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As I see it: The pain of others is no cure for our own ills

By Terence Blacker

It seems that barely a week goes by without the media offering up a little invigorating shot of someone else's personal pain, just to make us feel more alive. Last weekend provided an example.

A matter of weeks after her son, Jack Landesman, hanged himself at the age of 29, Julie Burchill wrote about his desperately sad life and death in The Sunday Times. It was a brilliant, gut-wrenching piece - dry-eyed yet impassioned, defiantly frank and unsentimental.

As fearless as ever, she recounted moments of family joy and humour during her son's childhood, but most of the story was about the ghastly effects that depression, drugs and self-loathing had on him during his 20s.

She didn't miss the boy that Jack became, Burchill concluded. She closed the piece imagining Jack's reaction to it. "Did you have to show off so much when I died? Those prayers? That Facebook stuff? That Sunday Times Magazine piece? Cringe!"

I can't help wondering whether Jack Landesman, in the reaction imagined by his mother, was on to something. There was an element of showing off here, as there is in all writing.

The account of the dead boy - the version that will be the lasting portrait of him - was written at a time when all sorts of unprocessed feelings are seething below the surface. It may be rawer, more sensational, and almost certainly more compelling than a fairer, calmer version written later, but perhaps that is not quite justification enough.

Feeling another's pain does not, as is claimed, make us nicer or kinder people. We want to know and feel more, and we add to the anguish. There is a thin line between sympathy and voyeurism.

It used to be said that we have a problem with death, treating it with embarrassment, or even shame.

We are now accelerating in the other direction, turning extremes of life and death into part of the entertainment culture.

Misery, as Burchill wrote, loves company. She also, many years ago, argued in a comment piece that the suicides of young men should be private tragedies - not public concerns - and she was right.

There is sometimes, unfashionably, a case for reticence, not only for the sake of those who are suffering, but also for those of us on the outside, the avid, unscrupulous consumers.

These stories do not always need to be told. They are reduced in words.

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