Sociological Ruminations

A blog about books (both non-fiction and fiction) that address forms of social inequality associated with race, gender, class, or mental health.

The Final Leap: Suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge by John Bateson

Book Review: The Final Leap: Suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge (University of California Press, 2012) by John Bateson.

I used to live in San Francisco, and I have photos and paintings of this gorgeous city in nearly every room of my home.  For me, Marin Headlands (where it’s possible to go up into the mountains and look down at the Golden Gate Bridge) is the most breathtaking spot on the planet.  The photo featured for this post is one that I took while there.  In The Final Leap: Suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge, John Bateson provides the following description of the bridge:

It’s no surprise that the Golden Gate Bridge is the most photographed man-made structure in the world.  It’s one of the seven wonders of the modern world and is considered one of the top ten architectural monuments of the twentieth century.  No other city has such a famous gateway.  No other gateway has inspired more romance or poetry.  It’s not a stretch to say that life in the Golden State starts at the Golden Gate.  When the sun sets over the horizon each night, the last and — some people believe — best views of the continental United States are from the Golden Gate Bridge (p. 137).

Sadly, this awe-inspiring bridge is also a place of tremendous tragedy — it has been called the biggest suicide magnet in the world.  The first known suicide occurred soon after the bridge opened in 1937 when a World War I veteran named Harold Wobbler jumped to his death.  Since then, at least 1,600 people have committed suicide by jumping off from the bridge.  Approximately 25 to 30 people jump off the bridge each year (or about 2 or 3 people each month).  There are an additional 6 to 12 unconfirmed deaths each year (e.g., missing people who are suspected of jumping).  In addition, roughly 80 more people are prevented from jumping each year.  However, in 2013, a record number of 46 people committed suicide by jumping off the bridge, and security personnel prevented an additional 118 people from jumping that year.  After years of controversy, officials agreed back in 2008 that a suicide barrier would be built, yet the issue of finding funding for this barrier has been controversial and time-consuming.  The barrier has still not been built.

In the last decade or so, a handful of substantial attempts have been made in order to draw attention to the problem of suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge.  In 2003, an article called “Jumpers” was published in The New Yorker.  Subsequently, a reader who was struck by the article made a powerful yet controversial documentary called The Bridge.  In addition, in 2005, the San Francisco Chronicle did a seven-part series called “Lethal Beauty,” and their series ended with an editorial calling for a barrier on the bridge.  John Bateson’s book The Final Leap: Suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge, which was published in 2012, is the first book to address suicide on the bridge.

Bateson, who says that the Golden Gate Bridge is the top suicide site on the planet, points out that there are several reasons why the bridge holds particular appeal for suicidal individuals.  These individuals assume that jumping off from the bridge will provide a simple, painless death in which there will be no body for loved ones to discover (and no mess to clean up).  The height of the bridge seems to guarantee death, and the railing is only 4 feet high, which means that just about anyone can climb over it with ease.  However, the widespread assumption that the bridge can provide a painless death is untrue.  Bateson says:

A jumper’s body travels at a speed of seventy-five miles per hour.  Upon impact the outer body stops but the internal organs keep going, tearing loose from their connections.  Sternums, clavicles, and pelvises shatter.  Aortas, livers, and spleens are lacerated.  Skulls, ribs, and vertebra are fractured.  The result is similar to a pedestrian who’s struck by a car going seventy-five miles per hour.  In many cases, jagged rib bones puncture the heart, lungs, or major arteries, causing the brain to shut down immediately for lack of oxygen-bearing blood.

If a person does not die right away, he or she dies by drowning.  Bodies plunge deep into the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay and breathe it in.  In rare cases, jumpers not only survive the fall but are able to swim to the surface despite suffering massive internal injuries.  They flail away in the water hoping to be rescued, their bodies broken, every breath painful” (p. 82).

One of the most interesting sections in The Final Leap is the section that focuses on people who have survived their jump off from the Golden Gate Bridge.  Over 30 individuals have survived.  (One survivor published a memoir last year).  Bateson points out that their survival resulted from a variety of situational factors that converged: (1) all of the survivors entered the water feet first; (2) the survivors also entered the water at a slight angle, which caused their body to arc back up to the surface of the water instead of going so far down that they would drown; and (3) they were seen by a witness who notified rescuers immediately.  A heart-wrenching reality is that many of these survivors indicate that they regretted the decision to jump as soon as their hand left the railing.

Another memorable section of the book is the section in which Bateson counters three of the most common arguments that people have made against building a suicide barrier on the bridge.  The first argument is that a barrier will be expensive, and money should be spent on mental health care instead.  In response to this, Bateson says that money for a barrier would come from different sources (e.g., transportation and highway funds) than money spent on mental health.  Therefore, it’s illogical to imply that it’s necessary to make a choice of one or the other; instead, it is possible to strive to find money for both.  He also points out that people fail to consider the cost of not having a barrier.  In other words, the Coast Guard retrieves two or three bodies per month, yet the hefty costs associated with this do not seem to be considered by people who object to spending money for a barrier on the bridge.  The second most common argument against building a suicide barrier is that a barrier would diminish the beauty of the bridge.  In my opinion, Bateson’s critique of this argument is one of the most fascinating aspects of the book.  He describes class projects at UC-Berkeley in which engineering students have designed models of suicide barriers for the bridge.  These projects, which have been judged by experts, illustrate that it would be possible to create an aesthetically beautiful barrier for the bridge.  Similarly, Bateson discusses a bridge in Toronto and says that the architect who designed the suicide barrier “envisioned that the 10,000 steel rods would create an open yet impenetrable wall and make the bridge look ‘strung like a Stradivarius.’  His barrier received the Canadian national engineering award for design excellence.  Many people thought that aesthetics were enhanced because of it.  Today, the barrier is referred to as ‘lifesaving art'” (p. 197).  The third argument that Bateson refutes is that suicidal people will simply go elsewhere to commit suicide if a barrier is built on the Golden Gate Bridge.  He says that this is a myth known as the myth of means substitution, and it’s discussed in Myths about Suicide by Thomas Joiner.  The reality is that suicidal people tend to fixate on a specific method.  When that method is removed from their reach, they tend to stop thinking about suicide; they do not find an alternate method.  In his discussion of this, Bateson quotes a 2008 article from New York Times Magazine:

People who attempt suicide aren’t thinking clearly.  They might have a Plan A, but there’s no Plan B.  They get fixated.  They don’t say ‘Well I can’t jump, so now I’m going to shoot myself.’  And that fixation extends to whatever method they’ve chosen.  They decide they’re going to jump off a particular spot on a particular bridge, or maybe they decide that when they get there, but if they discover the bridge is closed for renovations or the railing is higher than they thought, most of them don’t look around for another place to do it.  They just retreat” (p. 199).

Several other aspects of the book are quite interesting and informative.  For example, Bateson discusses the controversy and the engineering decisions that surrounded the original construction of the bridge.  He describes the history of San Francisco’s suicide prevention hotline, which is one of the oldest suicide prevention hotlines in the country.  He interviews coroners and people from the Coast Guard.  He also interviews family members of victims and describes lawsuits that some of these family members have attempted.  The only real downside to Bateson’s book is that even though it’s only two years old, it is becoming dated with regard to issues associated with controversy over funding and when the barrier will finally be built.  (The Bridge Rail Foundation can provide updates on this).  Nonetheless, because so much stigma and misinformation surround suicide, Bateson’s book (which is packed with information!) can play a tremendously important role in creating an informed public.  The book also discusses a variety of other sources that would probably be useful for futher reading.  These include:

November of the Soul: The Enigma of Suicide by George Howe

Myths about Suicide by Thomas Joiner

Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide by Kay Redfield Jamison

“What Would You Say to the Person on the Roof?” by Haim Omer and Avshalom C. Elitzur



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