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From cliff's edge, author says suicide is never painless

Tom Hunt's book is about suicide: why people kill themselves, and why -- an even more puzzling question -- they seem drawn to do so in places where others have done the same thing.

Hunt, an English teacher in a prep school in Connecticut, decided to investigate these questions. "Cliffs of Despair" is his answer to them, and -- despite its unfortunate title, which will prompt a snicker in anyone who's seen "The Princess Bride" -- the book draws the reader into his journey to the dark side of the human psyche and its bent toward willful self-destruction.

Hunt's quest revolves around Beachy Head, a breathtakingly beautiful spot in England that serves as a magnet for suicidal people -- its 500-foot high cliffs overlooking the wave-roughened sea, its solitude and windiness compelling people to the edge. "This beautiful place," Hunt quotes the novelist Louis de Bernieres, "openly invites you to die."

The magnificent cliffs at Beachy Head draw suicides by the dozens, Hunt finds, making them one of the most popular suicide spots in the world. More than 500 people have jumped from the cliffs since 1965, or about 13 a year. In 2004, Hunt reports, a record number of people, 34, jumped off the cliffs -- "the equivalent of one death every 11 days." He even hears rumors of how a distraught Princess Diana came to the cliff's edge, contemplating suicide, but then turned away, deterred by the thought of her two sons.

Hunt's journey of fascination with suicide comes to resemble something close to obsession. He even finds himself pulled toward the cliffs' edge. And yet, surprisingly enough, his narrative -- which began as a prize-winning essay in the Gettysburg Review before being lengthened into book form -- does not seem intrusive or grisly.

There are two reasons for that. One, Hunt is not an investigative reporter, and he does not try to be, or even present himself as one. In attempting to interview a local man about the suicides, for example, Hunt tells of feeling uncomfortable knocking on the stranger's door, and when the man refuses to talk to him, Hunt just turns away. "Under that mossy voice lies stone. He will never budge. I thank him for his time and head off into the dusk," Hunt writes.

The second reason that Hunt's account does not grate on our nerves -- or our sensibilities -- is that he is writing from a very personal place. A close family member, his younger brother-in-law Conrad, killed himself by shooting himself in the head a few years ago. It was on the anniversary of Conrad's suicide, Hunt writes, that he booked a flight to London, to go to the cliffs, to seek some answers.

"There is," Karl Menninger wrote, "a little murder and a little suicide dwelling in everybody's heart." Hunt ponders that idea, and learns, in Beachy Head, that his heart does indeed contain those impulses. He thinks back to depression that he suffered from, long ago; he wonders if he has the strength, or the weakness, to ever commit suicide, as his brother-in-law did.

"It's possible, too, that I'm more resilient than I think I am," he writes, "that I'm no more repressed or delicately balanced than the next guy, and to think otherwise is egocentric rubbish. I wouldn't be surprised if I die wondering why I didn't trust myself more. Nor would I be surprised if the manner of my death vindicated my distrust."

Hunt's journey to the cliffs, so personal and so unique, makes for thoughtful and compelling reading for those who pick up his book, and accompany him.

Charity Vogel, a News features writer, writes fiction and is working on a novel.

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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>Cliffs of Despair

A Journey to the Edge

By Tom Hunt

Random House, 244 pages, $25

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