Book Review

In 2006, Donald Antrim was on the roof of his apartment building, close to suicide. “I was not on the roof to jump,” he clarifies, “I was there to die, but dying was not a plan. . . I did not want to die, only felt that I would, or should, or must, and I had my pain and my reasons, my certainties.” As with the title of his short, striking meditation, One Friday in April, Antrim patiently lays out the observable details of a day when he might have died from a known cause with many unknowable ambiguities.

Most of what we seem to know about suicide are the statistics. In 2019, it was the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S., with a 33% increase since 1999. It’s the second leading cause of death for people ages ten to thirty-four, and far more people have experienced suicidal thoughts than have attempted it. But such figures—while startling—do nothing to increase our understanding, except maybe to show how prevalent suicide really is.

Suicide, Antrim argues, has been misunderstood, or failed to be understood at all. Throughout One Friday in April, he raises common questions surrounding suicide in order to unsettle the conventional answers: “Were my thoughts of dying intrusive, as we sometimes describe them, or were they simply the only thoughts that I had?” Of the language around suicidal “desire” or “want,” Antrim plainly counters: “I never wanted to die.”

For Antrim, suicide was never a choice but the lack of one, an unavoidable and “eternal state.” Because of this, Antrim maintains that suicide is an illness like any other, “not an act or a choice, a decision or a wish,” nor “a response to pain, or a message to the living—or not only as those things.” One characteristic of this illness, he argues, is that ambivalence, “our ability to hold many ideas and beliefs at once, is absent in the psychosis.” Describing several stints in psychiatric hospitals and his eventual decision to receive (successful) electroconvulsive therapy, Antrim’s narrative of treatment reveals a man trying to get better—or choosing to live—while thoughts of dying—a symptom of his illness—pervade. On a day when a feeling of wellness proves fleeting, he remarks: “It was a blow. I sat on the sofa. That night passed, and then another, and then another.”

In crisp, unadorned prose, Antrim’s own story disrupts current—and dangerous—perceptions of suicide as a matter of individual willpower. Through his matter-of-fact descriptions, Antrim advocates for first understanding suicide as an effect of an illness.

From here, Antrim believes that becoming more clinical about suicide would be to our benefit: “The terms that we use to describe illness can either inform or impede our understanding. We can speak and write in language that expresses tactility and touch, not theory and abstraction.” Such tactility and touch, first demonstrated by Antrim’s account, become his call to action for readers in turn.

If there’s hope for what has become and remained one of the leading causes of death, Antrim suggests that it begins with how we perceive suicide. “All our diseases are terrifying until they are known or named,” he posits, citing the example of tuberculosis when it was known as “consumption” and seemed untreatable. To define suicide as an illness that afflicts people, and therefore stop using language around it as a “choice,” would move that needle in powerful ways. Antrim believes this is possible, that we can instead “consider that the suicide wants to live, and begin to think more concretely, rather than scratch our heads about what causes suicide.”

This shift in thinking, to assert that the suicidal person is in fact trying to survive, is the crux of Antrim’s project. On the Friday in April when he was standing on his apartment roof, he wondered what people passing by might have thought if they saw him: “If they had known the man’s troubles, had known the man, would they have understood that he was about to die? Or would they have imagined that he was trying to live?”

Whatever the case may have been then, Antrim wants us—his witnesses now—to believe the latter. As suicide forecloses a person’s future, Antrim’s book hopes for the possibility of many futures, borne of better questions that result in better answers.

About the Reviewer

Ben Lewellyn-Taylor lives in Dallas, TX. He is an MFA student in Antioch University's low-residency program. His essays and reviews appear in The Adroit Journal, New South Journal, Oyez Review, No Contact Mag, Postscript Magazine, Heavy Feather Review, and New Critique, among others.