Sunday, January 06, 2008

Fallen Away

"The majesty and burning of the child's death.
I shall not murder
the mankind of her going with a grave truth
nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
with any further
elegy of innocence and youth.”

-Dylan Thomas

"I’m going to off myself, and you’ll all be sorry.”

-Apocryphal, variously attributed to Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent Van Gogh, Randall Jarrell, Ian Curtis, Virginia Woolf, Abby Hoffman, Romain Gary, Jean Seberg, Mark Rothko, that person you used to know, and countless others

Leaping into it from a decidedly lowbrow starting point.

The theme to M*A*S*H is based on a song called Suicide is Painless, which refers to a particular scene in the movie and makes no sense applied to the TV series. If you’ve actually heard the lyrics, you’ll have noticed that they’re really quite dark in a high-school notebook sort of way. They were co-written by Robert Altman’s son Mike when he was 15 or so, and project a combination of faux world-weary and sincerely dippy that you can only get away with in your teens.

You might know the chorus:

Suicide is painless
it brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.

Anybody who has been within the blast zone of a suicide would contest the ‘painless' part. Other verses are a little more prescient:

The sword of time will pierce our skins
it doesn't hurt when it begins
but as it works its way on in
the pain grows it grin….

It’s hard to refer to the ‘sword of time’ with a straight face after a certain age (or even to read it). But damn all youth and cheap music...that ‘grinning pain’ is instantly recognizable. Who hasn’t felt that the source of their pain is both inflicting it and rather enjoying the whole experience to boot?

Maybe the kid nailed something just there. And suicide is only painless if you’re using it to prove your point.

You and me, let's talk this over away from the crowd. Let’s try to discuss the frenzy without contributing to it. We’ll hide from the search engines and not mention names. If you don’t follow the news and really must have this all spelled out for you, the police reports can be found here, and the Prosecutor's final statement here.
A thirteen old girl is dead. Her friend’s mother admits to knowing that her own daughter and one of her employees created a fictional internet boyfriend for the thirteen year old. The details get confusing after that (especially over a fast-moving and not entirely accurate internet), but there were some abusive messages sent to the girl from this fake boyfriend, and these may have triggered her suicide.

This story has been floating around in the US media for the last month and a half or so –the earliest instance I can find (via Google News) is in a regional newspaper from November 11th. Since that time, it has generated over 99,700 Google hits to the name of the dead girl (“name” + suicide) and over 34,200 hits (using the same parameters) to the name of the mother who supposedly commissioned the false messages (she denies it).

This woman’s name wasn’t always attached to the story – the regional papers and the early national coverage claimed that they would not name the offending family to protect that family’s daughter. This self-imposed ban was lifted on Nov 19th, 2007 when the ban was rendered pointless- the family name had been leaked by the locals onto blogs and message boards along with with free advice as to what should happen to this woman and her family (jail, torture, death and hell are popular choices).

One such example:

How do you like being harassed so harshly?
How does it feel to be on top of the world one day and be on a sh*t list the next?
How does it feel to have not one person, not two people, but thousands telling you you suck (for your online deceitful behavior against a 13 year old that ended in suicide)?
How does it feel having your close neighbors hate you (for no reason that YOU can comprehend)?
How does it feel to have this online backlash against who YOU are as a person?
Does it make you want to GIVE UP...maybe, KILL YOURSELF?
NOW....pretend you’re 13!
If the law won't supply justice, hopefully the public will.

If you’re into joining the online lynch mob, it’s a remarkably low impact exercise. The offending mother’s phone number, address, photos of her home, the name of her family business and the names & phone numbers of their clients are all easily available with Google and a little patience. In fact, to hell with patience- there are numerous sites which helpfully provide one-stop shopping to pretty much every aspect of the offending family’s life.

If your sympathies lie elsewhere and you think the girl was fat, unattractive, whiny, and that the death of an overmedicated and overdiagnosed thirteen old is no great loss to anyone, there are more than a few sites out there that share your views. An alleged classmate of the dead girl (who later claimed to be the offending mother) started her own blog specifically to give her side of the story:

So yeah it's to bad (she) killed herself but it's not suprising. I mean if she didn't have enough to eat at dinner that could have set her off and made her kill herself. And killing yourself over a (network site) boy? come on!!! I mean yeah your fat so you have to take what you can get but still nobody should kill themselves over it.

The blog was taken down quickly and is assumed to have been a hoax. But the fat angle appeared to be popular. One site lifted pictures from the dead girl’s profile with the following captions:

Fat girl angle shot
Note the double chin
Note the pot belly
Note the retarded look

If you find the whole situation side-splittingly funny, there’s at least one site that puts it all to music (to the tune of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme).

This is a worst-case scenario of oversensitivity and insensitivity hitting the same wall. It feels like a particularly grungy urban myth, a cautionary tale where you get both death and betrayal served cold.

No sermon to follow. I have no idea what anyone's supposed to learn from any of this, other than the fact that town gossip turns into international gossip frighteningly fast over the net.

It's impossible to know what might have played out if the girl had not found her fake boyfriend, and this offers a wide, equal-parts blanket of guilt and absolution for all those involved to hide under. This wasn’t entirely my fault isn’t an unreasonable response in logistical terms. And Yeah? It sure as hell didn’t help seems pretty fair as well.

You can disagree. You can think It could be like that. It’s not impossible. Or you can just mutter Whatever gets you through the night and try to think about something else.

I was in University when a well known Canadian writer in the faculty died suddenly under unusual circumstances. His death was assumed to be suicide, and was discussed openly as such in the days before his funeral. The actual cause of death was never confirmed by his next of kin and is not mentioned in his obituary or his official biography. Nobody can know. I’ll call him Leo for the sake of this exercise and speculate no further.

I hadn’t met Leo, but was a few weeks away from taking a workshop with he and one of my professors. This same professor had criticized some of my material a few months before, when I had been writing about the suicide of a classmate. He had a case; my pieces weren't well conceived or effective. It was simply something I thought I should be working on at the time.

I didn’t mind his criticism- I knew that suicide was a pretty broad topic for anyone to take on, and I sure as hell wasn't qualified – but I thought that his object lesson was unnecessarily glib. He'd told me about a friend of his, a woman who'd been on this kick about wanting to kill herself. She finally called my prof and said that she was afraid of what she was going to do since she'd finally planned it out. She was going to take poison and head into the woods outside of Dublin. She'd try to get lost so there'd be no turning back.

My prof (who'd had quite enough of these calls) finally said something like It's just like you to be so selfish. What about those animals who are going to find you? They might eat you. They might get sick and die because of you. If you're going to do this, at least take pills and cut your wrists in the bathtub. You won't hurt anybody. And don't leave the water running, it'll damage the floor, your landlord will be out of pocket.

Lecture over, both his long-ago friend (who did not die) and I were dismissed. At least it worked, I thought. Something like that sounds like a crapshoot.

Weeks later, Leo was gone and my prof was in front of our class, bloodlessly reciting Leo's virtues and inviting anyone who was interested to a memorial. Everything he said sounded disproportinately gentle and distanced, the sound of somebody who has come across something deeply unpleasant and can't bring themselves to discuss it. They had been very good friends. Let me say it again - nobody knows exactly what happened to Leo. But all indications at the time pointed towards death at his own hand, the shock waves were undeniable.

I didn't go to the memorial. I didn't know Leo. And I didn't want to see my professor that way again. Whatever happened to Leo, it wasn't as abstract as lying down in the the woods or in a bathtub in a Dublin flat. It was closer, cold, and finished.

I have known five people who conspicuously tried to kill themselves, all of them very young at the time. Let’s be discreet and call them:

Cecil, who cut his wrists while drunk and preferred not to mention the incident after the fact (he still walks the earth and never tried it again).

June, who sat in her garage with the car running for a few hours and was rather surprised to have awakened at all. Small mercies. The garage was far better ventilated than anyone had expected. She called me from the Clarke Institute and told me that she loved me very much, which surprised the hell out of me; our friendship consisted of nothing more of letters and coffee dates, and she was going to get in touch with me after she was released and she really should be released but they insisted that she was a danger to herself even though she was not a child (frequently yelled at the staff) and did not like eavesdroppers.

The call was terminated when a staff member (presumably) took the phone and apologized if the call had upset me. June wasn’t supposed to make calls, but I could reach her through the switchboard in future if I was on her doctor’s list of approved contacts. June was eventually discharged, she's just fine.

Paulina swallowed five bottles of randomly chosen pills found in her family medicine cabinet. She was found a few hours later. She recovered.

We had a brief, conspicuously supervised visit in hospital where she talked about wanting to break a window. Not to hurt herself of course, but simply to know that she could do it if she had to. Years later, she’s just fine both physically and psychologically.

Celine cut her wrists deeply enough to cause serious tendon damage along with the loss of blood. She works in film occasionally. You can’t see the scars on the screen, but can still make them out under the layer of foundation when she lifts her glass of wine at a party.

Tess swallowed a few bottles of ground-up 222’s and died. She was sixteen years old. She had always run hot and cold. She had been anorexic. She had threatened to do it before.

In an odd bit of karma, Celine and I were told about Tess’ death at the same time. We sat together in our high school hallway not knowing what to say. Celine’s scars were less than 9 months old at the time, I kept glancing over at them, waiting to see if they or Celine could provide some kind of a reason to the day’s events. There wasn’t anything forthcoming- and her thoughts weren’t any of my business in any case. But I stared at her openly and involuntarily, wanting for some kind of explanation. 23 years later, I almost want to apologize.

A few weeks after Tess' funeral I spoke to Jack, a friend of mine who'd known her the year before and hadn't been told about her death. He was sixteen and into Kung Fu and Bowie at the time. "I don't have any sympathy for her," he said matter-of-factly, "I think she did this just to get attention and it got away from her. It's cowardly. I despise her for it. Bullshit, all of it. That's all I've got to say."

Chip on his shoulder, he waited for my response.

I think I asked about what movies he'd seen recently. I didn't take the bait. But I thought "We're done" then and there, and I spent as little time with him as possible. I didn't like the posturing. Jack stood on it, dismissed it, made it a defining trait.

We all choose what hills to fight on. I wanted nothing to do with that.

But there wasn't a set or proper way to respond to anything - a few people mentioned that Tess' contingent of mourners seemed disproportionate to her circle of friends. At least the mourners were in shock, not knowing what to do in the face of something messy and deeply sad.

23 years later, I got back in touch with Jack. Teenage melodrama has an expiry date. 2008 is a long time away from 1985 and being sixteen. But he said what he said, and it stayed with me. Tess, faults notwithstanding, deserved better than that. I don't know what, exactly. Just not that.

A last second of Tess. I worked on a stage crew during one of our high school shows, cueing lights and moving scenery between numbers. Tess and a few other dancers lingered in the wings before their song, we'd whisper and talk about the crowd outside, who'd missed their lines, which songs were hardest for the band.

Tess was stretching out against a chair when I asked if she was nervous. "I'm fine," she said, "I just need a hug."

Not unusual. I went to a performing arts high school, a notoriously huggy sort of place. We wrapped our arms around each other for a minute or so, it felt soft and warm and was less scary than being in front of an audience. I kept my arms around her shoulders as she turned around and we both watched the stage.

"I needed a hug from a boy tonight," she said. "Sometimes you just need a hug from a boy." She smiled at me and danced onstage with the others.

A nothing moment. Something you'd easily forget. As sentimental as those other sticky valentines. But to be fair to the mise en scene at the time, the song they were dancing to was about leaves on the wind, how things fly away and disappear. And so it goes.

Remember Dylan Thomas at the start of this, and before I blaspheme other stations of the breath we'll bring it home. In late November of 2007, one of the US networks posted an interview transcript with the dead girl’s parents.

Voice Over: We are not reporting the name of the other family to protect the identity of their daughter, but did go to their home to try and get their side of the story…The woman's father answered the door. In a soft voice, the grandfather said it was sad, but then would not say if he thought the police report was wrong. (to the parents) Have you talked to these people since then?

Yes, I have.

What have you said to them?

Probably things that I can't say on camera.

And what did they say back to you?

Give it a rest. Give it a rest.

Voice Over:… more than a year has gone by since their daughter anged herself. they have separated, partly because of the stress. They were told by lawyers it was best to stay quiet. But they no longer are. They are angry and feel they owe it to their to speak out. (to the parents) Maybe your story could help the welfare of another child?

Absolutely. That's what we hope.

The rest of us, we simply go about our business.

January, 2008

Update, June 2008: It's not over yet.

Another update, November 2008: Wired Magazine looking at the MySpace implications and the legal angles involved.


STAG said...

I take it that this has been much on your mind of late?

Mike D. said...

Something like that.

STAG said...

Mine too.

Anonymous said...

So, I could go back and look at why this came up but it is strange that it did. Last week a girlfriend of mine killed her self. One of the comments from an other friend was that it made her feel old. Me, just makes me feel sad - oh, her comment was on our other friend that died in a plane crash two weeks ago - I thought of the suicide when she said it though and actually only now, typing it out am attributing it to its rightful catalyst. My point though - What is the point.. It is all so surreal and not real.

I don't want an account so will be anonymous but you know who I am MJD. K

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