ACM Literature
remembering tragedy

Writer Stefan Merrill Block recalls the 1983 Plano suicides that changed his life—and Texas—forever

Writer Stefan Merrill Block recalls the 1983 Plano suicides that changed his life—and Texas—forever

Austin Photo Set: News_Sam_Stefan Merrill Block_Nov 2011
Courtesy of Stefan Merrill Block

Suicide is never an easy topic to talk about. Here in Texas, we’ve got a complex history with the unsettling trend.

This week, the Statesman noted that, “In 2008, 36,035 people died by suicide in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention… An estimated 96,000 Texas adults attempted suicide that year, second only to California.”

Today, leading literary journal Granta Magazine publishes “The Plano Suicides,” a creative essay by native Texan writer Stefan Merrill Block (who recently visited Austin’s BookPeople). He is the author of novels The Storm at the Door, an intensely emotional exploration of marriage and loss, and Story of Forgetting, a Texas-set story that unravels family secrets.

Block’s clearly interested in family dynamics, and the dark events that shape our understanding of connection and community. It’s no surprise that the mass suicides that devastated Plano in 1983 (only a year after Block’s birth) continue to affect the writer.

“In 1982, the Dallas Suicide and Crisis Center reported that 28 Dallas County residents younger than 20 took their own lives,” The New York Times reported in September of 1983. “In the past eight months, five teen-agers in Plano, a northern suburb, have committed suicide; at least 15 other attempts have been reported.”

In all, a cluster of nine suicides among Plano high schoolers in 1983 brought national attention to both the town and the general emotional state of teens in a rapidly changing culture. Recent events, like the 2003 suicide of Plano teen Taylor Hooton, remind us that this wasn’t just an isolated event.

Block’s essay reads more like a short story than a deeply personal account of a troubling year, one that affected the author’s upbringing as well as the city that raised him. It’s also a bit of a love letter to Texas, in a way, opening with:

My mother has a theory about the ideal mode of Texan architecture: When you live in a place like Florida, it’s all about having views of the sea. When you live in Colorado, it’s all about looking out at the mountains. But, in Texas, what you want most is a house with a view of all that blue, blue sunny sky.

Block continues:

In dense and intricate Brooklyn, where I’ve lived since I was twenty-two, spaces feel personal, a person’s size and voice seem enough to fill an area. But as a kid in Plano it felt like I could do anything – I could get punched in the liver on the running track during gym class; I could curse at my rising archipelagos of acne; I could hear the students outside my high school spread the news that yet another kid had killed himself – and the impassive blue dome would absorb it; the moment would pass and then there would be only that silent brightness.

While it’s a tough read for those close to the events of 1983 (and anyone affected by suicide, in Plano and beyond), Block’s account of growing up in a town torn by tragedy is illuminating—and strangely beautiful.

Note: While this is a creative essay, it deals with a very serious topic. For more information on suicide prevention, please visit texassuicideprevention.org.

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Read more of Stefan Merrill Block’s work on his site.