Let’s Think Again About This Post-It ‘Suicide’ Note

A lot has been made of the post-it note allegedly left by Elliott Smith before he died in 2003. Was it a suicide note or not? It has always been described as ‘an apparent’ suicide note which was discovered by Jennifer Chiba herself. This is the scene described in the police report, Elliott has been transported to the hospital and Jennifer Chiba is questioned by the police: ‘During this questioning, she was seated at the kitchen table and noted for the first time a ‘Post-it’ note that appeared to be a suicide note left by the decedent. Jennifer recognized the handwriting on the note as that of the decedent and had not seen the note before that moment.’

I just want to recall anyone that the note read ‘I’m so sorry– love, Elliott, God forgive me’, and that the mistake in Elliott’s name (it was reported as ‘Elliot’ everywhere) was made by the police but doesn’t figure on the note. So far the police has kept the note and the family was not even able to look at it. Nobody seems to know if some handwriting analysis or other forensic investigation has been done, and this is very frustrating. Even more frustrating because it one of the main arguments for people who think he committed suicide: Elliott left a suicide note, so he certainly killed himself.

But let me summarize the oddities surrounding this post-it note:
– First of all, it is very odd to write a suicide note addressed to someone who is just there, behind a door, what’s the point?
– The message of the note is very peaceful and is looking for forgiveness, contrasting so much with the anger that certainly followed their heated fight, and if Elliott did stab himself, he must have been in a raging, very angry mood, how is this possible?
– Stabbing yourself twice in the chest requires a very crazy and violent state of mind, how could he have calmed down for a few minutes, take the time to write a note and then resume with the rage necessary to do the stabbing?
– The message of the note is also very vague and impersonal, it could have been written at any moment, and could have been addressed to anyone as Chiba is not even named in the note.
– It was Chiba who conveniently found the note, not the police.

But there has always been another weird angle about all this: W.T. Schultz’ wrote page 319 in his book, ‘Torment Saint’: ‘Chiba had been in the habit of sticking Post-Its around the house, each with little encouraging message.’ So that was a habit, a thing she would do, and he would have used this same method for writing his last note ever, his suicide note? Allow me to find this suspicious…

About one in five people who commit suicide leave a note, so of course it makes a big impression when there is one, but there is a very large literature regarding studies which look for clues to determine differences between genuine suicide notes and simulated suicide notes. If it is not an exact science, but people have been able to find significant differences, like Klaus Krippendorff, Mary Angela Bock who found that ‘genuine notes contained specific information, used names of people, places, and things, made frequent mention of women (they studied men’s suicide notes) and gave instructions to others that were concrete enough to be actually carried out. By contrast, the simulated suicide notes contained a greater percentage of ‘thinking’ words, suggesting that the issue of suicide was being pondered, reasoned with, and probably rationalized.’

The least I can say is that this post-it note was very simple as it was so short, it was very vague, as there was no name included and not even a vague mention of his family? Could it be the last text we get from a man who wrote these cerebral and multi-layered lyrics and who was always afraid to hurt his mother?

Shneidman (1979, p.151) also stated that ‘In general,… genuine suicide notes are characterized by dichotomous logic, greater amount of hostility and self-blame, use of very specific names and instructions to the survivor, more decisiveness, less evidence of thinking about thinking, and more use of the various meanings of the word ‘love’’. Susan Roubidoux, who also studied Linguistic Manifestations of Power in genuine versus simulated suicide notes, ‘ uncovered three potential indicators or predictors of genuine intent to commit suicide: subjective personal pronoun functioning in an active context, active personal pronoun as apology and exclusive first-person plural pronouns’, on the other hand, simulated notes use a more passive voice… There is nothing in this short note left by Elliott that would determine a suicidal state of mind, nothing that shows he was about to undertake this terrible action, there is no hostility, no directive, nothing related to the consequences of his action, only this vague and passive ‘forgive me’.

I can’t really go further with such a short note (by the way Gottschalk and Gleser found that simulated suicide notes averaged fewer words than genuine suicide notes) and so little known about it, and I can’t pretend to be a person capable to analyze it as people have written full thesis about this new forensic science aiming at differentiating fake from genuine notes! I just wonder whether the police have ever done anything with the note… by the way, do people know that, in private, he was rarely signing ‘Elliott’?

Originally published on Rock NYC (October 29 2014)

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