Jumping from Bridges


From the Archive

The Golden Gate Bridge under construction.

The Golden Gate Bridge under construction.

This essay by M. F. K. Fisher appeared posthumously in our Spring 1995 issue. Fisher died in 1992. Her previously unpublished novel, The Theoretical Foot, was released earlier this year.

Now I am thinking about jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge, and about other places where people have jumped to their deaths for many years. I think I should find out more about this, for I have an idea that there is some sort of collection of spirit strength or power or love in them that says no, or yes, or now.

I feel very strongly that this is true about the Golden Gate Bridge. Today, I heard that people are trying once more to build a kind of suicide-prevention railing along its side, which would keep us from seeing the bay and the beautiful view of the city. I haven’t read much about suicide lately, but I believe that almost 98 percent of such deaths leave more evil than good after them. Even my husband Dillwyn’s death, which I feel was justified, left many of us with some bad things. And when my brother died, about a year after Timmy did, my mother asked me very seriously if I felt that Timmy’s death had influenced David to commit his own suicide, which to me remains a selfish one, compared to the first. I said, “Of course, yes! I do think so, Mother.” And I did think then that Timmy’s doing away with himself helped my young brother David to kill himself, a year later. But there was really no connection; we don’t know what the limit of tolerance is in any human being. 

I do think, though, that there has to be a place where one can jump to one’s death. There have always been such places. There is one in Japan that is quite famous. I believe it has something to do with beautiful Mount Fuji, which I saw in a strange breathtaking view from far away one day when Norah and I were in Japan in 1978. We had gone out with our chauffeur to meet some people for lunch, and suddenly the driver stopped the car abruptly. He said in an odd voice, “Look! Look!” And there, rising above a most dramatic Japanese-carved bank of mist and dark and light and lavender and white, was Fujiyama.

Even from a distance I could feel some of its enormous magic, and my hair prickled on my head. It was so beautiful! It was exactly like all the bad pictures I had seen on calendars and cans of beer. But it was there, and it was beautiful beyond the face of any god. It was all-powerful, and I felt like dying.

I have always known there are some people who must jump, but I never really knew about it myself until I was almost overcome once by a need to go off the Golden Gate Bridge. I feel quite impersonal about it now, just as I did the day Arnold Gingrich came out and dedicated one whole day to me.

He said, “Please, let’s make a list of everything you like to plan but never really do.” It was all very touristy: we went to the Cliff House first, and then we drove to the San Francisco end of the Golden Gate Bridge where I thought we would walk halfway across and then walk back. I never did tell Arnold about what happened, but about a quarter of a mile onto the bridge I realized that the whizzing cars on one side, and the beautiful peaceful bay on the other, were splitting me in two. The stronger half looked toward the city, the beautiful tranquil city, and I was almost overcome with the terrible need to jump off and be more peaceful.

I know it wasn’t the sound of the traffic. It was a kind of force that was almost as strong as I, and I felt sick at the effort to resist it. I remember I took Arnold’s arm and said, very coolly, “Let’s go back now. Let’s not go any further.” And without any question we turned around, and I stayed on the inside track, near the bridge rail, and as long as I kept my hand firmly on Arnold’s arm, I new I would not do anything foolish. But I know too that I have never had such a strong feeling of forces outside myself, except once in Stonehenge—

No, now that is not exactly true; there were two or three other times. One, I remember, was on the steps of the cathedral in Dôle, a miserable little dim rainy city on the edge of Burgundy. I was standing on the stops of the cathedral when suddenly I was overcome by a feeling of evil. And instead of running into the church for holy reassurance, I ran away. I had to get away from the church, not into it. Maybe I could trace this back somehow to Carmina Burana and those secular plays that were given on the steps of the old cathedrals, like Dôle’s. I don’t know, but for a minute I was almost overcome by older spirits than mine.

And one time I felt a wave of horror, when Al and I were living in a room in Dijon above a pastry shop on the rue Monge. I didn’t know it then, but the little square where I meant to get water in big pitchers for our cooking and washing and so on had been an execution spot during the French Revolution. The guillotine had been set up in that little place, and many fine Burgundians had had their heads roll there.

I remember our apartment was charming—one large room with three windows looking down onto the old place. It was big and airy with a red tiled floor and a little old fireplace; it had been a parlor, I’m sure, in a modest town house. There was an alcove with a bed in it, and Al slept on the outside of the bed and I was on the inside, and one night I jumped right over him and stood in the middle of the room, overcome by a sense of horror and fear. I felt filthy. Al woke up and asked me what was wrong. I said, “Nothing! Nothing!” But I felt absolutely clammy and horror-stricken by something I did not understand.

Such times have made me believe that there are congregations of evil and that they are stronger than any of us. This is why people who are perhaps weak to begin with jump to their death at times. Perhaps many of them, like me, do not want to jump off into the deep water far, far below, but something says: Get out! Jump!

This is why I have often said, in a rather casual way, that I don’t think there should be a fence on the Golden Gate Bridge. Some people are going to jump. And if they can’t join the waters deep below, and be swept out to sea—or, very rarely, picked up and be made to survive the ordeal of hitting that surface so far below—I think there should be someplace else for them. But that place, and others like it, have always been chosen not by the citizens of San Francisco or elsewhere, and not by the people who built the bridge, but by something much stronger than we know about.

Perhaps there is something about water, or anything bridging a body of water, that seems to attract people to jump off out down into it. Very few people jump down into a pit of manure, except by accident, but there is something about a bridge over clear water, no matter how far down (perhaps the farther the better), that does pull people down into it, toward it. I know this pull well, and I have no feeling of impatience or anything but tolerance for the people who jump. There must be those places. There are those places.

I have not said that the Golden Gate itself had a feeling of evil when I almost jumped off it. Rather, I felt an urging toward oblivion, I suppose, toward peace. I do not believe it was bad. I do feel the Golden Gate Bridge is a place of great beauty, where many people merge with that beauty into a kind of serenity, a compulsion to get out of this world and into a better one. And that is not evil at all. But I do know that there are many evil things that lurk in the minds of all people who are left after the suicide of somebody they love.

—Glen Ellen, California, 1986