LESTER WHY PEOPLE KILL THEMSELVES: A SUMMARY OF RESEARCH FINDINGS ON SUICIDAL BEHAVIOR. Springfield. III.. C. C. Thomas, 1972, 353 pp., $14.75
The title of this book is misleading. Lester does not explain why people kill themselves. In fact, he concludes (correctly) that the phenomenon is unexplained. Nevertheless, it isa useful book for anyone interested in a comprehensive review of research published in English between 1882 and 1969 on the antecedents and correlates of suicidal behaviors. This is true partly because it is the first book available which attempts a detailed survey in such scope, and partly because of the skills Dr. Lester brings to his task. He has had wide research interests in suicide and an extensive acquaintance with the literature. His criticism of previous research efforts is fair, reasonable and kind. As the author points out, he has passed over much of the voluminous literature in the area. That which he discusses represents "the better research that has been conducted," as well as what passes for theory. Neither prevention nor clinical treatment is discussed and thus the book avoids diffuseness. The vital distinction between suicide and attempted suicide is maintained.
The chapter divisions are appropriate and add to the readability of the book. Chapter summaries, however, are variable in quality and generally fall short of what might have been achieved, both as to synthesis and suggestions for improving research design and execution. This is forgivable in light of the scope of the book, but the title leads one to expect more. It is a "once over lightly," rather than a penetrating analysis.
The chapter on sociologie theories of suicide is refreshingly concise, discerning and up-to-date. It should be welcomed by sociology students surfeited with Durkheim. On the other hand, the problem of officiai statistics is treated almost exclusively as it relates to sociologie theory, when in fact the problem of the data base (whether official suicide verdicts or hospital admissions for suicide attempts) is one of the most vexatious in the entire field. It might require a book twice this length to carefully relate the data bases to the disparate findings, but at some point it must be done. In the meantime, the reader should be warned that insufficient account is taken of this factor.
In his penultimate chapter, Lester professes to have demonstrated that attempted suicide and suicide are on a continuum rather than being separate but overlapping phenomena, as is now generally perceived. Considering his overall handling of the material in this book, the brief argument and highly selected evidence he presents in these two pages suggest that he does not really take this idea seriously. At least, the reviewer is not persuaded to take it seriously.
Despite such shortcomings as have been noted and an occasional lapse in understanding or reproduction of an author's data, this should prove to be a useful book from at least two standpoints. It highlights numerous shortcomings, both in the design and execution of studies in the field of suicidal behavior. At the same time, it can introduce any but the most sophisticated reader to areas of the literature that may have escaped his notice. It does not, of course, substitute for a careful reading of the literature, nor does it really tell us how to mend our ways.