Remembering Aaron by taking care of each other

My friend Will Morrell, brilliant and sardonic, was the first person I ever knew to make his living close to the machine. A few years after we got out of college, he got a job in New York designing DSP chips for pinball machines, and crashed with me for a couple of months. During his stay, he convinced me I could dump my theater career in favor of finding a way to make my living on the internet. That turned out to be one of the most important conversations of my life, but I’ll never be able to thank him properly. He killed himself a few years ago.

I teach at NYU, where a quartet of students recently decided the world needed a privacy-respecting alternative to Facebook. The result, Diaspora, was the longest of long shots, a project that shouldn’t have a chance in hell of working, but it’s turned into an interesting experiement, largely because of Ilya Zhitomirskiy, whose Wikipedia page calls him “the most idealistic and privacy-conscious member of the group.” Ilya killed himself a little over a year ago.

Then there’s Aaron Swartz.

Aaron’s suicide has stirred the kind of political anger he cared about — as Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman said in her heart-wrenching and beautiful memorial, Aaron would have loved to be here — and those of us who care about the things Aaron cared about have to work harder to support open culture and the free flow of information, now that he’s not with us.

But there’s something else we need to do. We need to take care of the people in our community who are depressed.

Suicide is not hard to understand, not intellectually anyway. It is, as Jeff Atwood says, the ultimate in ragequitting. But for most of us, it is hard to understand emotionally.

For a variety of reasons, I’ve spent a lot of time with people at risk of suicide, and so have become an amateur scholar of that choice. When I first started reading about it, I thought of it as the last stop on a road of stress and upset — when things get bad, people suffer, and when they get really bad, they take their own lives.

And what I learned was that this view is wrong. Suicide is no more a heightened reaction to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune than depression is just being extra sad. Most of us won’t kill ourselves, no matter how bad things get. The common thread among people who commit suicide is that they are suicidal.

It’s tempting to narrow our focus to the proximate causes. Ilya killed himself because of the stresses of running a startup, Aaron because of out-of-control prosecutors. And these are proximate causes — without Stephen Heymann and Carmen Ortiz gunning for Aaron, he wouldn’t have hanged himself two weeks ago. He had people near and far who loved him, but given what was happening to him, that wasn’t enough.

But suicide is not only about proximate causes. Bernie Madoff destroyed his friends and his family, turned his own name into a curse in every community of which he was a member, and there he sits, in the jail cell where he will almost certainly die, writing missives to the outside world about the state of the financial system. Madoff hasn’t killed himself because he isn’t the kind of person who kills himself.

The reasons someone commits suicide at a particular moment aren’t all the reasons they commit suicide. Often those aren’t even the most important reasons. No one likes this part of the explanation. It makes an event that’s already as awful as it can be more awful, because it renders it inexplicable. Most of us, even with our occasional desires for the ground to swallow us up, can sympathize but never really empathize.

Among the /b/tards of 4chan, there is a culture of celebrating people who ‘an hero’ (their preferred synonym for suicide), but there’s also a message that frequently gets copied and pasted in those threads, whose core paragraph is:

so instead of killing yourself, why don’t you just get the fuck out? leave the basement, leave your house, leave the mother fucking country. go on an adventure. spend your time doing something awesome, like tracking down some terrorists. go be james bond. go fuck up a shark with a harpoon. danger? fuck that, you were going up against 100% death rate before, you’re being safe now? fuck EVERYTHING man the world is your oyster.

This message is both energetic and clueless, like most of /b/, an adolescent version of “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”, where not caring is a prelude to excellent adventures.

But not caring doesn’t mean giving up on the things holding you back. Not caring — real despair — means giving up. Period.

The warning signs are well known. Persistent withdrawal. Mood swings. Previous attempts or family history. Talking about it. Self-erasure. The American Association of Suicidology has a good overview. There’s no perfect checklist, but we are better at knowing the signs in general than we are at acting on them in specific cases. Ask yourself “Whose suicide would sadden but not surprise me?”

The useful responses are well-known too. Reach out. Ask. Listen. Take casual mentions of suicide seriously. Be persistent about checking on someone. Don’t try to cure or fix anyone; that’s out of your league. Just tell them you care, and point them to professional resources. Wikipedia has a list of English-language suicide prevention hotlines. Help Guide has a good overview of what we know about prevention generally, and how to help the potentially suicidal.

We need to remember Aaron by supporting free culture, and by limiting prosecutorial abuse. But we also need to remember Aaron by taking care of each other. Our community is unusually welcoming of people disproportionately at risk, but we are also unusually capable of working together without always building close social ties. Github is great for distributing participation, but it is lousy for seeing how everyone is doing.

We need to remember Aaron by thinking of those among us at risk of dying as he did. Most of them won’t be martyrs — most of them will be people like Ilya and Will — but their deaths will be just as awful. And, as with every cause Aaron stood for, we know how to take on this problem. What we need is the will to act.