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Post Magazine: Descent Into Darkness

Post Magazine Cover Story

Paula Span
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 17, 2004; 1:00 PM

Reetika Vazirani was a rising poet and a devoted mother with caring friends. But none of that could save her life, or her toddler son's.

The Post's Paula Span, whose article "Descent Into Darkness" appeared in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine, was online Tuesday, Feb. 17 at 1 p.m. ET to field questions and comments about Vazirani's tragic life.


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The transcript follows.

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Paula Span: Thanks for joining us for this discussion. Let's go right to your questions and comments.

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Portland, Ore.: Excellent article. I am a psychiatrist and appreciate the in depth analysis of the progression of this womans depression.The slow steady almost imperceptical progression to severe depression with almost certain psychosis. In particular in a creative person this can be difficult to assess and diagnose. As you suggest creativity can be an outlet (defense) for depression but clearly not always effective especially if there are strong genetic elements. Do you know of any specific event with Yusef that may have precipated her final decline?

washingtonpost.com: The Failing Light (Post, Feb. 15)

Paula Span: Thank you. I know that discussions were continuing with Yusef about their appointments at Emory University. Would he go? Would she go? Would either of them go? They had a talk, or possibly a visit, just before Reetika took her life. But as we know, she had been speaking and thinking about suicide before that point, so whether that "precipitated" her act is unclear. My understanding is that even in a person who has had suicidal thoughts for some time, the decision to act can be quite impulsive.

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Albany, N.Y.: Vazirani's suicide was so puzzling until I read that her father had killed himself. Once you are touched by suicide in a wrenchingly personal way, the possibility of seeing it as a way out becomes frighteningly real for many people. That is NOT to say preordained, but more in one's mind as an escape route.

Paula Span: It's true that one's risk of suicide increases -- in fact, it doubles -- if a parent or sibling has committed suicide. Psychologists tell me that this has less to do with following a parent's example, seeing suicide as a possibility, than with genetics. The mood disorders that underly so many suicides are heritable; a child commits suicide because she or he has the same mental illness (or a related one) the parent has.

But it's also true, as you say, that this is not "preordained." For one thing, not every child gets the same genetic package from the parent. For another, most suicidal people who get the proper treatment can be helped. That's important to remember.

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Washington, D.C.: It seems that Vazirani didn't seek help for her suicidal/homicidal feelings because she was afraid of being drugged and deprived of her liberty in a mental hospital. How much blame should we place on the coercive practices of the mental health system, which can scare people away from getting some help when in a crisis?

Paula Span: I'd put the greater blame on our system of health insurance, or lack thereof. We know that Reetika was not averse to seeking psychiatric help; she had done so in the past. Now she was uninsured, had been for several years, and felt she couldn't afford it, so she was getting no treatment, as far as we know.

Her comments the morning of her death, about being hospitalized or drugged, may have reflected her long-held fears. But they may also have reflected the irrational state she had entered by that time.

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McLean, Va.: Where can we purchase Reetika Vazirani's work? Are there any plans to publish other works by her?

Paula Span: Reetika's two books are both in print. Any bookstore can order them for you, or you can order them through online booksellers or directly from the publisher. The first, "White Elephants," is from Beacon Press. The second, "World Hotel," is from Copper Canyon Press. (www.coppercanyonpress.org)

She completed a third book, which Copper Canyon hopes to publish next year.

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North Potomac, Md.: Your article was tremeandously moving. I can't help but ask why there was a shaded box regarding suicide on page 21 and yet no mention of symptoms of depression? It is important to educate people about Depression. Suicide can nbe prevented in MOST case if proper treatment is recieved. Most people don't even go for treatment or get inadequate treatment. The real question is, "Why wasn't this tradegy prevented?"

Folks need to learn about the barriers to seeking or continuing treatment. How many of Reetika's friends or family know anything about depression. Obviously her surviving family is at risk. Do they know this? Do they talk to their children in a way that Reetika was not? There are still live to be saved here. Education is the best way for a similar tradegy to be avoided. How is her family dealing with this clear threat?

Paula Span: Our quick box about suicide didn't go into depression because I wrote so much about it in the story itself. But you are quite right: most suicidal people who get treatment do not take their lives.

But it's very difficult for laypeople to assess how ill a friend or relative is, what the risk is. And often they don't know how to respond.

Your question provides a good opportunity to once more pass along a couple of helpful websites, for readers who fear that a friend or family member may be at risk. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is at www.afsp.org
The American Association of Suicidology is at www.suicidology.org

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Decatur, Ga.: Thanks very much for your sensitive handling of this story. As a journalist, how did you gird yourself for intruding in such an emotional mine field? Did you imagine that there would be resistance from the Vazirani family and friends, and what line of argument did you use to convince sources that the story had to be told?

Paula Span: I was encouraged by the fact that so many of Reetika's friends wanted her story to be told more fully than was possible in the Post's initial reporting directly after her death. They wanted attention paid to her work, to her creativity and her nature, to her son. The Post, after all, is effectively Reetika's hometown paper. We all felt it should offer a more detailed account of her life and death.

Most people were very willing to help. It was difficult for everyone; people's grief was very fresh, and these interviews were hours-long in many cases, and often tearful. I was grateful for their time, and I felt an enormous responsibility to try to do justice to a very complicated story.

Except for her sister Deepika, Reetika's family elected not to give interviews. I think it was just too hard for them. And you have to sympathize: they are private people. It was Reetika who wanted to be a public person, who wanted attention for her work, and she made them public with her and Jehan's deaths. But the Vaziranis did not try to impede my reporting, and Reetika's mother very graciously made family photos available to us and gave permission for me to use a few quotes from her letters.

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Lansing, Mich.: First rate writing -- thanks. Did you try to interview therapists who treated her? If confidentiality was the issue, now that she passed away, who controls those records? I am looking for a diagnosis, fruitless as it may be.

Paula Span: I would love to speak with her therapist, if I could find her. (I have a first name and a town, that's all.) But even if I did locate her, the doctor-patient privilege survives death. She still couldn't tell me what Reetika's diagnosis or treatment was. She might not even be able to acknowledge, legally, that Reetika was her patient at all.

But depending on the laws and practices in Virginia, where this therapist practiced, it might be possible for her family to gain access to her history and records. I hope they pursue that. I, too, want to know .

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Washington, D.C.: What has been the response of Ms. Vazirani's family, particularly her mother, to your digging?

Paula Span: I have only spoken to her stepfather, who was upset with some elements of the piece. I haven't yet heard from her mother, but I hope we can meet and talk. It's on my mind, obviously. The story was painful for the family to read, I'm sure.

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Voteless in D.C.: When the murder suicide was first reported, the insinuation was that Reetika Vazirani had killed her son because she wanted to punish his father. Your article did not seem to draw that conclusion. Do you think that she was driven by illness, or was there a motive that you could discern? Thank you so much for a much fuller picture of Reetika's life!

Paula Span: Several readers have pointed out to me that aggression and anger can also be part of depression or manic-depression.

I was influenced by the researchers who have interviewed many women who killed their children (many of whom also planned or tried to kill themselves afterwards). They said they rarely found vengeance or anger to be part of these women's psychological make-ups. It's a murderous father, more than a mother, who is likely to be driven by a desire to punish. But they, like all of us, are taking our best shots at trying to understand Reetika, whom none of us know. No responsible psychologist or therapist will diagnose a patient she's never met; we're all in the realm of speculation.

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Virginia: Was she ever abused as a child? Physically and/or sexually?

Paula Span: Not that I know of. And given how openly she wrote, in poetry and prose, about her childhood and her early years, I think she would have alluded to abuse if it existed.

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Decatur, Ga.: Can you say more about the similarities between Vazirani and Sylvia Plath? In my mind Plath, too, had sacrificed for an older man and perhaps was seen as a "lesser light" in literary circles, her work taking second place to a literary lion. Does Vazirani's work have resonance now to take a place in the literary canon? Will she perhaps serve as a Plath-like figure -- with all the associations and meanings that entails -- for the South Asian community and all immigrants seeking a home?

Paula Span: Any woman poet who commits suicide invites these comparisons. What she and Plath had in common was that revered and established male poet/still-rising woman poet dynamic. But unlike Plath, Vazirani was not married to the better-known man she had a relationship with. Unlike Plath, she had never been hospitalized for her illness or written much about it (I'm making the assumption here that she had a mental illness). And of course, Plath did not "take her children with her."

It's hard to say whether her literary reputation will ascend in the same way. Her next book may contribute to the way she's viewed, in the way that "Ariel" did for Plath.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hello Paula. This is more of a comment to the previous question. Reetika was, I believe more afraid to lose custody of Jehan. As you say, she had sought help, I tried to help her to do so. The medications she took, in my opinion, at least one that we spoke of,was not taken long enough for an effect.

Paula Span: This is from one of Reetika's friends.

Yes, among the many things I don't know is whether Reetika took her anti-depressants long enough, or at the proper dosage, to benefit from them. And if she disliked them, as she apparently did, whether she was willing to try some of the other drugs that might have been useful.

I think you're right about her fear of being separated from Jehan. And there was a custody suit involving another family member that might have influenced her thinking. Perhaps she thought that if she were hospitalized, she might lose her child.

I do know that during one conversation that spring with Meena Alexander, another Indian-American poet and a close friend, Alexander urged her to seek therapy and to temporarily let her mother or Yusef care for Jehan, to lessen the strain on her. But Reetika replied that she didn't want to be separated from Jehan. She felt better, she said, when they were together.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm curious why you decided to write this piece. It's compelling, sure -- but most tragedies are. Isn't there a point where we owe this family some privacy? I cannot imagine the pain they are going through -- not can I imagine how much that pain must be increased by having this whole dissected (again!) on the pages of your newspaper, six months after the fact.

Paula Span: I could see where her family would quite agree with you. I'm sure it was harrowing for them to read about this again. Yet their privacy had already been violated, and so many questions had been left unanswered, so much of Reetika's (and Jehan's) lives and accomplishments went unreported. One might also argue that we owed readers, and those who knew and loved her, a fuller account.

My personal feeling is that a primary role of journalists, in this globalizing but fractionalized world, is to try to explain us to one another. This was an act to which the most common response among readers -- many of whom tended to remember it months later -- was WHY? And though I can't fully explain it either, I can try to add to people's understanding. We are story-tellers, and not all stories have happy endings. But we can learn from them, nonetheless.

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Silver Spring, Md.: You had mentioned a second sister's death, but did not provide any details. Can you do so now?

Paula Span: No, the other Vazirani children survive.

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New York, N.Y.: Thanks for your in-depth piece and for paying close attention to the complexities of her racial identity. Her career was followed closely by many South Asian Americans, especially because many of us, like her, were born or raised here, and had African Americans and other people of color as role models. She really weathered the creative scene when there were few American authors of her ethnicity -- that stress of paving the way, and yet then seeing others fly past you in noteriety -- combined with her existing depression, is something many of us can identify with. Based on my experience, I feel that -- and I wonder if you agree -- is that artists of color are far less inclined than white artists to acknowledge or seek help for depression, and especially suspected manic depression. My other question is, why does this in-depth piece come out now, as opposed to last year?

Paula Span: First, it took us this long to put the story together. I attended Reetika's memorial service in late July, and while I wrote another Magazine story during the intervening months, I was working on it full- or part-time for nearly six months. I interviewed perhaps 30 or 40 people. And I also waited at several points, hoping that her family would speak to me. I was sorry that most declined.

I have seen no data on whether people of color are more reluctant to seek treatment for mental illness, but you may be right. (There may also be economic factors at work.) I am told that Indian culture is less open about recognizing, acknowledging and treating psychiatric illnesses. But remember that Reetika was *not* reluctant to get treatment. She had, in the past.

Her grappling with her racial and ethnic identity and its meaning was one of the most interesting parts of her, I agree. Like Vijay Prashad, she felt that for Indian-Americans to accede to the "model minority" status they are sometimes accorded encouraged racism.

And yes, she was very aware that other women writers of Indian descent, notably novelists Arundhati Roy and Jhumpa Lahiri, were getting a great deal of attention and a lot of money, too. She had written fiction herself and was thinking about returning to it.

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Silver Spring, Md.: While it is tempting to apply the Plath-Hughes "template," there are even more differences. And one is that Plath and Hughes began at the same time: she did not sacrifice herself for him. Quite the opposite: if you read her journals, which after all were only for herself, Plath is delighted for Hughes' successes. She only wanted to make it in her own right and actually Hughes wanted her to do so to. His particular failings in character don't need to be explored, too.

But I object completely if the Plath business goes on anymore. Reetika would have had a horror if so compared.

Paula Span: A lot of people object to the comparison. Others think it's interesting to discuss.

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McLean, Va.: It is difficult for Ms. Vazirani's life to not draw comparisons to Sylvia Plath or other female writers plagued by despair. Why is there a resistance to making these comparisons? Both were obviously gifted women, and it is a difficult world for female artists just as it was during Plath's time. It seems to me that female artists and women in general would want to memorialize these women, acknowledge their common despair, and strive to make society more accomodating to women's expression. I loved your article, and I know it could only be so long, but I wish you had included a bit on the gender and class issues that Reetika's story highlight. Obviously, I am very moved by this woman's story.

Paula Span: And here's a different opinion from the previous one.

I would have liked to explore some of those issues of gender, definitely. But the Magazine was already granting me more space than our cover stories are usually allotted.

I know that Reetika herself felt that being female, an immigrant, a poet of color influenced the reception her work got. She was concerned about being seen as a novelty, as someone who wrote "quaint" poems about the Old Country.

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Paula Span: Our hour is up but I would like to continue the discussion for a while, so I'll keep responding to the questions that you've submitted. Thanks for all your opinions.

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Norfolk, Va.: Thank you for the rich and detailed article you wrote, and for the inclusion of photographs which allow us more glimpses into the life of Reetika.

In its predisposition toward the discussion of depression and suicide in terms of how the communities around vulnerable individuals might be able to better predict and prevent their occurance, the article seems to gloss a little bit over the specific traumas suffered by immigrants and people of color. This was certainly THE overarching theme of Reetika's work, and so I am concerned when the article reports of Sunder Vazirani's suicide only that this apparently successful dentist and academic "had worked almost nonstop... [but that] Even so, he'd found it difficult to support a family of seven"; and that the family could "not explain what went wrong". I am also concerned when in certain sections of the article, Reetika's choice of theme is described as seemingly just a marketing tactic, something that was fashionable for a writer who was also a woman and a minority, to latch on to.

Paula Span: It was her overarching theme, indeed.

And I found it interesting that among the women who purposely killed their children, in the leading study by Oberman and Meyers, immigrant women were proportionately overrepresented. But Reetika was so unlike those women -- she was not in an arranged marriage, was not socially isolated, did not suffer from low socioeconomic status or education, had no language barrier -- that I didn't really see her situation as having much in common with theirs. On the other hand, perhaps the unacknowledged trauma of immigration played a part in both their stories and hers.

I think Reetika was genuinely fascinated and moved by the immigrant experience; she could not see herself as apart from it. But her sister had a different reaction, and thought perhaps Reetika was overdramatizing her background. Of course, artists are drawn to exactly what's difficult, painful, different.

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Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: A woman writes a 12-page detailed dissertation on how to respond to her death (i.e. funeral arrangements), and still her friends "didn't know?" Could the poetry community be a bit self-absorbed? I find it bizarre that she SAID she was suicidal, but no one acted to get her immediate help until it was too late.

Paula Span: Believe me, those people have already punished themselves more than you can. Her friends constantly ask themselves how they should have responded differently.

Two things made their efforts to help ultimately ineffectual, I think. One is that laypeople can't determine how sick a friend is, what her risks are, how to intervene. Most of us just don't know enough.

But more importantly, she had a way of appearing to recover, to right herself, to call back and say, '"I'm better now" or to give an amazing performance at a reading or a class. So even the people who knew she had harbored what psychologists call "suicidal ideation" thought she'd gotten past them.

I do hope that one consequence of the story will be that we all take such confidences seriously and do the only thing we really can, which is to steer a troubled person to a professional.

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Anonymous: Heartbreaking article, and wonderfully written. Thank you.

I found it interesting that Reetika's sister felt like she had embellished her feelings of "otherness" and ethnic isolation, for the sake of her poetry. I know this would be speculation on your part, but do you think that her choice of poetry as a creative outlet exacerbated Reetika's mental/emotional turmoil?

Paula Span: Some think that poetry -- art, generally -- is more likely to help a troubled person than to hurt them. It's a way to make something from one's pain.

One way that her choice may have harmed her, though, is that in her case it led to an itinerant life on the economic and academic margins. She needed health insurance (would she have taken advantage of it to get therapy again? maybe not, but maybe) and she didn't have it.

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Charlottesville, Va.: I appreciated the depth and sensitivity of this piece. Were you able to find and talk to Reetika Vazirani's first husband, John Jordan?

Paula Span: Yes, we had an email correspondence. And he came to her memorial, though he hadn't seen her in years.

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Ewing, N.J.: What is your connection to Reetika? Are you a former student? Former teacher? Fellow writer? What compelled you to write this particular story about her life and death?

Paula Span: No, I have no direct connection. I never met her, and I don't write poetry myself. Until undertaking the assignment, I hadn't read her work.

But just as I was ready for my next Magazine story, this was on the Post front page. The Magazine is the perfect venue for a long, complicated detailed story -- it provides space and time, two luxuries in journalism. The editors decided that if the story could be told, we at the Magazine were the ones to tell it.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Well, I'll try again. Yes, people are in pain. But you cannot imagine how much pain many of us, her friends and colleagues were and are in, if Reetika's accomplishments and so on were not shared. My primary motive for speaking out was to, like Meena Alexander, stop this story from becoming a "crazy woman poet" thing only. And in literary circles, some of them, that was definitely happening.

Susan Sears

Paula Span: Another comment from a friend of Reetika's, who objects to the notion that her friends were somehow oblivious. It's worth repeating: many people did try to intervene. Reetika waved them off, ducked, sometimes didn't respond.

And let's also note, again, that most people with mood disorders are not particularly creative, and most artists don't have mood disorders.

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Chestertown, Md.: What can you tell us about Yusef's background? Why the name change? What would you have asked him if he had granted you an interview?

Paula Span: He grew up in Louisiana, has written about the abusive relationship his mother and father had, and has also written about his experiences in Vietnam. When he returned, he got advanced degrees in creative writing, became an academic and a much-published poet. He took his name from a Carribean ancestor, he has said.

What would I have asked him? Everything.

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Anonymous: Paula,

Excellent article.

Reetika could have made a decent living in any other profession and still pursue poetry. I dont understand the mind of a poet but is it difficult for one to change careers or is being a poet a full time job?

Paula Span: People wish poetry were a full-time job, but that's very rare. Most poets, even those who are as close to household words as poets get (Rita Dove, for example, and Komunyakaa himself), have other jobs, often academic ones.

Like other artists, they would prefer not to have their art squeezed into a few hours a week so that they can earn a living. At least the academic schedule gives them summers off, and sometimes sabbaticals. If you are a poet or painter, you try your damndest to be a poet or painter, not a business executive who also writes poetry or a nurse who also paints.

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Washington, D.C. area: I feel Reetika was not measuring her success on her friendships, but measuring her success on society's response to her career efforts, and that was her weakness and ultimately her downfall into the abyss of despair.

Paula Span: But for a poet, she was getting good response.

Perhaps you mean that she was overinvested in her professional reputation and didn't give sufficient importance to her relationships? But I can't see that either; everyone who knew her said she was very connected to her friends. She was close to her mother, and saw her a few days before her death, and liked being back in the DC area where her son could know and spend time with his cousins. And of course, she was very connected to Jehan.

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New York, N.Y.: Paula,
While we can attribute any number of compelling reasons for Reetika's actions but in your opinion what is the single most important factor that drove her to end her life?

Paula Span: I'm not a mental health professional, but I don't think I'll get much argument on this: the most important factor was a mental illness for which she was no longer getting treatment. And that's the case for most suicides.

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Paula Span: Thanks for your interest, everyone. I'm going to sign off now, but if you'd like to contact me and continue the discussion, please email me: spanp@comcast.net

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