Last Writes

Some suicide notes are short, some tell a more detailed story. They all have unhappy endings.

The taking of one's own life is a decidedly male venture. In 1992 in Dade, 80 percent of all suicides were men, a number consistent with U.S. statistics. In 1990, the most recent year for which nationwide figures are available, the National Center for Health Statistics found that out of 30,906 suicides, 24,724 were men, compared to only 6182 women.

"It's interesting because women are more likely to be depressed than men, by about two to one," says Ronald Maris. "And since depression is one of the major factors in suicides, you'd think that women would have higher suicide rates than men. But there are a number of things that protect women."

First, Maris notes, men are more violent -- and more lethal -- in the methods they choose. Men tend to use shotguns, or they jump from buildings or hang themselves, all generally effective means. Women often try cutting their wrists or overdosing on pills A methods that take time and thus provide an opportunity for rescue. Only in the past few years, says Maris, have researchers noted a rise in the use of guns by women, which will probably result in a move toward parity.

According to Maris, other circumstances make it likely that men will continue to dominate suicide statistics. "Women interact more frequently with people than men do," he says. "Men tend to be more isolated, individualized, competitive. And women tend to be more involved with organizations and involved with their families and their children. The thought has always been that it would take a lot for a woman to kill herself if she has any family, because she has traditionally been the nurturer and the support for her children. So it's as if she is not only killing herself, she's hurting them as well. I don't think men think that as much. Men think it is pretty much their own life, and if they decide their life is over, they don't worry about other people as much as women do."

Of course, suicide numbers are affected by a society's definition of the act itself. The intent to end one's own life isn't necessarily a criterion for a death to be classified as a suicide. At least two people died in the past twelve months while playing Russian roulette A a thirteen-year-old boy, who held a gun to his head and told his friends excitedly, "Watch this"; and a 36-year-old U.S. Customs agent, who was playing with a gun in front of his girlfriend.

"If somebody is engaging in bizarre, risk-taking behavior, such as placing themselves in a situation where they have a one-in-six chance of dying, to me that is a wanton disregard for their own life and therefore it is a degree of suicide," says Roger Mittleman, an associate medical examiner for Dade County. "They know there is a risk.

"Let's face it, calling something a suicide is a philosophical thing," Mittleman continues. "For example, if somebody is an alcoholic and they die of alcoholism, some people might call that a suicide because that person has shown such disregard for their life. But we say the person died of natural causes. If somebody is drinking and driving and they crash into a pole, is that a suicide? No, we call that an accident, because that's what society accepts."

One year later, Hurricane Andrew continues to exact its toll on South Florida. Despondent about the loss of home or job, about displacement and the tedium of life in a virtual war zone, at least four people have killed themselves citing the hurricane as a factor, according to the county medical examiner's records. And officials say that in the next twelve months, the situation is likely to grow worse as residents see their neighbors' lives returning to normal while their own, by contrast, seem destined for perpetual disarray.

Coincidences also crop up among suicides. Earlier this year, in otherwise unrelated events, two 38-year-old men hanged themselves in their garages on Valentine's Day. And two students A seventeen-year-old Christopher R., who attended Coral Gables High School, and Peter C., a twenty-year-old University of Miami sophomore A both of whom were depressed about bad grades, killed themselves within a few hours of each other on March 11. Christopher, who shot himself in the head, left behind a note that read in part: "I'm sorry to put you all through this but I am weak."

Peter, however, seemed to have a grander, almost romantic, vision. The night before he died, he tried to persuade his girlfriend that the two of them should leap from the roof of his dormitory in a final act of unity. She thought he was kidding. The next night he went by himself.

"I know what I've done is wrong, but I felt as though I had failed you all too many times," he wrote to his family and his girlfriend. "Please don't think you made me feel this way, you all are the greatest people a man could know. I've had this feeling of failure for some time. I know I should have done well in school. I should have been a better brother and a better role model. I failed. And I failed you, Katie. I know if I'd tried harder when we were together I wouldn't have lost the best thing I'd ever found. I love you. Please find it in your hearts to forgive me. I'm truly sorry and I hope I will be able to remember you where ever I'm going."

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