Good writing happens when you are whisked away from your own reality and placed into another reality. It happens when someone else’s narrative becomes apart of your own.
Valuable writing happens when you’re whisked away into a perspective that you don’t understand. It happens when you begin to see multiple dimensions of a narrative you previously saw as one dimensional.
The following guest post by Jocelyn Ressler is that rare piece of writing that’s both good and valuable.
***Trigger Warning***: If you’re sensitive to writing that deals with self-harm and suicide, please don’t read this article.
Do not tell me my scars are beautiful
I did not do this to myself to look beautiful
To appeal to some fucked up
perception of what beauty is
What scars are
What scars represent
Was I beautiful when I was biting my lip
pressing scalding metal to my flesh?
Was it attractive when my mom laid me down on the floor
blood pumping from my arm
the day I went too deep?
Would you tell me I’m beautiful if I didn’t have scars?
Would you have looked twice at me
without the crisscrossing white lines
and the purple blotches?
Wouldn’t it be sad
if the most beautiful thing about me
is the hate that I carry on my body?
“Scars are tattoos with better stories”
Better for who?
Nobody looks at my arms and sees
a good story
A good time
A good memory
Looking at myself
I read the stories
Stories of chaos
Stories of pain
Some marks I remember making so clearly
Others are a mystery
Some of the lines spell out thoughts
Short blurbs of my conscience
on my calf
across my chest
“Die” or “Death”
on my stomach
on my right thigh
on my left
on my arm
“I know better”
on my leg
Looking at my tattoos
I see the stories there too
Stories of hope
So tell me
How are scars better stories?
Are they preferable?
I’d rather hand over some cash
for an inked man to press needles to my skin
Than give up my life
to take a razor to the same skin
“Never be ashamed of your scars”
Am I to be proud?
If I had harmed anyone else
the way I harmed myself
would you tell me
not to feel remorse?
Why wouldn’t I be ashamed?
I am living on the border
of a society that glorifies my behavior
and a society that condemns it
will ever understand
“Maybe you should cover your arms; kids will be there.”
“Are you emo or something?”
“Why haven’t you just killed yourself?”
“You’re cute. Messed up skin kinda doesn’t help you though.”
“What are you going to tell your kids?”
“Why are we on a team with the emo girl?”
“Stop trying to get everyone’s attention.”
“Why are your sleeves rolled up?”
“I wasn’t going to tell you, but that looks really ugly.”
“You’re wearing a jacket to homecoming, right?”
And today in a coffee shop:
“Have some self-respect.”
Please read Jocelyn’s most recent piece, “Frozen in Time.”
by Steve Kemple
Unlike today’s newspapers, daily rags of the Victorian era revelled in death, drama, and bloodshed. Headlines were filled with gruesome murders, bizarre accidents, and horrible suicides. Often, reporters invented details or indulged in wild speculation, because nothing sells newspapers like a spectacular headline. In those days, reading the paper was less an act of becoming an informed citizen and more a means to voyeuristic entertainment. Some of the best examples are articles about suicides, particularly when it involved shuffling the mortal coil in some creative or unusual way. For the past few years I’ve been collecting these articles on my blog Horrible Suicide. Here are a few of the most unusual I’ve found so far…
- Death by Spiders
One Fall day in the year 1898 Cora Smith noticed a spider crawling up the wall of her prison cell where she was serving a life sentence for murdering her father. Although her mother, Betsy Smith, was initially convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in the same penitentiary, Cora had later confessed to the deed, hoping her mother would be set free in return. Instead of letting her mother go they decided to lock them both up. This caused her a great deal of mental turmoil, and she saw the spider on the wall as a way out. The New York Sun writes:
She gathered spiders day by day until she had a large number tied up in a handkerchief. […] The other night she ate the spiders and the next morning was found dead in her cell. The handkerchief with the remaining spiders was found by her side.
You can read the whole article here.
- Death by Contraption
On the one hand you have your mad scientist. And on the other hand you have your aspiring cult leader. Then there’s One Wheeler (yes, that was actually his name) from the sleepy village of Dundee, Michigan. In 1877 he invented a bizarre and deadly machine to demonstrate his alleged immortality. On March 16 the St. Louis Globe Democrat reports:
The machine with which Wheeler killed himself consists of a strong framework, which supports a ponderous iron balance wheel, and numerous pulleys, wheels, steel springs, wire ropes and belts, most of them without any apparent utility to the unsophisticated eye. The wheel is strongly bound with numerous old knives, sharpened irons, and in one case a savage looking broad-ax. When set in motion by a stout steel spring, arranged on scientific principles, it will run fully ten minutes with frightful velocity. The head of the victim was hacked and torn from the trunk, and sliced and cut into a thousand minute pieces.
His intent seemingly was to place his body in such a manner that it might work slowly under the wheel, thus pulverizing it inch by inch. The end attained was brought about by a three-sided trough inclined to the machine. The thing was neatly planed, and large enough to contain his body, but no more. He probably set the hellish arrangement in motion, then placed himself in the trough, head downward, and slid under the revolving knives. One arm was found in shreds, torn from the body. The arm was probably thrown upward in the agony of the first moment.
It seems One Wheeler also single-handedly (pun intended) invented steam punk.
But there’s more. A document was found nearby explaining the decidedly cosmic intentions of his patent pending device:
It is now 2:20 a. m. of Saturday morning, March 3, A. D. 1877. My mind is fully made up to pass the ordeal of which I am to be the sacrifice. The mysteries that lie unfolded in the physical part of man will in a short time be given to the world. Having failed in my effort to satisfy scientific men of the soundness and utility of this grand discovery by experiments in the animal world, and knowing that such an invaluable secret is held only by myself, I shall, before six hours have passed, give the world sufficient proof of my reasonings. The Almighty Being gave man faculties and placed before him powers, leaving him to penetrate their apparent mysteries. But to one who has brought to light these hidden powers, everything is so plain, and we notice our actions to harmonize with its occult qualities we have no fear of a change in our constituent elements. When this mighty, mighty agent controls and guards the course of our atomizing body, we advance one step higher in our change, nearing concentration at each successive stage, and at last enter perfection. All is life for him who has life! All is hope for him who has hope! All is death for him who has death! My physicatomic state after the ordeal I desire shall be taken in charge by Prof. Louis McLouth, who, by taking a portion of my “creative all-changing assistant material,” will cast a few particles over the dissectory remains and then place them in the receptacle of my galvanic allotropic power, where the elements will resolve themselves into a new combination, and I will appear a living evidence of the collateral discovery.
Maybe he was on to something? Maybe he actually transcended to another dimension or plane of consciousness? And what of this mysterious Professor McLouth? I have so many questions. In any case, here’s the rest of the article.
- Bravo! Bravo!
Signor Pieto Vaini, an Italian artist living in New York City, was known to have a flair for the dramatic. Like many creative individuals, he was prone to frequent mood shifts, so his friends didn’t think anything of his recent weeks of dark behavior. Then one September afternoon at a picnic, the Independent Statesman writes:
After several speeches had been delivered asked permission to speak, and quoted some beautiful lines of poetry in his native tongue. He then drew a small revolver from his pocket and shot himself through the right temple. The members of the party at first thought this was merely a simulation of suicide and began to applaud what they believed to be a fine piece of tragic acting. They were soon horror stricken, however, by the discovery of the truth. Just before Vaini fell he exclaimed in Italian, “God, who judges all, will judge of this.”
Maybe it was also a sly reference to the opera Pagliacci? You can read the article here.
- Wrapped in a Portuguese Flag (Or Not)
I find this one especially interesting for a number of reasons, mainly because it never really happened. At least not to Serpa Pinto (who died undramatically 10 years later in Lisbon). Here is what the New Orleans Daily Picayune reported on June 16, 1890:
A dispatch from London, June 12, says: Major Serpa Pinto, the African explorer, is chagrined because he was not consulted with regard to the Conceiro expedition which met with such a sad fate in southern Africa. He committed suicide to-day in a novel and startling manner. He made a funeral pyre of fourteen barrels of gunpowder, wrapped himself in a Portuguese flag and set fire to the fuse. The desperate man was blown to atoms by the explosion. He left a paper saying that he sought to secure a patriotic death.
It turns out these events did really happen, but the man wrapped in the flag was not actually Pinto but his colleague and fellow Spanish explorer António da Silva Porto. Porto, 72, didn’t immediately die from the explosion, instead suffering for several agonizing hours before finally drifting off into the great unknown. Serpa Pinto…Silva Porto…close enough, right?
If you’re ever in the city of Kuito, Angola (which was called Silva Porta until 1975), be sure to check out the Silva Porto statue, which, as far as I know, will not explode. In the mean time, check out the full article in all it’s erroneous glory.
- An “Accidental” Suicide
I guess that clears that up…
- Hey! Wake Up! Look At My Art Project!
It’s 1889 and you live above a coffee shop in San Francisco. Your weird roommate, Milo, has been acting stranger than usual lately, but you just chalk it up to his typical eccentricities. But tonight he really crossed the line. Around four in the morning you hear a series of groans and loud bangs in your room, and you open your eyes to see that blasted Milo excitedly trying to get your attention. Before you can remind him that you have work in the morning and he should know better than to barge into your room in the middle of the night, you notice his wild grin and the blood on his hands. Then you see it. Everywhere. He’s… oh god… and he’s laughing! The Daily Evening Bulletin described the grizzly scene as it occurred:
About 4 o’clock in the morning [Milo Ballabosich] got out of bed, and getting a couple of small penknives, cut a hole in his abdomen. He then woke his room-mate, who at first thought there were burglars in his room. When he saw what Ballabosich had done, however, he quickly dressed, and running down to where Officer Dower was standing on Davis street, told him that a man had tried to kill himself and asked him to go at once to the room.
Dower and Officer Mahoney complied. When the door was opened the scene which the policemen saw was horrible. There stood Ballabosich in the middle of the room with a fiendish grin on his face. From the gaping wound in his abdomen he was slowly pulling out his intestines and strewing them around the room. Several yards of them were deposited in various places on the floor. Officer Dower, although he was sick from the disgusting spectacle, quickly rushed at at the lunatic, and, knocking him down, placed his wrists in handcuffs. The man was removed to the Receiving Hospital. Of course, no medical treatment could save his life and he died about 9:30 o’clock. Dr. Foulkes examined some of the detached entrails and found that the deceased man had been suffering from a surgical affection of the intestines. He was rendered insane by the intense pain, and the only idea he had in his lunacy was to gain relief from his suffering. The disease is a sort of telescoping of the larger intestines, which become tied up in knots. Dr. Foulkes says the pain caused is intense, and can only be cured by operation. The disease is very rare.
Come to think of it he never did clean up after himself. Here’s the complete article.
- If At First You Don’t Succeed… Submerge Yourself In Bran Flakes
Speaking of disembowelment… In 1855 F. C. Stamback, a Petersburg, Virginia flour inspector, decided to put an end to his misery. So he went into his basement with knives, razors, guns, and a large container of bran. The Daily Cleveland Herald writes:
Here he divested himself of his pantaloons and laid them behind a box partly filled with bran. He next got into this bran box, and must have used the penknife partly wounding himself, as it was cast aside clotted with blood, as were also the pistols, neither of which had been discharged. He grasped the razor, and the first wound he inflicted upon himself was a circular cut of about four or five inches in the abdomen, from with the intestines protruded and fell on the bran box. Finding that this would not terminate his existence speedily, he applied the razor to his throat and made a fearful gash nearly from ear to ear, by which death was cause almost instantaneously.
There’s so much going on here, not least being the gruesomely specific visual of warm, slimy entrails coated in bran flakes. Check out the article here.
- Beheaded by a Train
This one appeared in the Denver Rocky Mountain News on July 2, 1897:
Martin Van Buren Yendes, 59 years of age, and living at 2480 Sixteenth street, committed suicide at 3:30 o’clock yesterday afternoon, by placing his neck before the wheels of a moving train on the Burlington tracks, at Twenty-first and Wewatta streets. His head was completely severed from his body and death was instantaneous. Poverty and despondency is supposed to have been the cause of the suicide. Yendes was the father of Horace Yendes and lived in the companionship of his wife with the latter’s family on North Sixteenth street.
Seems pretty cut and dry, right? Well, maybe not so dry. Part of what makes this article so spectacular are the details:
The train stopped with its rear coach just opposite Twenty-first street, and the front a considerable distance, to the east. Yendes was seen to approach and seat himself on the rear platform. He saw a signal given to go ahead and stepping to the ground he walked ahead and past the first set of trucks. He was seen to kneel and deliberately place his neck on the rail. The next moment the train started forward and with a grind and a crunch, the head was completely separated from the body. The other two wheels completed the work, and when the car passed on not a shred of skin remained to connect the head with the lifeless trunk. The heavy wheels pressed the arteries together in such a manner that but little blood escaped, and that little ran down under the man’s coat.
The scene which presented itself to bystanders as they rushed up was that of the body of a headless man lying on its stomach. The coat collar lay against the smooth iron rail, while on the other side lay a ghastly head, with a hat a few inches from it.
This reporter milked the story for all it’s worth, and the front page article included multiple illustrations, including one depicting a determined Yendes lunging towards his death. It also features the testimony of two boys who witnessed his miserable and a less than sensitive portrayal of delivering the news to his family:
“What shall we do? What shall we do?” [Yendes son] wailed. “No work, no money, nor friends, and now father is gone.” And then, as if to defy Providence, who had inflicted such misery, he rose cursing and hurled the furniture about the room. The grief of the aged wife of the deceased mingled with the scene, and the young wife of the despairing son did her best to comfort her spouse and cried at the same time.
I’m sure the family took great comfort in being the next day’s headline, which you can read here.
- Face Off
That horrible movie with Nicolas Cage will do nothing to prepare you for this. During the infamous Haymarket Affair of 1886, while Chicago workers held a peaceful demonstration in support of organized labor, an unknown person threw a dynamite bomb into the crowd. The blast and ensuing riots killed both demonstrators and police officers, and in the chaos a number of political activists, most of them outspoken anarchists, were jailed without a shred of evidence against them. Among them was Louis Lingg, the well-known anarchist, who was suspected of having manufactured the bomb. But there was never anything more than circumstantial evidence.
Fast forward several months. Somehow Lingg has smuggled a fulminating cap (used to detonate dynamite) into his cell. On the night of November 10th he places the end of the cap in his mouth and lights the fuse. The lower half of his face is blown off, but he does not die. At least not yet. He remains awake. For. Six. Hours.
This is a spectacular piece of sensational journalism, which I found in the Portland Morning Oregonian. It’s definitely worth reading in its entirety, but here are a few of its shining, gruesome highlights:
Louis Lingg, the anarchist, will never speak again. By an act awful as ever was act of human creature, the voice that cried “Hoche die snarchle!” was turned to silence forever. What seemed a muffled and horrible echo of the fearful bomb at the Haymarket rang suddenly in his lonely cell this morning; that instant the man’s face, which, belying his fiend-like deeds, has seemed beautiful as an archangel’s, was made a revolting mass of blood and shreds of tangled flesh. Louis Lingg was triumphant. Despite all human efforts, he had effaced from his countenance every trace of God’s image. For a single instant, with his back against the bars of Lingg’s cell door, the stalwart guard stood stupefied, while a puff of blue smoke from the dark recess behind, unnoticed, crossed his shoulder.
Then ensued a wild rush of deputies, the clanging of iron gates, and above the confusion and din the hoarse shouting of the guard, “It’s Lingg. That came from Lingg!” A rapid movement by the turnkey flung the cell door open and with an eager peer into the shadow two excited deputies jumped pell-mell in. Their ejaculations of terror brought other guards quickly within a call. An age of agony and suspense was passed by the jail inmates. In the cells above and around there was a shuffling of feet on the stone floor and then hundreds of strained eyes watching down through the iron doors and bars saw a group of guards in shirt-sleeves struggling across the dimly lighted area, bearing the legs and arms of the body of a man between them. The upturned face was a HUGE CLOT OF BLOOD.
And it goes on. Really. My favorite part of the article is when the doctors realizes that he is not only alive but conscious as well:
To all appearances the anarchist was stark dead. His lithe, athletic form was clothed only in a short tunic, and his brawny limbs seemed rigid. A small pool of gore was soon floating in the brown curls surmounting the broad shoulders, and on glance showed how Lingg had striven with dynamite to blow off his own head. The entire lower half of the
once handsome face was gone, including the upper lip and jaw and under fraction of the nose. Where it had been was now a jagged bloody gap, extending across to the ears and down to the Adam’s apple.
“Open your eyes, Lingg,” exclaimed the jail doctor who had just reached the room.
To the astonishment of the bystanders, Lingg’s eyes opened and looked calmly about him. He was immediately raised to a table and propped up with pillows, was washed hurriedly while cloth bandages were passed around the lower part of the face and around the top of the head, hiding all but the nose, eyes and forehead, all the loose dangling bones and flesh being first cut away. The gutta percha mouth of a fountain syringe was inserted in the great hole left by the dynamite. By this method water and brandy were administered. This was repeated at intervals, Lingg meanwhile gazing steadfastly about him, watching every move of those in the room, but apparently indifferent to what they did and caring nothing about the almost ceaseless slamming of the door only a few feet distant. Every now and then, without any seeming immediate cause, a
FEARFUL HOLLOW GROANING
Would sound through the bandages. The listeners, aghast, would abandon the room, only to give place to a new set not yet weekend by the horrors within the death chamber.
The next day, on November 11, 1886, the remaining anarchists were executed by hanging. Then, nearly seven years later, on June 26, 1893, the governor of Illinois gave a posthumous pardon to three of the anarchists, pointing out that their arrest, detainment, and execution were merely the expressions of mass hysteria rather than a function of justice. To this day no one knows who was responsible for the bomb.
As I said, this article is worth taking the time to read in its entirety. They Haymarket Affair is also a fascinating and important piece of U.S. history that’s worth learning more about at your local public library.
Steve Kemple is a music librarian in Cincinnati, Ohio who clearly derives entirely too much pleasure from this sort of thing. He also writes for the magazine Library Journal and has been known to wear a gorilla suit.
Yesterday I wrote a piece entitled, “Robin Williams: Finding the Silver Lining“. I rarely address celebrity deaths on my blog, but I found Williams’ death affected me more than I expected.
This morning I woke up and as I scrolled through my news feed I was surprised to see the details of Robin’s death trumpeted on nearly every news outlet. And again I found myself strangely affected. So I wrote this piece — from my perspective as a funeral director — on why Robin’s death, more than most, needs privacy.
Church funerals often cause a proxemics dilemma. The dilemma comes into play in rare circumstances when the family wants the open casket in the front of church sanctuary.
Sometimes, when the time comes for the family to say their last good-byes before the lid’s closed, they have to do something incredibly intimate and tearful in a public setting, with often a hundred or so onlookers watching as they cover their deceased loved one with the blanket, give a final kiss good-bye and say their last “I love you.”
The way we solve the dilemma is by having the pall bearers come forward and surround the family, creating a human wall so to speak, which allows the family to let all their humanity out before the lid is closed.
Celebrity deaths create the same dilemma. Grief that is meant to be private is watched and consumed by the public. Ideas, thoughts and feelings that are meant to be processed within the context of family and friends are now processed within the context of the public eye.
We, the public, have also been told the manner of Williams’ death (suicide). I’ve been in this business for years and we’ve buried many people who have committed suicide without the public EVER knowing. If the family we were serving wished for it to remain a private topic, it was kept private by us and by the authorities.
Suicide is SO complex. It’s not easy for anyone to understand and so there’s times when privacy is the most psychologically healthy way to approach a death by suicide. Because while suicide isn’t easy to understand, the VERY LAST THING the survivors need to experience is judgment of any kind from others.
This approach from Shawna Morrissey’s blog is one of the best ways to understand suicide. Shawna writes,
Twelve years ago this month, I lost my Uncle Jay to suicide.
At his funeral, Jay’s bishop addressed us. The words he spoke are burned into my mind. He said, “I feel impressed to tell you that Jay spent his life struggling to survive. Suicide was not a choice he made, but rather a choice he happened onto when his pain was greater than his ability to cope.”
This man, who took his own life, was a survivor in every sense of the word.
I imagine that such is true of many who leave the world in this way.
But not everyone is so compassionate towards those who take their own life.
Not only have we been told the manner of Williams’ death, we’ve also been told the cause (hanging).
Why? Why? Why have we been told this?
Suicide through overdose, gunshot wound and carbon monoxide asphyxiation are considerably timid forms of suicide when compared with hanging.
Overdose, gunshot wounds and carbon monoxide are one step methods that sometimes result from impulsive moments of considerable darkness. But, hanging oneself. This is a whole different method of suicide. In many ways, it is the most premeditated form of self-murder. Suicide by hanging is a statement suicide. Suicide by overdose and gunshot is usually an “I just want to end it” method … not so with hanging. And all this gives more reasons why Williams’ death is so complex and complicated.
Grief is sacred.
This sacredness of grief is the reason so many of us hate the Westboro picketers, who picket the funerals of fallen soldiers, and any other funeral that can grab them some limelight. We dislike what they’re doing because it transgresses one of the most sacred aspects of both our love and our humanity: the grief that comes from the loss of personal love.
I believe transparency is helpful. But, in times like this, privacy is what Robin’s family and friends need and deserve. And I wish they would have received it. I, for one, hurt for his wife and kids and hope they find the space, compassion and love they so desperately need.
This song is not meant to condone suicide. Rather, it is an attempt to empathize with those who struggle with suicidal thoughts, feeling and actions.
I wrote and sang this song back in 2004 for a class project in my funeral service program. There’s a video that goes along with it (and was a rad amateur vid for 2004), but the video is rather violent. Be forewarned that it not only contains violence, but it also has a number of heavy curse words. If you wish to bypass the video, you can just play the audio via SoundCloud.
The idea of the song is that some people’s lives are so messed up that they hope there’s a place where there is no existence. It was inspired by a friend of mine in high school, who was abused as a child and used drugs to blunt the pain. He was also raised in a Christian family and believed that his actions warranted hell.
His hope was that he could die and there would be neither heaven or hell, but simply nothing … a place where he can’t feel pain, hurt or even happiness.
The song itself starts at the 1 minute, 51 second mark.
A friend of mine disappeared. I mean, left with only the clothes on his back. Borrowed clothes, at that. He left his phone. His wallet. Everything. And he just went away.
Several days passed. Then weeks. Months. Nothing. No word. A friend of ours traveled on foot, looking for him. Others pressed the police. The media. Anyone. To pay attention.
We’d have to wait for the snow to melt. Then he might be found. That’s what they were told.
The snow melted. Heavy rain fell. The city flooded.
A week later someone found him. Sixty miles or so away. His body had traveled all that way. In the river.
Too many details muddy my mind. I don’t want to think about the way they found him. How I was told he looked. That his own father couldn’t identify him.
His death. Announced on the six o’clock news. His Facebook account. Posts deleted until the day before he vanished. Went missing. Even his last two posts deleted. His cries out to us. Cries that most of us didn’t even hear. See. Know.
I’ll die and no one will care. He’d said. No one will come to my funeral.
His ashes spread. A few friends gathered for a quiet memorial. Invitation only.
I couldn’t go.
I tried to honor him by listening to a few songs he liked. By reading his poems. Looking through our messages about religion and art and literature.
But I didn’t get to say good-bye. Haven’t been able to mourn.
Somewhere. Maybe in my heart. Or soul. I don’t really believe he’s gone. I know he is. But I am having a hard time accepting it.
I see a tall guy with black hair. Smoking outside a coffee shop. Walking down the sidewalk with a hood up. I think it might be him until I remember. No. It isn’t him. He’s gone. Dead. Found floating.
I get sick to my stomach.
Wish that I could go back to thinking that he left. Started over. Got himself over to Japan. Reached his dream. With headphones on his ears and new poetry streaming from his mouth.
And. And I wish he knew. I wish he knew that he was loved.
That he knew how broken my heart is.
And how I can’t cry. As much as I want to. I can’t.
And I don’t understand it.
A friend of mine disappeared. He died. And I don’t know how to grieve.
I can’t figure out how to mourn a death I can’t realize.
A death I don’t understand.
Today’s guest post was written by Susie Finkbeiner. Susie is a novelist and short story writer from West Michigan. Her first novel “Paint Chips” released in 2013 and she is currently working on her second novel and a collection of short stories. When Susie isn’t writing, she is busy as the fiction editor for Burnside Writers Collective as well as Unbound Magazine. Susie is a wife, mother of three, and avid reader. She enjoys time with her family, coffee dates with good friends, and quiet moments to read and write. Website:www.susiefinkbeiner.