September 4, 2007

The Web is the Worst Place to Grieve

By: Joanne McNeil

You might fantasize about your funeral. Will your ex-boyfriend finally realize just how much of an idiot he was and sob by your casket? Will old friends — from as far back kindergarten — come to pay respects? What is it they will say they miss? Your kindness, your laugh, or your cleverness? LiveJournal users, inventive and insecure creatures that they are, have found a way to capture the attention rewarded to the dead without ever crossing over: they commit Internet suicide.

Neil Gaiman once wrote in The New York Times about a blog of this nature, “She counted down to the big day, and I kept reading, uncertain what to do, if anything. There was not enough identifying information on the Web page even to tell me which continent she lived on. No e-mail address. No way to leave comments. The last message said simply, ‘Tonight.’ I wondered whom I should tell, if anyone, and then I shrugged, and, best as I could, I swallowed the feeling that I had let the world down. And then she started to post again. She says she’s cold and she’s lonely. I think she knows I’m still reading ….”

Six years ago, “Flashman” used the 9-11 disaster as a way to kill his LiveJournal. That famous day, “Rhyein” — a “friend” of his — posted Flashman, “aka Anthony Joseph Pereira,” died rushing into the burning World Trade Center. He was trying to save people. Readers were later surprised Pereira’s name was never in official lists and his heroic death never received any press. By 2003, after a thousand comments on the site, LiveJournal users exposed Rhyein and Flashman as the same author. “[It] sucks that we all were made to feel pain for the loss of someone who never existed,” commented one of the readers.” (The Flashman and Rhyein LiveJournals have both been updated this year.)

Hoaxes overshadow very real and very sad incidences of people who have used websites to compose suicide notes. It is the simplest way to reach the most people at once and the only way to alert online friends.

In January of this year, a thirty-four year old woman posted, “So, just took 3 Clonazepam, 2 Ambien, and 10 Darvon. 30 more Darvon to go if I want to die. I can stop at any time and be fine I think so I haven’t make THE decision yet. Not sure why I’m updating – think I’ll go watch TV and drink my Hennessy in front of the lovely fire I have going.” Immediately, 81 LiveJournal users commented, but their concerns were too late. One of her readers contacted her brother, who confirmed that she had died.

In 2005, Livejournal user “Klerk” (Kevin Ealy) wrote a self-mocking entry, “Good bye to my internet friends forever!” He continued, “But seriously folks, I really am killing myself now. I’m doing the cheesiest thing imaginable by posting my suicide letter in my LJ, but the irony of it is too hilarious to ignore and it’s not out of a desire for attention, I mean good god, I’m killing myself, I don’t need the attention. No, it’s just so that the note will be easily found and read by all that it applies to.” Surreally, he added the LiveJournal de rigeur update, “Current Mood: suicidal <– LAFF” and “Current Music: i dunno, something gothic for sure.” The Charleston Post & Courier printed an obituary, nevertheless many readers believe it was a hoax and he is still alive.

SKEPTICISM IS the natural response to all web content. If you read about Owen Wilson’s suicide attempt online, your first reaction was likely that of disbelief. Rumored “suicides” of everyone from Winona Ryder to Jaleel White were debunked in the same minute they were spread, and yet, there seems to be no end to these kinds of morbid lies.

On the Internet, mourning has surreal or even sanctimonious undertones, especially for those who only knew the deceased as a web presence. It could be because emails and blogs are the worst places to communicate sincerity. You can easily alt-tab from a deceased person’s website to view “LOLcats,” or you might get an instant message “ZOMG, I got sooo drunk last nite.” The time-shifts that are the natural web-crawling experience prevent us from ever really dwelling on a tragic experience.

Some people use morbid humor as a way to enhance the strangeness of a dead person’s web presence. But on the web, tactless humor effortlessly transitions into cruelty. In 2005, Joshua Ballard posted a Myspace bulletin, viewable to all of his friends, informing them of his impending self-inflicted death:


Date: Nov 29, 2005 11:14 AM
Subject: do me a favore….
Body: call the police.
address: 27802 Abadejo, Mission Viejo, CA 92692.
tell them to go down the hall to the bathrooom.
im soo sorry <3

Since Ballard’s suicide, other Myspace users cut-and-pasted his message, reposting it ad verbatim. appallingly approached his suicide as just another meme, creating mocking Flash animations with his photograph. The Boston Phoenix reported on a battle that waged between YTMND hackers and Ballard’s friends for control over his Myspace page. One of his friends received an email, instructing her to give up, as “He belongs to the internet now.”

Sadly, Ballard’s is not an isolated case. There are several examples of hackers breaking into the LiveJournals or Myspace pages of deceased persons, leaving sick notes to the horror of their friends.

NO LONGER do we need to write a great song or climb Mount Everest for immortality. Our name lives on over the Internet, whether for great reasons or minutiae. Google never forgets. And if a suicide victim is a blogger, the process takes another twist. Suddenly, every post seems to have subtext.

Theresa Duncan was never a celebrity until she killed herself in mid-July. The 40 year-old filmmaker and former video game developer maintained the blog, The Wit of the Staircase, where she wrote about aesthetics, fashion, literature, and philosophy. “Many read Duncan’s words online, and most thought she was glamorous, brilliant, brave, bold, erudite. She was all those things — but those attributes didn’t win in the end,” wrote Kate Coe, in her LA Weekly profile of Duncan. Jeremy Blake, Duncan’s boyfriend of twelve years, killed himself the week after she died.

Duncan has already attained the icon status typically reserved for Warhol Factory tormented sylphs, even though, in their lives, Blake had the higher profile of the two. Perhaps that is because her blog provides a 24-hour source for speculation.

“It’s this summer’s Lonelygirl15,” Cole told me over the phone. She’s “fascinated by people fascinated by this,” but isn’t entirely surprised that the story has generated so much attention. “There’s some kind of weird back story to this,” she explained.

The L.A. Times reported Duncan and Blake composed a 27-page document listing, among others, Tom Cruise, Miranda July, and (Blake’s former collaborators) Paul Thomas Anderson and Beck, as people involved in a Church of Scientology conspiracy against them.

Proving the Internet is the worst place to honor the dead, Duncan is either vilified or exalted in the blogs that were created in her wake. These blogs, with names like “Theremy,” “Children of the Staircase,” and “Theresa Duncan Central,” specifically update rumors and add more layers to the myth.

Some pick apart her penchant for plagarism and delight in reports she was a pot-smoker. Others debate the seriousness of her fears of scientologists. One blog suggests that Duncan and Blake are still alive and the suicides were just an elaborate game.

People now read Duncan’s blog in its entirety — like a novel. Just as the humor in A Confederacy Of Dunces is inextricably linked with a mental picture of John Kennedy Toole’s mother finding his handwritten manuscript; one can interpret sorrow or madness in Duncan’s most benign posts, knowing now that she decided to kill herself.

Many mainstream media articles have reproduced Duncan’s very last post, a quote from Reynolds Price:

A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens — second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives, from the small accounts of our day’s events to the vast incommunicable constructs of psychopaths.

But it means … what exactly?

We will never know. Theresa Duncan is dead.

Joanne McNeil is Brainwash‘s Science and Tech Editor. Her website is