Posted by: scintillatingspeck | January 13, 2013

For activists considering suicide.

Like countless numbers of people in the past two days, I was deeply distressed by the news of activist Aaron Swartz’s suicide at age 26.  Aaron was clearly a brilliant, sensitive, and dedicated man.  He is remembered for many impressive technological achievements, but what stands out in bold relief to me, and to the activist community as a whole, is this: he sought to change the culture of disconnection in a radical way.  For this commitment to the common good, for pursuing freedom of information, or as Aaron put it, “the freedom to connect,” he was persecuted, by the U.S. government and by academia (as represented by M.I.T.).  Although I didn’t know him personally, I have little doubt that the grief and stress he endured had a major impact on his decision to kill himself.

There is so much I want to say.  My thoughts veer in all directions: to offer my condolences to all those affected by this tragic death; to exhort all those who believe in freedom of information to keep working for it; to call on my fellow librarians to rise up to their essential calling, that of throwing open the doors of information and knowledge to all, without exception (and to reflect on whether it’s time for me to re-approach Radical Reference); to call on academics to take direct action within their institutions to combat the commodification of knowledge; and to reflect more deeply on the legacy that Aaron leaves behind.

All of that, however, is dwarfed by another, far more pressing need: to speak directly to activists who are considering suicide.  I know there are many.  We are united by conviction, and divided by unspeakable suffering: the suffering of direct persecution, the suffering of disconnection, the suffering that results from witnessing staggering levels of harm and destruction.  Therefore, the suffering must be spoken aloud, so that we can show up for one another.  We do not gain from remaining silent, attempting to insulate others from our pain.  It’s so easy to believe that all that matters is making the personal suffering stop, that this is worth any burden of anguish that might be placed on those who know us (or even those who don’t know us– the ripple effects of suicide spread far and quickly).  Your suicide, our collective suicide, no matter how insistently it seems to make sense– no, it does not make sense.  It will never make sense.  It stabs a jagged hole into the heart of all that is good and right.  We must do what it takes to hold each other up.

I don’t say this lightly.  I speak from experience, as an activist whose heart is also broken by injustice, and as yet another person who has suffered and considered suicide.  I know the depths of pain.  I know the temptation to withdraw utterly, to give up on the possibility of being understood or helped, to feel like the world is arranged as a system of entrenched thuggery, to hold onto the idea of death as the ultimate escape route.

It’s not a theoretical exercise, this speaking to suicidal activists.  Only hours ago, I wrote to someone I have never met, on Facebook, in response to statements that he was thinking of ending his life, and that it was made all the worse by Aaron’s suicide.  This is what I wrote.

I was also very affected by the news of Aaron’s death and it reemphasized to me how utterly essential it is that activists reach out to one another and talk to each other through the unbearable grief and stress.  Please use Facebook not only to get crucial information, but to ask friends to spend time with you and talk with you. I used to hold back on asking friends for their time and help, and there are still big hurdles within me in doing that, but I’m working on dismantling those hurdles. Facebook can equally be used as a tool of connection (to arrange face-to-face meetings with friends and activists, for example) as well as a tool of disconnection (Keith Farnish writes about the “tools of disconnection” very eloquently in his work). I’m thinking of Aaron’s speech that’s making the rounds right now, in which he talks about how he and others stopped SOPA. He said something about how at first, he couldn’t understand what copyright had to do with him or why he should care about it. But then he realized it was about the FREEDOM TO CONNECT. This is our birthright as human animals, and it is a hideous crime that there are so many forces conspiring to keep us disconnected. I’m sure that this disconnection is at the root of many, if not most, of the suicides that we witness. We can’t afford all this loss and death. Not just the loss of Aaron, but every other activist in all his or her love and brilliance. We have to fight the disconnection tooth and nail, the disconnection between each other and within ourselves. I have considered suicide a number of times in my life, and I’m telling you, I’m done with that, and no matter how wretched and hopeless I feel I’m still going to ask for help whenever I get that impulse to make the suffering stop. The most important factor in getting help, I’ve found for myself, is making myself heard and not being alone, and if the first source of help isn’t helpful, to keep looking for help that IS helpful. So friends, family, suicide hotlines, and the closest hospital emergency room are all viable sources of help; and for people who have no support from family and few or no friends, the people at the hotlines and the ER are serious about helping you. Don’t put it off.

I have no way of knowing if what I wrote was of any use.  I hope it can be.  An activist who commits suicide has eliminated his/her own freedom to connect, permanently, and caused other vulnerable activists to think, “Hmm, maybe suicide is a viable option for me as well.”  To whom will you reach out, today?  Which friend, which faceless stranger?  How will you work towards a culture of connection, and how will you undermine the tools of disconnection?  I would like to know.  I’ll keep you posted on my thoughts and actions as well.



  1. Beautiful post, Jen. You’ve left me tearful and moved. Love you.

  2. all i can think of is “what will we do without him?” the work he was doing was SO important, SO urgent, we have to carry it on. but i worry about what if we just can’t? or what if they get to each of us first? i have no doubt that the harassment from the US gov’t played a huge part in the suicide, but he had also explained to a friend quite eloquently what this depression was. that it doesn’t come or go for any reason, it’s just there. it’s horribly tragic that it all became too much, except i think perhaps in his final act of defiance he showed the gov’t that they COULD NOT get him. they didn’t get him, in the end. they were not able to imprison him to make a bradley manning-style example out of him.

    as someone who’s attempted suicide and who has considered it many times after that, you are right jen: the ER can actually help, if there is no one else. i’ve checked myself in when i didn’t know what else to do. what they can’t help with is the circumstances that can drive us to death. they can listen to us, and help get us stable, diagnosed, and medicated. but the rest – i have mixed feelings. i think it is up to all activists to support one another & try to prevent all our suicides. but better to commit suicide than to be tortured in prison without charge or counsel. i still have very mixed feelings over my aunt’s 2002 suicide. i understand, i relate, i sympathize… and i think why didn’t she let me talk her out of it? because we could use her in this world. but what of those of us who feel we have no more use? i think at 60, with failing health, she saw the limitations of what she could do, and she saw that the challenges were just too much, the grief too unbearable. i still wish she was here. but i also keep suicide on hand at all times as my “plan C”. notice it’s not “plan B.” i don’t actually have one of those.

    since i think what i’m laying out here is just a meaningless jumble of words now, i’ll say this: i commend you jen, on using fb to reach out. i don’t do that because i’ve gotten hurtful reactions before and i just couldn’t bear it. but i think it’s the right thing to do and a good thing to do, and it gives your friends a chance to help before they find out how much they wish they *could* have helped. and thank you for making it clear to all of us that you’re *not* committing suicide. i am only sorry i’m unable to do anything for you personally because i’m an extremely isolated invalid. but my door is always open to you.

    • Jenna, thank you for the open door. And glad that suicide is neither your plan A nor your plan B.

      What will we do without him? We will tear down the walls. Will inaction or silence protect us from being targeted? We’re all in the cross-hairs, one way or another.

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