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Suicide, Princeton University, and Emotional Labor in Public Services

Though it may not be obvious to most of the people who use our library, work in special collections often includes playing a role in someone’s grieving process. Archivists have begun talking about the ways in which interacting with donors puts them in the position of providing comfort to the bereaved, but this is also work performed by those who interact with researchers. For those of us in public services, this usually means providing information about the deceased to those in mourning. One kind of loss, however, is distinct from the others, and the emotional labor for me working with these patrons is different, too.

We confront human mortality on a daily basis in the archives. Many records, after all, cannot be viewed during a person’s lifetime. Death comes into the picture in a variety of ways, but reference inquiries about suicides are usually phrased without the same clarity as other types of questions, as though speaking of suicide itself will injure the person making the inquiry. Though I have responded to several people who have called or emailed Mudd Library looking for information about someone who committed suicide, I have yet to speak to or read an email from anyone who disclosed the fact of a suicide up front. Instead, they tend to ask about “someone who died” or even just “someone I knew.”

My own emotions surface at unexpected news of a suicide in ways they do not when I am caught by surprise about the news of other kinds of unexpected deaths, a phenomenon psychologists label “transference.” Though I may remember the unusual circumstance of someone’s demise I uncover in my research if it is especially noteworthy—such as an alum who electrocuted himself trying to install a TV antenna—they are far less personally provocative. I cannot recall their names; a week or so passes and new questions push them away. This is not so with suicide. One example that particularly stands out in my mind came in almost two years ago, just after the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor (December 7, 2016), when an elderly alum wrote to ask a seemingly innocuous question: Did a Princeton student die in a train accident immediately after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor?

Frank Birney ’42’s entry in the 1942 Nassau Herald.

Frank Birney ’42 was the student who had died when a train struck him on December 15, 1941, just after he had attended a meeting on campus where Princeton’s president, Harold Dodds, had outlined the changes coming to Princeton with the United States entering World War II, but it seems a euphemism to refer to it as an accident. Rather, it appears that Birney threw himself in front of an express train, having walked along the tracks for some distance between Princeton Station (the “Dinky”) and Princeton Junction. For Birney, the meeting intensified a feeling of despair that he’d reportedly been battling for some time. Family and friends had been worried about him prior to the incident and had discussed it.

There was more detail about Birney’s death and its aftermath than one usually finds about a suicide in an academic file, partly because it had made such a deep impression on Christian Gauss, Dean of the College, that he had recorded it in his published memoirs as “the most difficult [thing] of all.” Gauss wrote about taking the responsibility to identify the body to protect Birney’s friends from seeing him that way, discussing the death with Birney’s grief-stricken roommate, notifying Birney’s family, and listening to the campus police give accounts about their experiences with other suicides. The family chose to believe Birney had been pushed in front of the train; in spite of their concerns about his mental state, they were unwilling to accept that he had died by choice. Perhaps to respect their privacy, Gauss assigned Birney an alias (“J.S.”) in his memoirs.

I sent the information I had found to the patron who had written to me, and he responded saying that notwithstanding all that had transpired during World War II, mostly he thought about Frank Birney on the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and had for 75 years. I’m not sure what he sought from me—an answer no one could give about what really made Birney make the choice he did, or perhaps only confirmation of the memory, a chance to talk about someone long forgotten yet he still grieved. Talking and listening are a fundamental part of the grief process, after all.

If one reads between the lines of the documents in the University Archives, the campus didn’t talk about what happened very openly at the time. Indeed, the Daily Princetonian notes the death as an accident rather than as a suicide. Among students still reeling from Japan’s attack on the United States and American entry into a war in which most of them would have some involvement and during which all of them would have a radically different collegiate experience than they had planned, Birney’s death was another incomprehensible blow, but not one discussed freely.

After I finished my research, I suddenly found the need to talk about Frank Birney myself, first among my co-workers, and later I told a friend whom I had known in graduate school how answering a reference question had reminded me of my own time as a Princeton student. In 2011, a fellow graduate student had killed himself in a way that ensured everyone would know exactly why. The letter Bill Zeller *11 posted online that outlined the reasons for his own suicide is available in his academic file for those who wish to read it; I chose not to repeat its contents here. Suffice it to say that I realized as a result of this reference question that no one in my circle was talking all that much about Bill in 2011, either, and that I still held emotions about his passing I might not have held if we had.

Clipping from the Daily Princetonian.

Like the alum who wrote to me about Birney, I wasn’t close to the suicide victim, though I made acquaintance with Bill through his role in student government. Yet I have quietly thought about Bill as each anniversary rolled around (in this case in January), like the patron had thought about Birney, wondering what might have been, and saddened by what was taken from the world.

The archives are meant to connect the past with the present, though sometimes this has unintended consequences. Aiding the bereaved forces us to confront our own feelings of loss. The emotional labor we perform in special collections is no less taxing than the intellectual work of reference assistance; I suspect it is also no less an important function for the community whose memories it is our responsibility to preserve. It turns out that we also preserve memories of emotion, and those are transferable.


Graduate Alumni Records (AC105)

Papers of Princeton

Undergraduate Alumni Records (AC199)


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