HBO's 'Suicide Notes' is compelling but empty

January 14, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"I have taken my life in order to provide capital for you," Alex Counsel, a real estate developer, wrote to his wife in a suicide note. "It's purely a business decision. I hope you can understand that."

Understanding is not what "Suicide Notes," an HBO documentary premiering at 10 tonight, is about. It's about the fascination -- possibly morbid -- of reading suicide notes. The show examines the last written words of Counsel and four other suicides, as well as the note of a man who tried to kill himself and failed. The six, all male, were white and middle-aged.

The producers say that the notes are used as a gateway to the subjects' minds -- "clues to what's raging inside these men who had the most society has to offer," in the words of narrator Stacy Keach. But the documentary never helps us really understand the reasons why the men killed or tried to kill themselves.

The producers also say that suicide is a growing problem among white, baby-boom men. But the program never delivers the facts to make that case. What it offers instead are simplistic, pop-psyche conclusions: "Fear of appearing weak, fear of needing help are costing men their lives."

Nevertheless, it is very hard to walk away from this show once you start watching it. TV is a medium of intimacy, and there are few things more intimate than someone's last earthly thoughts written to a wife, parent, child or lover.

"I can't see any ways out of this hell," Frank Dobinson, a successful research chemist, wrote in the suicide note to his wife. He included a check for a car insurance payment in his final note to one of his daughters. "This is all you will ever get from me," he wrote to her.

In the end, that is all we get: final words that don't add up to understanding or anything even close to it.

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