at least by someone we care about whether it be fathers, friends, strangers, or those who we are attracted to. So when one struggles to find that symbol of love only to have it rejected by those who we want validation from, the loss can be remarkably devastating.

Lastly, it's remarkable to me that there is outrage at the showing of this movie. There should be outrage at the truthfulness of the movie, not its vulgarity. In our post-9/11, post-tsunami, post-Katrina world, society is paradoxically more comfortable with death as well as more frightened by it than ever before. We raise the public's consciousness of the deaths of our enemies (Zarqawi) and suppress the deaths of our countrymen. We see the failures and misguidedness of other countries but disregard our own failures and misguided ideologies. We fix their problems without fixing ours. "The Bridge" must be seen and our society must be fixed.

http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-bridge28apr28,0,6623680.story?coll=la-home-headlines

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