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November of the SoulReview - November of the Soul
The Enigma of Suicide
by George Howe Colt
Scribner, 2006
Review by Richard H. Corrigan, Ph.D.
Mar 27th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 13)

The encyclopedic book, November of the Soul, is a fascinating, comprehensive and illuminating look at the issue of suicide. Colt examines suicide not only as an instance of self-destructive behavior, but also as a public statement that has social significance. First published in 1991 as The Enigma of Suicide, it is now reprinted in an updated and revised edition, which reflects modern developments in treatment and understanding, and takes new case studies from events that have transpired since the original date of publication.

The book is divided into six distinct sections: (i) the area of youth suicide and the debate about how it should be addressed (ii) historical understandings of suicide and the insights gained through the evolution of neurobiology (iii) the range, patterns and motivations of suicidal behavior (iv) the treatment of depression and suicide, including psychotherapy and psychopharmacology (v) the debate concerning 'the right to die' (vi) the survivors of suicide, how they have been affected and how they contribute to suicide prevention.

There are many different disciplines involved in the study of suicide, and Colt maintains that any understanding of the issue is incomplete without at least a limited familiarity with each of them. This book is an attempt to frame suicide in a historical context, which allows the reader to appreciate how it has been understood and treated for the past four thousand years. In the modern world, we are predisposed to understanding the disposition to commit suicide as a preventable psychiatric disorder. However, such an understanding reflects our modern society and the scientific knowledge that permeates it. Colt introduces us to various historical cultures and epochs in which suicide and death were understood in radically different terms. For example, there was no prohibition against suicide in ancient Egypt, as life was considered a mere prelude to blissful existence and, in feudal Japan, it was often the rational choice to preserve one's honor.

The book provides an insight into the motivations that give rise to suicidal behavior and the way in which it has been understood and explained by 'the experts' in different eras.  The author acquaints us with the diverse types of people who end their own lives and shows why particular groups have a higher propensity to do so than others. A full range of self-destructive behavior is explicated, including pathologies such as alcoholism and drug addiction, which eventually result in death even if they are not commonly understood to constitute suicide. Finally, we are exposed to the impact of suicide on those who are left behind.

Colt's sensitive treatment of the 'right to die' debate may be of particular interest to many readers, whether they belong to the 'pro' or 'anti' camp. He successfully maintains a neutral position and offers a balanced and responsible treatment of the question. The reader is presented with thought-provoking examples which will challenge those who adopt an 'all or nothing' stance.

The author makes extensive use of poignant case histories, which allow the reader to identify with the subject under consideration and appreciate the devastating impact on those who knew and loved the deceased. These case studies are written in a style designed to create suspense and move the narrative forward. For the layperson, they have the advantage of being more approachable than clinical notes or so forth.

Colt's writing style is literate and well crafted and, for the most part, he is capable of maintaining the reader's interest. However, occasionally, the information being related is a little dense and it feels as though one is reading a long list. This is particularly true in Chapter 2, where he attempts to offer an exhaustive history of the issue that he is discussing.

It should be noted that this book is not devoted to offering definitive solutions to the problems that it discusses. It also does not attempt to offer pragmatic advice to those who would like to identify and intervene in cases where someone is at high risk of taking their own life. This is a book written by a journalist for the layperson and, therefore, I do not think that it will be of more than passing interest to the professional or academic. The principal reader of November of the Soul will be someone who has been personally affected by suicide and who would like to make sense of what has transpired.


© 2007 Richard H. Corrigan


Richard H. Corrigan graduated in 2006 from University College Dublin with a Ph.D. in Philosophy. His interest areas include psychology, metaphysics and philosophy of religion. He has worked as a tutor in UCD and The University of Reading, and as an Associate Lecturer with the Open University.



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