1991. Counts, Dorothy Ayers. Suicide in Different Ages From a Cross-cultural Perspective. In Life Perspectives of Suicide: Time-Lines in the Suicide Process, Antoon Leenaars, ed., pp. 215-230. New York: Plenum Press. This manuscript differs in minor ways from the published version. For accuracy and correct page numbers please cite the version published in Life Perspectives of Suicide: Time-Lines in the Suicide Process, Antoon Leenaars, ed. This manuscript differs slightly from the published version. Please cite from the published version.
The advantage of an anthropological approach to understanding suicides as they occur at different points in the life cycle and in different cultures is that anthropology offers an analytical perspective concerned with understanding the cultural context in which suicides occur. In contrast to the psychological approach -- one that is concerned with individual motives -- and the sociological approach, which broadly emphasizes social relationships and social integration, anthropology attempts to explain the individual act of suicide as a culturally constructed act performed in the context of a cultural system of meaning. These systems of meaning communicate, in a variety of ways as we shall see below, the rules of suicide for those who would kill themselves and a code of understanding for the survivors who must interpret the message that the suicide was attempting to convey. These rules determine who may legitimately commit suicide, why, and how it is done. They say, in effect, that under some circumstances it is appropriate for certain types of people to commit suicide. He should do it in a designated way after taking steps X, Y and Z that will communicate a message. If he does it properly, the suicidal person can expect relatives and friends to respond in predictable ways. The person who is contemplating suicide will refer to these publicly shared understandings for, by so doing, he can legitimize and give meaning to his own death, both for himself and for others. He may also be able to establish an agenda for his friends and kin to follow in response to his death.
There are many ways of communicating the idea that suicide is an acceptable option in certain circmstances. It may be so integral to the culture that it is a theme in children's play as it is in Arawe on the south coast of West New Britain Papua New Guinea. In this society when school children are asked by researchers to draw the picture of a person who has shame they draw the figure of an individual with a noose around his neck, and when they play they dramatize suicide by knotting a rope around their throats and dropping limply to the ground (Hoskin, Friedman and Cawte 1969:206). Or it may be a theme in oral literature as is true among the Kwar'ae and the Kwaio of Malaita, Solomon Islands where most of the myths portray only females as suicide victims (Akin 1985; Gegeo & Watson-Gegeo 1985). Suicide is also culturally patterned in Kaliai, West New Britain, Papua New Guinea where myths, legends and folk tales recount the conditions under which people may legitimately kill themselves, describe the methods to be used, and depict the procedures that a suicide should follow in order to communicate a powerful message by the deed (Counts 1980).
As we will see, the cultural patterning and stereotyping of suicide may result in a particularly dramatic case becoming a model to be followed by people whose predicaments are similar to that of the victim and who share an interpretation of the act. In this circumstance, suicides may become commonly perceived as an appropriate or effective response to a given situation, and they may even reach epidemic proportions. This has happened since the mid 1970s among teenaged and young adult males in Micronesia. Suicide also is, to a lesser extent, a strategy frequently employed by Melanesian women of marriagable age. Similarly, before World War II it was reportedly common for widows in some New Guinian communities to demand that their relatives kill them following their husbands' deaths. I will, in this chapter, discuss suicides among these three age groups -- young unmarried Micronesian men, married or marriageable Melanesian women, and elderly New Guinean widows -- to illustrate the importance of the cultural context in understanding the meaning of suicide in a particular society.
Micronesia encompasses a number of small islands, some of the best known of which are Guam, Wake, Truk, Palau, and Saipan. Although there is a population of only about 125,000 people in Micronesia, there are a dozen different languages and cultural groups. Social and economic change has been rapid and profound in these islands, especially since World War II. The indigenous economy, which was based on fishing and gardening, has been largely replaced by a cash economy based on government jobs and on the construction, educational, and health service projects that have been subsidized by the American government which administers the area.
The leading cause of death for Micronesian males between the ages of 15 and 30 is suicide (Marshall 1979:78). Rubinstein reports that between the mid-1960s and the 1970s the suicide rate for young males doubled every four years (1986:4). By 1983 the suicide for the Micronesian population had increased from an annual rate of 8 per 100,000 to an annual rate of 48 per 100,000 (Rubinstein 1985:89, 91), with the highest rates being among men between the ages of 15 and 24 years. The median age of suicide for Mirconesian males is slightly under 20 years old (Rubinstein 1986:4). In 1986 the annual suicide rate among young Micronesian men was 150 per 100,000, while in Truk the rate had reached 200 per 100,000, more than ten times the suicide rate for American males of the same age. (Rubinstein 1986:5). In other words, one out of every 50 Trukese men die by suicide between the ages of 15 and 24. The female age-specific suicide rates followed a similar pattern but were at only 10 per cent of the male rate (Rubinstein 1985:89-90).
The young men who commit suicide share a number of personal and situational characteristics. The typical suicide victim is a single young man who lives at home with his parents in a rural village a few miles from town. He is either a student or is employed as a manual or semi-skilled laborer. The suicide occurs after an emotional argument with a close friend or relative, it takes place near or inside the victim's home, usually at night. Many (about one-third) of suicides had been either drinking alcoholic beverages or using marijuana before their death (Rubinstein 1986:5), and many had a history of moderately heavy drinking. The method of suicide is usually (85 percent of the time) by hanging (Hezel 1976; Rubinstein 1985), but often the body is not suspended off the ground. Rather the suicide places his head in the noose, leans forward from a sitting or standing position, and dies from anoxia after losing consciousness (Rubinstein 1986:5).
The typical pattern of events is for a young man who is scolded by a parent or older sibling over some small infraction of family rules, or who is refused some minor request, to withdraw in anger and hang himself. These deaths appear to be impulsive and the family is frequently taken by surprise, for the incident that triggers the suicide is often trivial and seems to be out of proportion to the violent and tragic response. For instance, Rubinstein says that is not uncommon to hear of a boy killing himself after being scolded by his father for shirking chores. He recounts one case of a young man who tried to hang himself after his father refused to give him $5.00 (Rubinstein 1985:94-96), and another of a seventeen-year-old who hanged himself following an angry scolding from his father because he was late to help his parents in their garden (Rubinstein 1986:6). Hezel reports that within a month in Truk an eighteen-year-old who had been drifting from one relative's house to another hanged himself over a perceived insult from an older kinsman; a nine-year old boy hanged himself after watching television in a friend's house because he was afraid his father would spank him for staying out so late; and a twenty-four-year old man took his life after he was denied credit in the family store (Hezel n.d.).
Anthropologist seeking to explain the high rate of suicide, among young Micronesian men and the apparently trivial incidents that frequently trigger the deaths, have focussed on two interactive aspects of Micronesian life: (1) the rapid and pervasive social change that has occurred in the organization of family life and the socialization of young men since end the of World War II and (2) a unique emotional state that characterizes the feelings of a young person who feels anger toward his elders but who is prohibited by traditional values from directly expressing his frustration and rage.
Those aspects of social change that have created tensions between parents and their teenaged sons and that are especially relevant to adolescent male suicide are as follows (Rubinstein 1986:3-4):
(1) The size and composition of the family unit has changed from the extended household and cooperative land owning economic unit that was focused on sisters and their husbands to the nuclear family, usually centered around a wage-earning father. In this new, smaller nuclear unit parents spend more time with and have more responsiblity for their children, and there are fewer alternatives for sanctuary or for cooling-off places for young people who are in conflict with their parents or older siblings.
(2) The meeting houses where adolescent males traditionally lived and were socialized by the community, independent of their parents, have mostly disappeared. Today teenagers are more likely to live with, and be dependent on, their parents, and a traditional refuge has disappeared.
(3) There is a generation gap between an older generation of parents who have less formal education and who are less accepting of American culture and values and their children who are involved in the American consumer culture.
When these changes, which exacerbate tensions between family members and lead to family quarrels and conflict, are combined with an emotional state that is characteristically Micronesian, the result is an epidemic of adolescent male suicide.
As White notes, Pacific Islanders perceive, talk about and experience emotion in culturally distinct ways that must be understood if we are to make sense of their behavior (1985). If we fail to comprehend their unique experience of emotion we risk the error of applying Western psychological concepts to their behavior, thereby misunderstanding what suicide means to them.
As already noted, Trukese suicide usually occurs in the context of conflict between family members, a situation that gives rise to a complex of feelings termed amwunumwun. This term signifies the mixture of anger, frustration and resentment that an individual feels towards higher status family members with whom he is in conflict. Hezel explains this complex emotion in the following way (1985:115-116):
When a Trukese is hurt and angered by someone he loves and respects, he commonly uses a strategy that is called amwunumwun. The refusal of a boy to eat when his parents have offended him is an example of amwunumwun .... [It] is a strategy of withdrawal or self-absement used to show to those one must both love and obey that one is hurt by them. The act of amwunumwun is intended not principally to inflict revenge -- although it would be naive to maintain that there is nothing of this in the act -- but to dramatize one's anger, frustration and sorrow in the hope that the present unhappy situation will soon be remedied. If the one who employs amwunumwun is trying to shame the one who has offended him it is always with the intention of showing the offending party the sad state into which their relationship has fallen so that he will take steps to restore it to what it once was or should have been.... Suicide, in the overwhelming majority of Trukese cases, must be understood as a kind of amwunumwun. Indeed, it is the extreme form of amwunumwun since it means inflicting the ultimate harm upon oneself in order to compel the parents or others to recognize the damage they have done and to repair it.
As White points out, amwunumwun is a culturally recognized scenario that permits youths to appeal to higher ranking relatives indirectly, without expressing anger or resentment, which would violate values of respect that are due to older family members. Micronesian culture favors a resolving conflict by denial or withdrawal, methods that are nonconfrontational and, ideally, after an offended young person withdraws from further interaction with his elders, he is approached by a relative who attempts to soothe him and repair the breach. However, as a result of changes in the size and composition of the family unit, the demise of the boat-house, and the cultural gap between youths and their parents' generation this intervention does not occur. There is no appropriate person to repair the breach or those who could step in to soothe the hurt and angry child do not recognize the seriousness of his despair. The consequence of the breakdown of the traditional method of conflict resolution is teenaged suicide, a deed that Micronesians interpret as being the ultimate act of withdrawal (Rubinstein 1986:6-7).
Rubinstein is quick to point out that Micronesians do not approve of adolescent suicide, and that it does not affirm cultural values (1986:7). However, local attitudes toward it are ambivalent and contextual and vary from one community to another. He also observes that the clustering of multiple adolescent suicides in one small community in a short time has become commonplace in Micronesia, and that this patterning may give suicide a specific local cultural meaning, such as an appeal to his family for recognition and love. When suicide becomes stereotyped and imbued with local meaning, such as a plea to the family for love and recognition, its very meaningfulness may make suicide acceptable and impart to it a degree of legitimacy, especially to others in the high-risk category.
We turn now to consider the cultural patterning of suicide among Melanesian women of reproductive age and to consider what meaning suicide has for these women and for their survivors.
Melanesia covers the western South Pacific from the island of New Guinea to Fiji and includes the countries of Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands, and Fiji. It is difficult to make any general statement that would hold true of all of Melanesia for it encompasses a great variety of language, culture, and colonial experience. It is accurate to say, however, that the area has undergone rapid social, economic and social change since World War II, that in most Melanesian societies there is an ethos of male domination over females, and that suicide was endemic in many Melanesian communities. A common pattern is for young women to attempt or commit suicide after a confrontation centering around marriage, either by unmarried women who are involved in a controversy with their relatives over whom they will marry or by married women who have had a conflict -- often a violent one -- with their husbands. Whereas in Micronesia the element of revenge is apparently only a secondary aspect of the suicide of adolescent males, Melanesian suicide is often revenge suicide and is predicated on a common understanding of its consequences. A Melanesian woman may decide to kill herself because the cultural pattern of suicide leads her to expect that her relatives will respond to her death in predictable ways that will enable her to, vicariously, take revenge on those who drove her to her death.
The first anthropologist to identify revenge suicide in other cultures was Jeffreys who discovered it in Africa and called it samsonic suicide after the Biblical figure who pulled a temple down around his own head in order to kill his enemies (Jeffreys 1952). The cultural pattern of revenge suicide is, of course, not the same everywhere it is found, but there are a number of similarities:
First, powerless people who lack an effective, more direct way of influencing the behavior of others are the most likely to commit revenge suicide. These powerless people are often women. For example, Panoff rerports that among the Maenge of New Britain, Papua New Guinea, revenge suicide occurs chiefly among two categories of person, orphans and women: "...precisely those [categories] whose members have the fewest opportunities to pour out their aggressiveness" (Panoff 1977:55). According to Panoff the Maenge do not consider suicide to be proper behavior for everyone; rather, it "...is a type of death appropriate only to 'rubbish men' and women" (1977:50).
Second, in order for revenge suicide to occur there must be a tradition that holds someone other than the victim responsible for it, and the society must have some culturally recognized way of identifying and punishing the guilty person(s). Identification of the culpable party may be the responsibility of the victim and may be part of a suicide ritual. Or it may occur as the result of a public moot during which the events leading up to the death and the relationship of people close to the victim are analyzed in detail, or at which someone offers to pay compensation to the victim's survivor, thereby acknowledging culpability; or a religious ritual, such as a divination or an interview with the ghost of the deceased, may identify the guilty person(s) (for examples of such a ritual see Counts and Counts 1974, Counts 1980, Mitchell 1978:153-155). Punishment of the guilty may be accomplished by supernatural entities, for people may believe that the ghost of the suicide has the power to torment the person responsible for the death. The Lusi-Kaliai, for instance, consider the ghosts of suicides to be fearful spirits who are malevolent and dangerous. Their shame and anger prevents them from entering the world of the dead and condemns them to exist on the fringes between human and spirit society where they may be captured to become the familiar of sorcerers. The survivors of a suicide victim know that, if they do not revenge her death either by physical violence or sorcery or by demanding heavy compensation payments from her tormentor, they see her ghost wandering near the edge of the village at dusk, reminding them that they have not done their duty.
The punishment of those who cause someone to commit suicide may also take a mundane form. It is common in Melanesia for the indigenous political system to impose a penalty on the person who provoked the suicide or confirm the right of the survivors to exact compensation from or take revenge on the guilty party. For instance, Akin notes that in Malaita, Solomons Islands, before pacification a husband who was held responsible for his wife's suicide might have been executed by her relatives, while today he may be forced to pay them compensation for her death (1985:201).
Revenge is an important aspect of the cultural pattern of suicide in many Papua New Guinea societies. For example, a Huli man whose wife commits suicide because of his ill-treatment is held responsible for her murder (Frankel 1986:135), while the Jale of the highlands of Irian Jaya (the western, Indonesian portion of the island of New Guinea) consider suicide to be a vengeful act that is intended to harm those who are responsible for the death. The guilty persobs feel regret and self-reproach and are expected to pay compensation to the victim's relatives (Koch 1974:74-76). Similarly, a shamed Fore woman who has no other recourse may commit suicide in order to punish her tormentors because her death will "set in motion the machinery of revenge" (Berndt 1962:204).
A Gainj woman who kills herself following physical abuse or shaming by her husband can inflict both supernatural harm and mundane disaster on him (Johnson 1981). In her discussion of the Gainj rules for revenge suicide and the effects of the death on the provocateur, Johnson says (1981:332):
Gainj women do not kill themselves discreetly. They do it at a time which will preclude their being rescued (usually just before dawn), in a way that leaves no question as to intent (hanging from a tree), and in locations that demand public acknowledgement (usually next to a well-travelled path). It is perhaps the only time in a woman's life when she creates a public event, one calculated, moveover, to thoroughly humiliate her husband.... Thus the husband of a suicide loses assets -- his wife, the brideprice he paid for her and the compensation he now must pay, and status. He is a man who has been thoroughly and publicly bested by a woman.
Among the Maring of Papua New Guinea only women commit suicide and they usually do so following violent domestic conflict (Healey 1979:95). Their deaths are vengeful acts that are especially potent when they also kill their young daughters, as happened in half the cases of suicide (three of six) that Healey analyzed. Healey says (1979:96):
Destruction of a child in suicide is particularly vengeful, for not only is the husband deprived of a wife, but also of children who can care for him in his old age, and who will forge new affinal alliances for him. Further, he must provide the customary death-payments for both wife and child to the woman's agnates, and face the anger and possible vengeance of his affines by physical attack or witchcraft.
In Kaliai, West New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea, suicide has become increasingly common and, in recent years, has been restricted to women of reproductive age (Counts 1988). Between 1975 and 1985 I recorded four completed suicides and two suicide attempts in one rural village of about two hundred and fifty people (the population fluctuated during the ten year period). All of the deaths and one of the attempts were by women, and three of the women were closely related -- in fact, two were mother and daughter. Before 1975 the only suicides in this community had been committed by two related men in the early part of this century. All of the recent incidents occurred as a result of conflict over marriage, either by young women who were shamed because they were unable to marry the men of their choice or in the context of domestic violence in which the women were beaten. In one case it is unclear whether the death was a suicide or was the result of injuries suffered as a result of multiple severe beatings (Counts 1987; Counts 1988). The first death, that of a seventeen-year-old girl (which I have discussed in detail in Counts 1980), seems to have become a model for the other female suicides.
The cultural pattern of suicide in Kaliai is similar to patterns of revenge suicide in other Papua New Guinea societies. The pattern includes suicide as an alternative available to shamed, abused and powerless women, the assumption suicide is an act of homicide for whom someone other than the victim is responsible, mechanisms for ascertaining the identity of and punishing the guilty party, and rules of procedure that permit a person to commit a culturally meaningful (revenge) suicide. These procedures are widely known and are communicated through oral tradition and by gossip around evening cooking fires. These rules are as follows:
(1) The victim should not kill herself impulsively or in secret. Rather she should warn others of her intent. She can do this in a number of ways: by destroying the things she uses every day, things such as her cooking pots, her canoe, or her decorative items such as shell armbands; by leaving her footprints in ashes; or by leaving a written message, one that is inscribed on paper or that is carved on the husks of green coconuts, where it is sure to be found.
(2) She should dress herself in her finest Western clothing or traditional costume, decorate herself, and annoint herself with sweet smelling oils.
(3) She should kill herself in the presence of others or where others will be sure to find her body soon after her death. The dramatic message of a suicide is enhanced if there are witnesses who helplessly see the death and hear the victim's last words, words which identify those whom she holds responsible for her suicide.
(4) She should use one of the following methods: drinking poison, traditionally a concoction made of derris root (a rotenone poison) but now extended to include drinking household bleach, taking an overdose of chloroquine phosphate tablets (readily available malaria supressants), or a mixture of the poisons; hanging herself; or jumping from the top of a tall tree. People sometimes combine two or more of these methods.
(5) Finally, it is essential that she reveal to others the identity of the culpable person. This message is so important to the successful implementation of a revenge suicide that survivors may report that the identity of the person responsible for the suicide has been disclosed by the suicide's ghost. If she follows this cultural pattern, a woman can reasonably expect her survivors to consider her to have been murdered by slander and/or abuse and to retaliate in the same way the same way they do against any other form of homicide (Counts 1980).
A Lusi-Kaliai woman who follows these rules commits a culturally patterned and meaningful suicide and is said to have been "killed with talk". Consequently her kin respond to her death the same way that they do to other forms of homicide, by demending compensation and, sometimes, by ensorceling the guilty parties as well (Counts 1980, 1984, 1987). In all of the cases of suicide mentioned above, the people who were held responsible for the deaths paid compensation to the relatives of the victim, but in two cases the payment did not adequately avenge the deaths. Consequently the survivors of the suicide victims reportedly employed sorcerers to kill either the culpable party or one of his close relatives by malevolent magic.
Clearly, then, revenge suicide is a culturally patterned act that has meaning for the community as well as for the victim and which enables the victim to take revenge, albeeit vicariously, on those whom she holds responsible for the misery leading to her death. As with the suicide of Micronesian adolescents, simple statistics are not enough. We must know the cultural context surrounding the suicide in order to understand the message that the death gives to the community and the social consequences of the deed.
A variation on the theme of revenge suicide -- and one that leads nicely into the following discussion on assisted suicide by widows -- is found in early Malaita where a woman who had been sexually assaulted could, by forcing her own kin to kill her, also bring about the death of her assailant (Akin 1985). In precontact times the sacred zone surrounding the men's house was tabooed to women, and a woman who entered this forbidden area was killed by her male kin. A woman who had been raped could use this prohibition to, in effect, commit suicide by forcing her kin to kill her. She did this by climbing onto the roof of the men's house and demanding death, at the same time explaining the reason why she wished to die and naming the man who had raped her. As a result, "the rapist himself was seen as the girl's actual murderer, and in every case he was hunted down and killed" (Akin 1985:200-201).
Although technically the killing of a Papua New Guinean widow at her request, even at her insistence, was a form of ritual homicide that was outlawed by German and Australian authorities, it is a type of death that has also been considered by scholars to be a form of suicide, variously called alturistic suicide (Durkheim 1951:219), religious suicide (Rao 1975:232, or institutional suicide because the act was approved by members of the society and the culture prescribed under what circumstances it was to occur and the form it should take (Faberow 1975:1-2).
I have argued elsewhere that our categories of homicide and suicide are culturally bound and distort the meaning of this form of death when they are applied to it (Counts 1980:342-343).
As Rubinstein argues, when suicide becomes culturally patterned and highly stereotyped, people act and invest their actions with meaning that is based on cultural models which are clearly understood. Those who desire to intervene and prevent suicides must first understand and disrupt the cultural pattern of self destruction and disrupt it if they are to be successful (1986).
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