INTERVIEW

A former advice columnist on the pain problem that persists and his enduring answer, 15 years later

15 years after Salon advice columnist Cary Tennis wrote to "Ready for the End," his response is still resonating

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published July 24, 2021 7:30PM (EDT)
Cary Tennis (Photo courtesy of Cary Tennis)
Cary Tennis (Photo courtesy of Cary Tennis)

Note: This story deals with serious themes, including suicide, and may not be suitable for all readers. If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

Fifteen years ago, Salon's then-advice columnist Cary Tennis received a letter that posed a troubling question. The writer, who gave the name "Ready for the End," was a 36-year-old in the throes of deep depression. The writer asked, "What's the best method for a painless suicide?"

Tennis' reply has over the years become a kind of "Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus" for a struggling and largely invisible audience. Internally, Salon staff spotted its enduring readership a few years ago and discovered that it's a top search result for the phrase "painless suicide." This story comes up almost immediately, underneath the number for a suicide prevention lifeline. The column persists because that question, borne from the depths of pain and despair, persists.

Tennis' column is a conversation between two strangers, one of whom says, "there really is no future for me" and one of whom has to craft an empathetic response to that statement. I've long wondered about what became of the anonymous letter writer, as well as the effect the experience had on the person who received it and responded.

Tennis now lives in Italy, where he is writing a book about an Italian engineer who rebuilt the medieval convent next door to his house, "and how a chance meeting on a train from Orvieto to Milan in 1952 set off a chain of events leading to our coming to live in Castiglion Fiorentino." I spoke to him recently about that "Since You Asked" letter, and what he would say to the writer of it today.

For those who don't know the context, can you give some history of "Since You Asked," and what happened when you received this particular letter?

"Since You Asked" was the successor to Garrison Keillor's "Mr. Blue" column, and I wrote it from October 2001 to September 2013. I wrote over 2,000 columns, probably 2,100, something like that. [Note: I found nearly 2,500.]

Out of all of the thousands of letters you received and you answered, what did it feel like when this one came in?

I got a lot of letters from people in pain. I got used to people who were writing and were desperate, or angry, upset. I got used to people who were angry at me. People who were in really desperate, awful situations. I got used to that as a writing job.

So I followed some guidelines, one of which was to always take people at their word, to accept the suffering they were in, and to accept their version of reality. I would try to bring a perspective that was not the normal perspective and was my own, and try to really think it through. In this one, I took it through logically. You don't really know that suicide is going to work. You don't really know that it's your best option. It sounds like an option. It sounds like, well, this would eliminate pain, but you don't know that. You really don't know.

I've witnessed, through various recovery groups and just observing life, that people in really desperate situations sometimes do get better. Yeah, they get better. I've seen people come out of all kinds of hell — out of prison, out of abuse, out of addiction, out of despair and depression, certainly. For me, it's a given that things can change, because that's my daily experience. My opinion about people's assertion that it's never going to change, and that it's always going to be like this, is that's just not evidence based. What I see is people who change and get better. I see life get better all the time. That's my background; that's my approach to it.

People complain that it's false advertising, like, "I thought you were going to give me a painless suicide method. And here you are with this crap." I wonder, though, if what people are really looking for when they say "a painless method of suicide" is something other than suicide. They're looking for the pain to stop.

I took delight in just weighing the options and arguing the case. And it has worked. I get letters, personally, from people about that column. I got one not too long ago, from a guy named Joe. He says, "I wanted to kill myself. Today, I picked up my sharpest knife from the kitchen, sharpened it and drew a bath. I didn't think I had the stomach to finish myself that way. So I started looking for an easy way to commit suicide, and instead found a blog post by you from 2006. You described suicide as an incredible gamble. I had never looked at it through that lens before. It really put things in perspective, regardless of what's going wrong, right now. I have agency to change things. Taking my own life forfeits that agency for random chance. Today I'm deciding to not take that chance. I don't even know you, but I needed to say that."

I imagine you get a lot of that.

I do. It's pretty awesome and humbling.

Here in the U.S., the Anthony Bourdain documentary just came out, and there's a lot of very public conversation about suicide. There's also been an increase in suicide and suicidal ideation. It's really entered a different phase of our of our public understanding, as a public health crisis. Has anything changed in the way you understand suicide or the way you think about it?

Well, also the rate of overdose deaths has increased. And gun violence has increased. And depression has increased. Maybe it's worldwide, but I focus on America. And I think that American life is really, really hard and ugly. There's so much pressure on people, and there's so much uncertainty and fear, economically, socially.

We left America five years ago, and we live in a different country now. This has really crystallized my feeling that there's something wrong with American life. It doesn't have to be that way. Because I live now with people who don't have much money and whose job prospects are poor and who live with a corrupt government. But suicide in Italy is not a big problem, really. The town that we live in is full of happy people who have stable families and good food and health care. They take care of each other. And there's no question that if you get sick, you go to the hospital. There are just so many uncertainties in American life and so much fear. I'm not surprised that people are going a little crazy. It's a very hard life.

If that letter writer wrote to you today, do you think you would give the same advice? Or would you say something different, given that things are different now?

A thing I often did in the column was focus on external conditions, which is a political statement. I see people talking about mental illness as a pathology. But I think a lot of it is political — that because of political and economic conditions, meaning because of adults in power making decisions — people's lives are bad. They don't know it because everybody's life is bad in the same way.

So you have this focus on suicide and depression, but not enough focus on the political conditions that give rise to civic organizations, unions, churches, families, groups that would foster healthy growth, healthy life. They they're not as strong as it used to be.

Life is scary. Life is really f**king scary. I can't imagine having shelter in place drills. The fact that "active shooter" is a normal phrase. So I try to focus on external things, to say, "Look, you're not necessarily that crazy. You're living under harsh conditions." That's one way I would try to address it. Don't blame yourself, necessarily. Get angry. Look for alternatives.

I think part of what makes that column so unique is that what the letter writer says is such an intimate and vulnerable and candid assessment. It's specific in so many ways and, and universal in so many other ways.

I would love to know what happened.

So you never heard back from that person again?

Not to my knowledge.

Sometimes when people write to me personally, I don't know precisely who it is because I was very scrupulous about not finding out who they are, not knowing who they are when I answered them. I would take the email off the draft. I wish I had it. But it's in the past.

If you can imagine, 15 years later, the letter writer reading this conversation now, is there something you'd like to say today?

Yeah, I'd like to say I didn't mean any disrespect, I just disagree with your premise. That's been my process out of depression through cognitive therapy, to see that many of the things I thought were true, were not really true. And that my thinking about what was possible in life, and what direction I was in, was in a way fatally flawed.

I've been through depression. I've been in that horrible spot. It brings tears to my eyes just to think about it and remember. It's an awful thing. And I was helped. I was helped by books, by therapists, by finding some light in the darkness, which you have got to claw your way through to find. I sure hope that person was able to.

One of the readers wrote to say, "Oh, what a bunch of bulls**t, I hate all this life gets better stuff." It doesn't necessarily get better, but it's worth the struggle.

I don't know if it's the Grateful Dead or the people in AA who say, "Don't quit before the miracle happens." That sounds corny as hell. I would not say that to this person. I would never say, "Don't quit before the miracle happens." But I would share my own experience, which is that I've been in the darkest and most hopeless places. And I did come through it.

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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