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The Mind As a Terrible Master

I read about the death of David Foster Wallace last week and was struck by the remarks he made at Kenyon College, just a few years before he took his own life.

Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

It was then revealed that LM Montgomery also had committed suicide in her 60s. I had forgotten to blog about it, but SuperLibrarian twittered it and it prompted by recollection. There really are no words to describe the horror that you feel when someone you know takes their own life. You just know it was a tragedy.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Janine
    Sep 24, 2008 @ 15:51:35

    Yes, suicide is an awful thing, especially for loved ones left behind to cope with it. I’ve never read Foster Wallace but my sympathies are with his family. I adored L.M. Montgomery’s books in the Anne of Green Gables series and I find it tragic that someone who was able to bring so much joy into the lives of others must have suffered so much sorrow herself.

  2. Jorrie Spencer
    Sep 24, 2008 @ 16:07:27

    I read a number of LM Montgomery’s journals. Fascinating reading, lots of wonderful details of that era. But also so very sad. Increasingly so as she got older. I don’t know if I can read the last one.

  3. Val Kovalin
    Sep 24, 2008 @ 17:29:45

    I loved L.M Montgomery’s books. That poor woman — I had no idea.

  4. Emmy
    Sep 24, 2008 @ 21:04:28

    Wow. Wonder how long he was suicidal before he actually did it. That, or he ironically wrote his own self fulfilling prophesy.

    Anne of Green Gables…*loved* that series as a child, and intend to share it with my own as well.

  5. AnjSmith
    Sep 24, 2008 @ 22:05:25

    Wow. I had no idea L M Montgomery committed suicide. But having read most of her novels, there were some very Gothic stories that hinted at the darker side of her head. Amazing and beautiful. She is probably my favorite author ever. But some of those stories were downright creepy.

  6. RfP
    Sep 25, 2008 @ 11:29:49

    I don’t think diagnosis-by-fiction is all that reliable. The novel may have nothing to do with the author’s life, and our interpretations of what’s sad in a novel may be miles apart. For example, I didn’t see the Gothic stories as anything out of the ordinary but I found the later Anne books very sad. Anne lost her spark, stopped telling stories, felt drab next to Gilbert’s old flame Christine, and generally “settled” for a very circumscribed life in a way I found depressing. But do any of those stories’ literal outcomes reflect LMM’s life?

  7. Karen Scott
    Sep 25, 2008 @ 19:06:55

    L.M Montgomery committed suicide? Jesus.

  8. Robin
    Sep 25, 2008 @ 19:40:21

    My understanding — ugh this is gruesome — is that more males use a gun and more females use pills, and that there is a particular psychology behind that in terms of intention (i.e. a gun is more likely to succeed, and in general more females *attempt* suicide but more males *commit* suicide). That is, the gun is all about meaning to go through with the attempt, and the brain the most likely place to effect that in one shot. Fascinating, albeit sad, symbolic logic on Wallace’s part, though.

  9. Throwmearope
    Sep 25, 2008 @ 20:03:56

    Terri Gross replayed an interview with Wallace that was about 10 years old and he discussed the fact that his parents had to struggle when they were young and were basically happy people. He and his friends had a pretty easy life and were very unhappy. So I expect he was depressed for a long, long time before he suicided.

  10. Janine
    Sep 26, 2008 @ 16:20:03

    Terri Gross replayed an interview with Wallace that was about 10 years old and he discussed the fact that his parents had to struggle when they were young and were basically happy people. He and his friends had a pretty easy life and were very unhappy. So I expect he was depressed for a long, long time before he suicided.

    Yes, that’s true. Lev Grossman wrote an appreciation of Wallace in the September 29 issue of Time, and Wallace’s father is quoted in the article:

    Since his death, Wallace’s family has stated that he was chronically depressed. He had been taking medication for his condition for 20 years and had occasionally been hospitalized. “Everything had been tried,” his father said, “and he just couldn’t stand it anymore.”

    What was “it”? In Infinite Jest Wallace wrote–in a passage that now reads like a lucid cell-phone call from the pilot of a crashing 747–that clinical depression is “lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed… Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution. It is a hell for one.”

  11. MD
    Oct 04, 2008 @ 18:00:19

    To anyone who hasn’t read L.M. Montgomery’s Journals–I HIGHLY recommend them as a wonderful history of an interesting time period and an interesting woman. Fiction or non-fiction, Montgomery knew how to write entertainingly.

    Having read all of Maud’s journals a couple of times, I feel incredibly ambivalent over this news of her alleged suicide. On one hand, I can quite imagine how circumstances would have driven her to it. She never had the least emotional support from a mentally-ill husband and she was the type of person who couldn’t bear the idea of anyone even suspecting that she was less than happy and her life was less than good. She always put on a brave, cheerful face to the world and tried to do her “duty” as she saw it. But then privately she suffered so much, losing her first baby, losing her dearest friend in the world, agonizing day after day through WWI, all those lawsuits with her publishers…stresses that would have her literally pacing the floor for hours at a time and in such a worked up state, it’s amazing to me that she didn’t simply have a stroke.

    Her escapes from stress only helped her up to a point. She couldn’t get away to visit P.E.I. as often as she needed to, and that was the one place in the world that rejuvenated her spirit. With the advent of WWII, I’m sure the horror of that, in addition to the thought of her beloved sons ending up in the midst of it, must have been too much to bear. So in that sense, I could almost imagine her ending her life–despite any thoughts of how that would hurt her children or the scandal of it. She would have been too wrapped up in her own pain to think past it, I guess.

    And yet it is still hard to imagine her taking that route. It just seems so much to go against who she was, with her incredible imagination and her open-minded view of the afterlife and God, and her devotion to her boys–I can hardly picture her standing to leave them behind, no matter the level of her stress.

    I don’t know. Reading her final journal, with all its agonies and her inability, as time passed, to even record them in the most private way, again makes me think that she could have possibly really killed herself. The poor woman was just beyond distraught and WWII must have just seemed the end of the world to her.

    I have to add that I hope that this is not some story come to life because of family animosities. Maud was so unhappy over her son’s divorce, I’d suspect there were some ill feelings lingering for a long time afterward. I hope this isn’t some spiteful act of some angry relative, putting out a story like this.

    And if it is true, I think it shouldn’t have been publicised anyway. I know it’s important to talk about these things and understand them and in most cases, I would say okay, go ahead. But Maud was just so fiercely private and I think it would have only devastated her to have this sort of thing made public about her. I think her relatives should have just let her rest in peace.

    She was such a brilliant, amazing, strong woman. She deserves better. She deserves to be remembered as the gifted writer she was, not as a troubled soul who took her own life.
    That really bothers me.

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