When I retired as a humanist celebrant I thought I'd stop writing this blog, but my fascination with all things death-related prompted more posts. They're just written from a slightly different perspective, that's all. Oh, and I still do the odd one, by special request.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Leela Alcorn's killer - what about him?

You might imagine that, of course, losing someone to suicide will deeply affect the people closest to the person who died. I've conducted funerals for people who've taken an overdose or slit their wrists, both deeply shocking for the friend or relative who found them. But sometimes the people most deeply affected are those who killed the suicides, through no fault of their own.

Over the last week or so the story of Leelah Alcorn has been told on social media. A transgender teenager, she committed suicide by stepping into traffic and being hit by a tractor and trailer.
On Sunday, just before 2:30 a.m., Alcorn walked 4 miles from her middle-class Kings Mills neighborhood with its views of Kings Island to Interstate 71. There, she was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer. The highway was closed for more than a hour.
While I have every sympathy with Leela's mother, and with all her friends and relatives, and I share the feeling that it was a tragedy that she chose to die because of her circumstances, I also feel that one other person's trauma has been largely ignored; the driver whose vehicle crushed Leela's body. He will never be able to forget what happened.

Leela is described in a statement from her school as "a sweet, talented, tender-hearted 17-year-old." She wrote in her blog, "My death needs to mean something". She was referring to the prejudice and bullying experienced by people like herself. But this sweet, tender-hearted teen didn't take pills or drown herself; she got someone else to kill her. She didn't think about the effect that might have on him.

Letters to The Age in 2012 reflect the trauma suffered by railway workers whose trains have struck suicides. A front-seat passenger described one fatality,
I will never forget the scream of the driver and the feeling of the train running over the woman's body...
Can you imagine that? Can you imagine the nightmares? The anxiety every time you see someone stepping towards the road out of the corner of your eye? In the UK, train drivers who used to be able to claim compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Fund have lost that right, despite being off work for months or leaving the job altogether, and suffering long-term depression. Nik Douglas, whose train hit a man, described how his life changed in 2012:
For the next six months he was off work with post-traumatic stress. “When I was on my own I’d burst into tears for no reason, I found sleep hard and I’d have flashbacks during the night and day,” he says. “I could be in a room full of people with a really good party atmosphere but feel alone, isolated. That’s one of the biggest things I remember, feeling alone.”
The Samaritans and Network Rail have formed a partnership to try and address the problem, for the benefit of all concerned. Here's their video.

So OK, sympathise with Leela, and others like her, but think of the damage that they've done to other people too. It may have been unintentional, but maybe if more people are aware of the problem it might, just might, prevent copy-cat suicides.

As I wrote in a previous post, suicides are notoriously oblivious to the effect that their actions have on other people.
Update - BBC Look East news report, 28/1/2015:


Alice Gibbs said...

A very interesting post. And something that needs to be referenced.

My advice however, when discussing things like this would be NOT to single out a case such as Leela Alcorn's as referenced above, but to simply talk about the issue of trauma to train drivers and indeed road drivers also. It's important that people understand this. And preventing copycat suicides, while a brilliant cause, should not be done in this way.

You cannot simply tell people they are selfish and are 'oblivious to the effect that their actions have on other people,' because they are often not. Suicide victims are however people who need help, compassion and support.

Unless you've been that person, you have no idea what they are oblivious to etc etc.

Just some thoughts :)

Margaret Nelson said...

Thanks for the advice Alice, but I used Leela as an example of the sort of suicide that is doubly distressing; firstly, because of the effect on her family and friends and secondly, because it has involved a complete stranger.

Her situation has attracted a lot of sympathy in social media, while the effect of her method has been ignored. I didn't say that suicides are selfish. It would be more accurate to say that they're self-obsessed, which isn't the same thing. Yes, they need help, compassion and support, but so do the people whose lives are changed by their actions. Some can become depressed after an episode like a road or rail fatality, so that they too become suicidal.

You wrote, "Unless you've been that person, you have no idea what they are oblivious to." Well, of course not. When they're dead we can only guess at what was going through their minds. However, I have been suicidal, a long time ago. I took an overdose of prescription drugs and ended up in hospital after having my stomach pumped out. It never occurred to me to step in front of a train, or any equally unpleasant method. I can admit that I was, at the time, totally self-obsessed. Fortunately, I grew up and learned how to cope with the challenges that had previously defeated me.

There has been a belated wave of sympathy for Leela online, because of her age and her predicament, but I think that the man who drove the vehicle that killed her is equally deserving of sympathy. He wouldn't need it, if Leela had chosen a different way to die.

Incidentally, there are many suicides that I sympathise with, such as when someone has a painful terminal illness. An advocate of the right to die, Dr Eike-Henner Kluge wrote,

"Each and every one of us stands in a peculiar and unique relationship to his or her life. Our life is our own in the way in which nothing else is. We could characterise this relationship by calling it, perhaps somewhat tendentiously, non-transferable ownership. But we do own it: that is the major point. And as with anything we own in the full-blooded sense of that term, we have the right to advance it, to ruin it, or even to dispose of it altogether. In short, we have the right to end it if we so please, to commit suicide . . . Suicide, therefore, is our right simply in virtue of a much more general right: the right to do with our own property as we please."

However, we do not have the right to end our life in a way that may ruin the life of someone else, a complete stranger, who has done nothing to deserve being involved.

It's precisely because Leela has attracted so much sympathy and attention that I chose to use her as an example of how not to commit suicide, if you care about other people at all. If a young person who might be depressed and perhaps romanticises Leela as a tragic victim of prejudice were to emulate her method, maybe they might learn that they could end up horribly disabled, not dead, besides hurting others.

Betty. said...

Great article

Margaret Nelson said...

Thank you.

M Nelson said...

A Twitter friend has commented, "Happened to my Dad twice. 2nd time he could see the bloke standing on the track for about a mile.Can't stop a train in a hurry."