Francesca Woodman - as depicted in the film "The Woodmans" - killed herself at age 22 in good part because of the lack of appreciation for her brilliant, audacious, original work.  In a tragic paradox, this recognition came years after her death.

 

The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, January 20, 2011. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

Suicide as Rational Choice?

Photos by Francesca WoodmanI once saw the author of "‘night, Mother," Marsha Norman, "debate" (on a television talk show) Bernadine Healy, the former director of the NIH and a forceful proponent of the idea of mental illness as a disease.

In a fey, offhand way (she didn't confront Healy directly) Norman made the case that some people's lives result in a rational decision to kill themselves (as the play proposes). This is perhaps most evident in cases of terminal illnesses. But in the play, it is because a woman's life had never gone anywhere - she was stuck in a house with her mother, having never launched an independent life.

This same issue was raised by at least one woman interviewed in the film, "The Bridge," which tracked the horrifying suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge over a year. This woman accepted that her grandson - like his mother - was geared to kill himself his whole life. The NY Times reviewer, Stephen Holden (obviously not a mental health professional), said of the film: "Because their testimony is remarkably free of religious cant and of cozy New Age bromides, this is one of the most moving and brutally honest films about suicide ever made."

But this post isn't about "'night, Mother" or "The Bridge." It's about a film titled, "The Woodmans," about a family of artists whose daughter - Francesca - killed herself at age 22 in 1981 by throwing herself out a window.

Photos by Francesca WoodmanFrancesca Woodman was a brilliant, provocative (she often photographed herself nude) ferociously ambitious artist who revolutionized photography - only she wasn't around to get credit when the credit came due. Her agent described her working as a third photographer's assistant when she had already created the most audacious photographs of not only that decade, but the next (let's leave aside Robert Mapplethorpe, another kind of suicide in a way, whose life and work is explored in Patti Smith's memoir, "Just Kids").

Woodman anticipated virtually every movement in commercial and art photography - the sexualized self-dramatization adopted by Cindy Sherman (whose life and work is shown in a film by her ex-lover, "Guest of Cindy Sherman"), the currently popular black-and-white gritty semi-sexual advertising for jeans and other consumer items, the integration of setting and subject, the visual representation of words, sounds, and ideas.  But this was all undoable at the time.

Photos by Francesca WoodmanAnd now she IS recognized. Perhaps the most chilling shot in the film is of her agent laughingly saying that, when he needs to pay college tuition for one his kids, he pulls out a photo - of which he says he has stacks - to sell for Woodman's current "going" price - $20,000 (she is now widely exhibited).

Okay, why did Francesca Woodman kill herself? Her parents are decent, loving, supportive people. She had a close relationship with her father (he admires her so much that, after her death, he turned to photography from painting to make pale imitations of her photos).

Francesca was beautiful, lively, appealing to others. She was also incredibly demanding - as a friend said - of her friends, her lovers, herself. And she recognized - and expected and needed public recognition of - herself as a great artist. Which only came after she committed suicide due in no small part to its absence - the inherent paradox of her life and death.

Life may have made her choice - given her intense ambitions - seem reasonable to her at the time. But subsequent history, we now know, would have provided her with all that she sought. Only - in the impatience of youth - enduring that gap was intolerable to her. And, of course, the success of her vision was far from preordained. So how could a therapist (she was seeing one regularly, and receiving antidepressants) have anticipated such a development, or addressed her seemingly shattered dreams?

Psychology and psychiatry have not developed better answers to these questions than they had three decades ago, when Francesca Woodman gave her life away.


Photos by Francesca WoodmanPictures: Photos by Francesca Woodman. I confess, I included so many of her pictures because they are so haunting and great.  Please - no reductive comments like, "her pictures are suicidal and depressive and expose her too much," an idea discussed in the film.