Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Suicide Notes: Fact and Fallacy

Suicide notes can be a valuable tool in a fiction novel. They can tell you a great deal about the individual, motives, and even provide clues that the suicide was staged. Unfortunately, there is some misunderstanding of suicide notes, their forms, and prevalence. Some people believe suicide notes are commonly found at such scenes. No suicide note? It must not be a suicide. The fact of the matter is that studies (from industrial countries) have shown that only about 35% of suicides involve notes or other forms of communication. Generally speaking, this percentage is influenced by a number of predictable and unpredictable factors.

One factor is the purpose or message of the note and its intended audience. As you might imagine most notes are of a remorseful tone. The language expresses regret, sorrow, frustration, and sometimes humility. In contrast, some notes attempt to lay blame for the act on a third party. It may be a spouse, child, parent, or institution. In rare cases the notes may devote more content to excusing others (like a spouse) for having any influence on their decision to end their lives. In these notes the language typically suggests an eccentric author (i.e. third party). Other clues suggesting another author include use of syntax, punctuation, certain phrases or expressions just to name a few. These clues may provide a red flag to investigators indicating a staged scene.

Individuals with higher levels of education may be more likely to leave a note as would an extrovert personality type. People with a history of past suicide attempts may also be more likely to leave a note because their depression or mental state is already known. In contrast, individuals who tend to “bottle in” their feelings may continue that trend. I imagine some people just don’t know what to say and assume their motivations are understood.

Another factor to consider is the reason for the suicide. Is the decision to commit suicide impulsive or the last in a series of such decision? Is there a single significant event such as a romantic or financial failing that had just occurred? We call that event a trigger and they can be exacerbated by alcohol or drug use. Individuals making impulsive decisions may be less likely to leave a note as opposed to someone who has come to their decision over a longer period of time.

Aside from frequency, another fallacy some laymen hold is that a note will be lengthy and comprehensive. While this certainly can occur it is not always the case. I have seen everything from a post-it note with the single word “sorry” to lengthy letters individually addressed to multiple family members and friends. Suicide notes are not always in handwritten form either. Modern “notes” may include phone messages, e-mails, text messages, or even Tweets. In fact, family members may receive these notes days or weeks after the persons death (especially if they live in foreign countries or if accompanied by family heirlooms). They can be drawings or even books (like the bible) opened to certain significant passages. Sometimes these passages have obvious meaning and other times they do not.

I once investigated a suicide in which the victim video-taped the event. The camera was facing the victim who was sitting on a couch. In the background (off camera) a television was playing a tape from an action blockbuster. The man was watching the film during a particular scene that seemed to bear no relationship to anything related to his life (or suicide). Looking back and forth between the television and the camera, gun in mouth, the victim appeared to get distracted and became visibly annoyed that this scene had passed. He put the gun down hurried over to the VCR and rewound the tape. He then sat and waited for that precise moment that meant something to him and pulled the trigger. We never could determine the significance of that scene.

So how can you use this information to the benefit of your stories? Notes are simply a tool for communication and as authors you are experts in communication. It’s all about the message you want your reader to take away. These messages can be most powerful when created as part of a staging. Obviously, this note would have to be either typewritten or convincingly forged (i.e. known exemplar writings supplied by the stager). Ideally it will serve to temporarily confuse law enforcement until your protagonist can find that one element that reveals the truth.However you choose to use these tools keep them confusing. Give their message more than one meaning and force your characters to work them out. What may seem like a simple message (such as a bible verse) may hold dual meanings to the victim or the stager.

11 comments:

  1. Tom, as usual, an intriguing post.

    I'm interested in your take on the "Millionaire Murder?" case where the young son died, and then the girlfriend supposedly committed suicide. I can't think of the name, dang it.

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  2. Fascinating! Thanks for another terrific post.

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  3. What an amazing insight and useful for writers like me. My first novel "Who Else is There?" features a suicide with a note, although the reader is only told the gist of the note as a detective refers to it. My second novel "Suffer Little Children" also has a suicide note, but I would be interested to know whether the observation that my investigating character makes is correct. He thinks the victim would have signed his name, rather than a nickname that very few people know. Is he right?

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  4. Well Phillip, it's difficult to get inside the mind of some people especially when they are obviously contemplating death. I wouldn't be bothered by someone using their nickname if the note is intended for someone who recognizes that name. Suicide victims often recognize who will likely be the first to find them if they don't call police right before doing the act. Having said that, a nickname or initial can be suspicious if ther are other red flags around. One of the serial killers I have dealt with killed his wife and children and staged it to look like a murder suicide by the mother (wife). He was a dominant husband and told his wife to sign her initial at the bottom of a blank page and she did it. He then typed out the suicide note and committed the crime. The wife had severe arthritis so seeing the one initial was not that unusual but coupled with other case evidence and the content of the note it was pretty obvious what happened.

    Peg, was the case you're referring to here in Colorado?

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  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  6. Let me try again. It was in California. Here's a link:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3RJgmhs7Nko

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  7. The case you're referring to actually happened here in San Diego, Coronado to be exact. The victim was found hanging from a second floor balcony. The interesting thing is that even though her hands were tied behind her back and with the absence of a suicide note, authorities still ruled it a suicide. The family isnt isn't happy about that; they suspect foul play and recently had the body exhumed for further examination by a privately-hired third party. Of course, the author (and journalist) in me has been following the case since it started. A fascinating story

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  8. Sorry to say I have only a vague familiarity with that case. Based on what you've said I can see why you'd think it was not a suicide. However, I have had cases where an individual will restrain themselves during a suicide. I once published a case study in which the victim tied his feet, gagged his mouth, and put handcuffs on his hands behind his back. Among other evidence the handcuffs were determined to be his own and upon close inpection they were magician's handcuffs with a quick-release lever. He could easily get out of them and was quite familiar with their operation according to friends. Can't say anything about the case you're referring to but I've learned that things are not always what they appear to be and unless you're examing all of the evidence (in detail) you may be missing something critical.

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  9. Great post.I've read that many family members and friends of suicide victims often find it hard to believe, especially if there's no note and so insist on a murder investigation. I have an "apparent" suicide in my first novel and find find the topic fascinating. Thanks for an intriguing, informative post.

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  10. Thanks for the comment Mollie. You know, even with a note the friends and family can have a hard time accepting it. Sometimes they are correct and it isn't a suicide at all. Oftentimes we just don't know people as well as we think. One thing I have learned over the years is that we rarely know anyone as well as we think we do. Sometimes we don't even know ourselves at times, what we are capable of. Think of your friends and family and ask yourself how well you really know them. Do you know their daily habits? If they are in a bad mood today, what is the cause? What's the most troubling thing on their mind right now? I'll bet the real answers might surprise you if you knew them. Not because they are weird or anything, just probably not what you expected. As fiction writers we can make all this stuff up as long as it's believable. but in real life the answers can be as varied as the people themselves. We all have a life history that shapes our decisions and beliefs and unraveling that Gordian knot is the toughest puzzle of all.

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  11. Fascinating post, Tom. I've known people who've completed suicide, and neither of them left a note.

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