Until this weekend, I had never heard of Evelyn McHale – and that’s how she would have wanted it.
She took her own life, and in the note she left behind, said:
“I don’t want anyone in or out of my family to see any part of me. Could you destroy my body by cremation? I beg of you and my family – don’t have any service for me or remembrance for me. My fiance asked me to marry him in June. I don’t think I would make a good wife for anybody. He is much better off without me.”
Those last three sentences were crossed out, but not enough to eliminate the words, just as the 23-year-old’s ostentatious final moments eliminated her life but not her memory.
She leapt to her death from the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building. A photographer was there to capture her final moment, which was subsequently published in Life magazine and became one of the most talked-about photographs of the last century.
The photograph of her body is abhorrently referred to sometimes as “the most beautiful suicide”, as if this young woman was somehow worth more to us dead than alive.
What disturbs me is that the miraculously peaceful depiction of Evelyn has led not to discussions about what could have caused her to make such an awful, irreversible decision and how we might prevent others from doing so, but on the photograph as a piece of art.
Nothing about death is beautiful for those left behind – this much has been evident to me following the sudden passing of a man very close to some friends of mine a few days ago.
In this age of social media, we are able to easily share our grief and loss collectively, and a plethora of photographs and cellphone-shot videos have appeared on timelines during the last 48 hours.
The memories are all we have left when we lose someone, and we mask our regret and sadness through the time capsule of visual records from our shared past.
The death of a loved one and the circumstances around it are not things we wish to recall or dwell on.
Unfortunately for Evelyn McHale, that is all for which she is remembered, and I was struck with anger at the photographer who snapped her in this vulnerable state for the world to unhealthily obsess over still today.
This comment, made earlier this year on a blog posting about the photograph by a 15-year-old doing some research for school about the Empire State Building sums up the potential that images like this have to glorify suicide:
“I cannot tell you how amazing this is. When I look at Evelyn’s composure, her grace, her utter sleep-like beauty, it entrances me. It gives one a new prospective [sic] on death. A death with no pain, but the death that you read about where your soul is instantly lifted to a better place, where peace is. Thank you so much Evelyn, and may you rest in peace.”
This is the kind of delusional thinking that goes through the mind of a suicidal person, and can be reinforced by words and images seen in the media.
I have little doubt that Evelyn’s story was one of the suicides reported on the front page of the New York Times between 1947 and 1968, a period of time examined by researcher David Phillips in his 1974 paper “The influence of suggestion on suicide”.
Phillips examined the number of US suicides reported during the months where front-page coverage of a suicide death occurred versus months were no coverage appeared. 26 out of 33 front page stories were associated with a significant increase in suicide deaths for that month. Even more disturbingly, the rise in suicide deaths was sharper when stories appeared on the front page for more than one day.
Photographer Richard Drew, who took the infamous “falling man” photograph on September 11, 2001 was interviewed by CNN and had this to say:
I look at it in that there are images that we have seen in our newspapers — we’ve seen “AP” photographer’s Nick Ut’s picture of the little girl running from the napalm in Vietnam, we’ve seen “AP” photographer Eddie Adams’s picture of the Saigon police chief executing the man on the street; then we see “the AP” photographer John Filo’s picture of the girl bending over the fallen student at Kent State. Those are all images that we all thought we didn’t want to see, and there was controversy about them all, but it’s part of the story. You have to tell the story. You can’t just turn your head and stop. I don’t think I captured this man’s death; I think I captured part of his life.
I can understand a photographer telling himself that in order to excoriate a horrid memory, but I would hate to see the rest of us drawn into such twisted reframing of the Evelyn McHale photo, which was taken not as part of a wider unfolding news event but as a standalone tragedy, later sold with cold hard cash to a magazine.
From what little we know of Evelyn’s story, she was a woman trapped by her circumstances and feeling that she had no-one in her life she could talk to about her feelings, least of all her husband-to-be.
When deficient chemical levels in your brain trick you into thinking you’re doing people a favour by ending your life, please do yourself one and talk to someone about it.
Your final moments and their aftermath are unlikely to be as romantic as Evelyn’s unsettling legacy.