Self-immolation near Trump trial followed long, disturbing tradition

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Ten years before I was born, at 4:40 on the morning of Nov. 10, 1971, my mother and another woman sat “yogi-style” on the floor of an Ann Arbor, Mich., kitchen and lit themselves on fire. They were just blocks from the University of Michigan campus, where my mother had been a student. She had just turned 20. Police tracked the smell of burning hair to find the women sitting on the floor, facing each other, screaming.

“They weren’t doing anything to put the fire out,” Police Chief Walter Krasny told the Ann Arbor News. “We have no idea why they would do something like this. They didn’t use gasoline or anything. We presume they were fully clothed in street clothing and just set themselves on fire.”

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My mother’s self-immolation was the prologue to my life. Every time another instance of self-immolation occurs, as happened earlier this month outside a courthouse in New York City, I wonder about the people and where they sit in the lineage of the act. The inevitable think pieces after a high-profile self-immolation often sound the same, because what can one say? It’s an incredibly contextual act. It’s personal, and political. The act is the message, and vice versa. You cannot understand what it means without knowing the person’s story. And sometimes not even then.

I’ve always been reluctant to link my mother’s story to any sort of protest. It felt both sensational and inaccurate to place her suicide attempt into the political history of self-immolation. Because of our cultural tendency toward binary thinking, people are quick to pick a label to understand this act: protest or illness. To accept an act as protest neither negates nor implies mental illness. Both things could be true at once, and other factors altogether could be in play. Implying that mental illness precludes taking a stance is infantilizing.

Many rushed to conclude that mental illness had led a U.S. airman, Aaron Bushnell, to kill himself in February. He set himself on fire outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington. However, Bushnell had posted on social media that he was going to kill himself in protest, and screamed “Free Palestine” as he went up in flames.

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If an individual offers an explanation, I’ve always been inclined to accept their statement as is. When they do not, things are stickier. My mother, who died in 2005, spoke about her decision to me only once, when I was 12. Looking back on her account as an adult, I believe that mental illness was one factor. But she also told me she had been drawn to the student activism sweeping the country at that time. I have never found either of those explanations complete enough.

The year my mother and the woman with her burned, 1971, marked the end of a string of Vietnamese monks self-immolating following Thích Quảng Đức’s burning at a Saigon intersection. It was an era of protest, student unrest, spiritual awakening and the cultism that often accompanies fading trust in institutions. Martyrdom and protest, profound grief and psychological angst were in the ether — as they are now. This month in New York City, as one man burned himself in the protest zone outside Donald Trump’s trial, students uptown were demonstrating for a free Palestine. I can’t help the gnawing sensation that while moving forward, we have also traveled back. Now, I wonder, whether my mother and the other woman were somehow tapping a cultural current of the early ’70s. Channeling it.

In a 1965 letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Vietnamese monk Thích Nhất Hạnh wrote about how difficult it is for the Western Christian conscience to understand the self-immolation of Vietnamese monks. He explained that the actions were neither suicide nor protest, but were devotional: “During the ceremony of ordination, as practiced in the Mahayana [Buddhist] tradition, the monk-candidate is required to burn one, or more, small spots on his body in taking the vow to observe the 250 rules of a bhikshu, to live the life of a monk, to attain enlightenment and to devote his life to the salvation of all beings. … The importance is not to take one’s life, but to burn. What he really aims at is the expression of his will and determination, not death.”

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According to news reports, in the ambulance on the way to the University of Michigan Burn Center, my mother or the woman she burned with whispered: “It’s lovely to die together.” At no point that night, or in the months that followed, as my mother healed and the other woman eventually died in the hospital, did they ever make a statement to police. They refused to say more about their intent. As such, theirs was an almost anomalous case — resisting efforts to be categorized as protest or illness.

For a long time, I thought her burning had no place in this larger sociopolitical context, but the more I see it refracted through today’s lens, the more I understand that even without stated intent, an act of self-burning is inherently political. People around the world have self-immolated because of job loss or oppressive domestic or cultural environments. They have burned to protest political regimes and to decry imperialism. They have burned, as the monks did, to express will. Whatever the impetus, maybe no other act has so exemplified the personal as political. And maybe it’s no coincidence that “personal is political” was coined by feminists in 1970 — the year before my mother’s suicide attempt, when people were fighting for many of the civil rights being rolled back now, state by state.

What does an individual act of self-immolation mean? That can be hard to answer, but what’s clear to me is that these acts have meaning, and that meaning is often multifaceted. They could be conveying pain within themselves, or in their families, or in the larger systems in which we work and love and live. Whether in illness or protest or both, or for other reasons entirely, they are expressing their “will and determination.” With their bodies, they are saying “look here now.” If burning oneself is a way of speaking out, we oversimplify or sensationalize the act at our own peril.

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Nina St. Pierre, a culture writer and essayist in New York, is the author of the forthcoming memoir “Love Is a Burning Thing.”



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