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Suicide Punchline: Jennifer Tuder would rather joke about suicide than keep silent

Jennifer and her father, Dave Tuder

Jennifer and her father, Dave Tuder

When Jennifer Tuder thinks of her father, a big question looms: what happened?

In the early 1970s, Dave Tuder saw the promise of a college degree in the G.I. Bill. He signed up for the Vietnam War and toured military bases in Ethiopia and Thailand as an accountant. His family never knew exactly what he did or what he saw there – he had a way of talking around it.

With the end of the war, Dave returned to the U.S. He earned a degree in accounting and moved to Iowa to work in a local factory. Like many people during the early-1980s recession, he lost his job. He started drinking heavily. It was then, Jennifer supposes, that her father’s mental health took a turn for the worse.

Looking back, her father was a lovable wit, Jennifer says. A sociable sponge for science, literature, politics with a wicked gallows humor, he craved constant company. But he’d always been impulsive. One memorable day Dave came home and announced that he’d purchased the franchise rights to the local bus station without consulting his wife or saying much of anything to anyone.

Then he’d say, offhandedly from time to time, that his family might be better off without him.

On January 28, 1997, Jennifer’s mother entered the Tuders’ detached garage and found Dave had shot himself with a hunting rifle. He left no note. It had been another impulsive decision.

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Jennifer was 21 at the time, a graduate student living in Arizona. The way suicide is presented on TV and in the movies, she had only a romantic notion of killing oneself. “If you’d asked me back then if someone should have the right to take their own life, I probably would have said yes,” she confesses. “It seemed like the ultimate form of self-control and self-determination. All of that kind of finished in that moment.”

Now 41, Jennifer is a professor at St. Cloud State University specializing in performance art. For the past 20 years, she has retraced what she knows of her father in his final years to find an explanation. She read the self-help books, joined individual therapy and support groups, and wrote a dissertation on grief. Research helped her find peace in the commonalities between her father’s death and other suicides – for example, how little of his depression he let slip. 

Jennifer still has many more questions than answers, but she’s decided to lay bare her father’s story with gaps in the narrative and all. In an upcoming solo show called Suicide Punchline, she’ll navigate a chaotic roadmap for surviving suicide loss with all its unpredictable highs and lows. The show is geared toward survivors, but Jennifer hopes that it’ll also signal a plea to any audience members who may be contemplating suicide.

“I understand that there is some really troubling research about suicide contagion and suicide clusters,” Jennifer says of the potentially triggering subject matter of her performance. “I was really worried, when I was putting the show together, about having that kind of effect. But I think people have unfortunate belief that we shouldn’t be talking about suicide at all when we absolutely should be talking about it because suicide thrives on silence.”

There’s a question that comes up a lot in her post-show discussions, Jennifer says: Doesn’t she think her father had a right to die, especially if he thought he would be saving his family some long years of grief?

“And my response to that is, in my case, this choice my father made did not make my life better,” Jennifer says. “It’s been difficult and it’s something I will carry with me for the rest of my life. If I could go back in time, I would tell him, ‘I will not be better off without you.’”

Jennifer will perform Suicide Punchline at Dreamland Arts in St. Paul on September 10, 11, and 12 for National Suicide Prevention Week. The title is a nod to her father’s love of dark comedy, she says, promising to sprinkle the show with irreverence. In the words of Bill Maher: “Suicide is man’s way of telling God, ‘You can’t fire me, I quit!’”