I was in two minds about writing this post, but I think I will.
In May this year, Anna Mansfield killed herself. She was 44, and suffering from depression, but her family were unaware she was considering suicide, and it seems her doctor did not realise either. Despite having multiple family ties, she seems to have suffered in silence. At his daughter’s funeral, Michael Mansfield addressed this directly:
“You all know that Anna committed suicide and I feel very strongly that there’s a taboo about this and people don’t talk about it. I’ve only discovered [this] by talking about it myself. And as soon as I do, then others say, ‘Oh, funny you should say that: my brother, my sister, my father, my mother…”
He has since begun to advocate changes in the social and medical treatment of depression and suicide, including setting up a new forum, Silence on Suicide (SOS), with the aim of breaking this taboo.
Yet, the reporting around this tragedy has had its odd moments. The Telegraph,for example, chose to run a story with the remarkably insensitive headline ‘Michael Mansfield QC’s Most Difficult Case’ – as if a grieving father can only relate to his daughter’s death in a cold, quasi-professional way. Other reports dwelt at length on Anna Mansfield’s children, quoting her reported feelings of guilt at length and subtly reinforcing them by describing her husband as ‘left behind’.
And then the subtitle of Tim Lott’s latest piece in the Guardian caught my eye: “Michael Mansfield’s campaign to break the silence around suicidal thoughts is vital for isolated men.”
Insensitive? Possibly. But not unexpected.
Suicide is one of those tragedies very, very frequently cited in discussions about feminism.In 2013, 6233 people killed themselves in the UK – and almost four times as many men as women. Far more men than women kill themselves, and this is, disturbingly, a consistent pattern. Often, it’s suggested that this represents either an innate, or a conditioned, emotional superiority amongst women: women are allowed to show their emotions more; women are better at seeking help; it’s more acceptable for women to show that they’re ‘weak’; women have better support networks. The subtext is that women should wake up and recognise how lucky they are, how damaging feminism is, as if toxic masculinity – masculinity valorising the suppression of emotion – isn’t something feminists have been criticising for years.
But there’s a more immediate issue here. Avoiding suicide isn’t ‘weak’, any more than killing yourself is ‘strong’. And women who kill themselves aren’t necessarily lacking in ‘support networks’ – like Anna Mansfield, whose father had planned to meet her shortly after her death to discuss her depression.
I read on: the soundbite chosen to accompany the piece, in bold in the sidebar, read: “Childbirth and the oppression women have suffered have bonded them in a way that most men have denied themselves.”
Let’s take a minute here to remember that a woman has died. A woman whose death Lott is using for clickbait to perpetuate his tediously mealy-mouthed anti-feminist agenda.
Gee, sisters, I was feeling all down about the oppression, but now I know it’s really bonded us, I feel so much better! But this line isn’t just misogynistic bullshit: it’s also, you notice, subtly taking a pop at other men. Most men, Lott posits, have denied themselves this support. The rhetoric of self-denial, of self-mortification, suggests almost a form of intentional self-harm-by-emotion. Most men could avoid suicide, but they ‘denied themselves’ and so they died. It’s feeding right back into that myth that suicide is somehow a nobler, braver option than the alternatives. And, knowing how very, very hard it can be in some areas of the UK to get any sort of mental health support, I find it quite hard to buy.
Lott’s piece is, no doubt, a personal cry from the heart, an emotional outpouring of the kind many people aren’t able to make – especially not in the pages of a national newspaper. And you could argue it’s a very good thing he feels able to model the sort of emotional openness that Mansfield’s SOS campaign advocates. But in doing this, Lott manages to take a pot shot at his daughter (she won’t read his memoirs, which he claims is because she’s prejudiced against depression), at other men who foolishly ‘deny themselves’ support freely available, and, of course, at women. What kind of woman (his article plants the question) can benefit from all of that female bonding, all of that “real support, the love, the crying on one another’s shoulder, the support of a large informal network that many women enjoy” – and yet still kill herself, as Anna Mansfield did?
At this point, I wonder what it is that Lott knows, and I don’t, about women with responsibilities of looking after children who – like the Mansfield children – had a rare blood disease and required a substantial amount of care.
I also wonder about the way Lott brings his perspective, unhesitatingly, to this situation. To him, a young woman’s suicide and a campaign to bring some good out of that tragedy, is an opportunity to talk about why men have it harder. We all bring in personal perspectives. And mine, reading Lott’s piece, was to remember another social trend, which is less rarely cited by those who see suicide as evidence of what women “enjoy” and what men “deny themselves”. And that, sadly, is the trend concerning cases in which suicide is not violence targeted solely against the self, but combines with toxic masculinity in filicide.
Filicide-suicide is a gendered example of violence. The statistics are difficult to recover, as researchers observe, because not all observers agree on the definitions of victims and perpetrators. Some studies include age limits as low as 13; others, as high as 20. Some studies include only biological or adoptive parents, while others also include primary care givers of other kinds, and step parents. This last is particularly relevant, since some studies indicate that 1 in 5 filicides are committed by stepfathers. But, overall, children are far more likely to be killed by male parents than female.
Both Karen Ingala Smith and Louise Pennington have written repeatedly about the way in which these types of suicide are reported, and – in particular – the disturbing ways in which they normalise this form of violence by perpetuating the same set of implications Lott puts forward.Men are just too strong, too self-denying, to show weakness; women have no excuse; women are obliquely responsible. Where Lott claims that men are excluded from a network of female support, reports of these cases regularly dwell on the male perpetrators’ relationships with their children’s mothers. In both situations, women are presented as having a responsibility to provide the ‘vital’ support that ‘isolated’ men need, while the reasons for women’s own struggles – struggles that drove Anna Mansfield to kill herself – are relegated to the background.