A Thanatology Perspective on the Virgin Suicides

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“The Virgin Suicides” is a 1999 film based on the best-selling debut novel written by Jeffery Eugenides in 1993. The story revolves around the lives of five beautiful Lisbon sisters: Cecilia, Lux, Bonnie, Therese, and Mary. The sisters live in a suburban Michigan home with their overprotective and extremely religious parents. The story of the tragic suicides of the Lisbon sisters is told by the neighborhood boys, 25 years later as they reflect on their memories, trying to make sense of the sisters’ death. Mrs. Lisbon’s religious teachings and overprotective acts are primarily what lead the Lisbon sisters to their demise. The sociological theories of suicide developed by Emile Durkheim can be applied to the suicides of the Lisbon sisters. The sociological theory of suicide states that suicide can be one of four types: egotistic suicide, altruistic suicide, anomic suicide, and fatalistic suicide. Egotistic suicide occurs when an individual does not feel well integrated into society and is left feeling isolated. Altruistic suicide occurs when an individual is too integrated into society and has an excessive concern for society. Anomic suicide occurs when the individual has a low degree of social integration and is experiencing times of great stress or change. Fatalistic suicide involves excessive social regulations that restrict individualization and occur when an individual is feeling controlled by the values and norms of society (Smith, 2019, slide 30 - 33). Another theory of suicide that can be considered while watching this film is Thomas Joiner’s interpersonal theory of suicide which states that while the desire for suicide is necessary to complete the act, it alone will not result in death by suicide. Along with these theoretical concepts, many different risk factors were outlined in the film such as exposure to suicide, losing a family member to suicide, low parental and community support, access to lethal means, and cigarette smoking.

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Firstly, while watching the film, one might notice that the Lisbon household is extremely religious. In multiple scenes, Mrs. Lisbon is seen disciplining her daughters. In Christianity, suicide is seen as a sin and is equated with other sins resulting in taking life such as murder and abortion (Alonzo and Gearing, 2018, p.58). Since suicide is seen as a sin in the Christian faith, it was believed that anyone who died by suicide should not be buried with honors or a ceremony (Alonzo and Gearing, 2018, p.58). Since the Lisbon family is extremely religious, Mrs. Lisbon seems to be worried about how people might perceive the death of her first suicided daughter, Cecilia. After the suicide of Cecelia, the city priest, Father Moody, visits the Lisbon household to share his support and offer his condolences. The first thing Father Moody says to Mrs. Lisbon is, “I wanted you to know that I listed Cecelia’s death as an accident” to which Mrs. Lisbon responds, “thank you” (The Virgin Suicides, 0:22:50). Later in the film, Lydia Perl, a news reporter knocks on the door of the Lisbon household and the two sisters, Bonnie and Mary, open the door. Lydia proceeds by introducing herself, wondering if she could ask the girls a few questions about Cecelia. The girls are open to answering questions about Cecelia’s suicide but are immediately interrupted by Mrs. Lisbon who quickly tells Lydia to leave, closing the door (The Virgin Suicides, 0:27:10).

These two scenes can be portrayed as Mrs. Lisbon trying to avoid “shame and stigma”, since suicide is viewed as a major sin in many religions, including Christianity. The concept of a sane individual dying by suicide seemed unusual to society in the 1970s. After the suicide of Cecelia, one of the neighborhood boys’ mothers was dropping him off at school when she noticed the four remaining Lisbon girls and said, “the rest of the girls have a bright future ahead of them. The other one was just going to end up a kook” (The Virgin Suicides, 0:31:42). Later in the film, the neighborhood boys were trying to make sense of Cecilia's death and ended up describing her as “out of touch with reality”, which is what lead her to suicide (The Virgin Suicides, 0:24:35).

Secondly, when considering suicide theory, one can deem the death of the Lisbon sisters as egotistic suicide. The reason that the Lisbon sisters’ suicides would be considered egotistic is that the Lisbon siblings seemed to have little social integration, not feeling part of society or the community around them due to their overprotective mother. The community around them also felt as though the Lisbon sisters were not a part of their lifestyle since they were always isolated in their houses. The lack of social integration the siblings had is present in multiple scenes throughout the film. For example, when Lux broke her curfew the night of the homecoming dance, Mrs. Lisbon punished her daughters by taking them out of school and confined them to the house (The Virgin Suicides, 1:06:40). This caused the girls to feel isolated and evidently led to an increased risk of suicide.

Thirdly, throughout the film, the Lisbon sisters presented many different risk factors. In the film, Lux is seen smoking multiple times (The Virgin Suicides, 1:21:21). She was not seen constantly smoking so it was obvious that she did not have a smoking addiction but rather used smoking as a coping mechanism. Lux also experienced relationship problems such as being abandoned by Trip the night of the homecoming dance after he used her for sex. She also shares risk factors with her sisters Bonnie, Mary, and Therese. All four sisters were exposed to suicide, lost a family member to suicide, had low parental and community support, and had access to lethal means.

It is important to consider the setting in which this film took place, the 1970s. Unfortunately during the 1970s, mental health was not of much concern even though suicide was relatively common. In the 1970s the suicide rate was around 8.8 per 100,000 people, compared to today's rate which is around 10 per 100,000 people. One might assume that since the suicide rate in the 1970s was fairly close to the suicide rate today, they would have had proper prevention, intervention, and postvention strategies. Unfortunately, the 1970s was lacking in all three of these aspects. A lack of prevention was present in the 1970s because, in the film, there was so much stigma around the topic of mental health and suicide. People who seemed to portray symptoms of depression or poor mental health were seen as abnormal or as the neighborhood boys may say, “out of touch with reality” (The Virgin Suicides, 0:24:35).

A lack of intervention was seen at the beginning of the film when Cecelia was receiving therapy. Cecelia’s therapy consisted of her therapist conducting the Rorschach test, informing her parents that he does not think Cecelia truly wanted to end her life and that her suicide attempt was merely a cry for help. He suggested that the Lisbons throw Cecelia a party to help her “have a social outlet outside the condition of the school, where she could interact with males her own age” (The Virgin Suicides 00:07:20).

Unfortunately, even after Cecelia’s suicide, society in the 1970s still lacked postvention strategies. The girls were not sent to talk to a psychologist about how they may be feeling after the loss of their sister. Father Moody offered his condolences and informed them that he was there if they ever want to talk. Unfortunately, due to the stigma and Mrs. Lisbon's fear of shame, it is obvious that the girls would not reach out for help. Society in the 1970s was so immune to the effects of suicide on individuals and their society, that even after the Lisbon sisters died by suicide, it was as if nothing had happened. In the film, the neighborhood boys describe how hard coping with the loss of the Lisbon sisters was, and they say, “our parents seemed better able to do this, returning to their tennis foursomes and cocktail cruises, as though they’d seen this all before” (The Virgin Suicides 1:27:40). This quotation displays the problem with mental health awareness in the 1970s because the less prevention, intervention, and postvention a society has, the more stigma will surround mental health.

There are many ideas and concepts presented in “The Virgin Suicides” that are particularly useful for professionals to learn more about such as, the concepts of religion and isolation. Often religion has saved individuals from suicide because it can provide a sense of “spiritual connectedness” or help individuals find meaning in life (Alonzo and Gearing, 2018, p.56). Coincidentally in “The Virgin Suicides” religion turns into a problematic issue for the Lisbon sisters due to their mother's excessive religious practices. Statistics show that the lowest suicide rates among individuals who believe in the Christian faith are those in the Catholic and evangelical baptist sects (Alonzo and Gearing, 2018, p.58). Understanding how suicide is viewed in different religions is an important element needed to assist those affected by suicide because, by understanding, professionals will be able to empathize and understand more of what the individual is experiencing. Understanding the concept of isolation is also important for professionals to understand more fully because isolation is evidently what led the Lisbon sisters to their death. Being isolated from society and confined to their house-made the sisters feel like their only escape and chance at eternal freedom is death. Social isolation has been demonstrated to be a risk for suicide so understanding this concept is important when assisting those affected by suicide (Alonzo and Gearing, 2018, p.141).

Another interesting theory that would inform professionals in the future is Durkheim’s sociological theory of suicide. Evaluating and studying his theories in more depth will help practicing individuals on how to assist those affected by suicide. In the film, the sisters are victims of egotistic suicide, meaning that their suicide was a result of little social integration, lack of moral support, and isolation. Although Durkheim’s theory is viewed as being incomplete, almost all suicides can be classified under at least one of his theories of suicide. Thomas Joiner’s interpersonal theory of suicide is also important because it can help practitioners understand that while the desire for suicide is necessary, it alone will not result in death by suicide (Smith, 2019, slide 39).

After watching “The Virgin Suicides” I felt very heartfelt and empathetic, but it also made me realize that little has changed. While watching the film I constantly compared society in the 1970s to society today. It angered me that although suicide was not rare, their society seemed to lack in all aspects of suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention. They seemed to not take mental health seriously and the concept of someone being depressed and wanting to die was so absurd and they simply labeled suicide attempts as “a cry for help”. Watching this film really made me think about how different the suicide rates in the 1970s would have been if society back then took mental health concerns seriously. Watching the film also made me consider the progress society has made with mental health awareness. Although we still have a long way to go with mental health awareness and suicide interventions, in today’s society individuals are encouraged to speak up about mental health and reach out. We have a lot of different prevention, intervention, and postvention services at our disposal, but I believe the only reason our suicide rate is still high is the same as it was in the 1970s; the stigma. Unfortunately, there is still a tremendous amount of stigma built around the whole topic of mental health and I believe that is the main reason that we lose around 800,000 individuals to suicide per year.

Throughout high school, I struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts, but I was always scared of death and dying. This film did not really change my perspective on death but rather broadened my understanding of it. It helped me understand that for some individuals, although suicide may be a sin in their religion, they see it as the only way to escape from unhappiness. Before watching the film, I always assumed that everyone was afraid of death and that everyone would be hesitant before completing suicide. After watching this film I really understood the reality of suicide and death and it changed my perspective because I now understand that not everyone is afraid of death.

In conclusion, the film “The Virgin Suicides” is a film that tells the story of five sisters who die by suicide due to little social integration and their mother isolating them from society. Mrs. Lisbon’s religious teachings and overprotective acts are primarily what lead the Lisbon sisters to their demise. The film can be particularly informative for professionals because of the theoretical concepts and ideas presented. In the film, the concept of Emile Durkhiems's egotistic theory of suicide and Thomas Joiner’s interpersonal theory of suicide are both prevalent in the suicides of the Lisbon sisters. Many risk factors were also presented in the film such as social isolation, exposure to suicide, cigarette smoking, and many more. It is clear that although suicide was not rare in the 1970s, it, unfortunately, lacked in all aspects of suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention.  

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