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Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It Hardcover – 3 Jan 2014

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (3 Jan 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300186088
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300186086
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 2.5 x 21 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 401,611 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"Eloquent and affecting."-David Brooks, New York Times -- David Brooks New York Times "Hecht is an intellectual historian and a poet, and her writing reflects both disciplines: The book is rigorous and deeply rewarding, both accessible and challenging... She finds common threads: sympathy for life's difficulty, yet a plea to stay, for the sake of one's community and even for one's future self."-Kate Tuttle, Boston Globe -- Kate Tuttle Boston Globe "While not insensitive to people who use suicide as a way to end the suffering of terminal illness, Hecht brands suicide an immoral act that robs society - and the self-killer - of a life that is certainly more valuable than what it may seem in that dark moment. It solves nothing, complicates everything... Her argument is that it - whatever dark truth that pronoun signifies - almost always gets better."-Newsweek Newsweek "A history not only of suicide, but how we think about suicide... Hecht proposes her own argument against suicide in the secular, modern world, presenting a humanist call for life... Her final plea to the suicidal gives the book its title: she urges them to simply 'stay.' "-Thomas Flynn, The Daily Beast The Daily Beast "Stay is more than a must-read - it's a cultural necessity."-Maria Popova, Brain Pickings -- Maria Popova Brain Pickings "The title of this book is an imperative against the departure that is suicide, and its contents provide a learned, illuminating look at the history of what is perhaps the darkest secret in all of human behavior."-Billy Collins -- Billy Collins "Jennifer Michael Hecht addresses the problem of suicidal nihilism with intellectual sophistication and poetic subtlety. An impassioned defense of life and rejection of self-slaughter (as Hamlet termed it), Stay is an important book."-David Lehman, Editor, The Oxford Book of American Poetry -- David Lehman "The perfect vehicle for an informed conversation about the virtues and vices of suicide, this book will literally save lives."-Stephen Prothero, author of The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation -- Stephen Prothero "In this moving and meaningful book, mythology, poetry, history, and personal reflection all combine to persuade us to stay right here, among the living."-Alan Wolfe, author of Political Evil -- Alan Wolfe "This defiantly positive note - this striving for hope - is the most uplifting part of Stay... Current statistics clearly show that few of Hecht's potential readers will have lives completely untouched by suicide; all of those potential readers will find a great deal to interest them in these pages."-Steve Donoghue, Open Letters Monthly Open Letters Monthly "In her impassioned, compelling book Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, Jennifer Michael Hecht makes the sustained argument she wishes she could have made to two friends who committed suicide... While Hecht's position is secular, religious people have nothing to fear from her, and would likely make common cause with her on many points. Her heartfelt book is the scholarly and literary equivalent of Kate Bush's vocals in a familiar Peter Gabriel song, singing to her despairing partner, 'Don't give up.' "-Jim Higgins, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel -- Jim Higgins Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "The author of the best-selling Doubt offers a history of suicide and of arguments against it... Even Camus, who found the search for meaning as absurd as pushing the same boulder up a cliff every day, urged his readers to 'imagine Sisyphus happy,' and to live."-New Yorker New Yorker "One cannot but be impressed by Hecht's breadth of knowledge, mostly expressed with a light touch, and there are many fascinating details." -Oliver James, The Independent -- Oliver James The Independent "Hecht's intentions are patently generous and benign. She wants to save young lives that seem needlessly lost...On these counts her book merits praise."-John Carey, The Sunday Times -- John Carey The Sunday Times "When I review a book I underline special passages, stick post-it notes and write comments in the margin. By that token this one has inspired me more than anything I've read in a very long time. Full of life and spirit and hope, and deeply moving, it communicates a generous love of suffering, flawed humanity. I cannot praise it highly enough."-Bel Mooney, Daily Mail -- Bel Mooney Daily Mail "Hecht's aim is to show that as suicide was secularised, it became too easy - a mere medical and therefore solipsistic condition which took no account of humans as members of a larger (caring) community. She wants to revitalise the idea that suicide is wrong, harms others and 'damages humanity'. No man or woman, even today, is an island."-Lisa Appignanesi, The Observer -- Lisa Appignanesi The Observer "Suicide as a concept has been praised, defended, and vilified in various contexts throughout history as poet and scholar Hecht (Doubt: A History) painstakingly illustrates in this nuanced and unsettling work, whose title acts as a rallying refrain throughout... The book's conclusions are hopeful. Gratitude is owed to those who reject suicide, according to Hecht, not only by the community but also by one's 'future self' who may be days, months, or years away. Like death, life can inspire, because one's 'ideas matter.'"-Publishers Weekly Publishers Weekly "[Hecht] is a first-rate historian of ideas... This gift of a book is as much about the issue of pain in life as it is about not ending your life because of the pain. Following in both a religious and a secular tradition, Hecht submits that suffering is soul-making... This tender and well-reasoned book is sure to save lives."-Gordon Marino, The Christian Century -- Gordon Marino The Christian Century "If we are serious about helping people overcome the dark nights of their souls, we must insist with Chesterton that suicide is a moral, not just a clinical, problem. An important new book does just that. Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It by the poet and philosopher Jennifer Michael Hecht challenges our culture's acceptance of suicides and reinvigorates the moral arguments against it. At a time when few philosophers or intellectuals are offering strong, compelling, secular arguments against suicide, Hecht's book steps in as a reminder that our liberal stance toward suicide is relatively new, in fact quite radical, and should be unequivocally challenged... The book fills a hole in the cultural conversation... Hecht writes, 'The arguments against suicide that I intend to revivify in public consciousness assert that suicide is wrong, that it harms the community, that it damages humanity, that it unfairly preempts your future self.'"-Emily Esfahani Smith, New Criterion -- Emily Esfahani Smith New Criterion "A humanist case for embracing life, as armor against cynicism... Stay is compassionate, clear, rich, and even funny."-Temma Ehrenfeld, The Humanist Magazine -- Temma Ehrenfeld The Humanist Magazine "This book is extremely important. Hecht's argument-that simply staying alive is incredibly helpful to those you love and those you don't even know-is tremendously persuasive. Everybody should read this... Stay is a convincing and powerful enough book to help people when they need it the most."-Audrey Curtis, San Francisco Book Review -- Audrey Curtis San Francisco Book Review

About the Author

Jennifer Michael Hecht is a historian, philosopher, and poet. She has written four books of history and philosophy, including the best-selling Doubt: A History. Hecht teaches at The New School and lives in Brooklyn.

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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By The Sweet poetry of Pus on 5 Nov 2014
Format: Hardcover
In religious times, the argument against suicide was that matters of life and death were the peculiar province of god. In the modern secular age, life and death are considered the peculiar province of psychiatric experts, and people like the writer of this book. What was once considered the divine prerogative of a god, has now been assumed by people who think they are god, who have the arrogance to claim it is up to them to decide when we die, because they are obviously members of reason's elect.

What we are witnessing with the coercive, often violent prohibition of suicide is another chapter in the history of man's oppression of his fellow man exercised on the not-so granite basis of the supposedly superior reasoning powers of the oppressor, who in this case I would say are actually suffering from an advanced case of naive realism, and often Panglossian optimism about the ugly world we live in.

I guess there is always going to be an ontological divide separating people like me from people like the author of this book, precluding the possibility of discussion. She believes that, faced with the Sisyphean slog so many of us must endure, we should nevertheless see life as obligatory. She talks of how suicide hurts the community, a community to whom the suicide of any but those of the idiots and bullies it has exalted to celebrity status, is a matter of indifference and inconsequence. We live in a community where there is no sense of community. That is just a myth perpetuated by the mass audio-visual media, especially through its soap operas.

Truth is, the average man is utterly indifferent to the plight of his fellow men, and in a society as competitive and cynical as ours, I can't say I blame him.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 33 reviews
77 of 95 people found the following review helpful
Interesting as a history book, but perplexing and out-dated as a secular anti-suicide argument 28 Nov 2013
By Trang Nguyen - Published on
Format: Hardcover
If you are interested in the history of suicide but cannot afford time to read all the major literature written about it, or don't know where to start, this book might come in handy. However, it does NOT offer a proper perspective on this delicate subject, and it stigmatizes people who attempt or die by suicide. For a better understanding of suicide, please visit, or cross-reference the information you've got from this book with different sources.

In her preface, Hetch asserts that she ultimately aims to revivify "a secular, logical anti-suicide consensus" by first establishing a historical context for the discourse on suicide -- dated way back to the ancient world of Roman Republic, then presenting the reader an accumulation of unflinching and impassioned philosophical arguments against suicide.

I'll make no comment on the historical section because I'm not knowledgeable enough on that aspect. On the other hand, I've got a lot to say about her reasoning against suicide and the way she addresses it. Before we go further, I also want to make it clear that I am not supporting suicide as problem solving, with the exception of carefully advised and monitored euthanasia for extreme cases (such as terminal illness).

The book perplexes me on many levels. Why? Let's break it down!

Despite her statement that she passes no judgment on those who did or contemplate the act, Hecht's arguments stigmatize suicide and the suicidal all the same. She equates suicide with delayed homicide, even alludes to it as self-murder at times; presumes that suicide is a choice made in a lucid state of mind; and worst of all, puts a partial blame on people who die by suicide for triggering chained suicides, also known as suicide clusters.

I think the problem is that Hecht has spent an intensive amount of time researching historical materials but not enough on contemporary debates and conditions of the subject.

First, by definition, homicide or murder is the premeditated killing of another person, done with MALICE intention. Suicidal people kill themselves because they want their suffering to stop, thus suicide cannot be considered a crime in the same sense murder is.

Second, the current consensus is that suicide is caused by different reasons--depression, insanity, abuse, drugs or substance abuse, extreme loss, existential crisis, etc. But the number one cause of suicide is untreated depression. 90% of people who died by suicide suffered from excruciating physical or/and emotional pain which caused them the impulses to end their life. Most people are not in a stable or coherent mentality when the thought of suicide occurs. Therefore, suicide-while preventable-is not a lucid choice.

Furthermore, even when suicide is contagious, it should not be one of the arguments for anti-suicide. On the other hand, it is nobody's fault that some mind is vulnerable or susceptible to external influences. And, really, people should not be responsible for others when they can't even function for themselves; I also think that telling people their decision to live or die can cause or hasten others' demise usually only fuel more anxiety and distress.

Her appeal to suicidal people who are, and I quote, "sufficiently lucid as to be available to be reached through argument": Live because we owe it to the community, family, and our future self.

I found this argument terribly trite because I see it as a common sense. One does not need to read philosophical literature to arrive at this idea. The concept that our life intertwines with those around us is neither new nor forgotten, it is ingrained in many cultures. At least, in my culture, we've always been taught that we owe each other to live. Same for the idea that perseverance will yield rewards.

However, this brings us back to the assertion that, in most cases, attempts of suicide occur when the mind is muddled and distorted, and there is no outside intervention. Thus, such reasoning might not be effective at all.

In a section of her book, Hecht cited Anne Sexton's heartfelt writing on her despair, and then asserted that her crisis wasn't uncommon. And if the writer understood she wasn't alone, she might have not chosen to die. This whole part perplexed me because Hecht seemed to either fail to grasp or choose to ignore the fact that Sexton clearly suffered from severe depression.

I applaud Hetch for her intention and intensive research. I also agree with her that we need to strengthen the bond between community and individuals, as well as among individuals. However, with all due respect, I disagree with her view on suicide and her conclusion on the subject.

Again, suicide can't be equalized with either delayed-homicide or self-murder. The number one cause of suicide is untreated depression. Depression, as well as suicide, is not a choice. Depressed and suicidal people need to get medical or psychiatric help, not a philosophical lesson.

Most of all, suicide, like depression, should not be associated with any stigmas.
26 of 31 people found the following review helpful
Choose to stay 1 Dec 2013
By Tim K - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition
I've become interested in the topic of suicide given the many young lives lost recently to the act. I happened upon Hecht's book and knew of her work through her older book, "Doubt." Haven't had read anything by Hecht, I didn't really know what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised.

"Stay" has two main goals: (i) bring to light the historic arguments against suicide, and (ii) provide two secular arguments for staying alive.

On (i), Hecht does a wonderful job of detailing the historical views taken on suicide. She hits upon all the major thinkers who have talked about suicide in their writings. All have, for one reason or another, rejected suicide. Even though some ancient suicides were heralded for particular reasons, on the whole, suicide wasn't seen as a legitimate option.

On (ii), Hecht provides us with two persuasive arguments against suicide. Though I'll leave the details to the reader, the first is the "Argument of Community," which essentially says we owe it to our family, friends, and society at large to remain alive. Suicide has a reverberating effect in society, with suicide clusters being a legitimate phenomena (the chapter "Modern Social Science on Community and Influence" provides some fascinating data on suicide contagion and clusters). Hecht's second argument is based on what we owe our future selves. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, as the saying goes. Not only do we owe it to our community to stay alive, we owe it to ourselves because we never know what the future holds.

Hecht traces the concept of suicide throughout the ages and has done us all a great service. I found much insight in "Stay" and recommend it to anyone who has ever been suicidal, is suicidal, or those who just want people in the other two camps to stay strong and stay alive.

Hecht's final paragraph is worth repeating: "None of us can truly know what we mean to other people, and none of us can know what our future self will experience. History and philosophy ask us to remember these mysteries, to look around at friends, family, humanity, at the surprises life brings--the endless possibilities that living offers--and to persevere. There is love and insight to live for, bright moments to cherish, and even the possibility of happiness, and the chance of helping someone else through his or her own troubles.

Know that people, through history and today, understand how much courage it takes to stay. Bear witness to the night side of being human and the bravery it entails, and wait for the sun. If we meditate on the record of human wisdom we may find there reason enough to persist and find our way back to happiness. First, choose to stay" (page 234).
49 of 63 people found the following review helpful
Oh no 21 Nov 2013
By Dulcinea - Published on
Format: Hardcover
While I appreciate the good intentions behind this book, I was distressed by some of the messages. Some people do lucidly choose to die, but many others commit suicide because of mental illness. Society has progressed a long way since the mentally ill were treated like criminals. Sadly, it seems the author would like us to revert to those times. She argues that suicide is morally wrong and equates those who commit suicide to murderers -- not just of themselves but of others who are influenced by witnessing or hearing about suicide and who then choose to take their own lives. By that logic, people who commit suicide are mass murderers. I find that conclusion appalling. Just because one person commits an act, it does not make that person guilty for everyone else in the world who commits the same act. The idea is ludicrous and dangerous. People who commit suicide are not immoral or criminals, nor should they be treated as such. The mentally ill face enough stigmas, enough hatred, and enough guilt without being told that they are immoral people because of their illnesses. Moral judgments should not be attached to health conditions that people cannot control. So many people already refuse to get help because they are afraid of being judged. Books like this will make the problem worse. There are many other influences in society that contribute to suicides and are worth fighting against -- and that have nothing to do with blaming someone who is ill.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
"I wish I were dead" 2 Mar 2014
By Keith Fahey - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you've ever had the above thought, this book's for you.

The death-wish syndrome is the first symptom of the suicidal impulse. If you feel such seizures, that's the time to seek a counter-impulse: "I want to live." Don't wait until you're staring at the pills or the gun or the bridge. Make this book your bridge: check it out at the first death-wish impulse. I promise you: Jennifer Michael Hecht's "Stay" is a good place to start.

Because my parents were self-destructive -- one a rifle-shot suicide -- I've always, in defeat or crisis, had to fight the reflex, "I wish I were dead." I've also had a stronger desire not to destroy myself. First thing: I refused to buy a gun. Lead me not into temptation ...

I was 16 when my dad killed himself; I'll be 70 on my next birthday. I've resisted the glooms for a long time, and have kept alive a certain humor and joy. "Moby-Dick" was most vital in my mid 20s, especially the first paragraph, which I have often thought is worth libraries -- mentioned here because Hecht gives "Moby" too little discussion.

Yet many of the life-wish motivators discovered on my own are explored in "Stay." If you are in a mild or strong depression and find it hard to motivate yourself, you can find many hints of your own worth in "Stay." Reminders too of how you might be missing how other people value you, a point strongly made in "Stay," especially when Hecht discusses her grief and anger at the loss of two friends to suicide.

When things were at their worst for me, I recalled people who had proven their love -- or at least their respect -- for me. They would be stunned, sad, and angry if I killed myself. And some former admirers might think, "If he finds life hateful, why should I stay?"

That alone can be a good reason to live: it would be terrible if others imitated my final despair. And what might they, in their current respect, see that I'm now too close-minded to see?

More important, I gave myself a reason to live. It might be delusion, I may not succeed in my life-goal, but I remain quite happy with this possible epitaph, "He died trying."

I'm not interested in suicide as a rational debate. I do not want to hear arguments for suicide, many of which strike me -- almost a literal blow -- as hollow and cowardly. It's not rational to despise the life force within; it's the height of reason to find a reason to live by opposing the greedy, the corrupt, the power-mad. And, as I read some years ago, if you kill yourself, how will you know how your story came out?

Yes, some physical diseases can warp the spirit, but how is it that we are often inspired by "suffering souls suffering greatly"? (See Edith Hamilton's discussion of tragedy in "The Greek Way.")

Mental disease is less hopeless; unchecked it can spread, but it can also be countered by comic or other life-affirming contagions. Comedy, by the way, is often inseparable from sorrow or pain; is often, indeed, closely allied with horror, as Vincent Price and his buddies helped me learn in their delightful fright shows.

And so I'm interested in people who are struggling to keep their life-wish alive, and want to sow different seeds: cultivate those stronger seeds to produce a different yield.

Yield: the word also suggests acceptance: no joy without some pain. Would you stomp the rose because a thorn pricked you, and you shed a little blood?

It's a choice: We can seek to die, or we can seek to live. Lives can change directions. We can find a different way to live.

Try "Stay," and live out your life for yourself.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Important and brave; please read this book if you struggle with suicidality and/or if you advocate acceptance of suicide 25 Mar 2014
By Reader - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This is one of the most important and brave non-fiction books I've read in several years.

The book is important because it can, as others have noted, save lives. I encourage those who struggle with suicidality or self-harm to read it and consider her message in good faith: that we need you, you matter, and that, if all else fails, asking somebody to stay alive for others might actually be one of the most reasonable and fair requests ever made. Hecht's arguments for these points are compassionate and compelling and deserve to be taken seriously.

The book is brave because Hecht dares, with compassion, nuance, and often gorgeous prose, to challenge modern suicide apologist philosophies. Even the lived experience of mental illness or depression is not comparable to the dead experience of suicide and how that impacts the living. Suicide itself is not a mental illness and therefore cannot be stigmatized the way a mental illness often is. Rather, suicide is an act, a chosen one, however distressed the choice. Mental illness is not chosen. Furthermore, suicide is not really comparable to any other human act, as Hecht conveys. It must be contended with on its own. There is simply no other human act comparable or equivalent to suicide. Arguments about stigmatizing suicide fall so tragically short and are marked by false equivalencies in this way.

I encourage those who are prone, often with the very best intentions, to advocate some level of acceptance of suicide, to consider Hecht's message with an open mind, given that this is a subject which often (understandably) brings up automatic and knee-jerk reactions. I encourage you to allow yourself to be challenged, to understand the opposing view, for this topic could not be more critical, and blinders to certain potential understandings of it could not be higher.

Hecht's arguments should be taken in good faith. Readers who have struggled with suicidality, know folks who have, or have had loved ones kill themselves, should go into this book with an awareness of the biases they already have. Only then--even if you end up disagreeing with her--can it be read fairly. It should be assumed that Hecht is not shaming anyone or claiming that suicide is evil. There is no evidence for this stance in the book--taking an impassioned stance against suicide, and frankly begging people to "stay", as she does, is not equal to shaming those who've done it or attempted; that is another false equivalency (related to the one I mentioned above). That would be the simplistic interpretation and an easy way to dismiss her if you have a predisposed view against hers.

To conclude: Take this book seriously, trust its intentions, read it with the nuance and openness it deserves. This book can--I'm sure already has--saved lives and saved the unspeakable suffering of those whose loved ones kill themselves. For that reason alone it should be taken seriously by every reader who thinks about this issue, no matter what your personal opinion.

Jennifer Michael Hecht, thank you for this book.
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