If you were a filmmaker, and had the opportunity to make a film about a supposed great artist or “legend,” would you focus on that person’s last dying moments, when he or she is in a drugged out daze, or on what made that person noteworthy to begin with? I choose the latter, but after reading Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous, and the Notorious by Alix Strauss, the book references a film made by Gus Van Sant, chronicling the “Last Days” of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain (actually, the character has a different name but anyone can see this is based on Cobain). In the trailer, the Cobain character wanders around, doped up, slurring and drooling in a dress, falling over in his depressed stupor. Ironically, the film is titled “Last Days” for this very reason.
And Strauss’ book is basically the book version of that film. In it she focuses on writers, painters, actors, musicians, and also “notorious” folk like Sigmund Freud and Adolf Hitler, all in their “Last Days.” All listed in this book have, in some way, killed themselves or attempted to kill themselves. So why write a book that focuses on these supposedly “exceptional” individuals (for reasons both good and bad) while they’re in their most pathetic state? Because the culture has this sick obsession with not only death, but suicidal death. To be fair, this book is not being marketed as anything “deep.” It is a pop cultural book that basically offers facts into these individuals’ last dying days, as well as their suicidal methods of choice. Death Becomes Them is a very fast and easy read, leaving the reader with merely encyclopedic details, rather than insights.
Although I admit to having learned facts I’d not known before, I’m not sure I can say I’m better off having learned them. The book is also larded with suicide “details” that to a depressed person, might read more like “tips,” as in how long does it take to die when a plastic bag is put over your head? (You don’t even have to tie it!) And what is the best way of slitting your wrists? Although one cannot blame a book as the source to a problem, Death Becomes Them is not a book for the sad or depressed. Or maybe it is, though I don’t recommend reading it if that is the case.