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.



12 Responses

  1. Does the suicide act as a protest against the wrongs of society? Perhaps. My personal view is that suicide is a crime against one’s self. There are better forms of of protest that do not include violence against one’s self or others. It’s interesting that this academic was drawn to mystery fiction. As to getting tenure, I recall reading about a man whose tenure was held up for so long that he became violent toward the academic establishment and another who murdered the professor who held up the granting of his Ph.d. for many years.

    • In the case of suicide by cop, I would say it is a sick form of protest. Yet, true, Jacquie, it is a crime against the self. It’s all so complex! I was an academic too, as I think you were–and we’ve both been drawn to mystery fiction, yes? A subject for another blog, I think. Do read Death in a Tenured Position. It’s wonderfully written and a psychological study.

  2. Raising my hand here as another “academic” though a sad one in your company, Nancy! Carolyn/Amanda Cross was my heroine; I had the pleasure of hearing her in SF and still remember this part of her talk: her family (who were present) were her “cover” — as long as she was a wife and mother, it was okay among her male colleagues that she also “teach.” She made it clear, of course, that she loved her husband and children, but they were, nevertheless, her cover and the reason her department accepted her at all. I also remember that she always said she’d commit suicide at 70. It took 7 more years.

    I agree re: any violent form of suicide like suicide by cop, but I do feel that end-of-life issues are themselves undervalued and we need to talk more about them as a society.

    Thanks for bringing one of my favorite authors back to start my day!

    • Oh, thanks for this pertinent comment, Camille. How fortunate to have heard Heilbrun speak! And I know so well, as you must, the need working/teaching women had (still have) for “a cover.” And we do require more talk about end-of-life issues. Our Vermont legislature has followed Oregon to have in place a “death with dignity” clause. A good friend of mine whose sister died in this way helped push the new law through. The sister’s death, surrounded by family, was “beautiful,” my friend says. One can’t really call it suicide–there has to be another word.Really hard the way Heilbrun did it, though.

  3. It’s good know that there’s progress along those lines. Not in CA. “Death with Dignity” makes so much sense. Maybe that’s the problem!

    • We had to fight for it, and there are still people–including some medics–trying to repeal it. But I don’t think they’ll prevail.

  4. Nancy–intriguing blog, as always. Virginia Woolf is also a fav of mine and I’ve often wondered just what propelled her fatal stroll into the river. Suicide chills me but the guy who kills innocent others before turning the gun (isn’t it always a gun?) on self is a selfish brute, in my opinion. I do love Amanda Cross and did not know about her bio. Thanks for making me think!!

    • Thank you, Susan! Virginia Woolf was such a complicated woman–and with some mental problems as well, I understand. I often think of her together with Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, who both struggled with their demons. I met Sexton when she had just returned from an institution, where she was making shoes, with her first book of poems, “To Bedlam and Part-way Back.” She was delightful to talk to, but though I was shocked at her suicide, the seeds were there early on–and with Woolf and Plath as well. As Camille noted above, Heilbrun/Cross declared her vow to end her life early on as well. But she wrote some great mystery novels!

  5. Nancy, I remember reading about Heilbrun’s suicide. As you say, there may have been an underlying cause, like illness or loss or depression,
    but I would also consider the possibility that she simply decided it was over.

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