Sunday, December 16, 2018

A Haunting Treatise

From Zocalo Public Square:
Isn’t it a little odd that our most cherished Christmas film is about a man seeking to end his life by jumping off a bridge? Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is full of traditional holiday themes like romance, friendship, and family. It’s unabashedly sentimental too—“Capra-corn” in its purest form. But it’s also a film about suicide—its causes, costs, and consequences.

The movie’s dramatic arc is built around 40-year-old George Bailey’s attempt to kill himself. The film opens with prayers offered up to heaven by townsfolk worried that George, who has gone missing on Christmas Eve 1945, is about to do something dangerous. “Please God,” his daughter Janie prays, “Something’s the matter with Daddy.” Somewhere up in the heavens, two senior angels hear those prayers and dispatch one of their apprentices, 200-year-old Clarence, to answer them. George, Clarence learns, has convinced himself that he’s “worth more dead than alive” and is “thinking seriously of throwing away God’s greatest gift.” He is headed to a bridge above the canal in Bedford Falls with the intent to jump to his death so that Mary Bailey, his wife, can claim his life insurance and secure the $8,000 needed to save the family business, the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan.

Bound up in this convoluted plot is a short lesson about the way suicide functions as a religious provocation, and as an event with distinct legal and economic aftereffects. Take George’s plan to defraud his insurance company. He is not the first person to try to make an intentional suicide look like an accident so that his beneficiaries can benefit. That sort of tragic scam actually has a long history. American insurance companies offered the first life insurance policies in the 1810s, and from the beginning they struggled to deter a range of moral hazards, including the perception that their policies offered perverse incentives to desperate people to commit suicide.

As Sharon Ann Murphy explains in Investing in Life: Insurance in Antebellum America, companies stipulated that they would not pay out in cases when a death could be shown to be premeditated. In 1823, the first life insurance policy ever issued by the Massachusetts Hospital Life Company said that “this Policy shall be void, null, and of no effect” if the insured “shall die by his own hand.” (Read more.)

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