Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Uncovering Feminism: Emma Bee Bernstein and a few questions about suicide

Filed By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore | July 01, 2009 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Media, The Movement
Tags: Emma Bee Bernstein, feminism, Peggy Guggenheim, Seal Press, suicide, University of Chicago

Okay, so I'm looking through the Seal Press catalog for the second time, just to see if I've missed anything interesting, and what calls my attention is the bio of one of the editors of a book called Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism, and I can't necessarily tell whether the interviews will be challenging and provocative or dull and fawning -- but what I do notice is the bio for co-editor Emma Bee Bernstein -- right after her name we see the years marking her life, 1985-2008. But nothing telling us how she died. So I know it must not be what is generally considered a tragic accident (car/plane crash) or a noble battle (cancer), and I go online to find out how she died at age 23.

Suicide. But I can't figure out why. All the available accounts -- her parents, her co-editor, her parents' friends -- point to a particular narrative where here she was, something like a child prodigy born into a New York family of artists and writers, publishing interviews at age 12, drawn to dreaming and strident visions, traveling cross-country after finishing college at the cloistered University of Chicago to work on this new project about feminism and the future with her camera as accessory to her vision, filled with so much hope and possibility and yet overwhelmed by a monster, a monster of depression that she finally succumbed to.

I'm suspicious of this narrative...

She killed herself inside the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice, Italy, where she was working as an intern. What did this final gesture mean to her? Did she leave a note? What was this depression about? Where are the cracks in the story, and why does everyone insist on sealing them up after her death? If her death means anything, can't it at least mean that her life becomes revealed in all its complications? Would she have wanted that?

I also don't believe in this vision of depression as a monster that challenges the hopefulness of a feminist visionary. We live in a horrible world where violence covers violence covers violence and here we are wrapped in it, no matter what. Feminism, or any intense analysis, means that you see all of the horror, you uncover all the layers, and, yes, you try to figure out a way to challenge the violence but you rarely succeed and you keep trying. You keep trying but sometimes it's not hopeful, you are not hopeful and you try to act with hope anyway but really what is hope if you're still surrounded by violence, this world, your role in it?

My question is this: how do we know that Emma Bee Bernstein didn't kill herself because of her feminism, not in spite of it, and what would it mean to think about this gesture, in all of its sadness and yearning, as something she wanted us to pay attention to, not to cover up like an aberration?

Mattilda also blogs at Nobody Passes.


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Ugh. Pretty tacky to imagine that you know this woman's thoughts and wishes better than her family, friends, and colleagues.

Especially when you're being so flippant about the fact that you've made no effort to engage her work.

Kevin, I'm not pretending to know anything about Emma Bee Bernstein's thoughts and wishes, only to ask questions -- and, the book I mention is not even out yet, so it would be hard to make an effort to engage with anything other than the promotional copy. Of course, I also didn't realize that a few preliminary questions meant that I was making "no effort to engage her work" -- what I aim for, generally, is critical engagement, thank you.

Mattilda,

As usual, you take us to the places we don't dare enter. It seems that part of the problem here, as evidenced by Kevin's post above, is that we insist on shutting the door on suicide. Or, rather, that we draw a veil over suicide, an act about which we've already constructed a particular narrative with specific tropes: It is tragic and without meaning, the "victim" (or some such related term) was loved, had much potential, and could not be saved despite the love of all around her. And, of course, no one else can ask questions about the preferred narrative. To do so is to somehow "be flippant" or to "imagine that you know this woman's thoughts and wishes better than her family, friends, and colleagues."

The truth about suicide might simply be that it is the one act that says: You do not know me, and I can not tell you more, except in this act. That does not have to preclude attachment to the ones "left behind." Or perhaps it does. Either way, I think works like this one go a long way in dismantling the edifice we've built around suicide, and the idea that it only belongs, as it were, to a few.

I love your last question: "how do we know that Emma Bee Bernstein didn't kill herself because of her feminism, not in spite of it, and what would it mean to think about this gesture, in all of its sadness and yearning, as something she wanted us to pay attention to, not to cover up like an aberration?"

I can't wait to see where you'll continue taking this, if you do.


Yasmin, this is beautiful:

"The truth about suicide might simply be that it is the one act that says: You do not know me, and I can not tell you more, except in this act. That does not have to preclude attachment to the ones 'left behind.' Or perhaps it does. Either way, I think works like this one go a long way in dismantling the edifice we've built around suicide, and the idea that it only belongs, as it were, to a few."

Thank you for this layered invitation to think more deeply -- but wait, I think there was just an explosion in front of my building, I guess I better look out the window...

Anon Comment | July 2, 2009 2:33 AM

Ed Note: This comment has been removed at the request of Emma's father.

First, she did not overdose. Second, it's unethical and just plain tactless to disparage the character of some one who's not even around to defend themselves. An anonymous, hateful personal attack does not belong on a blog about LGBTQ news and issues.

Wow, of course I can't comment on any of these specifics since I did not know Emma, except to say that I don't think an early death is any less tragic if caused by an overdose...

It's very tasteless to speculate on why someone you don't know committed suicide. And to suggest that she was a martyr to feminism - terrible!

You obviously don't know anything about depression or suicide. No one kills themselves just because they're a feminist.

I can't imagine why it's "tasteless" to ask why "someone you don't know" would commit suicide....It's a natural question, given her age, her vivacious personality..In addition, this young womand was not particularly "private" given her art and published work.

The question, in any case, is a caring one, coming out of shock and sadness that one so young and so seemingly full of life would choose to end her own.


in terms of her art and her published words and especpublishing, etc fact that this person seemed incredibly inThe questions comes out of shock and sad

Thank you, naryaquid -- caring was certainly what I was aiming for!

Jack kingspades | November 11, 2009 12:15 AM

I remember when Emma was over at my house we were both around 5-10 years old I'm not sure exactly how old. I don't really remember a whole lot of my friends from that age but I remember her, she was beautiful but even then I think she was unusual. Not in a bad way.