by Nancy Means Wright
While cleaning out books to give away to a church fundraiser, I came upon a paperback copy of A Tenured Position, a 1982 award-winning “Kate Fansler” mystery by Amanda Cross, aka Carolyn Heilbrun, professor of English at Columbia University. Heilbrun was the first woman to receive tenure there. Her specialty was British literature, and in particular, the Bloomsbury group that included my beloved Virginia Woolf. Little did I realize how Woolf and tenure and murder mystery and suicide would all merge in my mind as I reread this remarkable feminist mystery.
In the novel, an anonymous donor has given the male dominated English Department at Harvard University a million dollars to endow a chair for a woman, and female scholar Janet Mandelbaum is the lucky recipient. Or not so lucky! For less than a year into her tenure, she is found dead in the English Department men’s room. Sleuth Kate Fansler ultimately discovers, after reviewing all the bias against the “intruder” Mandelbaum (spoiler coming), that her death wasn’t necessarily caused by a jealous or resentful male, but that she had taken her own life with poison.
In 2003, after publishing more than 15 Kate Fansler mysteries under a pseudonym to protect her academic career at elitist Columbia, the author herself swallowed an overdose of pills in her NYC apartment, then put a plastic bag over her head. Heilbrun’s son assured the press that his mother was in good health, but felt that her life was “completed.” She left a note that read: “The journey is over. Love to all.” Heilbrun was 77 years old. Yet I felt there must have been some underlying reason for her suicide.
In A Tenured Position, Heilbrun suggests that the fictional Janet Mandelbaum couldn’t bear to be the “token woman” at Harvard, her intellectual attributes undervalued. And thinking perhaps of Virginia Woolf, who walked one day into the River Ouse and kept walking, doubtless disappointed at the reception of her own novels, Heilbrun risked the ire of readers who might feel that suicide in a mystery novel is a cop-out. In truth, there were many fans who declared their disapproval, though for myself, I thought it the right ending.
But should we call suicide a cop-out? In many instances the victim has been driven by others to take his/her own life. I think of young teens, persecuted by peers for being gay or overweight, or for just plain being “different”–or in Heilbrun’s case, feeling “undervalued.” And for some reason I think of the term “suicide by cop,” a term that seems to appear everywhere now in print. Only recently there was a second instance at Fort Hood of a soldier with seemingly no evidence of having been hurt in combat, suddenly shooting four other soldiers, wounding sixteen, and then turning the gun on himself.
Was the reason he killed: to make a point through cruel and sensational means–then have the police kill him?
A similar incident occurred here in Vermont where I live, when a man threatened to shoot himself and provoked the police into a lethal response by shooting at the officers. A compassionate cop–a resource officer for our high school–was part of a group of policemen who tried to peacefully de-escalate the situation. But the man, according to our local officer, had earlier written a letter in which he deliberately threatened suicide “through an act of violence”–possibly in a school–and that he wanted to go out “in a blaze of glory.” The man died, as planned, but it was lucky, our officer says, that only “one sergeant came close to being hit with a shotgun blast.” And he concludes that the act itself “might constructively be thought of as an elaborately staged suicide.”
The character in A Tenured Position meant no violence toward others when she poisons herself, but nonetheless, she wanted to prove a point by taking her own life. She wanted, like Heilbrun herself, to show how disparagement, neglect, and disrespect are, of themselves, an act of murder.
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