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I had an adjunct teaching job for a year in the English department of a research university in the midwest, one you know from the name of its mascot and its stadium. Every afternoon I would walk Virgil around a lake about ten minutes’ drive from campus, and I made some casual friends among the dog people there. They were typical midwesterners, generously offering to have a brother-in-law look at your car trouble for free and using communist as a derogatory term.

Past the gravel parking lot was a meadow that we would linger in and watch the dogs sniff and play on our way to the trail around the lake. One day in the spring a woman we knew walked up to our little group and said, “An English professor just threw himself off the roof of the parking garage.” My immediate thought when I heard her was, Which one? Many possibilities from the department came quickly to mind.

The conversation in little groups around the university all that week was curiosity: Why did he do it? What drove him? Why that way? The tone of the conversations was slightly giddy. People felt better about themselves when they realized that their unspoken despair was tiny compared to the suicide’s. They pretended to be horrified, but they were thrilled. It gave them a perspective that was redemptive.

All writing is a suicide note, according to Amis. This journal may document the kinds of things that people wanted to know when they found out about that death: the nature and shape of the struggle that leads to suicide. But in those conversations about suicide we also recognized that the slightest gesture of human warmth can be a soft velvet rope blocking the doorway that leads up to the roof. You might still linger at the doorway a moment, but it can turn you away.

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