Sunday, July 24, 2011

Hellfire and Suicide

I recently read Jay Asher’s heart wrenching book Thirteen Reasons Why, about a teenage girl named Hannah Baker whose downward slope towards suicide begins with rumors that a boy spread about her. My granddaughter had read the book and could not put it down. She passed it on to me.

The book does a good job of allowing the reader to see inside the girl’s head. I felt her agony and her confusion. In fact, forgotten memories from long ago began to haunt me.

Once I moved to the city, when I was six years old, I became involved with the Methodist Church. The bad thing about the Methodist Church in those days was that if you had a preacher that you LOVED, you knew he would be gone in two years. The good thing was that if you had a minister that you hated, he would be gone in two years.

Pastor Jimmy could not be gone quick enough for me. I had nightmares every time that I heard one of his sermons, which often included graphic depictions of hell delivered melodramatically to a trembling congregation.

“Have you ever burned your finger on an iron?” he would ask. “Remember the agony and the duration of the pain you felt?”

I surely remembered it. Listening to him fooled my brain into making me feel it all over again.

“Just imagine,” he continued, “your entire body being ironed! Imagine the constant, agonizing pain to continue forever and ever! Imagine your throat so dry, so desperate for water which will never be given to you, no matter how hard you beg and cry! That is what hell has waiting for you if you do not follow God’s path!”

I begged for mercy even though I did not know that I had done anything wrong.

Fast forward to my first year of high school, when I developed a serious crush on RT. He was the lead singer in a local band and he had a Beatles haircut. That was enough to float my boat.

I made the mistake of telling a “friend” about my puppy love, and she promptly wrote a made-up love note from me to RT on the blackboard of her homeroom class, which she shared with twenty-five other students, including RT.

I was teased for a few weeks, and I learned that good friends were few and far between. After that, I kept my feelings to myself.

A few months later, however, RT claimed to have been on an actual date with me. He told everyone, “It was cool! She let me do anything I wanted.”

Several weeks passed before I realized why my classmates were avoiding me in the hallways and ignoring me in class. The popular girls would point at me and giggle derisively. The boys would make raunchy suggestions whenever a teacher was out of earshot.

A girl in my homeroom told me what had happened. As it turned out, RT did go out with Linda Wright (my maiden name), but it was not me. He went out with a Linda Wright who went to a rival high school. He never clarified that point, however, and was happy to let everyone think that I was the girl he was talking about.

The more I denied the rumors, the more people believed them. “If the rumors aren’t true, why are you so upset?” they asked. “If you were innocent, you wouldn’t care what people are saying.”

Even those I believed to be my closest friends believed the rumors. Or claimed to believe them. I remain convinced that even those who did not believe the rumors pretended to do so, because the gossip game is intriguing.

Some of my friends actually believed in my innocence, but told me that they could no longer hang around with me because of the potential damage to their own reputations. I became a pariah. I walked the hallways of my school always looking straight ahead, never embarrassing any of my classmates by saying hello to them. I believed myself to be the most hated girl in school.

The rumors followed me through my senior year of high school. I was an outcast because of rumors started by a boy who had never even been in the same room with me, unless you count the auditorium or the cafeteria. The sweet puppy love I had eagerly nurtured had become deadly.

I can understand why the fictional Hannah Baker committed suicide. I seriously considered it myself. Life was a chore, a drudgery to be endured alone with no hope of redemption or happiness.

What stopped me? Pastor Jimmy’s sermons! He said that a person who committed suicide would go straight to hell. No matter how bad my life was, Pastor Jimmy had convinced me that hell was a lot worse. Being scorned and ignored was definitely preferable to being ironed and perpetually thirsty.

I hated Pastor Jimmy’s sermons when I was a child, and I hate them now. And this is a real problem for me, because if I had not heard them, I would have had no reason to stick around. Thanks to those sermons, instead of going the suicide route, I just wished that I had never been born.

I wish that when I was a teenager I had realized just how small a part of life and how insignificant high school is. That is the sermon I wish I had heard. That is the sermon that could have pulled me out of the black hole that was my lot in high school.

I hope that my granddaughters never hear a sermon like the ones Pastor Jimmy delivered and I pray that they will never fall victim to rumors, which are stories meant for harm. I would like to tell both of them what I wish someone had said to me: You are special. You will change the world in ways you cannot imagine. The pettiness of small people will seem laughable when you achieve your success. This world is a better place because you are here.

If the right person had said that to me, I would have believed it.


  1. thank you for writing, Linda. we all need to hear it; we all need to say it -- you are special and this world needs you here.

  2. Beautiful Linda....I remember your surprise when I told you how important your Appalach. stories were and I still can revisit how moved I was with your telling!
    jean armstrong

  3. Linda, the world is most definitely a better place because you are here. Great post.

  4. I have received more feedback on this post than any other. Ironically, most has come through email as opposed to comments...stories still too tender for a public forum.

    Linda Goodman

  5. The world is definitely a more beautiful place with you here... I am so glad I was able to get to know you during the film festival this year. You are quite a treasure! I hope we get to work together again soon.