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The Bridge and the Water

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September 3, 2013

Suicide survivors on the uncanny allure of the Golden Gate.

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Image from Flickr via miggslives

In 1975 Dr. David Rosen conducted a psychiatric study among six people who were known to have survived jumps from the Golden Gate Bridge. His analysis was the first to utilize this specific control group—an exotic breed considering a plunge from the Golden Gate is 99 percent fatal. Rosen had gathered a minority that had somehow emerged from a widely accepted point-of-no-return, gems in the world of suicidology, where opportunity for follow-up is as frequent as immortality.

One subject imagined a sort-of love triangle between himself, the Golden Gate, and death. “There is a kind of form to it,” he said. “A certain grace and beauty.”

Through a set of private interviews, Rosen discovered that each subject had specific suicide plans that involved only the Golden Gate Bridge. They collectively described the location as romantic, notorious, accessible, and effective—the perfect combination of myth and practicality. One subject imagined a sort-of love triangle between himself, the Golden Gate, and death. “There is a kind of form to it,” he said. “A certain grace and beauty.” Another denied even attempting suicide; he believed the Bridge was a set of “golden doors” leading from the material into the spiritual world. “It was the Golden Gate Bridge or nothing.”

The group’s recollections assume a tone synonymous with people who have been there and back, a pitch the rest of us cannot quite perceive. They were thankful for their lives, but also for having experienced the once-in-a-lifetime sensation of jumping to one’s own death. “I felt like a bird flying,” one subject remembered. “Total relief.” Another described the three-second drop as “the most pleasant feeling I’ve ever had.” Despite Rosen’s discrete interrogation, their answers were overwhelmingly analogous: they unanimously confessed to having experienced some degree of euphoric relief while falling. Rosen subsequently dubbed this sensation “ego-death”—a feeling of total self-annihilation after which the subject reframes the human experience and no longer views suicide as a potential solution. While none recalled any textbook near-death experiences (bright white lights, life flashing before eyes), they all awoke to a sense of spiritual rebirth and oneness with the universe.

“Even now I’m symbolically still looking for the better world—I’m still in that place between the bridge and the water.”

“I believe it is this experience of ego-death and subsequent spiritual rebirth that is behind the survivors’s unified and firm position on the need to construct a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge,” wrote Rosen. The purpose of his study, and most suicide-related studies, was to gain a better understanding of the suicidal mind in order to advance the massive effort that is suicide prevention. In this case, the practical preventative measure was an anti-suicide barrier, with which Rosen wholeheartedly concurred. But he was distracted by both the extraordinary conditions of his subjects’ survival, and the magnetism under which they had all been drawn to the same railing. “The fact that the Golden Gate Bridge leads the world as a location for suicides should be knowledge enough for us to begin to deromanticize suicide,” Rosen wrote, “specifically as it relates to the Golden Gate Bridge, but also in a general way.” Those six survivors chose the Bridge because of an imagined legacy into which they hoped to add their own narratives. They did not find romance in suicide; they found it in folklore—this rich history that gave the Bridge an enticing dark underbelly. After their miraculous recoveries, they still treated the Bridge with bizarre admiration, as though it provided them the means for achieving a supreme and perhaps necessary self-coup. “I was looking forward to what was to come,” one subject commented. “Even now I’m symbolically still looking for the better world—I’m still in that place between the bridge and the water.”

Rosen’s study neglects to address its most conspicuous implication: that suicide victims might reach an epic peace of mind in their final moments—a somewhat unearthly retrospection to which we are otherwise not privy. Studying the suicidal is often like playing “Pin the Tail on the Donkey”; the best researchers can do is map the surrounding terrain and hope to learn the sensation of a cliff’s edge under foot. Normal circumstances don’t allow access to people who have ended their lives, only to the evidence they left behind, or to ones who have come close. Rosen’s survivors exist somewhere in between. They utilized what suicidologists call a “lethal method”—one defined by its extreme fatality rate and lack of opportunity for rescue or last minute change of heart. For the sake of classification, when they jumped, they did end their lives. Their euphoric recollections are likely the result of holy-tinted lenses through which the jump kaleidoscopes into a sort of spiritual reawakening—a probability that didn’t get past Rosen, who subtly quoted Voltaire in his epigraph: “After all, it is no more surprising to be born twice than it is to be born once.”

In an effort to lower fatality rates, he installed a safety net to catch the inevitably falling men.

The real miracle was Rosen’s unique approach to this study. He was less interested in the effects psychology has on suicide than the effects suicide has on psychology. Where most peg the Bridge as a weapon of self-destruction, he envisioned a tool to better understand how romance and suicide interact. He did this without devaluing the necessity of an anti-suicide barrier—a project that would neutralize the Bridge’s suicide problem. The matter he failed to address is whether a barrier can neutralize our propensity to romanticize death.

*                      *                     *

The Golden Gate Bridge was born a metaphor. An unlikely child of industrial invention and economic depression, its engineers and benefactors consecrated it a symbol of America’s faith in a new beginning. The span would connect San Francisco with Marin County, engineering with nature, and the past with the future—an allegory stretched across the watery edge of western expansion. “At no other spot could we superimpose upon the romance and glamour of a historic past the splendor and glory of the modernistic present,” said chief engineer Joseph Strauss. “Does it matter that, behind that beautiful picture lies the story of a great struggle, with all the madness and waste and destruction of every great struggle? That alloyed with the steel of this great structure is the grief and sorrow that kept pace with its evolution? That, woven into its every fiber are suffering and sacrifice and the broken threads of shattered illusions?”

The first deaths were all bridgemen, architectural sailors who lived at the mercy of the elements. Every eastern gust and downward glance carried the immediacy of self-preservation. Industry statistics estimated one work-related death for every million dollars spent on bridge building costs (Golden Gate = $35 million); casualties were inevitable and Strauss worried that high death tolls would shroud the new bridge in bad omens. In an effort to lower fatality rates, he installed a safety net to catch the inevitably falling men. Other engineers had proposed similar devices, but Strauss was the first to invest in what was a necessary PR strategy for such a widely disputed architectural endeavor.

The net hung under the bridge’s skeleton like a belly, inching outward as the structure came to life. Over four years of construction it ultimately saved nineteen men. These nineteen went on to form an informal group they called the “Halfway to Hell Club.” A less-fortunate group included ten casualties, all of whom fell with a five-ton platform whose scaffolding gave way a mere three months before the bridge’s completion. The platform and the men hit the net and rested there for an instant before the immense weight tore the web from the bridge’s undercarriage, dropping its contents into the bay. A photo taken from the shore shows the net half-detached from the bridge, its far end already submerged in the water. The gauze-like apparatus resembles a chute of liquid pouring from a huge pitcher. Behind it, several indecipherable black dots fall to the bay.

The safety net remained hitched through the groundbreaking ceremony on May 27, 1937, catching only pedestrian debris: trash, hats, purses, cameras. Two young boys climbed down the bridge’s beams and crawled into the mesh, likely acting half out of mischief and half out of sheer amazement at the experience of hovering bottomless over the immense water. They may have been the last bodies to utilize the life-saving device, which was removed sometime between the ceremony and early August of that same year, when a bargeman named Harold Wobber walked across the bridge with a friend he had just met on the city bus. Halfway to Marin County Wobber took off his coat, threw it at the other man, and said, “This is where I get off.” Then he jumped.

The Bridge’s four-foot pedestrian railing is about the height of the counter separating you from a bank teller. Strauss’s original designs incorporated a taller railing, but architect Irving Morrow made last minute alterations, reconfiguring a shorter railing that offered better views of the bay and the ocean. Bridge historian John Van Der Zee described Morrow’s glorified guard rail as “waist-high security for pedestrians, with a barrier that dissolved into a scrim to people passing by in motorcars, allowing an unobstructed view of the bay, its islands and cities on the one hand, and the Pacific all the way to the horizon on the other.” Morrow’s “waist-high security” (that stops at the ribcage of an average adult) offers a lovely view of the water below, which, at first, appears deceptively calm, like a big lake. To your right, you can see waves crashing onto the San Francisco shore, but the central mass looks like the calm water in a postcard. If you lean over the railing and look down, you first see the orange horizontal beams that run the length of the Bridge, whose crevices have trapped gum, scarves, and hair ties that didn’t make it down. Stretch a little further and you’ll see a gap between these beams and your sneakers, which are by this point inched to the edge of the sidewalk. Through this fissure you can stare straight down into the ocean, which floods into the bay as fast as the pavement disappearing below a landing airplane. And if you look long enough, you might see the flimsy layer between life and death; one hoist and you’re over.

When probed, Strauss publicly declared the Golden Gate “suicide-proof.” He died in 1938, living only long enough to witness the first handful of deaths. By 1948, a hundred people had jumped. By 1960, 200. The San Francisco Chronicle began to document a race between the Golden Gate and the Eiffel Tower: “Catching up: The Gate Bridge, with 262 suicides in twenty seven years, is breathing down the steely neck of the Eiffel Tower, which has scored 330 in seventy five years. It’s just a matter of time. And life.”

By 1973, Golden Gate suicides had achieved enough notoriety to inspire local TV stations to position their cameras bridge-ward in an attempt to capture the legendary 500th jumper. Fourteen potentials showed up over a few weeks hoping for the title, one even wearing a T-shirt with the number 500 plastered across the front. Bridge workers were able to thwart these aspiring celebrities long enough for the TV stations to retreat; the ill-fated 500th jumper took a rather uncelebrated plunge a month later.

A shiny, green droplet of poison clung to the radiator’s mouth. I stared at it for a moment, and then I reached my hand into the tangle of car parts, wiped my index finger across the drip, and shoved it into my mouth. Just like that.

Rosen published his study in 1975, at around number 535. That statistic has since tripled, although most researchers agree this estimate is on the conservative side considering that, for the majority of the bridge’s lifetime, the suicide toll included only those whose jumps were witnessed and whose bodies were recovered. The numbers did not include the following: as-yet undiscovered bodies that evaded the eyes of Coast Guard officers, the owners of cars abandoned in the visitor parking lot, and individuals who simply disappeared, jumps presumed and whereabouts unreported. Given these discrepancies, the total is likely far higher. Of the thousands of people who walk across the bridge every month, two or three go over the edge, three times as many are thwarted, and an incalculable number struggle with the realization that a single move separates them from the unforgiving waters below.

Bridges cater to the temptation of impulsivity, which is why many have installed some form of suicide deterrent. Bridge sidewalks in Portland, Oregon, where I live, are book-ended with small green signs advertising the local 24-hour suicide crisis hotline. Above the phone number is a simple illustration of a yellow daffodil, sort of wilting but not wilted. These signs stand sentinel like the patron saints of the suicidal—a last reminder that there is a way out of the ultimate way out. Most days I pass by the signs without thinking about suicide or the ways in which daffodils symbolize re-birth or the fact that in an instant I can be falling toward the water. Other days I am nearly immobilized by the realization that death is only a hoist away. Edgar Allan Poe called this the “imp of the perverse”—the uncanny temptation to do certain things solely motivated by feeling one should not: letting newborn babies slip from our arms, abruptly jerking our cars into oncoming 18-wheel trucks, strolling in front of passing trains. On these days I shy away from running my palm along the railing for fear that my hand might act without my brain and I won’t realize until I am halfway toward the river. I am propelled less by the notion that I shouldn’t than by the realization that I can.

My only narrow brush with fatal impulsivity happened in 1988. I was eight years old, loitering around while my brother poured green nectar into the first in a monarchy of hand-me-down junkers–a 1976 Monte Carlo that drank coolant like cold beer on a back porch in August.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Antifreeze,” he mumbled, sixteen and impetuous.

“What’s it do?” He ignored me. I pressed. He finished the pour and pulled the bottle away from the radiator.

“It’s poison,” he said. “If you drink it, you’ll die.” He feigned a maniacal laugh and waved the bottle in front of my face. I squinted my eyes shut and twisted away from him. Still laughing, he darted past me toward the garage.

Alone with the car I leaned my torso under its hood. A shiny, green droplet of poison clung to the radiator’s mouth. I stared at it for a moment, and then I reached my hand into the tangle of car parts, wiped my index finger across the drip, and shoved it into my mouth. Just like that. The green tasted sweet and inedible, like a popsicle stick licked almost clean.

Her account is more pragmatic than the others. She remembers falling, hitting the water, wondering when she would come back up.

Within seconds I panicked, realizing what I had done, and ran inside looking for my grandmother. When I found her I could barely speak through my hyperventilation, managing only to communicate that I was near death. She held my hand and walked me to the kitchen, where she poured me a tumbler of tap water and instructed me to drink. I swallowed the liquid in gulps, tears slowing, while she stroked my hair.

“There,” she said. “Feel better?” I nodded. “See? Water cures everything.”

*                      *                     *

The list of places from which people jump is daunting: river bridges, highway overpasses, the roofs and high windowsills of hotels, apartment complexes, office buildings, department stores, casinos, parking garages, and the cool, inviting air outside hospital windows. For a more public fall there is the Space Needle, the Statue of Liberty, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Hoover Dam. Niagara Falls swallows fifteen or twenty a year, and the inveterate Beachy Head cliffs on the southern coast of England have been a legendary suicide spot since the sixth century. One woman who survived her Beachy Head jump said, “All you needed to do was keep walking.”

Iconic architectural heights have notoriously posed a problem for the self-destructive. Nine people jumped from the Empire State Building’s eighty-sixth floor observation deck before Empire State Incorporated constructed an extended barrier beyond the original four-and-a-half foot parapet. More than 350 people jumped from the Eiffel Tower’s viewing platform between its opening in 1889 and the year 1965, when a five-foot anti-suicide barrier was built around the deck. Five feet proved not to be enough, and a few more jumped before the barrier was extended an additional five feet, to the apparent frustration of cynical tower safety officials. “There is only one solution: dismantle the Eiffel Tower piece by piece,” one official scoffed. “Then suicide candidates would have to throw themselves into the Seine.”

Romance is what distinguishes the bridges from the parking garages. That, and the myth that water is less painful than concrete when met at seventy-five miles an hour (false). So why not the Oakland Bay Bridge? It is just as old and just as far from the water, but it hosts a fraction of the suicides. One study confirmed that half of the local suicide victims would have had to commute over the Bay Bridge on their way to its more prestigious counterpart, even though a jump from the former is equally as deadly. “If bridges had feelings, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge would be experiencing one of the biggest, and most justified, inferiority complexes in history,” reported Richard Weingroff at the Federal Highway Administration. He accused the suicidal of bypassing the Oakland-Bay in order to have a more “poetic death.”

Rosen interviewed one woman who survived a jump from the Bay Bridge. Her account is more pragmatic than the others. She remembers falling, hitting the water, wondering when she would come back up. When the Coast Guard picked her up she was fully conscious and didn’t feel injured, though she had broken her pelvis. She had hoped to experience a union with her deceased father; that didn’t come through. Like the others, she experienced a sense of transcendence, which she later confessed in front of her congregation. In the same instance she spoke in tongues and instructed the churchgoers to love each other more. Rosen seemed less interested in her chronicle, probably because her choice of location was practical: it was the nearest to her home, as though she were simply mapping the most efficient itinerary from life to death.

The Bay Bridge is a state-owned structure, which by law offers no pedestrian access. In order to jump one must traverse a dangerously narrow shoulder with no barrier separating them from vehicles traveling at highway speeds. The woman Rosen interviewed abruptly pulled over her car, got out, and climbed over. There is no lingering at a waist-high railing, mulling over one’s own existence—a complimentary window of contemplation offered to all Golden Gate visitors. Bridge security patrol officers are trained to look for these pensive moments, visitors who lack the accessories of tourism or who pace the length of the eastern sidewalk, pausing now and again to look down. Three times as many jumpers are thwarted by the patrol as those who elude their efforts. They are the Bridge guardians, entrusted with the responsibility of talking the suicidal down from their literal ledges. They are also the most recent in a series of efforts to quell the suicide problem on the Golden Gate, which has been outwitting the Bridge District Board since Harold Wobber’s legendary inaugural jump. Their proposals spanned everything from rendering the jump a criminal offense to installing electric fencing to signs that read “Think Before You Leap.” In 1993 they installed a system of crisis phones, eleven total between both sidewalks. The phones resemble antiquated call boxes one might find mounted outside derelict office buildings. Small blue plaques above the boxes read: “THERE IS HOPE. MAKE THE CALL. THE CONSEQUENCES OF JUMPING FROM THIS BRIDGE ARE FATAL AND TRAGIC.” Somewhere exists a photo of me posing next to one of the phones, wearing a facial expression that reflects my lack of preparation for the gravity of my surroundings. After that photo was taken, I watched three other tourists pose for similar photos in the span of five minutes. All of us proud to be in the presence of something historically tragic and yet utterly incapable of comprehending the violence from which that history derives.

These prevention efforts are big in intent and small in utility. I am reminded of a childhood friend who handmade weekly cards for her mother advising her to stop smoking. The cards featured slogans we had learned in school like “Smoking Stinks!” and “Hang Tough, Don’t Puff!” along with crayoned drawings of a happier, smoke-free family. She would leave them on her mother’s pillow, sometimes with a breath mint. Her mother thanked her for each card, kissed her forehead, said “You’re right, honey,”—and continued to smoke without consideration.

The magnitude of the Bridge’s suicide problem demands an equally drastic resolution, the same one Rosen, and many others, suggested nearly half a century and more than a thousand deaths ago. Plans for an anti-suicide barrier have been long deferred primarily because of the cost (estimated now at $50 million) and the skepticism around its ultimate effectiveness. The doubtful rely on the assumption that a person deterred by a barrier would simply turn around and go elsewhere, the same way that a locked and lightless 7-Eleven would send someone in search of the nearest Circle K.

Suicidologists have struggled to disprove this widespread myth, often using the Golden Gate as their point of contention. In 1978, Dr. Richard Seiden tracked down 515 people whose Bridge suicide attempts were initially thwarted. Only twenty-five of them went on to end their lives, meaning 95% of those talked down did not immediately (or even eventually) seek out another method. “The findings confirm previous observations that suicidal behavior is crisis-oriented and acute in nature,” Seiden concluded. “Accordingly, the justification for prevention and intervention such as building a suicide prevention barrier is warranted and the prognosis for suicide attempters is, on balance, relatively hopeful.” Of those twenty-five, seven returned to the Golden Gate; one went to the Oakland Bay.

There is some debate regarding the ways a barrier might compromise the Bridge’s historical integrity. According to a massive, spiral-bound assessment conducted by the California Department of Transportation, the proposed barrier must have minimal visual and aesthetic impacts on the Bridge. This criterion comes down from the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which establishes that “the government use all practicable means to ensure Americans have safe, healthful, productive, and aesthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings.” Given these specs, the preferred barrier plan involves a horizontal net system that would hang under the bridge’s sidewalks, extending twenty feet out on either side. The visual effect is a pair of steel wings expanding from under the bridge, poised to catch the uncertain, to whom the assessment repeatedly refers as those “not using the Bridge sidewalks for their intended purpose.” This design trumped others because it would affect the fewest alterations to what the National Register of Historic Places qualifies as character-defining features: the railings, the color, the view, the pedestrian experience. The document does not identify “suicide magnet” as a character-defining feature, nor does it mention the effects of a city, and perhaps an entire nation, witnessing the corporeal recognition that this American monument is cloaked in a rich history of self-murder.

This gesture of acknowledgment is why all six of Dr. Rosen’s subjects encouraged the construction of an anti-suicide barrier. One subject put it simply: “Even if it saved one person’s life, it would be worth it.” Their support is both encouraging and contradictory, considering a barrier would have would have inhibited them from reaching the enlightenment of which they so highly spoke. There are no other survivors quite like this group. Most jump survivors remember a feeling of incredible regret, the realization that they want to live, the terror for what was about to happen to their fragile falling bodies. They re-emerge into a life of spirituality or suicide prevention advocacy but they are candidly haunted by that three-second drop. The Rosen Six remember only peace, relief, freedom. What if they saw something essential between the bridge and the water—something a barrier would prevent anyone else from seeing?

But that is just romance talking, and romance only prolongs our reluctance toward progress. Perhaps we favor romance because it introduces passion where suicide leaves apathy, impulsivity, violence. Romance allows us to ignore the ugly truth of mental illness, the sad reality that a person can spiral to a point of hopelessness that makes suicide look as simple as your finger in a drop of anti-freeze, that suicide is not simply the result of a life that has run its course or a poetic attempt to burn out instead of fade away, but that it is raw and violent and harsh and not unlike the atmosphere on the sidewalk of the Golden Gate Bridge, where unobstructed ocean winds pound through eighty thousand miles of steel cable and your path is crowded with tourists and bicycles and ultramodern baby carriages and you cannot hear yourself think over the chaos of raised voices and airstreams and cars traveling at highway speeds over rumble strips and so you walk to the railing and you look down. And one day soon you might see a barrier, a simple reminder that something is there to catch you.

G

Candace Opper lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in Brevity, Bitch Magazine, Full Stop, and various publications put forth by the American Association of Suicidology. She is the managing editor at Late Night Library, and is currently working on a book about copycat suicide.

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