Suicide is not painless if you’re the one left behind

Helen Walne, author of 'The Diving', which explores her brother Richard's suicide. Photo: Ben Williams/<a href="http://www.bookslive.co.za" target="_blank">BooksLive</a>Helen Walne, author of ‘The Diving’, which explores her brother Richard’s suicide. Photo: Ben Williams/BooksLive

 

Lorraine KearneyBy Lorraine Kearney
9 June 2014

The Book Lounge in Roeland Street is a favourite haunt of Cape Town’s literati. Besides selling some of the more interesting books and better novels, it hosts weekly storytelling sessions for the young ‘uns and fabulous book launches.

And so it came to pass that one sunny evening in the dying days of summer, a motley crew gathered among the books, after quaffing wine and snacking on delicious canapés in the basement. In front of us sat writer Helen Walne, serene and shining, talking about one of the last great taboos: suicide.

Walne’s book, The Diving, is a wrenching, sometimes brutal, often funny, always beautiful memoire of her brother’s suicide. Richard Walne was a musician, singer, songwriter and poet. He was highly regarded – so much so that in Durban, a street has been renamed after him. You can now saunter down Richard Walne Road, next to Maydon Wharf Channel. It used to be called Canal Road, and it has a length of 0.8 kilometres.

But at the age of 39, Richard walked into the cold Cape Town sea one day and did not return. Suicide always brings endless questions, heartbreak and guilt: why did he do it? Was I not enough to make him want to live? Did I not do enough to save him?

Being a writer, after Richard died, Helen, who is a friend and colleague of mine, says she “went to the literature” – but came up empty-handed. There were no books to explain it; just as no one talked about suicide, no one wrote about it – from a personal perspective – either. Suicide is not supposed to happen. Our desire to live is supposed to trump the urge to top ourselves. It is so slippery a topic, so difficult to comprehend, that religions forbid it and deny that people who commit suicide get into heaven. In some countries, suicide is even illegal.

Walne is best known for her humour. She is a funny gal, and her regular columns either have readers in stitches or apoplectic rages, so The Diving is not at all what you would expect. It is a deeply moving, utterly beautiful book. It doesn’t explain suicide (as she says, she cannot speak for Richard), but it unpacks her healing. And in that it may just show a way for someone else to find some hope, too.