On the seventh-floor hallway of a gracious dorm on lower Fifth Avenue, photos of Stephen Bohler, the second of four undergraduates to jump to their deaths this academic year, are pinned to doors. A vast collage of yearbook-style tributes hangs on a cinder-block wall—“you’re my hero, because you brought your own Tabasco to college.” In his old room, a mess of boxes hunker next to his bed, now occupied by another student: sneakers, a cocktail shaker, Camus’s The Plague, a figurine of a baby that doubles as a lighter, a bag of decaying peppermint incense he bought in Washington Square Park. “We’re going to take all of Stephen’s old stuff to the Salvation Army,” says one of his two former roommates, Jimmy Lynch. “Eventually.”
This was the day that Diana Chien, a transfer student from UCLA, appeared on the cover of the New York Post leaping from her boyfriend’s 24-story building, and a day before that boyfriend shared his plans to marry her in a posthumous ceremony in the same pages. At NYU, administrators were angry—they had spent time and money convening panels of experts, overhauling their mental-health services, and adding counselors after Bohler and the other two students died last autumn, and the last thing they needed was the Post in the picture. They didn’t want to become known as a suicide university, like MIT, which is involved in a high-profile lawsuit about its responsibility in a student’s suicide, or Cornell, where the stories of student plunges into snowy gorges are more lore than fact. “The NYU administration has a problem,” says Edwin Shneidman, a prominent suicidologist and professor emeritus at UCLA. “This kind of thing affects funding and reputation and so on.”
NYU has a problem not because of anything it did or didn’t do, but because suicide can be contagious. On one chilly Friday morning, I visited Madelyn Gould, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, one of the country’s largest suicide research centers. “Suicide contagion is real,” she said. “Social behavior is contagious and influential. We wouldn’t have a billion-dollar advertising market in this country if people didn’t think you could influence someone else’s behavior.”
Before a monthly departmental lunch—“pizza, not hemlock”—Gould walked me through the basics of studies on suicide contagion. Research has shown that those who are most at risk after a suicide within a particular community are not the initial victim’s immediate circle of family and friends but those who did not know the deceased at all. The classic case is Marilyn Monroe’s suicide—for the month after her August 1962 death, researchers found that 197 more suicides than usual occurred nationwide, an increase of 12 percent. (Remarkably, few copycat suicides were documented after Kurt Cobain’s death, a dearth researchers have attributed to Courtney Love’s emotional denunciation of his act—“I want you all to say ‘asshole’ really loud.” No one wanted to be an asshole.)
Those who are most susceptible to this contagion are teenagers (think of The Virgin Suicides, or Heathers). “Suicide clusters,” as the phenomenon is called, occur with few exceptions among those 15 to 24 years of age.“As in many things, adolescents are more imitative in suicide,” says David Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California at San Diego. “Look at hairstyles, slang, clothing styles, and popular music—adolescents are much more preoccupied with copying than older people. Their identity is not yet formed, so they’re more concerned with looking like others.”
“In suicide, as in many things, adolescents are more imitative.”
There are likely other factors in play—late adolescence is often the age at which serious psychological disorders, like bipolarity and schizophrenia, first manifest, and psychiatrists note that a suicide in the midst is a trigger mainly to those already thinking about suicide. But there is some evidence that those who die in clusters wouldn’t have acted on their own. Phillips calls this the Werther Effect, named for the spurned lover in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther—Werther, in a blue waistcoat and yellow vest, sits down one night, writes the object of his desire a last letter, and shoots himself above his right eye. Soon after the book’s publication in 1774, young men dressed as Werther began to shoot themselves at desks with open books in front of them, and the novel was subsequently banned across Italy, Germany, and Denmark.
In fact, the idea of suicide as fad is the one that fits most closely the death of Stephen Bohler. He was a popular kid—a juggler, a diver, a poet, always dashing uptown to play soccer in Central Park. He was a liberal, a vegetarian, a conscientious objector. He wanted to write a book called My Life As a Non-Fighter, and talked about it in a school essay: “I have not begun the book, but I have not really lived my life,” he wrote.
Bohler was thoughtful, but no one describes him as unhappy. The day that he died, he had taken psilocybin mushrooms; hallucinations are thought to have played a part in his death (in a controversial decision, the medical examiner’s office deemed his leap an accident). Friends say he smoked a lot of pot, and projected a stoner image—in touch with his emotions, but above it all. These days, his family goes back to a prose poem he wrote, titled “The Subjective Pronoun Me”: “Nervous kept yelling at Curious to stop going so far out into the ocean. Baffled watched Inspired build a beautiful sandcastle. Selfish was busy stuffing sand into his pockets. Crafty seemed to be making some kind of submarine out of seashells . . . All this I watched (Attentive made me) quietly under a palm tree . . . My emotions returned to me one by one as I slept in the warm sun. Confused wanted to be last, but he was finally coaxed in before Calm returned.”
There is no evidence that any of the four students to die at NYU were acquainted with each other. But when John Skolnik, the first jumper, leaped from the tenth-floor atrium balcony of the university’s main library—not quite the Golden Gate Bridge, but possessed of a vertiginous spookiness all its own—Bohler heard about it. He wasn’t obsessed with it, and he didn’t talk about it a lot, but he knew. He even mentioned it to his mother, Carolyn Bohler, a Methodist minister. And Skolnik, for his part, knew the legend about the library, the one passed from senior to freshman, the one each student, shivering and smoking in front of the library the other day, could retell: The Escher-like mosaic on the ground floor was supposedly designed to appear as spikes from several stories above, the better to deter potential jumpers.
There is some logic behind suicide clusters. The first suicide might give permission to others to carry out the act themselves—much like the teenager’s friend who smokes, or the driver in front of you who speeds. It may also look like the deceased has gotten some sort of reward—attention, pity, maybe higher social status than when he was alive. Beyond this, there are precipitating factors that no one will ever know about, except for the person who can’t talk about them anymore. “I don’t know if Stephen jumped because of the first boy, or because of the legends, or because he was hallucinating,” says Carolyn Bohler. “But almost nothing happens because of one cause.”
Unfortunately, there may sometimes seem to be only one solution. “Suicide is an advertisement for a way out of your problems,” he says, “and as with any advertising, if it’s repeated, it’s more effective.”
Additional reporting by David Amsden.