Suicide in art: what Goethe can tell us about Netflix series 13 Reasons Why

A number of tragic deaths linked to a German novel sparked discussion about the effects of depicting suicide in the media. 250 years later, the topic is more relevant than ever.

Suicide in art: what Goethe can tell us about Netflix series 13 Reasons Why
Alexander Fehling in the role of Goethe in a 2009 film. Photo: DPA

‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ could be considered the world's first best-seller, and its author, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is the most celebrated German author in history.

Goethe is on par with Shakespeare for the quality and number of poems and texts he produced in his lifetime, but it was this novel, published in 1774, that catapulted him to international fame at the tender age of 24.

Goethe's novel is loosely autobiographical, written in the form of letters penned by the doomed romantic hero, Werther.

It delves into the psyche of the sensitive and troubled young man as he falls in love and soon becomes obsessed with a woman who can never be his.

Werther descends into despair at the world, his mental state becoming increasingly self-centred and toxic before he eventually shoots himself with a pistol borrowed from the woman’s fiance.

The novel soon gained a cult following as the intense emotions of the protagonist struck a chord with young men and women across Europe.

Young men began to dress like him in blue suits with yellow vests and women even wore a perfume called ‘Eau de Werther’.

But the fanatical behaviour had a darker side and was linked to an increase in suicide rates in several European countries, according to a report commissioned by Mindframe.

A number of these suicides were undoubtedly influenced by the novel. One such case was the death of a young courtier named Christiane von Lassberg who was found dead with a copy of ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ in her pocket, after throwing herself into the river Ilm. 

In response, the book and Werther’s signature clothing style were soon banned in Leipzig, Italy and Copenhagen and widespread debate about the possible effects of depicting suicide in the media was sparked.

But it was not until 1974, exactly 200 years after the novel was published, that the term the ‘Werther Effect’ emerged.

It was coined by sociologist David P. Phillips to mean a copycat suicide influenced by a real or fictional suicide presented in the media, also known as suicide contagion.

According to a report conducted by the Mindframe National Media initiative, “until the 1960s, debate about the Werther effect was based on anecdotal reports and impressions”, but since then there have been a huge number of scientific studies into the topic, many of which have found evidence linking depictions of suicide in the media with suicidal actions.

One such study was carried out in Germany in 1988 which centered around a television series which depicted the suicide of a male student.

The series had been broadcast twice – once in 1981 and again in 1982 – and the results showed that “after each series there was a significant increase in German suicides involving the same method as that used by the student in the series.”

What’s more the group most affected were of the same sex and roughly the same age as the character.

This effect is not limited to fictional suicides. Another study was carried out in Baden-Württemberg between 1968 and 1980 which showed a correlation between the publication of stories on prominent suicides in major newspapers and an increase in suicides in the following days.

The Werther Effect was cause for concern last year after the release of the hugely popular Netflix series ‘13 Reasons Why’, known in Germany as 'Tote Mädchen lügen nicht', or 'dead girls don't lie'. 

Based on a book of the same name, ‘13 Reasons Why’ tells the story of a high school girl, Hannah, who commits suicide but leaves behind 13 tapes accusing a number of people in her life of “causing” her suicide.

Several mental health organizations, including the Jed Foundation and Everymind, voiced concerns about the series for a number of reasons.

These included its potential for heroicizing Hannah’s suicide as a catalyst for social change, the fact that it places the blame on specific events and people, rather than mental health issues and its graphic depiction of suicide. 

Despite these concerns, the show gained a great deal of popularity, becoming the most tweeted about series of 2017, and production is well underway for a second season which is likely to air in just a few months.

The creators of 13 Reasons Why released a statement in response to the criticism of the series saying, “We have heard from many viewers that 13 Reasons Why has opened up a dialogue among parents, teens, schools and mental health advocates around the difficult topics depicted in the show.”

It is certainly true that suicide should not be made a taboo subject in the media. Suicide is a worldwide issue and according to Destatis there are around 10,000 suicides per year in Germany alone.

In an article on LinkedIn, Jaela Skehan, a director of the mental health organization Everymind, advocates for constructive and realistic stories on the topic of suicide and urges media outlets and writers to be mindful of how they approach the discussion in the future.

Suicide is preventable. If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or has been affected by the issues raised please contact Deutsche Depressionshilfe, Samaritans, or Mind. Readers in the US are encouraged to contact the National Suicide Prevention Line on 1-800-273-8255.


‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.