An Anecdote on Suicide Contagion

The renewed discussion of suicide following the recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain has brought back a particularly disturbing experience I had in college that I think about at least once a week.

I was sitting in the computer lab, a tight space with rows of big, flat Apple computers that simultaneously obscured your face from the view of one side and reflected it to those on the other side, when a stranger sat down two seats from me. Something was off about him. Maybe it was the mechanism by which he sat down, his posture, his body’s cadence as he locked into the screen and methodically shifted windows and began scanning a command module. I was 19 or 20 at the time, and he seemed to be several years older, mid to late 20s. I could no longer focus on my work, not that I did much of that anyway. I snuck a glance and saw a cold face, brutally configured and maintained like a mint coin, with just as much plasticity. His head was shaved nearly to the skin but was still jet black like a swimming cap. I couldn’t make sense of his body proportions under his oversized, dirty white shirt.

I can only look in spurts, fearing that his gaze would turn me to stone. His head doesn’t move. I continue to look — with as much stealth as possible — and notice his arms. They are lined with cuts, both left and right and more severe than any I’d seen in the documentaries we’d watched in my high school psychology class. He’d laid the rail road tracks and gone down the street at least once, evinced by the thick raised scar running about seven inches up his inside wrist. My eyes tracked up his arm further and there was a cluster, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ band logo, but made with cuts. A sun burst of scars. To this day I suspect I could draw each line from memory.

For all the time I spent staring, he doesn’t show any awareness of me. I don’t mean that he hasn’t shown any of the typical body language that one normally does when someone has been staring at your for five minutes — he doesn’t seem to acknowledge the existence of anyone else in the lab where there are at least 7 other people chatting about calculus equations and what not. I take another look at him and notice his shirt is not a plain white tee: he’s written in sharpie all along the bottom. The bottom six or seven inches of the shirt have what looks like a manifesto on them. The only thing I could make out was, “Your words are fundamentally meaningless.”

By this point it was long obvious that this guy had been through more than I could ever imagine, so much so that he seemed alien to me. Part of me wanted to tell him it was ok. Another thought I should ask if he was ok. “Well, say something,” I thought to myself. “You can’t see that and not say something.” But everything that came to mind to say felt ridiculous. Maybe that’s how he wanted me to feel, to push me away when in fact me saying one of those things would do wonders for him in the long run. I remember feeling angry at him a short time after I felt that sympathy. I though about what a lost cause he is, that he’s the one who’s ridiculous and that I’m under no obligation to reach out to someone who believes so strongly that words have no meaning that they would write it by hand on a T-shirt they wear in public.

So I didn’t say anything. After about 20 minutes he abruptly cut off his computer and left, long shirt hanging over his dirty cargo shorts, clunky flip-flops slapping behind him as he strode out into the hallway, turning one direction before whipping around and heading out the other. No one else seemed to see him. He was a ghost. The TA’s stationed in the lab were supposed to come around to check on people but no one did. I told a friend about this last weekend and she wondered what happened to him. We had the same thought: “I wonder if he’s alive?” As I write, I regret giving him what he wanted: more silence.

If Bourdain and Spade show us anything it’s that suicidal ideation isn’t obvious in someone. They can seem to have it all and be enjoying it while carrying that darkness.  All we can do for those in that mindset is listen. Maybe that way we’ll recognize that low humming silence before it’s too late.

What happened in Charlottesville?

The chaos in Charlottesville feels like the culmination of every Twitter and Facebook fight that has taken place over the last two years, if not every social media argument ever. It’s as if the two sides have finally left their keyboards and tried to go out to make their fantasy real at the expense of the other. This may very well be the climax at which point we mark forever as the moment America went completely sideways. The jokes were never just jokes. The retweets were never just that, and the drama that I just typed that with is probably not dramatic enough. What were they? They were the early tremors from a beast that was thrashing beneath the surface.

For a long time, the Confederate monument debate seemed like a passing phase. Like people were making a big deal out of them as an outlet for their election rage, but again, it was so much more than that: an attempt to tear down what people in my home town, state, region often view as part of their history. I never felt that connection to them. They always seemed to be relics of a bad past. I thought everyone shared that contextualization of them until fairly recently. The more you think about their existence, standing proudly and permanently, adourning the city halls and capitol buildings of every state in the union, it does start to eat away at you and something inside you says, “I’m not proud of this.”

And now we see what these statues represented all along: a commitment to a heritage that was tarred over a century ago, and rightly so. They stand as a symbol of America’s original hypocrisy: equality for all that look like me. But should they be torn down so violently? Is that any way to move into the future, by destroying the past? This question may be answered for us.

So now a woman and two police officers are dead, plus dozens injured, and the warring parties don’t seem to have learned anything. Already they are planning more and more battles all over the country. Anything goes now. The Daily Stormer declared “this is war” and was promptly hacked by Anonymous, lost their domain registration with Google, moved it to GoDaddy and lost that as well. The beast is lurching. A Confederate monument was just ripped down in Durham, a “white lives matter” rally is being planned at Texas A&M, and Richard Spencer has vowed to make Charlottesville the “center of the universe”. This is not even close to over.

Back to my original question: what happened in Charlottesville? It became gave us license to punch people that disagree with us online. Someone justified running a car into a crowd of people. Not only has media been socialized in this era, but war, and we are all being called to arms: “No conversation can solve this.” If you don’t punch Nazis, you’re complicit in their oppression of the vulnerable. If you don’t worship a frog and call out snowflakes, you’re a cuck. Lest we all be doomed to the failed experiments of history, we must see our way to understanding our enemies, and ultimately ourselves, before we let the cause of the moment drag us down.

An introduction to infinity

In a finite world, there is only conflict. There, every direction you look you will see walls and threats, enemies and impurities. The only things progressing: isolation and silence. We live in a country with a man at the top who believes that walls are a solution, that once this wall is built there will be some kind of stopping point during which America can reorient itself and achieve some great future, but this is a lie. One wall will beget the next wall and the next – whether physical or rhetorical – until we have all but shut ourselves off from the world.

Walls are not a stopping point. They are only the strongest evidence possible of a world beyond them and of the fear that world creates in the ones who built it.

This blog is going to be a place for engaging with and expressing ideas across walls. As long as walls are put up this conversation will be infinite, but it will get us somewhere, somewhere they don’t want us to go: the other side.

Happy reading,

Gavin Stone