The Call of the Void

Cornell University sits above Ithaca, NY, on a plateau crisscrossed by chasms and bridges. Legend says that it is the university with the highest suicide rate in the US, that those chasms exert a magnetic attraction on the unhappy and the troubled. From Orsai, Bolivian novelist Edmundo Paz Soldan on his years teaching in America, and the call of the void.

It all began — or least this is how I remember it now — one cloudy day in 2003 in the town of Ithaca in upstate New York. It was one of those grey days that characterize the region, which lies closer to Canada than to Manhattan. Tammy, the woman from California to whom I had been married since 1998, came home carrying a folder from her job at Ithaca High, the school where she taught literature. It was, she said, a collection of news clippings from a series of tragedies that had occurred five years earlier in Dryden, 20 minutes from Ithaca. The woman who had given her the folder was a colleague and she wanted Tammy to understand why she was always depressed. The story the woman told involved the accidents and suicides of children from the high school, among them her own daughter: eight deaths in less than a year, deaths that had prompted one of the survivors to say he felt like he was living in a cursed town worthy of a Stephen King novel. The daughter of Tammy’s colleague had been incinerated when she was driving home early one morning and ran into a truck.

At that time, I was a professor of Latin American literature at Cornell University. I had a three-year-old son and had embarked on that desperate and nerve-wracking academic race to get tenure. I wrote critical literary essays and tried to get them published in academic journals, and sent out summaries of articles to conferences with the hope they would be accepted and they would invite me to give a presentation. I also taught and wrote novels set in Bolivia — the country where I was born — that always revolved around social and political problems. I had constant fights with the critics in my country about what was understood as ‘Bolivian literature’, fights that now seem Byzantine to me but which I took very seriously because they referred to certain dogmas about what a Bolivian writer could or should write and what he couldn’t or shouldn’t write.

I had arrived in Ithaca in 1997 after finishing a PhD in Latin American literature at Berkeley. Berkeley was my paradise lost: a sunny place, filled with political activism, the place where I had learned that I could be happy in the United States. That was why, when I interviewed with Cornell’s hiring committee looking for work, the mention of Ithaca being ‘the Berkeley of the East Coast’ ended up convincing me. Ithaca, they told me, was just as liberal as Berkeley. It even printed its own money. Besides, there was of course the very prestige of Cornell being an Ivy League school, among East Coast establishments that included Harvard and Yale.

I started my contract in August of 1997 but visited Ithaca three months earlier to look for an apartment. It was the beginning of May and it was snowing. This should have told me something about the differences between Ithaca and Berkeley, but I did not pay much attention. For me, it was enough to have gotten work at an elite university. Deep down, I was a provincial, someone who let himself be impressed by esteemed names.

During my first months in Ithaca I learned a few things. Cornell, they said, was the Ivy League university that was easiest to enter and most difficult to leave. It offered a high quality education, perhaps higher than Berkeley. But I suspected this was because Berkeley was part of an immense metropolitan area that included San Francisco and Oakland, and that life at Berkeley was not reduced merely to academics. Ithaca, on the other hand, was a community of 70,000 inhabitants, ‘central but isolated’, with all the interesting cities in the area — New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington — at least four or five hours away by car.

There was also the myth that Cornell was the Ivy League school with the most suicides. This is what they told me: Cornell not only depressed you, but it provided you with the necessary means to kill yourself once you were depressed. The university was stuck on top of a hill. The hill was flanked by vertiginous gorges with bridges connecting the university to the town. Almost all the students who committed suicide chose to throw themselves off these bridges, falling amongst the rocks of the streams that flowed placidly at the bottom of the gorges. I imagined a scene worthy of Wuthering Heights: During winters the days grew dark at four in the afternoon. A student, overwhelmed by studies, would show up at the window of their dorm room and would find the wind, the snow, the fog and the precipices. This attraction to the void seemed inevitable, as did the desire to leave the room and head for a bridge, head for that mortal jump.

But it was nevertheless hard for me to understand. Since childhood the sight of blood had made me nauseous. It was not easy for me to get into the heads of people who wanted to kill themselves. I had lived a far from home for ten years. I had missed home, had suffered and had my existential crises, but it was a long road from there to suicide. So it all seemed like a picturesque myth to me, and I repeated it easily to my friends in other parts of the world to impress them. It was a myth I didn’t relate to, or I did, but in a superficial way, like saying the ice cream sundae was invented in your town (another thing they say in Ithaca). In this spirit, the first semesters at Cornell one of the texts I taught was a story by Carlos Fuentes, from The Crystal Frontier. It was called The Sorrow and was set in Ithaca. It was about a Mexican student who discovered his homosexuality at Cornell, and it mentioned the issue of the suicides. When we got to the paragraph about suicides, I would look at my students with a mischievous smile, seeking their complicity. Here we all were in Ithaca, and all this just seemed like an urban myth, right?

The first semester of 2004 one of Tammy’s students at Ithaca High committed suicide. At the same time, I started to have problems with her. The two events were unrelated.

Tammy’s student was named Isaac. He was 18 years old and popular. He was tall and blond, and everyone liked him. He wasn’t especially handsome, not a ladies’ man, but he attracted people because he was extremely sensitive and he related to the world in a fragile way. He was all empathy: Everything that happened around him hurt him. He made others people’s problems his own, and also adopted big problems like the environment, wars, and evil. He was a melancholy kid, one who might be called an emo, although in him this was no pose.

ithaca221

They say that one afternoon Isaac went to the library at Ithaca High and asked for the names of the bridges in Ithaca. He chose one of those bridges and jumped off it. Tammy suffered much. She suffered a great loss — Isaac’s potential — but she also suffered from the chats she’d had with him about the state of the world, chats she now interpreted as desperate cries for help. She had spoken to him and listened to him, but her responses could not prevent his suicide. I told her not to blame herself, that she had nothing to do with it, that she should not try to find a retroactive logic to understand what happened, that she should not read the past according to the present, but I guess it was inevitable that she would do all this anyway.

That semester Tammy and I began having problems, or at least they became explicit. We all know these things do not happen overnight, no matter how surprising they are when they do happen. We had been together since 1996 when we met at Berkeley. We married in 1998 and our son was born in 2000. The pressure of work and raising a child had worn down our relationship. I had just gotten tenure and recognized that the years I spent dedicating myself to academics had taken my focus off our relationship. Nor was it easy to deal with a child who had not yet turned four years old and whose care left us with little energy for each other. A psychoanalyst friend of mine had told me that with the arrival of my son my libidinal energy would be displaced by him. I did not understand it until well after it happened, and when I did it was already too late.

One of the escape routes we had for our crisis was that I would accept an offer to direct Cornell’s year-long study abroad program in Seville [Spain]. Besides the work and taking care of our son, we thought it would help us escape one of Ithaca’s long winters — starting in November and ending in April –, which provoked sentiments informally grouped under the name ‘cabin fever’: an oppressive feeling of finding yourself under a state of siege, living in a ghost town with a cumulative bad mood that is directed at the people closest to you. I noticed the cold did not bother me as much as the absence of light (doctors recommended ‘blue lights’ that compensated for the lack of ultraviolet rays on the skin). That lack of light, they said, was the culprit for the semi-depression that all the area’s inhabitants experienced. It was an area, besides, that was economically depressed (Thanks to Cornell, Ithaca was an exception). Binghamton, Syracuse and the other cities around the region had left their glory years behind some time ago. You have to read Joyce Carol Oates and Russell Banks, the two great novelists of the region, to understand how depressing upstate New York is.

So that was how we came to exchange Ithaca for Seville. And we were happy for a year, or at least that is how it seemed at the time. I say ‘at least’ because that year I thought obsessively about Isaac’s suicide and the suicides of the others referred to in the folder from Tammy’s colleague. I had brought Ithaca with me. Or rather: maybe those suicides were a displaced way for me to deal with what was happening in my relationship with Tammy, that somber space we had entered. I don’t have perfect science on it. But I did think about the first death in the series of deaths in Dryden, the football player in his car. A while later, his brother died in an all-too-similar accident, which made it easy to conclude that his death was planned. Later, there was the suicide of the friend of one of the cheerleaders who had herself been raped and killed by a psychopath who had been a soldier in the first Gulf War. And later the psychopath would kill himself. I imagined all the deaths. I imagined the accidents and killings and suicides. What had to go through your head to kill someone? How did you have to feel to kill yourself?

One afternoon, while I was returning from work at the office downtown — across from [Seville’s] Gold Tower — I found myself listening to dead adolescents’ voices in my head. Each told their part of the tragedy, as if it were a play with the actors coming out to say their lines and then leaving the stage. It occurred to me there was a novel here. I said to myself: Ten chapters, ten monologues, each one ending in the narrator’s death. I reread ‘As I Lay Dying’, a novel by Faulkner in which I remembered this structure, and discovered in the novel that the narrator of a certain chapter sometimes took over for a different person. I too would have to be flexible.

I spoke to friends who tried to convince me I should write a nonfiction book like In Cold Blood. I reread Capote. Sometimes the idea was tempting, but later Tammy’s friend would come to mind and make me realize I didn’t have the temperament required to sit across from her and ask her questions about her dead daughter. I had the inhibitions and doubts to do it, but not to appropriate the story. It was enough for me to know the facts. For the rest of it, I preferred inventing the psychology of the characters.

In Seville, I began writing The Living and the Dead. I would be faithful to the facts. I would set them in a college town called Madison (a faithful representation of Ithaca, but with a more conservative atmosphere than Dryden) and I would transfer them ahead a decade, from ’96 to 2006. It would be my novel about Ithaca, I thought, that would reflect my nearly decade of life in that little town, a novel I didn’t see as something personal or an exploration of my intimate life, even though in some way all novels are. But in order for The Living and the Dead to turn into an intimate book, two important things had to happen: I had to return to Ithaca and suffer the death of one of the students I advised, and I had to have my own crisis that led me to experience, in the flesh, the desire to kill myself.

Park was an engineering student who had recently arrived to Cornell in the fall of 2005. He was 18 years old, had elusive eyes and bangs covering his forehead. He was going to get a B.A. in engineering, but since he hadn’t declared his major, I was assigned as his advisor until he declared. In general, the process took no longer than a year.

As was Cornell’s routine procedure, Park came to see me at the start of the semester to tell me what classes he was thinking of taking. Everything seemed normal, so I approved his classes.

Months later, I received a letter from one of Park’s math teachers telling me that Park had to quit the class if he wanted to avoid getting a bad grade. I got in touch with Park via email. He told me he’d had a tough semester; I told him it was normal given it was his first year at Cornell. We agreed he would quit the class.

Towards the end of November, Park wrote me giving me the list of classes he was thinking about taking the following semester. I answered, telling him that was not adequate, that he should come in to my office. That day there was no response. The following day still nothing. I felt bad: Maybe I had been too harsh. I knew not all my colleagues were as rigorous with those meetings, which seemed like mere formalities. I thought about Park, a good kid, a Korean student dealing with the pressures of Cornell, and I decided to approve his classes via email. I told him to not let it happen again, told him the next semester he would have to come into my office.

ithaca321

There was no response. Was he angry at me? Two days later, university lawyers contacted me to inform me that Park had committed suicide. I froze. They told me to tell them everything I knew about Park. They were concerned to learn I hadn’t followed the correct procedure. Park’s father would arrive in Ithaca in a couple days to pick up his son’s body. I should be prepared to talk to him if he required it. The lawyers were worried Park’s father would decide to sue Cornell. In a litigious culture like the one in North America, the fact that I had not followed the correct procedure was enough to give a foothold to a good lawyer to conclude there were sufficient reasons to take it to court. The lawyers told me I shouldn’t lie, but to simply tell what I knew. I was pleased they didn’t tell me to stay quiet like the lawyers on the television shows.

I didn’t sleep well those nights. I imagined what my encounter with Park’s father would be like, what he would say to me. I reprimanded myself for not obligating Park to come to my office, as if that would have been enough to prevent his suicide. Now it was Tammy’s turn to console me, saying I couldn’t have done anything, that it was impossible to get into the mind of a future suicide victim. She was right, but I couldn’t stop blaming myself for my conduct.

The legend of Cornell and its suicides came storming back. Since the university had been created in 1868, many had asked why Ezra Cornell had chosen to found it in such an isolated place, amongst such dangerous gorges. Of all the cases I had read, the one that attracted me most was that of Shirley Slavin, a 16-year-old girl who had arrived in Ithaca with her mother to start college. One morning just a few days later she approached a student, asked her to hold her books, and then ran to one of the bridges and jumped off. She had just arrived and it wasn’t winter, which made me think Ithaca wasn’t at fault for the suicide. Maybe that’s what attracted me to the case: I wanted to convince myself there were no conclusive reasons connecting Ithaca to suicide. Yes, it was irrational. It was a dark legend, but I knew its hold on our imagination could be stronger than any of the hard facts we could drum up to get our balance back.

In the end, I never met Park’s father. He was so embarrassed he didn’t want to see anyone. He arrived in Ithaca, got his son’s body, and took it to Korea immediately. Just the same, the incident stayed with me for a long time. In fact, I don’t think it’s completely gone.

2005 ended. In 2006, my problems with Tammy exploded. We separated in March. I went to live in an apartment close to the airport. I had a mattress on the bed and my books in boxes. The winter weather worsened and when my five-year-old son came to visit, I saw in his face he wanted consolation but I couldn’t give it to him: I was myself inconsolable. We played swords and Pokemon; sometimes he would wake me in the middle of the night and ask me to take him to his mom’s house, and other times, when I was taking him to her again, he would have a fit in the car because he wanted to stay with me.

We were like that until July, the month when we decided to try it again. It wasn’t the right decision. We lasted until the middle of September and we separated again. They were confusing days, days during which I started consulting with a lawyer and ended up talking to Tammy on the telephone. My solitude was not good counsel and my memories made me miss her. Sometimes I would go eat with her and others times I wanted to be alone. One Friday, my lawyer told me he had drawn up the papers for our separation, that the only thing missing was my signature. I decided to wait a few days.

At this point in the account I realize there are parts of the story I don’t know how to tell. All stories about separations are similar, I tell myself, with this coming and going until a decision is made. I should tell about this coming and going. But maybe that doesn’t add anything to what is already known about marriages in crisis. Maybe I should simply write that something happened, and I went home and it wasn’t the best of decisions, and a little later I got depressed.

Time passed slowly during those days. I was like a ghost wandering around the house: I found myself emotionally unreachable, and Tammy knew it. Once, we argued sitting on the floor in the kitchen. Another time, I was trying to read Elizabeth Bishop‘s poems when she came out of the shower and wanted to talk to me and started crying. I would have liked to have helped her; I couldn’t do it.

I went to a doctor who gave me an anti-depressant called Zoloft. I took it that same day. That night, I was reading in bed when I felt my body change temperature, cold in a wave that ran across my skin. I thought of the knives in the kitchen and I wanted to go get them. I did everything possible to not move, and I asked Tammy to go hide the knives.

Later, I remembered the anti-depressants and wanted to put them all in my mouth. Tammy had to go hide them.

I was afraid to move out of the bed. My body was turning from hot to cold. I thought about the worst. I wanted to sleep and I couldn’t. I was awake all night. Around 2 a.m., I had a vision: The vision of my body crashing through the bedroom window and falling heavily to the sidewalk below. Tammy slept and I tried to calm myself. It’s not true, I said to myself, it’s not true. But the impulse to get up and throw myself out the window was real.

I begged for the panic to pass soon. It lasted around half an hour.

ithaca421

Early the next morning, we called the doctor to tell him what happened. He told me not to take any more Zoloft and to go to his office. He would give me another anti-depressant. I had an anxiety attack and decided, no matter what happened, I wouldn’t take another single pill. I didn’t go to his office.

A little later I talked to a friend who said the situation was concerning if we were talking about suicidal ideation, and that we had to make a decision before it was too late. The next step would be the hospital, and then who knew what.

I found myself agreeing. I never thought I would get to that point.

Tammy and I spent Christmas together and we broke up before the new year.

The first semester of 2007, alone in Ithaca.

Tammy had gone to California where her parents were, with our son– I returned to my novel. I would go write at a cafe, most of all during the times when there used to be a racket at home from Tammy and my son, from five until nine in the evening (sometimes I would stay home alone watching television and hear the voice of my son behind me and turn around to find no one; to paraphrase Arreola, my child had become a ghost and I was the place where he appeared).

And soon the writing turned into catharsis and a tale with nods to the detective genre turned into something personal. Even the snow that fell incessantly on the area during the winter took on a different meaning: It fell on the living and the dead, like in the story by Joyce, and it buried all of us equally. But in that equality there were differences: a novel about the living who were not so alive and the dead who were not so dead; a novel about loss, about my loss.

The desire to leave this world by one’s own will power had seemed almost impossible to understand. Now I knew that, under certain circumstances, that desire could visit anyone. The urge to commit suicide was in each one of us. It was a fundamental part of our condition; it was now strange that a person would never come across that idea at some point in life. In its newest manifestation, The Living and the Dead was an account of my crisis, and writing it was also an attempt to overcome that crisis.

I’ve thought many times about Isaac and Park, and also about that night when suicide crossed my mind. I am no longer proud that Cornell is the university with the most suicides, nor do I see it as a joke, although I do understand those who do it. All places have legends that leave their mark and this is ours, despite the fact that today not even the statistics corroborate it (the average suicide rate in Cornell is not higher than the national average). In fact, they have never corroborated it. But we already know; the truth is one thing, and what we do with it is another thing altogether. And I can complain about that legend, but I also know that with my novel I’ve contributed to it.

Tammy and I divorced toward the end of 2008.

(Translated for International Boulevard by Brian Hagenbuch)

Edmundo Paz Soldan