Exhibit Uses Shoes To Tell The Painful Tale Of Suicide

A pair of work boots sits on a chair in the
MICHAEL J. RAUSCH/ENTERPRISE - A pair of work boots sits on a chair in the "In Their Shoes" exhibit at the Jonathan Bourne Public Library, all that remains of a father who committed suicide believing he was a burden to his family.

Between the years 2000 and 2009, there were 249 suicides on Cape Cod and the Islands. A poignant reminder of that statistic is currently on display at the Jonathan Bourne Public Library.

The second-floor mezzanine currently houses the exhibit “In Their Shoes,” a collection of 249 pairs of shoes, one pair for each person lost to suicide during those years.

The exhibit was created by the Samaritans of Cape Cod and the Islands to draw awareness to the month of September, which is Suicide Prevention/Awareness Month.

The display was designed by Jessica D. McHugh, assistant director for the Samaritans, and Sonya Root, a Lesley College sociology major who has interned with the organization.

The types of shoes on display run the gamut from work shoes to high heels, lace-up oxfords to soccer cleats, slippers to boots. Some are in piles, others are lined up against the windows; several sit on chairs beneath placards that relate, in first-person narrative, the story one person’s suicide.

There is Mildred, left alone when her husband of 59 years, Frank, suddenly died. Unable to bear life without Frank, she turned on the song ‘Oh, Promise Me,’ and went to him.”

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There is Andrew, a distressed teenager whose friends did not want to be around him because his sadness was annoying. He knew there was no reason for him to be sad. “It was just me. I was the problem. There was no other way to stop the pain. And so I did.”

Then there is Rick, a father of two young girls who lost his job. Unable to provide for his family, he was certain that they would be better off without him. When the time came, he left the house because he did not want his daughters to find his body. “I could never do that to them.”

The stories are fictionalized amalgams of the real stories of Cape residents who have committed suicide, Ms. McHugh said. Statistics show that from 2000 to 2009 the suicide rate on Cape Cod and the Islands nearly doubled from 6.2 per 100,000 persons to 11.9. Ms. McHugh said that the stories represent the three groups that are at the highest risk: teens, middle-age men and the elderly.

“We brainstormed what people in these situations might be facing and the emotions behind their choice,” she said.

The shoes came from a variety of sources, including staff and volunteers with the Samaritans, the Salvation Army, and garage sales. A few pair actually belonged to someone who was lost to suicide, she said.

“It was neat to have the Samaritan family coming together to make this project happen,” she said.

Ms. McHugh said that her inspiration for the display came from a similar shoe display at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco in May of last year during the 75th anniversary celebration of the bridge. That display, titled “Whose Shoes,” contained 1,558 shoes, representing every confirmed suicide off the Golden Gate since it opened in 1937.

“I saw pictures of the display and thought to myself how powerful an image it was,” she said.

Ms. McHugh called the “In Their Shoes” exhibit “one of my proudest projects I have worked on here.” She said that it brings home the feelings that people go through when they consider committing suicide. She encourages people who may feel nervous about the topic to come and see the display. She said that there is a stigma to suicide but “it’s nothing to be ashamed about.”

“The more we talk about it, the more we can save a life,” she said.

The Samaritan’s executive director Stephanie G. Kelly said that the display was actually put together in October of last year. It was put on display at Cape Cod Community College in celebration of the group’s 35th anniversary. For that event, the Samaritans brought in a guest speaker, J. Kevin Hines. Mr. Hines survived his own suicide leap from the Golden Gate Bridge back in 2000. Since then, he has toured the country, speaking about his survival, and the problems that led him to attempt suicide, to hundreds of groups, ranging from students to corporate executives to members of the military.

“It’s the first time it’s been back up since last year; thank you to the library,” Ms. Kelly said. She said that the Samaritans are looking for another place that would be willing to put the exhibit on display once its scheduled time at the library is finished.

Ms. Kelly said that the exhibit is a simple one that did not cost a lot of money, but it is very effective.

“It’s had such an impact on people in a small library; imagine what it could do on a wider scale,” she said.
She pointed out that the time period and the number of suicides highlighted in the display is due to a lag in reporting from the Centers for Disease Control.

“2009 is the latest information from the CDC. 2010 is out but we have not incorporated it into the exhibit yet,” she said.

Her hope with “In Their Shoes” is that someone who may be contemplating suicide will see the display and realize that it is okay to reach out for help, she said.

“People don’t want to talk about it, but the only way to prevent suicide is to talk. We want people to know that there is support out there, like the Samaritans, who feel that way,” she said.

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