Monday, April 02, 2007 

Facing death.

Suicide, despite the song, is most certainly not painless. When someone you know decides to take their own life, especially when it's completely unexpected, it's only natural to go through a period of soul-searching, trying to figure out if there was something you could have done or something you should have done that might of altered that person's state of mind. Even when a note is left, it can only go so far in explaining the real motives behind the person's actions. Hardly any taking of one's own life is down to one sole, simple reason: despite common perceptions, there are usually multiple reasons behind someone taking their own life, at least in the way that we most associate with someone committing suicide. If you want to get into the more sociological reasons and motives behind suicide, then Emile Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of modern sociology, wrote a seminal and still highly applicable study which is worth glancing over. (Although many would blanch at how suicide bombers would under his definition probably be understood as altruistic suicides.)

It's with this in mind that we ought to approach the plea from the family of Kevin Whitrick, who hung himself on his web cam in front of a chat-room of other people, to stop the distribution of the screen grab which shows Whitrick ending his own life:

Today his brother Malcolm said: “I would appeal to anybody not to circulate these awful images.

“I cannot understand what satisfaction anyone would get out of wanting to see them, edit them or pass them around.”

Well, this at least is pretty easy to answer. It's the same satisfaction which leads to drivers on a motorway slowing down when an accident's happened on the opposite side of the road, hoping to catch a glimpse of the carnage. It's the same inquisitive nature which explains the existence of websites such as Ogrish, or the front page of True, those two seem to delight in the ghoulish rather than simply peer into it, but they also serve a purpose other than to excite the gorehounds among us: they let us see and experience death without going near it ourselves.

A lot of the comment surrounding Whitrick's death was that some of the users of the chat room had encouraged him or goaded him on, even suggesting that some of those responsible could be tried as accessories. Assuming that the image I've seen is authentic, and which I also assume has now been passed around the internet 20 times over, it should be noted that the vast majority of the users who were still there as it happened appear to have been extremely distressed and sickened once they realised that Whitrick's talk was for real.

Additionally, it's worth pointing out the very nature of the chat room which Whitrick chose to broadcast his death to, named Kel's FRIENDLY insult chat for evryone (sic). It doesn't seem that Whitrick was a regular, although some in the room knew who he was. Whether he joined in order to psyche himself up to do it, or simply because he had every intention of committing suicide and broadcasting his death to a channel not noted for being the most welcoming and understanding we will probably never know. Looking at the comments that went before they realised that he was about to kill himself, they're not out of the ordinary with what often goes on in forums or chatrooms where people who are suicidal have discussed their feelings. What has to be understood is that the very nature of the anonymity of the internet means that a lot of people are instinctively either more combative, jaded or dismissive than they would be were the same events taking place in real life. There are so many trolls, downright liars or attention whores online that a similar response may well have taken place in any room, not just an "insult" channel.

We can't know what was going through Whitrick's mind, whether he had been depressed, or whether it was a spur of the moment thing, however crude that sounds. His family suggests that he had been involved in a car crash which he hadn't fully recovered from, and that he had separated from his wife and children. There is however everything to suggest that he had at least intended to make an attempt on his life, whether he was going to broadcast it potentially to the world or not. Bringing it back to the point of how or why anyone could get satisfaction out of distributing or searching for the images of the moment of death, for many there is always going to be the simple curiosity of wondering what happens when someone dies. It's an event which few of us are going to face at least until we're considerably older, if at all before we ourselves expire.

Our bodies and our minds are normally designed to resist death at absolutely all costs. What death feels like, or what happens when we die is the other great question alongside the meaning of life itself. It's one which no one can effectively describe, and there are very few that return as it were to tell the tale. Fear of death is just as much a part of this as being designed to resist it; it's only when suitably conditioned, or depressed enough that you are no longer afraid of ceasing to be. Having suffered from severe depression, there was a time when I wasn't afraid of death: in fact more in lust with it than terrified and horrified by it. You can go to sleep wishing, praying that you don't wake up in the morning, only to be disappointed and just as angry and frustrated when you do. The very nature of severe, suicidal depression is that there are moments when you can laugh like a drain, but still be wishing that you were dead at the same time. Rather like being constantly afraid of dying, you become constantly preoccupied with dying. It's only when you've recovered from feeling that way, restored to the equilibrium of once again fearing the reaper, that you can properly understand what it is that drives some to kill themselves, as well as appreciate just how special and precious this brief, turmoiled and occasionally oppressive but undeniably exhilirating thing called life can be.

This is why I find it hard to feel too angry or bemused by those who look, read or try to experience death without going through it themselves. Better that they see it that way than actually wanting to end it all. We are meant to be repulsed by death, we are meant to be curious about it, we are always going to want to see it and see the bloody mess left of those who lose their lives, whether through tragic suicide, in a car crash, beheadings by terrorists or through natural causes while asleep. We look at it, and then we put it away again, knowing it will happen to us one day but desperately hoping that it wont. If Kevin Whitrick's decision to end his life in a very public matter means that someone else who's suicidal seeks help, or if it helps prick the conscience of some of the worst offenders when it comes to being blase about life, especially online, then it will have served some sort of purpose. As for his family's appeal, hopefully with time, once their wounds have healed, as difficult as it is, they'll understand why it is that his final moments are likely to be distributed around the internet for a long time to come.

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