Suicide and Ancestral Malaise

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.

4 thoughts on “Suicide and Ancestral Malaise

  1. Shelley Post author

    A glimmer of a comment rose in me when reading your newest post. I think I am your biggest fan out here in blogoland. I don’t know how I knew to look for a new post from you today, but was happy that this time when I looked there was one fresh off the press. And yet it left me temporarily speechless.

    Ancestral malaise? I cannot find any resonance when I think of the death of my son. He played with fire though, as do I. His risks sometimes took the form of recreational drugs, which is how he died from dehydration (training for a marathon and then drinking and lying in the sun). But many of his risks were artistic and creative. He never felt the desire to do a normal job, live in one country for very long. He gambled with lots of things, most of which I applauded. My risks have tended to be financial or intellectual, nothing much that would directly put my body at risk unless we look at the maladies that stress alone can cause (all?). I’ve been thinking a lot these days about my family before me, my immediate ancestors. Only one, my mother, died prematurely (ie, before their 70s or 80s). And then my son at 32. Early death is accidental. I think that even Lena’s death was an accident of chemicals flooding her brain or emotions too strong for that moment of time it took for her to take her life. I think I prefer to think of it as an accident that befell my son, your daughter and Giorgio’s daughter. They all died too young. We just have so very little control over life. Life itself seems to be an ancestral malaise, but not the things that lead to early death. Our natures lead us to live life to the best of our abilities. I don’t think it is our natures that lead us to death. Death is accidental. It is our natures that allow some of us to overcome what seems impossible to overcome, like the death of our children. But death just happens, and unfairly sometimes. We are choosing to live now and that is what counts. I’m looking to my ancestors, and all of our ancestors, to see how they got through hard times. We need to learn from them because they all suffered something horrible, and most of them figured out how to do it, maybe just one minute at a time. Thanks again for a thought provoking read about a subject I wish neither of us had to visit.
    Monday, July 25, 2011 – 04:41 AM

  2. shaye Post author

    I understand your point of view. The struggle to comprehend the incomprehensible leads me to mull over the myriad possibilities all of them speculative. Giorgio’s comment resonated with me having experienced so much of Lena’s mental anguish myself and seen it manifested in other relatives. Then to see the struggle played out on screen before my eyes, the struggle to overcome one’s nature and live life. How often I urge myself to do the same – all fodder for another meander through my mind (and a blog post!).
    I want to add that at the end of his email, Giorgio admitted that it was no use to try and find meaning in the deaths of our daughters. The only true meaning is that now it is a fact of our lives.
    I’m glad you’re my fan! Can’t wait to see you!
    Monday, July 25, 2011 – 10:17 AM

  3. Jane G.

    Wow, Shaye. Your blog is truly wonderful and it moved me deeply. I’ve been pondering similar questions lately, having recently brought Sam home from the northwest gloom. He was in a terrible state, though even while much improved in sunny SoCal he seems to nurture some of that darkness within him. I wonder…is it his age? the ADD that runs in my family and the negativity that runs in his dad’s family? I’m sure there is something inherited in us all which leads some of us to life and light and others to the deepest gloom within. But I also think that these forces are tossed around by the arbitrary currents of life, and one’s reactions can be as brutally unpredictable as an accident on a slide or, less likely, take an unexpectedly transcendent turn. Please keep writing, Shaye. I look forward to reading more posts.

    1. shaye Post author

      Remember when they were in Kindergarten and we thought how much easier it was going to be once they were all grown up and off to college? I wonder if it really is less likely for the unexpectedly transcendent turn to occur. After all, the fundamental drive of any biological life form is to survive (I think that’s true, anyway), and since the human species has done so well (I think that’s true too, though debatable), wouldn’t that make the positive growth more common than self destruction. Definitely going to have to think this one through. I hope for the best for Sam, for the ribbon cutting ceremony on the completion of his neural superhighway and life moves on from their in an orderly fashion. These things are so often behind schedule, it could take until he’s 26!


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