Do people watch celebrity news to gain insight into personal relationships and learn from others mistakes? No, they often watch to marvel at how people with great beauty, talent, and wealth can misbehave extravagantly. So, would a book about celebrity suicides be helpful to people wanting to seriously understand the psychology of suicide? Maybe yes. These are the suicides that get the most public exposure. Most suicides of not-famous people without some lurid aspect are treated gingerly by the press, respecting the feelings of relatives and friends. Only celebrity suicides get splashed across newspapers and television with all their details revealed. Whether celebrities represent the public at large is a debatable question, but in the open forum celebrity suicides are the specimens most available for examination.
In Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous, and the Notorious, Alix Strauss tries to elevate the subject of celebrity suicide above yellow journalism. She tells the death stories of actors, artists, writers, rock stars, and other famous people sympathetically (even Adolf Hitler is discussed as a person with insecurities) and looks for the trends that foster understanding. She tries to differentiate the use of a rope from the use of poison, guns from knives, and drownings from jumping off buildings. She discusses the privacy of the act and the leaving of suicide notes. She also points out the prevalence of alcohol and addictive drugs in suicide. Every eight to twelve page profile includes statistics, putting the case into a general context. Near the end of the book, Strauss speculates on whether some seemingly accidental deaths may have been suicides, bringing Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, and John Beluschi into the discussion.
Whether the reader gains any insight from Death Becomes Them depends on the reader. The subjects are famous cases that have been repeated and often sensationalized, such as the suicides of Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain, Vincent Van Gogh, and Abbie Hoffman; readers may just treat the book as more celebrity literature. The book holds some reference value as a collection of suicide stories with statistics and can be used as an starting point for term papers. It might also interest mystery readers who enjoy the study of dysfunctional psychology.
Strauss, Alix. Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous, and the Notorious. HarperCollins, 2009. ISBN 9780061728563