On the Suicide-By-Train Epidemic in Affluent Chicago
The following essay appears in issue 27 of The Lifted Brow, a fine Australian journal now available in these United States.
I can hear a train going by outside the window of my parents’ kitchen. You can hear everything coming in a place this flat. The Doppler effect achieves new meaning. The sound lingers long after the train has passed, until you can’t be sure if you’re still hearing it or imagining it. Everywhere I go in Lake Forest requires crossing tracks at least twice. When I look down the tracks the power lines above them point straight and flat forever. It isn’t hard to know a train is coming.
On Christmas Eve my mom, Carol, is trying to convince me to come with her next door, to bring cookies to our neighbors. I don’t want to go, but I can’t say this. I pretend, at some point, to have fallen asleep to get out of it.
A month earlier, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Carol and I were sitting up in hotel beds in San Diego, where we’d gone to visit my brother. My mom woke up to an email from our next-door neighbor, whom I’ll call A. A had written to tell us that her husband, M, had died suddenly the night before. No explanation, no details offered in her email. I listened while my mom called her an hour later, not expecting her to pick up. Carol hasn’t quite come around to trusting cell phones, so she keeps the volume on its highest setting and all conversations are public. From the other end of the line, the voice was unmistakably A’s, but I’ve never heard a voice so strangled. I’ve never heard a mother, asked how her kids are doing, reply with the single word “terrible.”
We knew M had killed himself. That much was assumed: in our community, in the socially conservative Midwest, deaths without causes are just about always suicides. It’s a word no one says. We didn’t yet know his method. M had been struggling with depression and none of the medication was working. He wouldn’t come out of his bedroom for days. He didn’t want anyone to know, not even my parents. My dad, Rick, used to go over to the house and plow the driveway, fix leaking sinks and backed up drains, and he and A would come up with a story to explain his assistance to M—Rick’s helping because we watched their dog, they’d tell him, he’s just repaying a favor. Both my parents played along and pretended they didn’t know anything was wrong, despite going weeks without so much as seeing M.
The day after Thanksgiving, M went out at dusk to Starbucks. He drove east to Fort Sheridan, where the drive-thru is open late. He parked his car in the train station lot, got out, and walked in front of the 7:17 express train. It’s always the same train, my mom told me on the phone.
When we got the news about M, I was already in the middle of writing an essay about suicide by train—specifically an ongoing series of teenaged copycat suicides at my former high school and high schools in the area. Until A’s email, I knew none of the victims. That’s a strange thing about suicide: the victim is also the perpetrator. In newspaper and magazine writing, editors have moved away from the phrase “committed suicide” in favor of “died by suicide”; committed connotes a criminal act. But I think “died by suicide” takes some agency away.
Railroad operators, for whom dealing with the outcome of these “accidents” is an unwritten part of the job description, request that the media use the word “trespasser” to refer to struck individuals in PUT (person under train) incidents. “Victim” suggests that there is a perpetrator, and because our cultural narratives about suicide are so lacking, we naturally look to someone else to fill this part, rather than looking to the victim’s dual role. Which means most people, including individuals’ families, look to the conductor or the engineer in control of the train. Many sue the train operator at the loved one’s time of death; some sue the entire railroad.
“In control,” isn’t really the best way to put it, though. Especially when you consider that it takes, under ideal conditions, anywhere from a half mile to two miles for a train to stop. When interviewed about their experiences with these types of accidents, train operators commonly describe a feeling of total powerlessness. They watch what happens as it unfolds, suspended above, awaiting the impact.
The problem with suicide, or one of them, is that there’s no clear target for our (living) blame. There’s no one to hate in its aftermath. Except for the person you’re mourning. Rage sublimates into grief. The other problem: no one really talks about it here.
I grew up with trains. My dad rode the Metra to Union Station most mornings, speedily filling in crossword puzzles. We have two stations, two train lines, two sets of tracks in Lake Forest, a grotesquely affluent suburb north of Chicago. It’s situated on the lakeshore as the last and ritziest outpost between the privileged Chicagoan commuters and the cruelly poor industrial crumble of Waukegan. Race and class divides in the Midwest, in my experience, are rarely discussed out loud, but they’re more prevalent than anywhere else I’ve been. They are the unspoken language on which everything is built. They’re the primary reason Chicago’s commuter train lines exist, to keep everyone at their own stops, in their own neighborhoods.
Chicago’s North Shore is easy to critique, even easier to mock, and Lake Forest is its queen. It’s a place of privilege, and kids who grow up there are the ones people tend to label children of privilege. They benefit from the best schools, the most attentive teachers, the best music and art programming. A lot of people have a lot of money and they flaunt it. The population is, terrifyingly, 95% white. The high school’s graduation rate hovers around 98% of students, most of whom go to colleges of their choice.
Those are statistics you hear. Here’s one you don’t: my high school consistently clocks in with one of the highest suicide rates in the country. The Chicago Tribune and Time magazine starting calling it the Suicide Belt when, in the 1980s, twenty-eight North Shore teens committed suicide over a seventeen-month period. In early 2012, three students from my former high school jumped—walked? lay down?—on the tracks, were struck, and died.
I came home in February 2012 to attend a conference downtown and in the car on the way back from O’Hare my mom was already talking about the latest suicide. The sky was colorless and had been that way all winter. “And there was another accident,” she said, “down the road from school, near the bike path.” The year began with one teen suicide per month. My mom never said “committed suicide” or “killed himself.” I didn’t have to ask. The second we were home, I got online and searched for some kind of description of the events, but I couldn’t find anything. I kept researching, not sure what I was looking for, details or explanations. Something beyond two teen boys’ accidental deaths. The obituaries were absolutely vague.
After a student kills him or herself, the school will address the incident as little as possible, I remember, offering individual counseling for students who request it. The school holds no gatherings, no vigils, no memorials or ceremonies. For the most part, these deaths have been ruled accidents, to spare families grief and expenses. How hard would it be to accidentally throw yourself in front of a train? This is not the right question.
Suicide suggests that a person isn’t ‘normal’. Not up to the challenges of ‘normal’ life. Suicide is embarrassing. Humiliating for the parents. Other things that humiliated families in my town: drinking; drug use; failing grades; serious illness; manifestations of psychological unease or distress of any kind; pregnancy; homosexuality; sexuality in general. These were all things for which you might be sent away. People got sent away all the time. Military school. Rehab. Catholic school.
I have no idea what drove three male students to the tracks in 2012. I think that kind of pain can only be understood by someone who has experienced it. I haven’t—I don’t think I have. I tell myself I haven’t. When I was in high school, I stopped eating and started shopping. I didn’t recognize my compulsive behaviors at the time as a response to the pressures I was feeling. I didn’t recognize until college that I felt out of place in large part because I was queer and didn’t know it and didn’t know it was a thing I could be. Instead I just knew I wasn’t normal. I see now that no matter who you are, no matter who these suicides are, the expectations in this community are impossible, stifling, smothering. I’m talking from personal experience, because I don’t know any other way to talk. I don’t know if that’s the pressure the suicides felt. But just thinking about the pressure to be normal I feel my jaw tighten with frustration, or, more accurately, anger. Perched here, safely on the other side, I can see my anger more clearly. I can see how its every expression was tamped down, converted into some other energy.
Mental illness, endlessly debated, pathologised, medicated, bears the stigma of unfitness to live in the world—a world in which resources for those struggling with depression or its restless twin, anxiety, are few and far between and stigmatized themselves. As a teenager I was self-destructing and told no one. As an adult, this morphed into paralyzing anxiety, overwhelming busyness, a willingness to take on way more than I could handle: six jobs while in school.
But, I remind myself, I got out. I have spent years and will spend more years teasing apart the strands of privilege that made and make my life possible. I’m in therapy and on meds for anxiety and I believe wholeheartedly in both. But I left. Sometimes I think that earns me a badge—or permission not to feel responsible, involved, complicit. To be honest, I don’t know what to do with all of this strange and difficult history that won’t stop unfolding. It’s my town, it’s my neighbor, and somehow I still can’t pinpoint where it all hits me. Writing this now, even the logistical effort to put all these thoughts and facts into some order feels manipulative, exploitative, self-aggrandizing. And yet I felt and still feel somehow responsible. Responsible and helpless.
Since M died, I can’t cross the tracks or take the train or see a train on TV without thinking of him, of the parked car, of his mop of grey hair and big green coat. Why can’t I stop thinking about this? Maybe it’s because of my dad’s green coat. His mop of grey hair.
When M died, my obsession with PUT incidents magnified. I became a glutton for facts about rail accidents. I wanted to know who, how many, when, where. I grew determined to visualize the problem from every angle. For several insomniac months, I couldn’t stop thinking about the men driving the trains. I wanted to put myself in their positions.
I spent most of winter break after M’s death researching, but not, as I’d planned, for the English dissertation prospectus I was supposed to be writing. No, I read old newspaper accounts and articles, scrolled through the entire archives of various rail aficionados’ poorly written blogs. Using the school library databases I eventually found and read—twice—a UNC thesis in which the student, who seemed to have my same obsessive affliction, interviewed railroad workers who had witnessed suicides. I devoured a special issue of the British journal Social Science & Medicine, published following the first (and, to my knowledge, only) International Conference on Railway Suicide in London, April 1991. I woke up most nights between two and five am and couldn’t fall back to sleep, and when I got up the next day my phone’s Google search history was all about trains.
The Federal Railroad Association in the US counts 300 to 500 train suicides a year, though given the tendency in this country to rule suicides accidents, the real number is likely much higher. It remains a popular method of suicide due, in all likelihood, to the ninety per cent death rate and the assumed immediacy of death. Though, as I’ve learned, those statistics do not tell the whole story. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15–24-year-olds in the US, behind accidents and homicides. Googling around to find out more information, I came across article titles like ‘Suicide Methods by Effectiveness and Agony’. I was somewhat comforted, and somewhat terrified, to learn that Google has a feature in place that provides the National Suicide Hotline’s link and phone number first, before the list of search results, when you type any query containing the word ‘suicide’. I felt safe, though. This was research.
Metra’s safety operator calls the 3,600-mile area of train lines reaching out from Chicago to the suburbs “the Golden Gate Bridge of the Midwest.” The comparison is not quite accurate, however. Because in San Francisco, suicide is publicly acknowledged, can even be seen; there’s a documentary about it. All along the bridge, they put in direct phone lines to the suicide hotline. On the North Shore, we don’t even call the train suicides suicide. Let alone install phones that call it by name. When I think about it now, there really wasn’t anything to jump from in the suburbs. I look at this research, at this writing, and I realize how much time I’ve spent thinking about the mechanics of it, and I am frightened and I am curious.
Rail workers in the Chicagoland area are especially accustomed to PUT suicides, which they’ve started calling “Metracides” amongst themselves. The man or woman on the tracks will almost always look up at the train’s driver in the seconds before impact, according to railroaders. Chillingly, they make eye contact.
Who else would you look to but the conductor, riding high above? In this split second, it becomes clear that one person, the victim, has all the power. The act of violence refracts from self to conductor to machine and back to self in the moments leading up to impact. Someone—the train workers—has to walk back to the site and begin to locate all the scattered parts.
In the US, unlike the UK or Japan, where rail suicide is an acknowledged social problem, there isn’t a policy in place to follow up with railroaders after a PUT accident, nor is there any psychological screening for railroad applicants. Yet most train operators come on board fully expecting that one day their train will kill someone; that it will probably happen more than once. PTSD, which studies have observed in train operators after accidents, can occur in an individual without any bodily harm or trauma, in the event of horror or utter helplessness. Long-timers, lifelong railroaders, are the best to talk to about this feeling, according to rail workers in interviews. After a few incidents happen right in front of you, they become another part of the job.
One common concern among rail workers that has yet to be addressed by US railroad companies is their safety when an accident occurs and human remains aren’t properly cleaned off the front of the train. Maybe if, instead of fearing that giving the mentally unstable too much information would put ideas in their heads, the media covered suicide by name and explained the consequences (psychological and often fiscal) for rail workers, fewer would choose to step on the tracks. Maybe articulation could offer a safety net. But instead, press immediately following an incident usually focuses on the inevitable delay to given train routes. M’s death caused a three-hour back up.
I’m at that point, reading about this and writing about this, where I fear I may have pushed too hard on a wound and it’s opening back up. I do not want to transgress upon or expose a pain that isn’t mine. And yet I still wonder: does something important happen when we all look at an open wound that isn’t ours? The place I’m from—Lake Forest—feels sometimes like a wound all its own, one I want to explain to people I meet. I come from such disappointment, such silence, I don’t say. The people have so much and they are so unhappy, I don’t say. And I am one of them.
M and A have four kids. Around the time of the 2008 crash and subsequent corporate layoffs, I watched a number of middle-aged Lake Forest dads recede inside themselves, become basically catatonic. My dad was one of them, but I didn’t really know it then. No one said it.
My parents moved us to Lake Forest when I was four because the schools are the best in the area. The taxes are also some of the highest in the country. I was getting As and editing the yearbook and getting into East Coast colleges that charge $50k a year, I was asking for two-hundred-dollar jeans as an emotional, rather than material, need, I was shopping obsessively—all the while my dad was out of a job and never said a word. My parents kept it from us. He ‘worked’ from home, but for more than a year he had no income and extreme depression. That he didn’t tell me about this at the time still hurts. I would have behaved differently, I want to believe, I would have been less entitled. I’d have gone to a state school.
M was one of these men. He had always gone a bit overboard when displaying his wealth, but there wasn’t anything unusual about that in Lake Forest. Every year he built his kids an ice rink in the backyard so they could skate and play hockey. My mom was delighted by it; the first year he didn’t put it up was the year she knew something was wrong.
I couldn’t come home for M’s funeral—it was the last week of my teaching semester—but on the plane ride back from San Diego I wrote A the hardest letter I’ve ever written. It was like writing to my own mother. Or maybe I was just trying to make myself feel better, and failing. For the past few years, with M at home, A has made ends meet by watching all our friends’ and neighbors’ dogs. She usually boards between five and ten at a time in her house. I didn’t go over there to deliver cookies with my mom. I was able to write a letter, but I didn’t know how to walk into their house. I didn’t know how to talk to the kids I used to babysit every weekend without crying, or screaming, or ripping something up. One of the clear blessings everyone seems to agree on is that he didn’t kill himself at home.
A and the kids were supposed to come over on Christmas, because my mom thought they’d like to get out of their house, but they didn’t show. Friends and neighbors offered A what they could, considering M had no life insurance, considering the four kids headed to college, considering the house full of dogs. One neighbor down the street, a surly older woman who constantly has workers at her house fixing something, hired her driveway snowplow service to plow A’s long drive and walks every winter from now on, which is the equivalent of heroism in the Midwest. Everyone made dinners, but that’s just what you do.
When I think about M’s death, I picture A and her kids and the burden they’ve lived with for years. I’m really thinking about the side of that story I know well, which is the side of the person who lives with someone else’s depression, another word for inarticulable pain. Statistically, this is a reality that is inevitably present among families, neighbors. It is a reality of human proximity, intimacy, that we should bear witness to the pain of others. When the depressed person lives with you, it is an overwhelming, exhausting, debilitating state of caretaking to be thrust into and then to endure and contend with on a daily basis. It is a feeling of helplessness.
I wonder why it is that the way things are structured is that people bring meals and snow plows and relief to A’s house only after the caretaking is over, only in the aftermath of grief that’s been living for years in a room upstairs. In a way, suicide becomes a great release, a chance for public acknowledgment of years of bravery in the face of torment on the part of everyone—those afflicted and those drafted into its private struggle.
I knew I couldn’t see those kids with their baby faces and grown bodies, couldn’t touch the twins I’ve known since I could carry them both, one on each hip. What the hell do you say to those kids? There isn’t a way to bear adequate witness to the long, slow pain they’ve grown up with at home. Sometimes I want to shake every person I see.
The duplex I rent is a few blocks from a set of tracks. I can hear freight whistles at night. My obsession with train accidents has subsided, and in its place I begin to see my massive sense of responsibility for other people, the guilt—so Catholic, so ingrained—and obligation and, at their roots, the care I feel. But I only recognize these things obliquely, late at night, when I’m sitting in the backyard, smoking too many cigarettes and drinking too many beers with friends who always stay too late.
When my consciousness is fuzzy enough, I think about my current neighbor, Dave, with whom I share a wall, and how he never leaves his house or seems to talk to anyone but me, every now and then, when I’m on the back porch doing laundry and he’s outside smoking his eleven pm cigarette. Dave makes for an endlessly fascinating topic for conversation, speculation among my friends, but the truth is that I’ve worried about Dave every day since I moved in. There is radical intimacy in sharing a wall: I have heard him snore, wake from nightmares. For a while I avoided him, avoided our stilted conversations. But since M died, I’ve been thinking a lot about Dave. This year I’ve made an effort to talk to him, to try, for the first time in my adult life, to understand what it means to be a neighbour.
We have opened up to each other, found strange commonalities, shared war stories from growing up as queers in conservative families. He is one of the only people who wants to talk to me about my dissertation, which is weird and wonderful. I’m shoving overlarge loads of laundry into the dryer with a beer in one hand, and he’s sipping his drink, and we’re usually talking about the weather, or about nothing, and something important is happening within this shared idleness.
The last time we talked, I told Dave about the month-long writing residency I was about to attend in Vermont. I said this cautiously, worried that after my recent reaching out it smacked of abandonment. That night he told me that he had committed to check himself into rehab during the same month that I’d be gone. Thirty-five to sixty days, depending. I’ve watched him drink and said nothing for three years. I haven’t known what to say. “You shouldn’t have to be the one to find me on the porch,” he tells me. I feel devastated and so heartened at the same moment. I leave him a note in his mailbox the morning I drive out of Texas with my phone number, my email address, asking him to be in touch.
It is hard for me to finish writing this story. Because to finish will mean that all of it is real, and that I have failed. A part of me is still caught up with the possibility of saving people. I want to be a sign on the train tracks, a hotline, a net. But what I’ve found in place of saving, in place of fixing, is acknowledgment. Naming. Speaking. That if I can do nothing else, I can point to a wound and say wound. This is something I can do.