In 2004, filmmaker Eric Steel spent an entire year filming San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. His intention was to capture images of people killing themselves.
Steel’s quest was, predictably, quite successful: the bridge has been the site of at least 1,300 suicides since it opened in 1937 — an average rate of about one every two weeks. (The real number is probably quite a bit higher, as the bodies of people who jump off unobserved — as is almost always the case with night suicides — are often never found).
Steel made a documentary, "The Bridge," which includes interviews with friends and family members of some of the people whose deaths his cameras documented. The film also features many striking images of the bridge itself, that hint at why it has become the world’s most popular suicide spot.
Something Steel’s film doesn’t touch on is the long-running debate about what, if anything, should be done to make it more difficult for people to jump. The bridge’s walkway still features its original four-foot high guardrail: people can simply hop over it, and hurl themselves into the bay more than 200 feet below. (Steel’s footage includes the sight of people spending minutes and even hours on the walkway, before finally finding the nerve to plunge over the side).
About one in 50 jumpers survives the attempt. Steel interviews one of them: a young man subject to episodes of clinical depression, who reveals that as soon as he jumped he instantly regretted his decision. (Tad Friend, in the 2003 New Yorker article that inspired Steel’s project, reveals that survivors often report a similar sensation.)
This is consistent with studies that find that suicide attempts are often impulsive acts, and that people who can be, as it were, talked down from the ledge, rarely go on to kill themselves later. (A 1978 study of people who were stopped from jumping off the bridge found that, decades later, almost all of them were still alive or had died of natural causes.)
What makes the Golden Gate Bridge such a dangerous spot is that it provides literally no barriers to suicidal impulses. The bridge also has, as Friend puts it, a "fatal grandeur" to it that attracts emotionally distraught people, who seek out what they conceive of as a beautiful and even romantic death.
That grandeur also helps explain the long-running resistance to doing anything that would make the bridge a less magnetic spot for the suicidal. The bottom line seems to be that many San Francisco Bay-area residents believe it’s not worth impairing the beauty of the bridge merely to keep people from killing themselves.
The issue has taken on new urgency, as over the next few weeks officials will consider several plans to make the bridge less suicide-friendly.
The relative public indifference toward the fact that the bridge’s design has enabled hundreds of suicides that otherwise wouldn’t have happened is consistent with our tendency to treat suicidal people with fear and contempt.
We no longer bury suicides at the crossroads with a stake driven through their hearts, but it says a great deal about our attitude toward the subject that so many seem to prefer preserving the pristine aesthetics of the Golden Gate Bridge to saving the lives of the people who jump off it.
Friend’s article ends with the following story: A doctor who over the years has tried unsuccessfully to get a suicide barrier built on the bridge visited the apartment of a man who had just jumped off it. He found a note on the bureau.
It read: "I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump."
(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)