Toward a psychosocial understanding of suicide in American literature and culture of the 1990's

Sara E Murphy, University of Rhode Island


As a means of rectifying the problematic absence of multidisciplinary scholarly work on suicide, this dissertation project interrogates suicide in American literature and culture of the 1990's across disciplines within the humanities, medicine, and the social sciences. Utilizing a psychosocial approach to the study of suicide – that is, an understanding of suicide as produced both by one's psychological development within and by one's social relationship to his or her environment – I address what I have identified as a unique trifurcated suicide response that arose in American culture in the 1990's as it emerged through major societal and legal events and as it coalesced through major literary texts of the period. While suicide has had a presence in virtually every culture across history, the convergence of these societal and legal events in this decade with a radically-changing perspective on suicide in medical theory and research emergent in the 1980's and 1990's created a culture of suicide unique to its time and place. ^ The five essential problems that this project addresses are: (1) ascertaining the origins of the rise of preoccupation with suicide throughout the 1990's as seen through mass suicide events; increased social debate, political action, and legal movements for the right to die, and as suicide attempts, completions, and bereavements increased across the decade; (2) determining the ways in which grieving suicide was complicated by the degree to which survivors or the public were able to make meaning of these deaths, simultaneous to psychological theories uncovering the importance of meaning making in unresolved grief; (3) interrogating the cultural intersections of power and privilege which altered the perceived suicide risk for and attention to members of groups disenfranchised due to sexual identity during the AIDS crisis; (4) examining the ethical and historical importance of the assisted suicide movement in the 1990's; and (5) exploring the implications of American cultural inheritances of suicide in the contemporary moment. ^ The significance of this study rests upon three key points in addressing the deficiency in scholarship about suicide in this period. First, this project makes important interventions in the field of literature by incorporating the work of scholars practicing in the disciplines of gender and sexuality studies, history, medicine, nursing, psychology, sociology, and thanatology in order to understand and explicate more fully the pervasive and particular presence of suicide in this decade. Whereas scholars of literature or cultural studies may reference or bridge theories of medicine or social sciences in their projects, there has been an absence of solidly interlocking lenses produced from these major fields through which to consider suicide as a cultural and literary presence in the 1990's. Vast space exists in which a multifocal discussion of suicide across the major fields of literature, social sciences, and medicine is not only possible but, indeed, necessary. Second, in synthesizing theoretical frameworks across disciplines while engaging in textual analyses of the literature in which this project is grounded, I provide a multifocal argument for the particularly troubled culture of suicide that was both reflected in and further developed by American literature in the 1990's. Third and finally, this study will notably increase the understanding of readers in approaching suicide as a psychosocial phenomenon and in approaching suicide in literature as both historically and culturally informed.^

Subject Area

Literature, American

Recommended Citation

Sara E Murphy, "Toward a psychosocial understanding of suicide in American literature and culture of the 1990's" (2015). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI3689112.