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Truk Suicide Epidemic and Social Change

By Francis X. Hezel, SJ

Suicide

Introduction

One evening a nine-year old boy who had been watching television in a neighbor's house returned home only long enough to fetch a rope with which to hang himself. The boy, whose body was found two days later, was reportedly afraid that his father would spank him for remaining out so late. A week before his death, an 18-year old who had drifted from house to house for several months, hanged himself when one of his older relatives insulted him. Not long before this, a girl of 15 who had been refused permission to use her older sister's video recorder died of a self-administered overdose of medicine. Within the same month, a 24-year old from another place took his own life after he was refused credit in the family store. In all there were four suicides within a month in Truk, an island group with a population of about 40,000 that is located in the geographical center of the Federated States of Micronesia, one of the Pacific's newest nations.

In recent years Truk has shed some of its paradisal image as it has taken on the dubious distinction of being the suicide capital of the Pacific. Despite its well-publicized suicide epidemic in the past decade, this appelation is not entirely deserved, for Western Samoa's suicide rate during the late 1970s was even higher and other island groups in Micronesia show rates that equal Truk's (Table 1). Truk, however, was the first island group to attract public attention following a sharp increase in the number of deaths in 1975 and the discovery that suicide had become the leading cause of death among young males in the 15-30 age cohort (Hezel 1976 & 1977). Truk soon became the locus of intensive research into this startling new phenomenon. Donald Rubinstein, a social anthropologist affiliated with the East-West Center in Hawaii, conducted an epidemiological survey in 1979- 1981 and has just concluded a three-year NIMH-funded ethnographic study of a single Trukese community to isolate factors leading to suicide. Meanwhile, the Micronesian Seminar, a pastoral-research institute sponsored by the Catholic Diocese of the Caroline- Marshall Islands, has continuously collected data and conducted several conferences on the problem. Police reports, hospital records, death certificates and other public records were consulted, but the main source of information was interviews with the families and acquaintances of victims. The average case file contains three or four different interviews, usually conducted with different individuals and at different times as a check on the reliability of our information. This article draws on these case records and the ethnographic work of Rubinstein, as well as considerable input from Trukese offered at a half dozen formal workshops and countless informal discussions on the problem. Representing as it does the culmination of nine years of study, this article attempts to go beyond our previous work on the characteristics and cultural meaning of suicide in Truk (Rubinstein 1983; Hezel 1984). While briefly reviewing this earlier work, the present article will try to explain the reasons for the recent enormous increase in Trukese suicide in terms of the socio-cultural changes that have occurred of late.


Table 1: Micronesian Suicide Rates (per 100,000)

  1966-69 1970-73 1974-77 1978-81 1982-85
Marshalls 7.5 15.6 16.7 27.6 13.9
Ponape 1.6 5.4 26.0 16.9 8.0
Truk 6.7 14.2 30.3 42 25.0
Palau 13.0 11.8 24.2 31.0 36.0
Yap proper 5.9 40.0 34.3 63.7 51.9

General Characteristics of Trukese Suicide

In the past 16 years, between 1970 and 1985 inclusive, Truk has had a total of 173 suicides, for an average of 11 per year (Table 2). Over the last few years this works out to a rate of 33 per 100,000, three times the rate in the US and comparable to the highest rates recorded anywhere in the Western world. Since 1979 the incidence of suicide in Truk has reached an even higher plateau, with an average of 15 suicides per year. These figures are all the more striking when contrasted with the 12 suicides that were recorded for all the 1960s, the decade that immediately preceded the onset of the suicide epidemic. Even allowing for the possibility of an undercount for this earlier period, we are confronted with an enormous escalation in the incidence of suicide in Truk. While Trukese often maintain that suicide is an age-old phenomenon that is endemic to their islands, it is equally clear that it has reached epidemic proportions only within the last two decades.


Table 2: Trukese Suicides by Year and Sex

Year Male Female Total Year Male Female Total
1970 2 0 2 1978 8 1 9
1971 4 0 4 1979 16 2 18
1972 5 1 6 1980 17 1 18
1973 5 0 5 1981 15 3 18
1974 10 0 10 1982 12 1 13
1975 14 0 14 1983 12 1 13
1976 7 0 7 1984 15 0 15
1977 10 0 10 1985 10 1 11
        TOTAL 162 11 173

Since Trukese suicides are tightly patterned, it is relatively easy to summarize their general characteristics. Over 90% of the victims are males, as is indicated in Table 3, and most of the them are very young. The median age is 19, with slightly more than 50% of the victims falling in the 15-25 age bracket. The rate for males of this age cohort is a shocking 200 per 100,000, about ten times the rate of American males of the same age even though the steep rise in the latter in recent years has touched off alarms throughout the US. By far the most common method of suicide is hanging, often accomplished by leaning into a rope with feet touching the ground until the victim slips into unconsciousness and dies of anoxia. There are a few cases of ingestion of a toxic substance, a method seemingly preferred by women in Truk as in the US, and even fewer cases of death by firearms or jumping from a height. About half of the victims had been drinking heavily before their death, although of late there is an increasingly high incidence of marijuana use prior to the suicide.


Table 3: Trukese suicides by age cohort and sex

Age Male Female Total % of Total
6-9 1 0 1 0.6%
10-14 12 0 12 7.0%
15-19 52 6 58 34.0%
20-24 50 1 51 29.0%
25-29 20 0 20 12.0%
30-34 7 2 9 5.0%
35-39 2 0 2 1.0%
40-44 3 1 4 2.3%
45-49 2 0 2 1.0%
50-54 3 0 3 1.7%
55-59 0 0 0 0.0%
60+ 10 1 11 6.4%
TOTAL 162 11 173 100.0%

At first sight, Trukese suicides would seem to be precipitated by a trivial disagreement or quarrel with other family members. One 16-year old boy hanged himself when his parents refused to buy him a new shirt for Christmas; another boy took his life after he accidentally hit his uncle on the head with a rock and was told that he would be beaten for his act; still another young man hanged himself in anger at a scolding that he received from his older brother for singing too loudly in the house. Several young men have taken their own lives when their parents have refused to approve their choice of marriage partners, but at least as many have committed suicide when denied a much smaller request by their parents: a dollar or two, a new pair of trousers, a share of the cooked rice in the house. The suicides are almost always triggered by some conflict, actual or anticipated, between the victim and a parent, an older relative (including an older sibling), or occasionally a spouse. It is noteworthy that Trukese suicides are invariably brought on by what is perceived as a disruption in a significant interpersonal relationship, generally with a family member or members holding authority over the victim. For a Trukese to take his own life because of a failure in business or school, loss of a job or social position, or some other blow to his sense of achievement is unheard of. This is not surprising, of course, because satisfactory interpersonal relationships, especially within the family, stands at the head of the Trukese value hierarchy.

What appears at first to be a single trivial unpleasant incident is often in fact only the final manifestation of longstanding family tension and conflict, as our research showed in case after case. Many of the victims had experienced stormy relations with their family for months or even years. A 20-year old boy who committed suicide immediately after being scolded by his parents had actually been chafing for months at their persistent refusal to allow him to keep any of the money that he received from the artifacts that he carved and sold. An 18-year old girl took a fatal overdose of medicine after being scolded by her older sister, but she had also been hurt by the separation of her parents and the remarriage of her mother some years before. Another young man took his own life, seemingly out of apprehension that his older brother would scold or beat him for breaking his tape recorder, but the young man had reason to suspect that his brother had just found out that he had been carrying on an affair with his wife for several months.

This is not to deny the real air of whimsy that so often surrounds Trukese suicide, however. A number of very young boys, including the nine-year old mentioned at the beginning of this article, have taken their lives in a moment of panic despite a history of good relations between them and their parents. There has been strong evidence of impulsivity in many of the other cases also, particularly when a young man runs off into the night inebriated and in tears following some minor tiff in the family. There are other victims who are known to have idly mused with their friends over whether or not to commit suicide and who speculated on how many would attend their funerals and how deep would be the grief of their family and friends. At least two of the victims are known to have entered into a suicide pact months before each took his own life. Moreover, there is the suicide clustering, both geographical and chronological, that suggests the influence that one victims has on another. In one particularly striking case of clustering, two suicides and another attempt occurred in a single village within a five-day period. On Fefan, an island that hitherto had a very low rate of suicide, a spate of 14 suicides occurred during the 30 months between April 1982 and the end of 1985 (Hezel 1985a:119).

Even if not always a reasoned response to what is seen as an intolerable situation, Trukese suicide nonetheless has a clear internal logic that is recognized by Trukese themselves. However whimsical it may appear, the act of self-destruction is a culturally embedded response to very specific situations, almost always involving a confrontation with certain key persons in the family. The only notable exceptions are those handful of cases in which the victim is afflicted with a serious form of mental illness. Whereas suicides in the US are ordinarily explained in terms of the victim's depression and his despair at finding himself in an impasse, Trukese are commonly assumed to have taken their life out of anger, or less frequently out of shame or fear. The act of suicide is understood as just one of a variety of strategies, although surely the most extreme, that are commonly employed to display negative feelings towards individuals to whom one is bound by feelings of both love and respect. This will be clearer after we have examined the major patterns of suicide in Truk.

Patterns of Trukese Suicide

The first and predominant pattern, anger suicides, is found in 120 cases, or 81% of all suicides in which there is adequate information to judge the motivation of the victim (Table 4). The victim, usually a young Trukese male, hangs himself after he is scolded, refused a request, or otherwise rebuffed by parents or an older sibling (Hezel 1984). So common is this pattern that Trukese, upon hearing of a recent suicide, will invariably ask what the victim was angry at. The introverted display of anger, far from being pathological, is an ordinary enough feature in a culture that prohibits the venting of strong negative feelings towards parents and older kin. Since the Trukese, bound as he is by the strong respect code of his society, can not manifest directly his anger at family members who are his superior in age and status, he acts out this anger upon himself. Suicide is not the only way of doing this; a young man may wound himself or refuse to eat in order to convey the same message. It might be noted that those cases (10 in all) in which the victim commits suicide because of anger at a spouse are more difficult to explain in these terms, for direct and sometimes violent displays of anger at wives are commonplace and expected occurrences in Truk. Nonetheless, there are relatively rare occasions on which a Trukese has employed an introverted method of displaying anger towards a spouse or a younger brother or other social inferior rather than the culturally sanctioned more direct means of expressing his feelings.


Table 4: Trukese Suicides by Type and Sex

  Male Female Total % of all cases 
with known causes
AngerSuicides 110 10 120 81%
Shame/fearsuicides 19 0 19 13%
Psychoticsuicides 9 1 10 7%
Undetermined 24 0 24  
TOTAL 162 11 173  

In the psychodynamics of this type of suicide, the victim experiences the rebuff or refusal of a request, especially if it comes in the wake of long-standing uneasy relations within the family, as a rejection by his family. He may, for instance, have felt for a long time that his parents preferred one of his siblings to himself, and a scolding from them for some minor infraction only confirmed this suspicion of his. His emotional response is seldom blind rage: it is usually a milder and more plaintive form of anger tinged with melancholy and self-pity, sometimes accompanied by tears of frustration. His suicide, therefore, must be seen not so much a vindictive and defiant gesture towards his family as a plea for understanding and restoration to a place of favor in the bosom of the family, even after his death.

The second pattern of suicides, one that appears in 19 out of149 cases, is in one respect the obverse side of the first (Table 4). In this pattern the victim, again typically a young man, takes his own life not because he has been offended by someone in his family, but because of the shame or fear that he feels at having done something to offend them. He may have struck or insulted an uncle during a drinking spree, or he may have become aware that a misdeed of his had just come to public notice and would inevitably bring shame on his family. Perhaps the clearest example of this are the suicides that follow close on the heels of the discovery of an incestuous relationship in which the victim has been involved. One young man hanged himself shortly after learning that his sweetheart, a woman who would be classified as his sister, had become pregnant; another took his life soon after finding out that he had been seen while engaged in love-making with a close relative of his own household. It is important to note that the issue here is not the public shame itself that accrues to an individual when he is arrested or implicated in a scandal. Trukese can be subjected to great personal shame in the classroom or their workplace or even in public meetings without ever considering suicide. It is not the disapproval of the community as such that drives the Trukese to suicide, but the recognition that he has brought disgrace on his family by what he has done and the fear that this will disrupt the normal relationship that he enjoys with the rest of his family.

The third pattern of suicide, a much smaller and residual category, is comprised of those cases in which the victim has been seriously mentally disturbed, often suffering from schizophrenia. Most of this handful of victims have undergone treatment for psychosis at some time in their life. Although these suicides can and are attributed by others in the community to the victim's mental condition, it is worthy of mention that many of these psychotics perceived the deterioration of their own relationship with other family members prior to their death. In at least one case, that of an articulate young man who kept a diary until within weeks of his death, it is clear that his troubles with his family were the most trying aspect of the paranoid schizophrenic episodes that he was undergoing.

There is a common strand running through the first two patterns that requires some elucidation. When faced with a conflict-laden situation, especially within the close circles of kin, Trukese will frequently resort to a strategy of withdrawal rather than confrontational tactics. This coping mechanism, which is in keeping with similar tendencies throughout Micronesia and Polynesia, is sometimes referred to as amwunumwun by Trukese. Amwunumwun means to distance oneself from others as a way of giving vent to strong feelings, whether anger or shame, when it is culturally inappropriate to display these feelings more directly. Embracing an arsenal of more specific behaviors that range from refusing to speak or eat to taking one's own life, amwunumwun represents a way of manifesting anger or other negative emotions through some form of self-debasement (Rubinstein 1984; Hezel 1984). The act of amwunumwun is intended not principally to inflict revenge, although there is sometimes an element of this motivation in the act, but to dramatize one's sorrows, frustration and shame in the hope that the present unhappy situation will somehow be remedied. When the suicide victim performs his act of amwunumwun, therefore, it is at least partially in the hope that the sad state into which his relationship with his family has fallen might be restored to what it once was or should have been, even if this occurs on the other side of the grave.

Contributing Cultural Factors

Young males in Truk, as we have seen, are at particularly high risk for suicide. If present rates continue, Rubinstein (1985:92) points out, one out of every 40 Trukese males will die by his own hand between their 15th and 25th birthdays. It is no coincidence that this same sex-age group shows the highest incidence of alcohol-related problems, arrests and imprisonment, and even incidence of serious mental illness (Hezel 1985b). In an age-ranked society such as Truk, the young are especially vulnerable, perhaps even more so than the aged are in a society like the US that idolizes youth. In Truk the young have not yet achieved a status of respect in the community and will not do so until, often well into their 30s, they have begun to raise a family and demonstrate the competence and stability that are so prized in the culture.

The lack of security of Trukese males relative to females has been noted more than once by anthropologists writing about the culture as far back as the 1940s (Gladwin 1953; Swartz 1958; Goodenough 1949). Male insecurity, therefore, is not attributable only to the disruptive effects of recent changes on the culture, although these may have made the position of men even more stressful. One explanation of this is that in a matrilineal and largely matrilocal society young men experience repeated dislocation in contrast with women, who enjoy greater stability in their lives, even if at the price far more restriction as to occupation, dress and other features of life. The male customarily left his house at puberty in compliance with incest taboos against sleeping in the same house with his sisters. He often had no residence throughout his adolescence, and at marriage he usually moved to his wife's lineage estate to work for her family, even while retaining obligations to his own lineage. The Trukese male, then, seems to have always been in a somewhat more precarious position than the female, especially during his younger years.

There are good reasons, therefore, why young males should prove to be more vulnerable to suicide than other groups in Trukese society. In addition, there are certain features of the socio-cultural environment that probably contribute further to the frequency of suicide among young men today. Let us review these briefly before going on to seek an explanation for the dramatic increase of suicide rates in the most recent generation.

The first of these features is the machismo attitude that is characteristic of Trukese men. This is particularly evident in the indifference to personal danger and death that young men cultivate and are expected to display by accepting high-risk situations and even searching them out (Marshall 1979:56ff). This trait is illustrated most often in drinking behavior and fighting, but it also explains the casual way in which teenagers speak of taking their own lives and their seeming lack of concern over the finality of death. This sense of bravado underlies the readiness of youth to undertake exploits that others would regard as foolhardy. Some years ago, for instance, it became something of a fad in Truk to jump off a boat while drunk and swim to a distant island. Such instances are not so much the acting out of a death wish or a masked suicide as they are manifestations of that carefully cultivated disdain for death that permits young men to view the act of self-distruction as inconsequential.

Another cultural feature that may predispose the young Trukese to suicide is the fascination with suffering as a proof of love (Bell 1985). The tendency of the young Trukese male to advertise his sufferings is most clearly exhibited in the graffiti that cover public walls and T-shirts: there the woes of the individual are set forth in fanciful language for the whole world to see. Especially prominent are the tales of unrequited love that have stung young hearts, complaints that are phrased with a strong tone of self-abasement. A common theme among youth, one that appears again and again in the graffiti and is echoed in Trukese love songs, is that a person's love is proved by his readiness to suffer. In former years a young man inflicted cigarette burns or knife scars on himself to prove the depth of his love to a sweetheart (Swartz 1958:482; LeBar 1964:171). Although that particular custom seems to be passing, the strong association of suffering, frequently self-inflicted, with protestations of love remains as strong today as ever. From within this perspective a young man's suicide may take on the significance of both an atonement for the difficulties he has caused his family and of a gesture of total love for his family.

A third feature is the cultural constraint on the expression of feelings, especially negative feelings, that has been mentioned previously. In Truk, as in many other Pacific societies, elaborate social structures have been erected so as to minimize the outbreaks of hostility and thus maintain unbroken peace in a community that is usually quite small. Yet, the same option that minimizes the risk of open conflict also reduces the availability of defense mechanisms and so leaves the person more vulnerable to injuries from others (Howard 1979:137). While restrictions against verbalizing anger towards one's social superiors undoubtedly reduces the danger of explosive arguments, it also deprives the young man of a method of venting and diffusing his anger. The search by young men for avenues of self- expression underlies much of their drunken behavior as well as their readiness to utilize suicide as a means of acting out their anger and shame (Hezel 1981:17; Marshall 1979:109-11).

Still another feature, one alluded to but not explicitly treated above, is the thirst for recognition among the young. This is a particularly strong need for those who perceive their affiliation with their family group as tenuous and marginal, whether because of their adoptive status or because they are not contributing to the wellbeing of the family through normal chores. The form of recognition they seek is not effusive compliments, something alien to Trukese ways, but an acknowledgement of their importance in the more indirect ways, particularly a fair share in the allotment of food and family resources. This is an extremely sensitive issue for young Trukese today as in the past. Yet, as the demands upon young men to assist in food preparation and other tasks diminishes, so too does their sense of their own importance to their family. Suicide clearly affords them a means of recognition, as victims have often indicated before their death. Some have alluded with a note of triumph to the funeral feast that would be held in their honor as if they expected to achieve in death the recognition that they had been denied in life. At least three others, all of them adopted sons, have timed their deaths to coincide with the anniversary of another death in their adoptive family, no doubt as a way of expressing their desire for full assimilation into the family and ensuring that the anniversary of their own death would be a major family event in years to come. One young man even left his footprint and signature in wet cement on the floor of the family meeting house to memorialize himself and his deed. The attraction that such a dramatic form of recognition holds for young Trukese is attested by one 13-year old boy who exclaimed while witnessing the funeral of a suicide victim not much older than himself, "How nice it would be to have all those people crying and making a fuss over me!" (Hezel 1985:120).

A final important feature in the socio-cultural environment is that, with a hanging occurring every weeks in Truk, suicide is simply a very prominent part of life today. While suicide has always been a possibility for Trukese under certain circumstances, it was an option exercised much more rarely and seemingly for weightier reasons in the past than today. In recent years ending one's life has become a more real possibility for the young, no matter how fleeting their distress, if for no other reason than that it is a road so well traveled. Suicide has become an inescapable element in Trukese life today; it is a common topic of conversation and a favorite theme of local love songs. Hence, the momentum of past suicides acts to propel additional young men along the same course.

Modernization's Impact on Suicide

While all these features of Trukese culture may be seen as contributing to the suicidal penchant of young males and possibly rendering the choice of suicide more intelligible, they do not of themselves explain the enormous increase in suicide rates in recent years. What, then, might explain this suicide epidemic? Modernization, with the changes it has wrought on the values and structures of Trukese society, is usually singled out as the culprit. Yet our data shows no simple correlation between degree of modernization and risk of suicide. The highest rates of suicide, as Rubinstein (1985:92-3) points out, are from peri- urban areas rather than the more developed port towns. The outlying islands that have retained more of their traditional lifestyle show the lowest rates, while the urban centers show intermediate rates. The highest rates are found in those geographical areas that represent a mid-way position on the scale of modernization.

Other indices of modernization such as education and employment likewise fail to yield a simple correlation (Table 5). About one-third of the victims had not finished elementary school, and an additional 50% had never completed high school. Only 2% of the victims had completed college, while another 15% had finished their high school education. These figures are roughly comparable with the average educational attainment levels by today's youth in Truk; hence, victims do not significantly differ from the general population in the amount of education they have received. Much the same is true of the level of employment. About 20% of the victims had a full-time job at the time of their death; this figure is very much in line with the percentage of the overall Truk population that has salary employment. Almost 40% were unemployed and another 3% had only part-time or occasional employment; the remaining one-third of the victims were students. The only significant difference between suicide victims and the general population is that fewer victims were unemployed and more in school at the time of their death. Clearly, therefore, Trukese suicide victims are not notably distinguished for modernization, regardless of what measures we use. It is important to add, however, that neither are they clustered at the other end of the scale.


Table 5: Education and Employment Status:: Suicide Victims and General Population by Percentage of Total

Educational Level
Suicide 
victims
General pop.
Employment
Suicide 
victims
General pop. 
(over 15)
Did not complete elementary school 33% 31% Students 34% 15%
Finished 8th grade 27% 33% Full-time white collar job 8% 18%
Finished 10th grade 20% 15% Full-time blue collar job 13%  
Graduated from high school 15% 16% Part-time job 3% 6%
Graduated from college 2% 3% Unemployed 39% 61%

Source: Percentages on general population compiled from TT Annual Reports 1977-1981 and 1973 TT census report.


The failure to find a one-to-one correlation between modernization and suicide should not be surprising if our earlier analysis of suicide is correct. Suicide is, as we have tried to show, a culturally patterned response to certain conflict situations. As such, it represents a Trukese solution to specific types of interpersonal disruption rather than an admission of and protest against the loss of ethnic identity, as observers sometimes maintain. Indeed, the fact that victims have chosen to commit suicide implies that they have retained to some extent their traditional values and lifestyle. Trukese victims, virtually without exception, accept the centrality of the traditional family relationships and they espouse the age-old distancing strategy of amwunumwun. They have been exposed to some Westernization along the way, as nearly everyone in Truk is, but they have proved that they were Trukese at bottom in their very decision to die.

On the other hand, Trukese suicide victims can not be typified as the "losers" -- that is, those denied access to the new statuses and material goods that modernization has brought in recent decades. We have seen that victims as a group are not significantly inferior to other Trukese in jobs and schooling. Even if they were, it is doubtful that feelings of being socially deprived with respect to others in their community would ever motivate them to take their own lives. The achievement orientation that is implied is far more characteristic of the Western world than it is of the Pacific, where harmonious personal relations are valued more highly than these other measures of success. This is well illustrated in the reasons that will drive Trukese to end their lives. The rewards derived from occupation, educational attainments or other areas of achievement may operate as a deterrent to suicide by cushioning the blows that fall from family problems, but the lack of such rewards is never itself the cause of suicide, neither in Truk nor anywhere else in Micronesia.

Although we have seen the danger of attempting to establish a simplistic causal nexus between modernization and suicide, we must acknowledge that social change almost certainly has played a major role in precipitating the suicide epidemic of late. The point of issue is not whether social change has been responsible for the epidemic, but in what particular way. Given the fact that nearly all suicides in Truk are triggered by family problems, it seems reasonable to look for our explanation in changes that have distabilized the family or at least seriously altered its dynamics. It is to this that we will now turn in our attempt to explain the escalation of suicide in Truk.

Conflict in the Family

Before taking up the matter of structural changes in the Trukese family, we must identify which of the multiple relationships within the wide circle of the Trukese family prove most troublesome for suicide victims. Nearly half of the Truk suicides, as Table 6 shows, were occasioned by difficulties between the victim and his parents (either biological or de facto). Almost another 20% were brought on by conflicts with an older sibling, most often an older brother. An additional 11% were attributed to problems with a spouse or lover, although a closer look at the case files shows that many of these victims also had a history of troubled relationships with their own parents and older siblings as well. A fairly typical illustration of this is a 26-year old man whose suicide occurred immediately after his wife left him and refused to return when he went to fetch her, but who had had a bitter argument with his mother the same day, culminating several months of friction between him and his family. In all, difficulties with parents, older siblings or spouses -- relationships that this paper has already indicated as most problematic -- account for about 80% of all Trukese suicides. Difficulties with one's children, however, can also prompt an amwunumwun response involving suicide, especially if the victim is much older; and this accounts for an additional 4% of the cases.

It is significant to note that only 6% of all suicide were prompted by quarrels with parents' siblings, the victim's aunts and uncles, persons who would have exercised considerable authority over the young person in traditional Trukese society. They, along with affines, younger siblings and others play a very minor role in precipitating suicidal attempts today, it appears. Younger siblings figure prominently in only 1% of the cases, affines in another 1%, and other relationships in 4% of all suicides. Clearly, then, tensions with parents and to a lesser degree with older siblings are the reason for theoverwhelming majority of Truk suicides. Difficulties with spouses also trigger a considerable number of suicides, although in well over half of these latter cases there is also longstanding tension between the victim and his own parents.


Table 6: Troubled Relationships Occasioning Suicide
Relationship 
% of total
Parents (biological or de facto) 48
Older brother or sister 19
Lover or Spouse 11
Parents' sibling 6
Children (biological or de facto) 4
Younger brother or sister 1
In-laws or close offines 1
Other  4

Source: Computer tabulations by Don Rubinstein


What is it that has made the relationship between the young man and his parents, or with his older siblings, more troublesome today than in the past? Is it simply that parents and their children find more to disagree about today?

Undoubtedly value changes, and the concomitant change of expectations on the part of both youths and their parents, have contributed to the tensions between them. Trukese parents often complain about their children's insistence upon their "rights," particularly their right to choose their own spouse and their right to retain a share of the money that is brought in by their labor. The concept of rights is, of course, foreign to traditional Trukese society and was introduced through recent American influence on the islands. In value conflicts of this sort, however, it is not always the young who espouse the departure from the traditional. Parents show an increasing tendency to judge their children's performance in meeting family obligations in terms of their ability to provide a cash income, often to the chagrin of the young who feel that their contribution through traditional food-production chores should be enough to satisfy their parents. Moreover, some parents would prefer to see their children provide for the nuclear family rather than dissipate their energy and resources in trying to meet traditional obligations throughout the wider family network. This was one of the main issues that led to repeated conflict between one young suicide victim and his parents when he insisted on visiting his matrilineage mates to work on their behalf.

While these value shifts may well lead to more frequent clashes between parents and their children, it is probably naive to attempt to blame the suicide epidemic on this alone. Even in the more settled times of the early American administration, there was no lack of subjects on which families could disagree, as the anthropologists who worked in Truk during the late 1940s attest (Gladwin 1953; Goodenough 1961). Especially common then as now were disputes within the family over parceling out of land and the choice of marriage partners. Such conflicts are inevitable within families, and it is very doubtful that the suicide increase can be attributed simply to their proliferation. Of far more importance, it would seem, is whether those mechanisms that the family once had at its disposal to dissipate or resolve such conflicts continue to function well. If they do not because of alterations in the present day family structure, this might explain the onset of the suicide epidemic.

Changing Family Structures and Suicide

The basic Trukese kinship unit has traditionally been the matrilineage, and the English loanword faameni was used originally to denote the lineage group rather than the Western nuclear family (Hezel 1985b:16ff). At marriage a couple would ideally take up residence with the woman's lineage, and her husband, while retaining obligations to his own lineage mates, worked in a subservient role on behalf of his wife's kin group. All of the couple's children became members of the mother's lineage, a group that may have numbered 30 or 40 in all. Any food and other produce derived from land and sea that the couple may have prepared were distributed through the entire matrilineage group, usually by the wife's older brother or whomever of her relatives had been designated the lineage head. Meals were shared in common with other members of the lineage, and enough food was always prepared to feed all those living on the lineage estate.

Authority in family matters followed the same patterns as the distribution of resources. Although the father was granted considerable authority over his younger children in day-to-day matters, they were still subject to the general supervision of older members of his wife's (and their own) lineage. The father's brothers-in-law, for example, exercised the right to assign work tasks to his children. As the young men grew to adolescence, they were required to sleep outside of the house in which their sisters stayed, usually bedding down in the lineage meeting house, or uut, together with other male lineage mates. Increasingly during this period they were brought under the supervision of older lineage members, usually their maternal uncles, and participated in a wide range of lineage activities that reinforced their corporate sense of identity with their lineage. When the young man reached the age of marriage, he usually sought not only his father's permission but that of his mother's brothers as well.

This traditional family structure has changed in some important respects over the past two or three decades. The catalyst for this change seems to have been the increasing availability of a cash income to the father of the family. The money and store-bought goods that a father has remain in his possession; they are not turned over to the lineage authorities for redistribution as were the traditional fruits of his labor. Even though lineage members may make considerable claims for a share in these resources, the father retains the prerogative of disposing of his salary and any other money that he receives. As an increasing number of fathers became "independently wealthy," so to speak, reliance on the lineage land and the lineage distribution system has diminished accordingly. This distribution system has by no means vanished entirely, even in the more prosperous areas of Truk, but it has been considerably modified almost everywhere so that even the food produced on the lineage estate is frequently divided up and allocated to the different households to be supplemented by whatever canned meat or fish each can afford.

This revolutionary change in the production and distribution systems hasin turn altered the authority system of the family. The father, by virtue of his control over a significant share of the resources, now enjoys more autonomy from his wife's lineage and has been relegated a greater degree of authority over his own wife and children. As parents demonstrated their increased ability to feed and otherwise provide for their children, they were acknowledged to have an ever greater responsibility over the upbringing of their children. Conversely, senior members of the wife's lineage, who once exercised considerable authority over the parents' children, have tended to surrender many of their former supervisory functions in keeping with the modifications of the lineage distribution system. Parents now reign over their own household to a degree that was inconceivable in the past.

The father and mother now find themselves burdened with responsibilities for the care of the children that they once shared with several of the wife's lineage mates. Whether or not they are actually employed for a salary, they are expected to discipline their children, see to their schooling, attend to their personal adjustment needs during the difficult period of adolescence, decide which of their requests to honor and which to refuse, oversee their choice of companions, and guide them in the search for a marriage partner. Their task is made all the more difficult if they have more surviving children than their own parents had, something that lower mortality rates and improved medical attention have made very probable. It is not surprising that parents are unprepared to assume such frightening responsibilities towards their own children. They themselves were raised by a group that included but was not limited to their parents, with responsibilities parceled out to all of the adults. This was especially helpful in guiding young peoplethrough the troubled time of adolescence. In such a broader support system, their parents could take a more relaxed attitude towards child- rearing since children had recourse to any number of other closely related adults in the event that any conflict should break out.

In response to the heavier demands that are made on him, demands that he is poorly prepared to face, the father often turns over considerable responsibility to his eldest son, or even to one of the younger sons if they have a cash income. While thisis meant to free him from some of the demands of his expanded role, this delegation of authority has the potential for aggravating tension between older and younger siblings, particularly if the traditional age-ranking is disrupted. And it frequently is, as we have seen, when parents confer on a younger child because of his success in school or his high-paying job the favor and privileges that were formerly reserved for the eldest son or daughter. Meanwhile, as the social network of the lineage weakens, together with its economic and political workings, lineage work activities will fall off and the lineage commensal unit, or fanang, tends to become more of an occasional event than the daily institution it once was. Children will turn increasingly to peers outside of the lineage as friends and playmates, and they will come to depend more and more on their nuclear family as their point of identity in place of their lineage.

The implications of such changing family structures for the situations that most frequently give rise to suicide are obvious. The 18-year old boy who, angered at his father's refusal of his request for five dollars that he intended to contribute to a church group, would have gone to his maternal uncle to seek help in former years (Rubinstein 1985:94-6). This would have given him access to another adult in the lineage group with close ties and special responsibility for tending to his needs, an adult who would provide an ear in time of trouble and a counterbalance to the authority of his father. This might have also helped the young man avoid personalizing his father's refusal, as in fact happened when he compared his father's generosity towards his older brother earlier that day with his father's indifference to his own needs. To be denied what he perceives as his rightful share of food, money or other gifts is a sensitive issue for Trukese youth, for these gifts have all the symbolic value for them that a hug or affectionate squeeze has for an American youth. Such tokens of personal acceptance are perhaps even more important today than in the past as adolescent role changes lead to heightened insecurity about the place these young people hold in the family. This particular boy was saved when the rope with which he hanged himself broke, but there are dozens of others who have died for similar reasons.

Another boy of about the same age and from the same island who took his own life after a scolding from his father for not doing his assigned work is also typical of many other victims. Tension had been building up between him and his father for some time, and the boy seems to have regarded his father's insistence that he come and help immediately as just one more arbitrary demand and expression of unconcern for him. This is clear from the suicide note that the boy left on the floor near his body. For him as for with many other victims who have had a history of troubled dealings with their parents, an order to perform some bit of work is all too often seen as still another wound inflicted by their parents. In an earlier era the lineage chief would have assigned work responsibilities to the young and seen to their completion. This would have given a note of objectivity to the imposition of such chores and would have freed the father from the stigma of making continual impositions on his children. The father, in fact, was frequently so free of any such odium that he could actually serve as an advocate on behalf of his son before the older members of the lineage group.

Overall, we can see that the changes in the workings of the Trukese family tend to increase the likelihood of tension within the household. The same changes, moreover, make it more difficult to resolve conflicts once they have arisen because the young man no longer has as easy recourse to older lineage members as he had in the past. While in the past adolescents might have gone to their maternal uncles to make special requests, or at least have sought their help as intermediaries, today these uncles, in deference to the expanded role of the father, are reluctant to interfere in the affairs of the nuclear family. Finally, the same changes further diminish the effectiveness of the traditional "safety net" for youth who were having troubles with their family by making it less socially acceptable for them to leave their home and take up residence with distant relatives on some other island. In the light of all the consequences of the changing dynamics of the Trukese family, we can begin to understand why suicide may have increased so dramatically within the past two decades.

Prospects for the Future

While the curve representing the increase in suicides over the past two decades has been steep, the rate appears to have dropped over the last four years (Table 1). This suggests the possibility that suicide rates have peaked and will soon begin to show a sharp decline, even though it is still too early to argue conclusively to this point from the data so far collected. If this does happen, it would confirm Rubinstein's hypothesis that the escalation of suicide in Truk is a single-generation phenomenon that appeared as the first postwar generation reached adolescence during the period extending from the mid-1960s on to the present time (Rubinstein 1985:89-91). He argues that this generation would be at special risk of suicide because of the impact of social change upon Trukese institutions as they were raised and came to maturity. This hypothesis is entirely consistent with the argument made here that the major factor accounting for the escalation of suicides has been the significant changes in the economic and authority mechanisms of the Trukese lineage. The changes described here have certainly occurred since 1950, so that it is indeed the generation-cohort which has come to maturity within the past 15 or 20 years that has felt the first real impact of these changes.

Statistical data aside, we would expect the suicide epidemic to be a single-generational phenomenon for the simple reason that the following generation will presumably be raised in the altered family system with less tension and uncertainty. Their parents, the survivors of the recent unsettled period of change, may be expected to have become more familiar with the new role as parents in Truk and be better prepared to bear these burdens gracefully. This is not to say that suicide will disappear entirely from Truk, for it is clearly a culturally-defined response that will remain as long as Trukese preserve their traditional respect behavior and general withdrawal strategy. We can, however, hope that suicide will again become the occasional occurrence that it once was.

References

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Goodenough, Ward H. (1949). Premarital Freedom on Truk: Theory and Practice. American Anthropologist 51:615-620.

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  • (1984). Self-Righteous Anger, Soft Talk, and Amwunumwun Suicides of Young Men: The Ambivalent Ethos of Gentleness and Violence in Truk. Paper presented at American Anthropological Association meeting at Denver, November 15-18.
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  • Human Organization, Vol. 46, Winter 1987: 283-296. Also published in: Marshall Islands Journal, 13 June 1986: 17-20; 20 June 1986: 15; 18 July 1986: 14.

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