I know quite a bit about celebrity. I don’t know how to write about Caroline Flack. I don’t mean the bare facts that I know I am supposed to include as background: that she took her own life while awaiting trial following an allegation that she assaulted her boyfriend.
Rather, I don’t want to say anything that might heap further anguish upon her already devastated friends or family. I don’t want to arrogantly wade into the intensely sensitive subjects of suicide or partner violence when I am not trained in how best to communicate these issues.
People, understandably, are drawing parallels with Mike Thalassitis, and Amy Winehouse, and even Meghan Markle. They are asking whose fault this is and where to direct their shock and anger. I find myself recoiling, worried that I might be reacting too quickly. Or speaking over someone whose voice is no longer here. I really, really do not want to exacerbate the harm.
So, as national discourse turned to suicide, I turned to the Samaritans for guidance. I read their instructions for responsible reporting on suicide. They advise to avoid “over-simplification”, “melodramatic depictions”, “speculation” or “unsubstantiated links between separate incidents”.
As I was reading, it struck me that this offers a pretty accurate summary of celebrity watching in general. As we follow the lives of celebrities, what are we doing if not drawing our own unsubstantiated links between separate incidents in their lives to create an overarching story, filling in the blanks, constructing a personality we imagine ourselves to know? Speculation is a national pastime. Melodrama is the default timbre.
As we consume the lives of others, we construct them. In the process, we often default to lazy shorthand or comfortingly familiar tropes. We don’t necessarily mean to or know we are doing it – they are part of our vocabulary and syntax for understanding the world. This is how we end up with stock narratives recirculating around the lives of our favourite stars: the train wreck, for example, the cougar, or the femme fatale. Over-simplification of the causes of suicide is harmful. Over-simplification of people’s lives and the meaning we attribute to them can be, too.
Feminist philosopher Efrat Tseelon coined the term “impossible space” to describe the irreconcilable demands placed upon women, and the way they use stock narratives from ancient myth and religion which find a woman to be somehow simultaneously not enough and too much. Unable or unwilling to confront the complexity and humanity of the whole woman, we reduce her to a set of easily digestible meanings we impose upon her.
When someone dies, we assume it must be because of one of the limited number of details we know about their lives.
Was it the press scrutiny, we ask, or the social media backlash? The damaged reputation or the relationship breakdown? Journalists have pointed to the lack of support provided by Flack’s employer, ITV. Her management point to the callous prosecutors in a punitive show trial.
If we heed the Samaritans’ expertise, none of these offer us a way to understand what has happened. Rather, it will have been a “complex” web of “interrelated” causes. They would rather we focus on common risk factors in those around us, who we can help: drugs, alcohol, mental health issues and deprivation.
Let’s treat people as if the stakes are high and the consequences can be dire.
As we leap to blame, to manage the shock, to wrench this story into something we know how to digest, beware over-simplification. And as we consume and construct stories about the living, beware over-simplification.
If suicide is too complex and interrelated for simple narration, that’s because life is – and people are – impossibly complex, too.
Dr Hannah Yelin is a senior lecturer in media and culture at Oxford Brookes University