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Death Becomes Them

October 22, 2009

Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, Famous and Notorious , out in September, is horribly written and damn disorganized. But once you get past that part you’ll find a fascinating look into the lifes and deaths of fascinating people.

View Death… as a jumping-off point (possible pun intended) to discover tales of interest and then go off to find more information elsewhere. I learned a ton from reading this book, hell I wasn’t even aware that most of these people committed suicide, but Strauss just barely scratches the surface and left me feeling unsatisfied. I think this largely stems from the fact that Strauss is incredibly unqualified to write on this subject (her previous writing credits include VH1 and Entertainment Weekly and, honey, it shows) and focuses mostly on mundane details rather than attempting to dive more deeply into these people’s psyches. However, the stories themselves are unarguably compelling and the little “fun” facts about suicide sprinkled throughout are a nice touch.
Strauss covers a wide array of people from Virginia Woolf to Kurt Cobain to Sigmund Freud. She gives a brief biography (which prompted a new obsession with Anne Sexton and Diane Arbus), a rundown of their history of mental illness and past suicide attempts, a description of their last day and how they killed themselves and finally the events and reactions that followed. I was largely unaware of most of the details involving the deaths of those I did know killed themselves, so it was interesting to finally learn what happened. The most gripping profile for me was that of Mark Rothko, whose circumstances of his death read like the most perfectly scripted mystery novel. I loved reading about Hunter S. Thompson’s spectacle of a funeral and couldn’t believe that Peg Entwistle, who killed herself because she thought she was a failure as an actress, received a letter two days after her death offering her the lead role in an upcoming film about a young woman who commits suicide.

Thankfully the stories in themselves are interesting enough to keep me going because at times Strauss’ writing really made it a challenge, sometimes even laughably so. (My favorite of her groan-worthy lines was: “Like the bulbs the workmen had been changing the night she killed herself, Peg burnt out too early.”) And at other times, she unintentionally crosses the line into bad taste (there’s just something a bit off when she words the subtitle of a brief overview of Hitler’s reign of terror as “Career Highlights”). Yet I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest picking this up for some ironically light reading if you’re equally as curious about the morbid and macabre as I am.

Originally written July 25, 2009

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