Was suicide in my daughter’s DNA?
EVALD: You have a damned need to live, to exist and create life.
MARIANNE: And how about you?
EVALD: My need is to be dead. Absolutely, totally dead.
-from Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film, Wild Strawberries
On Friday I went to see a screening of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. The dialogue above takes place when Marianne tells her husband Evald she is pregnant and that she will have the baby. Evald wants no children, is adamantly against bringing them into this world – Marianne has known this all along. He tells her she will have to choose, her husband or a baby. It would seem Marianne’s choice is to either create life or live with death.
The choice to create or destroy. To live or die. Are they choices or genetic predispositions configured at birth? To observe the Swedes in Ingmar Bergman’s films, the stoic resignation as they watch youthful innocence raped by the vagaries of love, pummeled by the brutality of existence and finally consumed by the insatiable appetite of mortality, one wonders if the entire culture doesn’t share the desire to be absolutely, totally dead. Evald’s father expresses a sentiment similar to his son’s, telling Marianne he feels as though he is living while dead. Perhaps the darkness of the long Arctic winters has been encoded in Scandinavian genes.
“A resurgence of an ancestral malaise.” This is how my friend Giorgio describes the impulse that led Lena to kill herself. His own daughter, Laura, had died several years before at the age of thirteen, from a concussion received by bumping her head on a water slide. Laura had been a vivacious girl, teeming with an irrepressible love for life. I felt ashamed to have her father comfort me. Giorgio’s daughter had her life taken from her, whereas my daughter chose to take her own life. When I expressed this to Giorgio he cautioned me not to be too harsh about Lena’s “decision” and that “her act seemed to be dictated by the resurgence of an ancestral malaise.” Giorgio knows me and my daughters well. We had at one time been engaged, our families intermingled. He had watched me struggle with Lena’s mental illness, as well as my own. From his perspective, Lena and I must have seemed very much alike and our life condition hereditary. I cringe to call it mental illness. Malaise sounds much more…romantic. Bergman-esque.
My grandfather’s family came from Sweden, as did my ex-husband’s grandmother (well, her family were Swedes from Finland). My mother’s mother is from Germany – the birthplace of neurosis, which quivers inside my own mother, and me as well. Could it be a rope of DNA was the noose around my daughter’s neck? And could the same genetic thread that led a young Giorgio to jump on his motorcycle and ride alone across Europe, sleeping in fields along the side of the road, ending up in Paris playing bass in a punk band, be tied to the one that pulled Laura down the waterside? If so, Lena, like Laura, did not choose to die. Their natures led them to their inevitable end.
Bergman’s film seems to be confirming this idea, as Marianne meets Evald’s grandmother and observes that a deathly coldness permeates the old woman’s life as well, the lineage of the family’s malaise laid out before her. “And then I thought that there is only coldness and death, and death and loneliness, all the way. Somewhere it must end,” Marianne says. Yes, I answer, those born condemned to the unbearable darkness of an endless arctic winter have no choice but to live through it. Lena lit fires where she could, to warm her soul. School, books, music, art. She would draw close to those who loved her, those she loved. The frigid darkness inside her was just too vast. Somewhere it must end. There is no choice.
Then, near the end of the film, the warmth of Marianne (maybe this why she is the only one in the film who smokes, and does so frequently, despite her pregnancy) begins to melt the glacial hearts of her husband and father-in-law. The old man will forgive his son’s debt to him. And Evald, with the cautious uncertainty of a man awakening from a long and disorienting slumber, begins to embrace both his wife and the child she carries. One lone woman, armed only with a damned need to create life, manages to coax the sun over the horizon and her husband away from a life of death.
Against his own nature, Evald chooses to live.
In the cold, dark theater I weep.