I’ve written a lot over the years about taboo and censorship. In particular about self-censorship. I have also written a lot, both fact and fiction, about suicide and self-harm in an effort to make my words, even if only for one person, a hand reaching out to hold theirs in the night when they feel utterly alone. I have even written a whole book, (life) razorblades included, that I preface by saying “I celebrate life by writing about death.”
And it’s on this particular subject that, for me, the subject of self-censorship raises its head most frequently. How do you write responsibly about suicide? How do you reach out with utter honesty so as never to patronise or belittle or “explain” another’s pain?
Of course, the first question any writer must ask, very seriously, is why they should write responsibly, and we should be very wary of coming up with any answer other than “that’s my personal choice.” But that is my choice.
I want to be responsible to those whose pain has become intolerable. I want not to belittle it by slapping a warning all over what I write, either literally or through the book’s “message”, saying “don’t do this at home, kids.” I want to avoid the easy way out of writing about something else. And at the same time I want never to glamorise, never to say “hey kids, this is a cool thing to do.”
It’s a very hard line to walk, and my personal feeling is that in the past we have veered too far towards not glamorising, towards qualifying everything with a suitable message.
This is something I really had to grapple with (among many other things!) in my new book, No Exit. The relationship at the heart of it features my protagonist, Alice, and her best friend, Cassie, someone whose creativity and passion bursts from every pore but who is just too fragile for the world.
Now, in writing Cassie, I faced a lot of very uncomfortable issues that could only be dealt with by absolute honesty. First amongst them is the fact that there was a very big danger of making Cassie a stereotype, and a very unwholesome one at that – the “beautiful dead girl” or the “suicidal creative waif.” Tipping into either of these would kill the book dead. I could have avoided that by writing a different Cassie. But, as some will know, Cassie is based on a very dear friend of mine whose story I wanted to tell. That wasn’t an option.
The only option was to write Cassie honestly. And a lot of that meant drawing on conversations we’d had. There’s one line in No Exit that is at the heart of everything, and it’s one that to many of us feels almost impossible to grasp. Before Cassie and Alice become friends, Cassie gives Alice an ultimatum:
“This is the deal if we’re going to be friends. You don’t ever try to save me. Not ever.”
Of course, because every sentence serves the plot, this is going to be played out later. And it is, in the hardest scene I’ve ever written, when Alice holds Cassie while she dies without trying to intervene despite her whole being wanting to. It’s a dynamic that makes me feel both very uneasy – because it could justify some very damaging behaviour if it’s read in the wrong way – and very comfortable – because it is absolutely honest.
This is all further complicated because Cassie is obsessed with “making death beautiful.” Again, a really dangerous and triggering thing to write. But an essential part of Cassie. And something that feels very normal to a certain kind of outsider. The kind I am writing for.
So what should a writer in my position do? That’s a genuine question. Do I stay silent, leave stories untold? Do I compromise those stories? Which is worse, to write elements out of the story and alienate many of those who feel alone, or to write necessary elements in and risk encouraging, glamorising, triggering? Do I make Cassie and her actions “ugly” because I am so frightened of what happens if I let her beauty be there on the page (someone once told my dear friend she had no right to write her experiences because she was too beautiful – a hideous censorship that has never left me)? Do I layer the text with trigger warnings? I don’t know. I have tried to be 100% honest. But is even that relevant or important?