Killing Me Softly

September 25, 2006

So, suicide has been on my brain lately. Not me committing it personally, but it seems to be popping up a lot. I went last weekend to see "The Science of Sleep" with Gael Garcia Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg. See it! It's great. But before we got to see Gael's handsome mug, came the trailers. And I saw a one that I will never forget, for the rest of my life. Warning: This blog entry has turned out to be extremely depressing. and don't hold your breath for a happy ending. The trailer was for a film called "The Bridge." You've probably heard about it. Filmmaker Eric Steel told bridge authorities he was filming "the interaction between the monument and nature" or some such malarky, and then for most of 2004 spent every daylight hour catching jumpers and would-be jumpers on film. It was chilling to see the bridge --my beautiful Golden Gate Bridge that I twice cross every day, that I don't even look at anymore as I zoom through it's spans. And in the ordinariness of that, a human being perched on the railings, looking down. And thinking, "oh crap, that person is about to kill themselves." I don't care how much realilty TV has jaded us, there is something singular and horrifying about watching someone poised to die. The final scene of the trailer is a wide shot of the bridge --and it is such a beautiful bridge, the rusty red angles and arches, the clear blue sky. And then a surprisingly large splash mars the scene. It took me a moment to realize what that splash was. The crew captured about 20 suicides. Which comes out to about once every other week. On this bridge, that I cross every weekday. (As I work in the documentary film biz, there are HUGE ethical issues surrounding all of this --the false pretenses, the voyeurism, the rights of the deceased, yadi yadi yadi. I would love to talk endlessly about them, but not right now). I put this all out of my mind --it was immediately distracting to see the antics of Gael as he navigates his dreams and reality, and you can't figure out which is more absurd. And I didn't think about any of it again until 8:30 this morning, when I found myself on the bridge. And without even realizing it, I started scanning all the pedestrians. Did anyone look like they were about to jump? Was anyone too close to the rails? The same thing on the way back tonight--it was pretty empty now, and I had a clear view to both sides. What would i do if I did see someone climbing over? Honk really loudly? That might scare them and make them jump. Call out to them? Pull over? Call 911? I started thinking about an amazing NPR story I heard a few months ago. (Click on the link, it's really worth your 6 minutes). A Chinese man, Chen Si, has taken it upon himself to patrol the Nanjing bridge on a suicide watch. Every weekend, for 3 years, he has traversed the bridge, looking for people who seem aimless and depressed. Physically dragging people back to solid ground. Falling into depression when he doesn't get there on time. (Sorry, are you getting depressed? I'm actually crying as I write this, now.) But get this, he's actually saved 99 people. Because by getting them at the moment of utter despair, pulling them literally down from the ledge, at least some of them find a way to go on. That's the argument for putting suicide barriers on the Golden Gate. Apparently a lot of people come to our fair city because of the relatively low railing on the bridge. By making it just a little harder, the argument goes, lives could be saved. I was in New York right before the 5th anniversary of 9/11, and wandering around the east village, I found myself in a gallery exhibition of photos of that day. They were taken by professional photojournalists, and many were shockingly graphic. As horrifying as the images I had seen on tv, it turns out they were actually quite sanitized. I don't know how many people jumped from the Twin Towers that day, but i think it was a lot. And once they landed, it was a gruesome scene. Body parts, corpses--I'll spare you a description. And you immediately think... how hellish it must have been in the tower, with fires burning and chaos all around, to drive people out the window. And, as I pointed out to my sister in an argument (I don't know how you even get into arguments about suicide, but we can disagree about anything) --the people who are jumping off the bridges, slitting their wrists, ODing on pills--they must feel the same way: a mess of fire and misery behind them, the better option is to jump. Since this is supposed to be an Asian American blog, I'll tie this up by reminding you that Asian American women have some of the highest rates of suicide in the nation. I had a friend in high school, Anne, who committed suicide after coming out of a very severe depression. And I don't care what anyone says, I'll always wish I'd done something, anything. Because Chen Si does it. He has to physically drag them off the railing and bring them home, but he saves them. It really disproves the notion of, "there's nothing anyone could have done," doesn't it? I'll be on the lookout every time I cross the bridge, now. I don't think I can help it. Maybe if we all keep watch...




The Chronicle did this series Lethal Beauty about the Golden Gate bridge last year. It was pretty interesting -- mostly about the controversy to put up the guard rail and how the city doesn't want to because it will ruin the beauty and on the other side, guard rails aren't going to stop really suicidal people.