Talking About Suicide

Because it's not a taboo

“Shut up and deal.”

It’s the holidays. Time for another look at Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” one of the finest films around. I’d never paid much attention to its suicide attempt, but I do now. Note how the fast-paced plot deals with stigma, as Jack Lemmon (as C.C. “Bud” Baxter) talks his next-door neighbor, a doctor, out of reporting the suicide attempt of Shirley MacLaine (Fran Kubelik) to authorities:

She didn’t mean it, Doc — it was
an accident — she had a little too
much to drink and — she didn’t
know what she was doing — there
was no suicide note or anything —
believe me, Doc, I’m not thinking
about myself —

Aren’t you?

It’s just that she’s got a family —
and there’s the people in the
office — look, Doc, can’t you
forget you’re a doctor — let’s
just say you’re here as a neighbor —

Then there’s the fleeting reference to attempt survivors being at risk:

But you’re not out of the woods
yet, Baxter — because most of them
try it again!

And Miss Kubelik’s not-exactly-gratitude at being saved:

I’m so ashamed. Why didn’t you just
let me die?

There’s the caution of C.C. Baxter as he tries to suicide-proof his apartment, slipping the blade out of his razor and pocketing a bottle of iodine in the bathroom, telling Miss Kubelik that his apartment is only on the second floor, and hurrying in from buying groceries to scold her about turning on the gas of his stove. (She didn’t know she had to light it to boil water.)

And the quick round of cliches from Miss Kubelik’s married boyfriend when he hears about her attempt:

Fran, why did you do it? It’s so
childish — and it never solves
anything — I ought to be very
angry with you, scaring me like
that — but let’s forget the whole
thing — pretend it never
happened — what do you say, Fran?

Finally, the best scene because it’s brisk and believable and somehow un-shocking:

I wonder how long it takes to get
someone you’re stuck on out of your
system? If they’d only invent some
kind of a pump for that —

I know how you feel, Miss Kubelik.
You think it’s the end of the
world — but it’s not, really. I
went through exactly the same thing

You did?

Well, maybe not exactly — I tried
to do it with a gun.

Over a girl?

Worse than that — she was the wife
of my best friend — and I was mad
for her. But I knew it was
hopeless — so I decided to end it
all. I went to a pawnshop and
bought a forty-five automatic and
drove up to Eden Park — do you
know Cincinnati?

No, I don’t.

Anyway, I parked the car and loaded
the gun — well, you read in the
papers all the time that people
shoot themselves, but believe me,
            it’s not that easy — I mean, how
do you do it? — here, or here, or
here —
(with cocked finger,
he points to his
temple, mouth and chest)
— you know where I finally shot



In the knee?

Uh-huh. While I was sitting there,
trying to make my mind up, a cop
stuck his head in the car, because
I was illegally parked — so I
started to hide the gun under the
seat and it went off — pow!

That’s terrible.

Yeah. Took me a year before I could
bend my knee — but I got over the
girl in three weeks. She still
lives in Cincinnati, has four kids,
gained twenty pounds — she sends
me a fruit cake every Christmas.

(Emphasis mine.)

C.C. Baxter doesn’t recoil in horror at Miss Kubelik (nor does the boyfriend), and she doesn’t at him. They go back to work and life goes on, bumpy as it is. A final echo of a suicide attempt, so to speak, brings us to one of the loveliest endings in film.

I mention all of this not only for the chance to read over the script, but to point out a deft treatment of suicide that never needs the tiptoe-ing sensitivity that sometimes makes the issue even more awkward. (The movie, by the way, is now more than 50 years old.)

The scene above, with Miss Kubelik laughing, reminds me of the relief I felt in talking with a fellow attempt survivor at the American Association of Suicidology conference earlier this year. We had never met until that afternoon, but we were soon making fun of our own attempts. “A steak knife?” she recalled sarcastically, rolling her eyes. “Really?” Appalling as it might seem to those who’ve never been there, it helped because we could find the humor. We were still human _ personality-wise.

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