In November 1978 in Raleigh, N.C., a friend of mine -- 28, intelligent, pretty, generous -- aimed a handgun at her heart and pulled the trigger.
She did not die. Against all odds, she recovered. She spent 10 days in an intensive care until followed by 11 days in a hospital.
Since her attempted suicide, I have talked by phone with my friend numerous times. We had met at The Washington Post where she worked from 1975 till the spring of 1978.
Recently I asked her if I might tell her story for publication. In our exchange, she sounded settled and happy. She was free-lance writing, volunteering in prison work and involved in her family business. She would be glad to talk, she said, if "my story can be used in some way to help others." There would be one condition, she insisted: anonymity.
A few days later, a long handwritten letter came. It began:
"When we are confined to the narrow and constricted world of ourselves, as I was, we become trapped by our own vision and perspective. That is why I speak of my suicide attempt as being brought to the end of myself -- so that I could see what was beyond. Thus, there was never for me a "self-destructive phase" . . . but rather a single overt act that gave expression to something far deeper. Attempting suicide was merely the means by which I vented my pain. Another might choose drug abuse, or become depressed, or turn to alcohol. In each case, one is simply exposing and giving expression to one's internal condition. What is within us will always come out in one way or another."
What was within? "Certainly, what happened was an external breaking point of sorts, brought about in part by the successive crises in my own family and the resultant stress and pressure. But my deeper brokenness was before God and in the alienated condition of my heart before him.And only when I was willing to become reconciled and rightly related -- on God's terms and not my own -- it was then that my life changed and my healing began."
I was surprised by this part of the letter. Little of the literature on suicide is devoted to spiritual conversions among survivors. One who wrote about them, though, was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who was imprisoned and executed by the Nazis shortly before the end of World War II. In "Ethics," Boenhoeffer has a short section on suicide. It has a startling similarity to my friend's words: "It is a remarkable fact that the Bible nowhere expressly forbids suicide, but that suicide appears there very always as the consequences of extremely grave sin. . . . The reason for this is not that the Bible sanctions suicide, but that, instead of prohibiting it, it desires to call the despairing to repentence and to mercy. A man who is on the brink of suicide no longer has ears for commands or prohibitions; all he can hear now is God's merciful summons to faith, to deliverance and to conversion."
Bonhoeffer speaks the language of those who have reached a sophisticated level of spirituality where pain and grace have been absorbed. Reaching that level, my firend wrote, is "slow and halting" and "done at considerable cost to oneself and [is] nowhere near accomplished. But a far greater price was paid by God for my own life which, in a physical sense, has literally been given to me a second time."
One further surprise was in the letter. She had changed her mind about anonymity. Deborah Wolfe wanted her name used. It "is not mine to withhold. . . . If I'm honest, I do not have the option of anonymity here. I must be willing to put my name, which is to say my life, behind what I say."
Deborah Wolfe is Deborah Wolfe.