By Sean Carman, reporting for MaudNewton.com
Andrea Seigel‘s Like the Red Panda is the fictional diary of Stella Parrish, a California high school senior who decides, two weeks before her graduation, to kill herself. Panda, which Seigel sold to Harcourt two years ago, when she was only 22, is insightful, and funny, and built around a smart narrative approach to a difficult subject.
Seigel in person is smart, funny, and worldly-wise for her age — a real pleasure to be around. She has the same qualities on the page, which is what makes Panda such an enjoyable read.
At the L.A. reading where I make her acquaintance, Seigel tells me she is “pro-suicide,” and that her feelings on the subject were part of her motivation to begin her novel. As she explains below, she does not advocate “some sort of blanket death mission for the world.” It’s more that she’s against the societal convention of hanging in there as long as our bodies will last, past the point life remains worth living. We should assume, she might say, within our responsibility for our own lives, responsibility for our own deaths as well.
Our e-mail interview begins with my asking what she means when she says she is “pro-suicide.”
Seigel: I like this question because it’s the term that essentially totally freaked out my publisher’s marketing team when we had our first and last ever conference call. It’s kind of the one stance that I was asked not to talk about, but I figure, at this point, oh well.
When I say I’m pro-suicide, this doesn’t mean that I’m advocating some sort of blanket death mission for the world. What it means is that I believe in the concept of rational suicide, and I believe that for some people — again, not all people, but some people — suicide is a reasonable option.
This stance is connected to so many things, the first being what I believe is a general climate of intolerance for depressive or antisocial personalities, a devout insistence on curing people who aren’t so sunny. It seems no one wants to let their loved ones or even their acquaintances be “not happy” anymore, especially with the onslaught of widespread pharmacological prescriptions and our take-it-to-your-therapist society. It’s this sort of Horatio Alger attitude toward individual dispositions, but instead of cheering that anyone can strike it rich in America, people need to believe that anyone can be well-adjusted.
And because of this atmosphere, when personality should really be seen as a wide spectrum of options, it is instead seen as a scale of mental health, where characteristics that are uncomfortable to others are seen as a disease, and reduction/obliteration of anxiety or obsessiveness or old fashioned sadness is viewed as responsibility. If you’re not doing something about these traits, if you’re not getting “help,” then you are likely to be socially abandoned.
Again, I need to clarify that I’m not romanticizing these characteristics, but just acknowledging that they are realistic aspects of many people’s personalities. But when we’re living in a society, as I think we are now, that wants to diagnose these qualities as diseases, I believe it makes living with them even more difficult. Even more, yes, depressing. I understand that designating certain “mental states” as diseases is necessary for insurance purposes and combating employment discrimination and such, but in immediately diagnosing one side of the personality spectrum as the diseased end, it puts a lot of pressure on the individual to “get better.”
It kills me when I read these articles about parents putting their nine year olds on Prozac because the kid is becoming “difficult.” My parents sent me to a psychiatrist when I was in sixth grade because I was showing signs of difficulty, and they thought I needed to be treated. It’s a total nightmare. It’s a society that believes if we can make faster cars and more money and bigger movies, why can’t we also make ourselves happier people through drugs and counseling from strangers? There’s the assumption that because psychiatric medications can take such immediate and profound effect, why wouldn’t someone take them?
I make a distinction between body and mind (while leaving room to recognize the ways in which they obviously impact each other), and I think it’s pretty inarguable that personality rests in the mind. Sure, if you’re short or incredibly hot or have one leg, this is going to effect who you become. But the tools to process who you are, or, rather, who you think you are, rest in the brain.
This is why pharmacological medications are such risky business to me. I think it’s dangerous to teach people that psychological difficulty or difference always translates into illness, and that rearranging brain chemistry is something that’s pretty necessary.
Note I’m not arguing against certain forms of depression as harmful to what individuals recognize as their personalities, but this is actually the crux of the issue- all identity is the stories that we choose to believe about ourselves. And if you believe that your depression is something that has entered into your life and altered what you recognize as your core self, then yes, I agree that you have to do what you have to do, and if that’s taking pills, I support the choice.
But, and this is where my pro-suicide beliefs come in, if you know in your heart of hearts that you are a person who naturally resides on the “unaccepted” end of the personality spectrum, and that you wouldn’t recognize yourself any other way, I think it’s incredibly depressing (sorry, but it’s a good word) to try to alter your brain chemistry to try to fit better into someone else’s corner of the world.
I believe people have the capacity to make this distinction between brain and body — that the idea that we should keep going as long as our bodies are “healthy” (and sometimes, even when they’re not) is a faulty cultural construction. I think that it’s totally reasonable for the mind to be finished with life before the body is (and this is obviously a major, major factor in my book), and that this option needs to remain open. It never will be, obviously, legally and in terms of the people left behind who eerily always like to say, “but she was so happy!”, but for the individual, I think it is absolutely possible to know when you’ve had enough.
People say, “But things always could get better!” and this strikes me as: a) just another form of the shinier, prettier, happier ethos driving our times and even adding to depression and b) naive, since “better” should not always be the desirable effect. Because “better” is obviously subjective, and when “better” is unrecognizable to the person it’s being suggested to, it’s clearly not a useful concept.
Why are we so freaked out that we could die on a day right before a happier day came? Why is there the insistence that we need to keep pushing and pushing for maximization of every fucking thing — why is there no value placed in sadness itself (and, incidentally, I believe if there was greater value placed on it, the feeling of alienation in suicide candidates (and, I think, high school shooters) feel would attenuate at least somewhat)? This shit keeps me up at night.
But I feel like I’m starting to sound like a scientologist or something — I drive by their anti-psychiatry exhibit on Wilshire all the time — when all I’m trying to say that is it’s not the psychiatry or the medication that I necessarily object to, but the overwhelming and widely accepted societal pressure to “cheer up” that’s always disguised in the disturbing form of benevolence.
Sean: This view may be hard for a lot of people to accept. Why do you think that is?
Seigel: Well, I think there’s a lot of factors here. Primary among them, I believe, is failure, and that people seem to take others’ “shortcomings” as a very serious reflection upon themselves. Not only in terms of feeling responsible if that person should kill him/herself, but also as far as outside people judging one’s own merits based on the vivacity of the company she keeps.
I babysit a one year old every weekday, and I’m constantly weirded out at how busy the mothers in the park are apologizing for their children’s personalities. If I say hi to another baby and the baby doesn’t say hi back, the mom will jump in and be like, “Oh, she’s just tired today!” Or if a kid hides his face between his mom’s legs, she’ll nearly always excuse it with, “He’s not always this shy. He needs to just warm up.”
If parents already feel the necessity to explain away their kids’ “antisocial” behaviors at those young ages, it makes sense how the situation only worsens as we all get older. Again, this is why you get all the released statements like, “She was such a jubilant child!” when hearing about suicides on the news. The parents, you can see it in their eyes, are deathly terrified that they failed, which is understandable — but, I also think that the only way to even begin combating this fear of failure is to start living with the reality of depressed and different children while they’re still alive. Have you even seen how people’s eyes immediately glaze over when you say, “Welllllll, not so good,” in response to “How are you?” This is a problem.
I agree with you that it’s also hard for others to accept because death is obviously a pretty scary, unexplored thing, and people who are choosing it voluntarily must seem incredibly unknowable and dangerous to the people who can’t bring themselves to face their own check-outs.
But I also think that this somewhat universal fear of death gets eclipsed by the things that we’re worried about in life: the aforementioned shame of failure, the reluctance to create happiness on an alternate sliding scale instead of adhering to the more typical models that we’ve sort of been coached into adopting, and just the sheer unpleasantness of having to face a not so happy person to whom you have no idea what to say.
The band Good Charlotte wrote the most fucking lame song addressing this last concern, “Hold on,” and I know they think they were doing something good and productive, but they’re idiots.
Then, of course, there’s the religious objections from people who believe that our souls are not our own, and the people who believe that the body is a temple not to be thrown away, and it keeps on going from there. I mean, there’s just tons and tons of reasons why suicide freaks people out. At the end of the day, bottom line, I think the popular religion is really “somehow it will get better,” which is antithetical to the philosophy of suicide.
Sean: Let’s switch gears. How do you know when your writing is working as a form of inquiry and expression?
Seigel: It really is just an issue of the inquiries/expressions reading right to me once they reach the screen. In that vein, I’m really of the school that writers are born, not made, which is probably why I hate workshops. Because I don’t really revise, it’s an automatic sorting process when ideas are coming down from my head to the keyboard, and the sentence pretty much just doesn’t get typed out if it doesn’t hit me as being immediately true (to me. Not true-true, in terms of a greater truth).
This question reminds me of how my agent was suggesting that I apply for this Jewish writers’ scholarship that requires candidates to be working on something dealing with “Jewish themes,” and while I told her that the only Jew in my latest book is a surly Israeli, which will never fly with the committee, the truth is that I think every book of mine will deal in Jewish themes. Quietly, and not even always intentionally. Just because of a particular way that I’ve been raised and the childhood experiences that shape my worldview.
But it’s the same way with all other issues for me when writing. The most conscious crafting comes before I even start the novel, when I decide what I’m going to write about, what sort of themes I’m interested in dealing with. Then I do a brief outline that lists at least one thing that’s going to happen in each chapter because I have a tendency to stray from plot and start rhapsodizing on dog shit. And then I just start to write (two double spaced pages a day, exactly). For instance, I knew at the beginning of the current novel I’m working on that it was going to be my “post 9/11” novel, but if someone were to read it today without having this piece of information, they’d probably have no clue.
Sean: I have to personally thank you for writing your first novel in the past tense. Why does everyone write everything in the present tense these days? For me it just slows everything down, weighing it down with this false sense of drama. Why?
Seigel: I feel the same way you do about the present tense. I can’t say that I’ll ever do it, except (and this happens in Red Panda) when the character is actually writing or speaking at the same time the words are being recorded. I thought it was necessary in the final chapter, since obviously, once you kill yourself you can’t really go back and record it post-event. But the second book I’m working on right now, past tense all the way. Ohhh yeah.
Sean: People are comparing your first book to Catcher in the Rye.
Seigel: I think the Holden Caulfield comparisons came about partly because, I suspect, my publisher sent out some sort of statement comparing the characters, thinking the reference would help sales. I only found out after the book hit stores that Harcourt had never believed in this book (sales-wise) in the first place, and were shocked when it started selling. So I think they were doing whatever they could. And the Holden thing is applicable in my eyes as far as yes, I did self-consciously set out to write a book, especially for teen girls, that would give them the same kind of antihero that all the boys had in their high school literature, but that doesn’t mean that Stella was supposed to be Holden. If anything, she was supposed to be a counterpoint.
Sean: Well, I didn’t really like Holden Caulfield, although I was fascinated by him. But I liked Stella Parrish. I didn’t want her to go through with it.
Seigel: I thought that it was interesting that you were rooting for Stella not to kill herself, because I find that I’m usually cheering for someone to kill him/herself when I can clearly see that he truly wants to kill him/herself. Maybe you didn’t see this quality in Stella. The only time it sort of wrecks me in a book is like, when I read James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces this past week (and stop here if you’re planning on reading it and I’m going to ruin it for you), and I saw true potential between James and his crackhead rehab girlfriend, Lilly. When I read in the afterward that she killed herself (in real life), it sort of wrecked me, because I thought they were good together.
But I’m a fucking romantic.
Sean: Thanks for doing this, Andrea.
Seigel: Thanks Sean. Keep on working cases to save the baby seals and ducks. I love baby seals.