Suicide Note from Austin Pilot Reveals Language without Soul

I am not a psychotherapist or a forensic linguist capable of detecting clues in the rambling text of a suicidal man intent on murder.

But I've read the so-called suicide manifesto of Andrew Joseph Stack III, the man who flew a small plane into a government building in Austin, Texas, on Thursday. As I analyze the text, which runs for about three thousand words, I see a compelling pattern that reveals itself in the first paragraph:

"If you're reading this, you're no doubt asking yourself, 'Why did this have to happen?' The simple truth is that it is complicated and has been coming for a long time. The writing process, started many months ago, was intended to be therapy in the face of the looming realization that there isn't enough therapy in the world that can fix what is really broken. Needless to say, this rant could fill volumes with example after example if I would let it. I find the process of writing it frustrating, tedious, and probably pointless ... especially given my gross inability to gracefully articulate my thoughts in light of the storm raging in my head. Exactly what is therapeutic about that I'm not sure, but desperate times call for desperate measures."

It must be said that the author of this rant could spell, punctuate, and adhere to the basics of Standard English. But while the grammar and syntax may hold together, what strikes me as remarkable is the author's diction. What I find is an emptiness, an absence of original language, an almost total dependence upon clichés and half-clichés, propaganda from the right and the left, slogans and empty phrases we have read and heard so many times before.

George Orwell wrote about the abuse of language and politics, most famously in his essay "Politics and the English Language." Orwell was not analyzing, I realize, the writing of a crazed man bearing a hundred grudges, but his essential thesis may be relevant to this case.

Modern political prose, Orwell argues, "consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house." Less of words, more of phrases. And phrases, to borrow another Orwell argument, that are all too familiar:

If you are reading this
Why did this have to happen
The simple truth
it is complicated
has been coming for a long time
in the face of
the looming realization
there isn't enough ... in the world that can fix what is really broken
needless to say
could fill volumes
in the light of
the storm raging in my head
desperate times call for desperate measures

The number of these empty phrases, cobbled together into a single paragraph, is so unusual that, ripped from its context, it could come off as a kind of parody. But good parody is full and pointed. The language here is empty and dull. Orwell, I imagine, would see in the text an example of a mosaic of dead language, what he calls a "substitute for thinking."

There may be something else going on in the language of this manifesto that cannot be dismissed as the mere rantings of a depressed and paranoid individual. To understand it, I invoke a theory of literary interpretation called "intertextuality." It goes like this: When I write a story, that story reflects the world as we know it in certain ways. The story is not the world but an imitation of the world, a reflection, however shadowy, of reality.

But my story is also a reflection of all the similar stories that have come before it. If I write a prayer, that prayer has some relationship to the tradition of prayers, perhaps the 23rd Psalm or the Lord's Prayer. If I write a mystery, the form I use may invoke or suggest everyone from Poe to Perry Mason. One text, if you will, interacts with others like it.

In this case, the language of Mr. Stack reflects the hyperbolic rhetoric of disaffected cranks at both ends of the political spectrum, a language that can be heard on cable television, that can be read in the feedback loops of bloggers on the far right and the far left, and sometimes in between. Consider this sample:

we in this country have been brainwashed
a handful of thugs and plunderers
can commit unthinkable atrocities
time for their gravy train to crash
like the vulgar, corrupt Catholic Church
the monsters of organized religion
the incredible stupidity of the American public
they buy hook line and sinker the crap about their "freedom"
no one gave a shit about all the young families
street after street of boarded up houses
abandoned by wealthy loan companies
left me to rot and die
bailed out their rich, incompetent cronies

On and on it goes, until the very end, where he says that he is ready "to stop this insanity," and then addresses his imagined enemies directly: "Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let's try something different; take my pounds of flesh and sleep well."

The sick mind will distort the meaning of language, of course, even language that is noble in its intention and appreciated by most readers. "Big Brother" is a reference to Orwell and his novel "1984," a dystopia about the dehumanizing effects of totalitarianism. Applying it to the IRS, however a rational person may feel about the American tax system, requires us to equate our government to the despotic regime in North Korea.

And "pounds of flesh" refers to Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," a play that insists on lending some humanity even to the despised usurer Shylock. The reference is as absurd as the news that the killer of John Lennon carried with him on his way to the assassination a copy of "The Catcher in the Rye."

I imagine that there is a diagnostic literature out there somewhere of the language and content of suicide notes. I came across one recently in a photo of the handwritten manuscript of the lyrics to "Heartbreak Hotel." In the lower left-hand corner, it notes that the song was inspired by the suicide of a well-dressed man who left behind this message: "I walk a lonely street." I guess it is possible to use language with power, even in such a note.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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