I am reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book right now, called Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know, and I am intrigued by the chapter on Sylvia Plath’s unfortunate suicide and the concept of “coupling.” The idea behind coupling, which stands in contrast to displacement, is that when someone makes the very sad decision to commit suicide, it can often be coupled to a particular place or context.
Malcolm starts by giving the example of “town gas.” Prior to it being phased out in the 1960s and 1970s, most homes in Britain relied on a form of gas that contained carbon monoxide. And sadly, it became the most popular way for people to kill themselves. When Sylvia Plath took her own life in 1962, the death-by-carbon-monoxide-poisoning stat was 44.2% of all suicides in England and Wales.
The concept of displacement, on the other hand, surmises that if somebody wants to kill themselves, they will eventually find another way. But Malcolm convincingly argues that that is not necessarily or very often the case. As town gas was phased out of British homes, the number of suicides also declined in lockstep. Turns out that many of the previous suicides had been coupled to that particular tool.
Why this is potentially valuable to this blog audience is that this same coupling phenomenon can happen within our cities and to particular places. Malcolm gives the example of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, which has been the site of many suicides since it was first erected in 1937. The same, of course, can be the said about many subway systems around the world.
But again, there’s evidence to suggest that if you can save somebody on the Golden Gate Bridge (a suicide barrier was erected in 2018) or on a subway system by installing safety doors, there’s a good chance that many of those people will never actually find another way to commit suicide. In other words, you can save a bunch of lives by having the right provisions in place and not assuming that something is a foregone conclusion.