The Werther Effect
Courtney Miller Santo
Crickets commit suicide.
The blue skirt Winona Ryder wears on the cover of the VHS for Heathers is strikingly similar to one my mother had sewn for me to wear to the end of sixth-grade party at Dana Brandon’s house. I look around the dimly lit aisles of Great American Video before lifting the cardboard sleeve from the wire shelves. It is too light—filled with a Styrofoam block instead of the tape itself. The top of the box reads “The coolest kids … The hottest movie.”
On the last day of sixth grade, during field day, the tallest girl in our class told me nobody liked me because I didn’t shave and I smelled. Lifting my arm, I discovered soft, dark hair and an odor that confirmed her indictments. Because I’d read The Babysitters Club: Kristy and the Snobs, I understood I was at Dana’s party out of pity. Standing by hedges, I saw that I was the only girl wearing a skirt. My mom had stitched together a matching white and blue striped crop top, which I wore, even though it means nobody can see that I’d shaved. If I stood closer, they might detect the scent of Teen Spirit. I watched the boys bounce on the trampoline and the girls drink lemonade. A voice told me to leave, and I did, taking the shortcut through the six or seven backyards that separate our houses.
In the video store, I run my thumb across Winona’s skirt. She wears black tights and a black crop top. The boy curled around her, looks like he is whispering into her ear.
It is 1989. I should be in seventh grade, but instead I am homeschooled. The catalyst for my isolation was a sleepover where uninvited boys hocked lugies, while one of their friends made out with my friend. In our never-ending discussion about why I am homeschooled, my mother likes to enumerate other reasons: mostly connected to my anger, mostly directed at her, mostly because she doesn’t understanding my anger. I still attend third period at the junior high school because I am the second-chair saxophonist.
Horsehair worms don’t have stomachs. They don’t have mouths. In order to survive, they must live inside a host’s intestines where the worm’s skin absorbs the nutrients needed to grow.
My father is a survivalist.
He knows how he’ll stay alive should our government collapse, should the moon turn to blood , should the poles reverse their magnetic orientation, should any and all other scenarios come to pass that set the human race moving toward apocalypse.
I don’t like to imagine any scenarios that involve the end of the world. Much of my childhood—especially those long years when we didn’t believe in television—were spent practicing fire building, organizing our bug bags, weighing the benefits of charcoal over iodine for water purification, ranking (in order) the most probable way in which our world will end.
My father chooses fire. I choose ice.
A cricket’s antennae detects changes in humidity. If there’s too much water in the air—say because a river, a stream, a lake is nearby, then the insect will leap away from the water as quickly as if it had sighted swallow.
It’s nearly midnight when I finish watching Heathers. I let the credits roll and retrieve the family-sized bottle of ibuprofen from the bathroom. There is a red price sticker from Bi-Mart on the side. I peel it off, then swallow several large handfuls of the small white pills while listening to the whir of the VCR as the movie rewinds itself.
I won’t read A Modest Proposal until I get to college. I still watch Duck Tales with my brothers. Children as young as four can understand satire. I am thirteen.
After midnight, I pad down the stairs and tell my Mom that I think I took too many Advil. We call them that, even though we don’t buy name brand.
You have cramps? she asks.
I shake my head.
She frowns before going into the bedroom to speak to my father. When she comes out, she is dressed. In the hospital they give me a Styrofoam cup of charcoal to drink, and then ipecac. I lay on my side holding plastic basin while the nurse talks to my mother about pumping my stomach. Before it comes to that, I vomit black. For days afterward, my stools are also black.
Official people with clipboards ask me questions about my level of sadness. There are dark spots on my white hospital gown. I tell them I didn’t understand what I was doing. I say, “I wanted attention, like in the movie.” I don’t tell them about the voice.
The voice says, “You should kill yourself.”
Horsehair worms mate in water—writhing and contorting their bodies in shapes that mimic complicated knots. Because of this, they are sometimes called Gordian worms after the mythological knot that Alexander the Great undid with his sword instead of his brain.
Six months after I swallowed the pills and threw up charcoal, my father bolts a knotted rope to the floor underneath my bedroom window. In the basement, he puts down seven layers of duct tape to form a path thick enough to follow on hands and knees. My mother replaces the batteries in the smoke detectors. We make a plan to meet by the mailbox if the house catches on fire. There are drills. During the first one, I try to climb down the rope and instead fall two storeys to the grass below my window. The ground is softer than I expect.
We will never speak about the pills, about the hospital, about the movie. Instead, my mother adopts what I call “a worst case scenario” strategy designed to help me survive adolescence. She clips newspaper articles about girls who try cocaine for the first time and have heart attacks, she records news reports showing crumpled cars and white sheets over drunk drivers, and sometimes she tells me stories she hears from a friend of a friend, like the one about the popular girl who’d dressed in her prom gown, taken a bunch of pills and left her parents a note that said she’d lived the perfect life and didn’t want to ruin it by becoming an adult.
Crickets get their water from dew. They feed primarily on flying insects, who get their water from ponds, lakes, rivers, which are infested with preparasitic larvae left behind after the knotty mating ritual of horsehair worms. The larvae don’t harm the mayflys and mosquitos—they require a larger host.
After puberty, my hair becomes the exact color of dirty dishwater. I start bleaching it—taking a full hour to decide between Ultra Light Cool Summer Blonde and Natural Palest Blonde in the beauty aisle of Sentry. I need tresses the color of Marilyn’s. I blow dry, put on red lipstick, and discover each time that store-bought peroxide, no matter the name, no matter the brand, gives every woman the same brassy blonde sported by the older waitresses at Denny’s.
As if it were rehearsing for a play, the voice emphasizes different words on different days. When I look in the mirror and see that I’m not Marilyn, it speaks as if it were suggesting a place for brunch. What about killing yourself?
The month following Marilyn’s overdose from barbiturates, the national suicide rate increased twelve percent. In the same breath the talking heads reported the garish details—phone clutched in her dead hand, white bedsheets, wearing nothing but Chanel No. 5—they whispered about the copycat deaths—citing the Werther effect.
This idea that a suicide in a book (In Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, the protagonist shoots himself with a hunting pistol), or any well-publicized suicide could prompt others to do the same remained merely anecdotal until 1974 when a sociologist used newspaper reports of suicide to explain concurrent spikes in automobile deaths.
I don’t know this yet. I like Marilyn’s voice, her character who had to pretend to be dumb, and how she married a playwright and then a baseball player. Or was it the other way around?
Inside the digestive track of the cricket, the mayfly is digested and the larvae of the horsehair worm becomes a parasitic. It unfurls in the abdominal cavity and takes for itself a portion of the cricket’s nutrients.
I grow up. The media grows up. They get training, so that when Kurt Cobain kills himself my senior year of high school we do not also kill ourselves. Instead of getting our guns that Friday in April, our high school empties. We carpool to Seattle and stand together under the sunless sky, not knowing what to do, but agreeing with the reports about his mental illness, about the sadness we feel for Courtney and for especially for Frances Bean.
The month following Kurt’s death, there is a drop in suicides. More people than ever call prevention hotlines. We tell each other to seek treatment because if you want to kill yourself, it means there is something wrong inside of your brain. As in you are crazy.
I don’t drive to Seattle because my parents had my license revoked. The previous spring, I’d gotten into a car accident. For weeks afterward a bruise the shape of the steering wheel—with its three concentric rings—marks my chest. I tell everyone I got distracted trying to change the radio station and lost control of the car, a 1964 Ford Galaxie that is as long as a standard size limousine. To my parents, it was a tank—designed to withstand teenage errors. When I hit that parked car, it was totaled. A complete loss.
What is wrong with my brain?
Crickets infected with the parasitic worms don’t chirp. They still eat half their body weight every night, but by silencing the instinct to rub their legs together, the worm keeps the cricket from drawing attention to itself. Also, chirping burns calories and the parasite needs those calories for itself.
Late at night after my college roommate and I have spent the evening playing in the warm rain of a Southern Virginia thunderstorm, I tell her about the voice. I say, “you know that voice inside your head that tells you to kill yourself?”
She has never heard such a voice.
In creative writing class, I turn in a poem about a girl in her underwear with her big toe on the trigger of a rifle. There is a line about Billie Holiday licking a man’s heels. I’ve never put my toe in such a position, but sometimes when I am home I hold my father’s rifle close and smell the gunpowder and the grease and the wax he uses on the stock. Billie’s voice sounds like a man’s and it makes me love her in a way that I don’t love Ella Fitzgerald.
My mother sends me a book meant to help those suffering from borderline personality disorder. I don’t read it. Instead I dog-ear pages of Cosmo and Glamour where women dissect in lurid details, their battle with depression. I take the quizzes and wonder why I don’t have any problems getting out of bed, or falling asleep, or trouble concentrating.
I have the voice—which I think counts as suicidal thoughts, although I’m not sure if the voice is coming from my brain.
After college, I write about car accidents and county supervisors and live in a daylight basement across from an abandoned elementary school. Seven, my cat, torments the crickets who live in the uncut athletic field by chasing them into the apartment where she pounces on them and lets them go in an endless game of tag. On Saturdays, when I sweep underneath the futon, their dried husks scratch against the stiff straw of the broom. They end up with the dust bunnies in the trashcan in the kitchen.
In the spring, when the horsehair worm is a foot long, it stretches itself out, and through a process scientists don’t understand, compels the terrestrial cricket to seek water. Crickets are terrible swimmers. Their bodies, heavily armored were created for catapulting itself across land.
After college, I move back to the place I grew up. It is the first of the states to allow doctor assisted suicide. In The Oregonian, I read about a life coach and his spouse who live in a house directly underneath the Vista Bridge out near the zoo. They’ve become attuned to the sound of a body hitting pavement.
I find work with an organization that tries to help those newly diagnosed with lung cancer. There is a hotline. I answer it on Thursdays. All the other days of the week, I do public relations and communications work. The people who call are very interested in beating cancer. They ask about five-year survival rates. I look at the table in my handbook—54 percent for all stages together. I don’t like repeating the number, but I do. I don’t add the bit about rates for stage IV diagnosis unless they ask.
Most people get diagnosed late. Late enough that it’s already in their lymph nodes and moving around the body and lodging itself in all sorts of dangerous organs. Stage IV survival rates are smaller—4 percent. If callers ask for those numbers, I round up. They might say, oh, a five percent chance. That’s pretty good.
These are people who want to live.
Six months into the job one of our coworkers commits suicide. It is a small office. I’m the only person who hasn’t worked there since the founding of the organization. At first everyone says he is missing. Then, they find his car and his wallet at Kelly Point on the edge of the Columbia. A few days later, police discover his body in the river itself. He has children and a wife and unknown to me a history of bipolar disorder and financial issues. Everyone says he went for a swim and that he must have become overwhelmed by the current.
I find a new job.
In the days when everyone had horses, ranchers and farmers and stable hands thought that if a hair from a horse’s tail hit water, it would come alive. This is how the worms were named. The inanimate made alive by water. When the cricket enters the water, the horsehair worm swims out of a hole it bored in the host’s head. It swims as if it were born in water.
The voice, the one that says maybe you should kill yourself, uses vocal fry and upspeak. It can sound like Karen Walker, or Kenneth Parcell, and sometimes like Millhouse Van Houten or Jane Lane, and now that we’ve moved to Memphis, it often sounds like Blanche Dubois.
My father wants to buy us a gun for Christmas. He is concerned that we live in the fourth most dangerous city in America and do not own a firearm. I demur. I tell him that we are the least likely mark for criminals, but he is insistent and finally I find the words that stops him from ever mentioning the idea again.
I say, I do not want a gun in my house because there are many days when I think I would like to kill myself and if there were a gun in the house it would make it too easy to pull a trigger.
The numbers back me up. States where more people own guns have higher rates suicide,
My students like to write stories about suicide. There is one about the suicide forest in Japan. There is one where a woman goes into a dirty restroom stall at LAX and cuts her wrists. I tell them not to write about suicide because readers don’t like to become invested in characters who are not interested in staying around. I suggest they write about piles of straw that turn into mice. They continue to have their protagonists jump off buildings, chase Valium with whiskey, and drive loud cars into walls.
I understand the instinct. In one of my novels, a character steps into a river, knowing she can’t make it out.
While the cricket flounders, the worm mates.
Twenty-five years after I first watched Heathers, I rewatch the movie for the first time. I go to the theater alone but am part of a large audience who is there to fete the film. In the years between the Bi-Mart bottle and now, I’ve become a wife, a mother, a teacher, a writer and the movie is now called a cult-classic, a cultural touchstone. The writers of the movie answer questions about how they coined the phrase “fuck you with a chainsaw” and about not believing Winona could play the part and how ubiquitous the loner in a black trench coat has become.
Before the screening a woman who makes her living as a storyteller reads from her journal about her experience of watching the movie as an eleven year-old. She is funny. Her face is expressive and the journal so exact about what it was like to be prepubescent. I have an eleven-year old daughter.
In the dark, I understand what I could not as an adolescent. The satire is rich and obvious with exaggeration.
If a cricket is strong enough to get to land, it will survive. It will always have a hole in its armor from where the worm left its body.
There are times now that I might go a month without hearing the voice.
I took pills once to try to silence the voice. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I told my obgyn about the voice. He prescribed Paxil. I took it for a few weeks before the voice told me to stop. I never refilled my prescription. Some women who took Paxil gave birth to babies that couldn’t breathe outside of the womb.
This year, my daughter is in the seventh grade. She is on the soccer team and has lungs stronger than most. Because of the internet and technology and our agreement about my access to her iphone, I check her google search history. There are no queries about suicide. Instead, she asks Siri to tell her about anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder.
Six days a week, I go to exercise class. The coach tells me to focus on what the body can accomplish, not what it looks like. My body is not simply aesthetic, the coach says. It is no good to merely survive, you must be progressing.
The voice is quiet for weeks at a time now.
Today I lifted 230 pounds off the ground.