Just shoot me!

Arson, murder, suicide and other depressing reactions to the next Great Depression.

Published October 24, 2008 10:07AM (EDT)

Crawling underneath the quilts is looking mighty fine these days, as the days get colder and the economy gets icier. When every other commentator is tossing out Great Depression analogies, it's hardly a surprise that many people are finding their own lives greatly depressing -- and in some cases, taking matters into their own hands.

Earlier this week, Nick Turse collected a cross-country roundup of some of the most grisly personal responses to economic meltdown under the cheerful heading "Main Street's Body Count Rises." Turse cites nearly two dozen cases, starting in February of this year, in which people have reacted to job loss, evictions or foreclosures with violence: Some resisters have, Wild West style, erected barricades and brandished rifles at deputies and SWAT teams; others have gone so far as to kill themselves and sometimes their families.

I've always been particularly fascinated -- and, of course, horrified -- by the twisted "Father (or sometimes Mother) Knows Best" logic of those who decide that their families would be better off dead than left alone without a provider. This category includes a Michigan man who, facing bankruptcy and foreclosure, stabbed his sleeping wife, lit their house on fire, then climbed in bed and stabbed himself; a single mother who killed herself and her two 11-year-old daughters; and Karthick Rajaram, a former executive who reacted to unemployment and stock market losses by killing his wife, three sons, his mother-in-law and himself.

On the other hand, we have what looks to be an extreme version of maternal self-sacrifice (or just plain depression) in Carlene Balderrama, who sent a fax to her mortgage company 90 minutes before her house was scheduled to go to auction saying that, by the time people read it, she would be dead, then shot her three cats and herself. In her suicide note, she told her husband and son to use the insurance money to pay off the mortgage (though payouts for suicides are always iffy). The "happiest" case out of the bunch concerns a 90-year-old woman who shot herself but didn't manage to die; a magnanimous agent at Fannie Mae apparently forgave her debt outright. Not that we're saying a house is worth a nearly fatal gunshot wound.

So is this a statistically significant trend? Are foreclosure suicides the '08 equivalent of those alleged bankers jumping out of windows in 1929? It's hard to say. Trend stories tend to reflect social obsessions; sensational stories about teen pregnancy, sex crimes, child murders and day-care scandals, for example, don't necessarily follow an actual increase in incidents so much as they reflect an increased interest on the part of readers and journalists. In fact, an article in Slate points out that the original Wall Street suicides were based more in myth than fact -- only four suicides between Black Tuesday and the end of 1929 were jumpers who lost money in the crash, only two took place on Wall Street, and fewer suicides took place in the month after the crash than had during the same period the previous year. The suicide rate did go up -- from 14 to 17 suicides per 100,000 people -- during the Great Depression, the Associated Press points out, but because there is typically a two-year lag in suicide statistics, it will be a few years before we know what happened this time around.

But thanks to a study released Tuesday, we do know that the latest suicide statistics show an unusual trend: a sharp spike in suicides among middle-aged white women, a group that usually lags far behind teenagers and elderly white men. Between 1999 and 2005, the suicide rate for women ages 40-64 increased 3.9 percent; poisoning suicides among women went up 57 percent (the rate for middle-aged men also went up 2.7 percent). That period, of course, predates the wider economic meltdown. But it's interesting to imagine what might possess larger numbers of people well past the teen angst years to give up: Are these people lonely? Are they overwhelmed by financial and emotional responsibilities? Do they blame themselves for things not quite turning out the way they'd planned?

I'd like to give the last word to Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote about foreclosure suicides back in late July, before any of us knew for certain just how bad things would get. Ehrenreich said: "I'm not saying that the creditors, the bankers and the mortgage companies actually want you dead, but in a culture where one's credit rating is routinely held up as a three-digit measure of personal self-worth, the correct response to insoluble debt is, in fact, "Just shoot me!" Pretty grim, Ms. Ehrenreich. But she then went on: "The alternative is to value yourself more than any amount of money and turn the guns, metaphorically speaking, in the other direction."

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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