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Is Webcam Suicide Ever Appropriate?

with 35 comments

The cause of suicide rights seems to suffer anytime someone commits or attempts suicide on camera with folks on the internet watching. When a suicide is completed, the public demands to know why no one intervened. When intervention appears to prevent a suicide, the public unquestioningly gives its support to the intervenor. (In the most recent such case, Chris Matyszczyk cheerfully informs us in rather Orwellian terms that “The police arranged for [the suicide] to receive the appropriate care.”)

Perhaps this is as it should be, since most of the time, someone who attempts suicide in front of a camera is clearly a victim of the dangerous fantasy of rescue, hoping to be “saved” before his suicide is successful. (Of course, changing the law to forbid intervention with suicide attempts would be better than the current situation for both those who genuinely want to die and for those who engage in potentially self-lethal behavior in order to be saved.)

Is there ever a good reason to die on camera? I propose two possibilities, both with limits.

1. Not wanting to die alone

It is understandable for a human being who genuinely wishes to die to also not want to die alone. Many people call suicide hotlines for this purpose, rather than in hopes of rescue. Suicides regularly seek each other out in order to die together. In his book Why People Die By Suicide, Thomas Joiner refers to a 2004 Chicago Tribune article about people who commit suicide by jumping in front of trains:

Almost always, suicide victims [sic] peer into the locomotive cab in their final moments. They stare right into the eyes of the engineer, perhaps reaching for a last human connection.

. . . [Metra engineer Raymond Baxter says] “I’ve heard other engineers say [people committing suicide] look at you. I don’t know why they do it. I sure wish they wouldn’t, because the picture stays with you. You try to forget about it, but you don’t ever, really. It ain’t easy.”

The desire for human contact at the last moment is poignant and understandable – but it is awful to force this attempt at connection on an unwilling train engineer. It would be much better if a suicide could agree with a willing person beforehand to be with him while he died – even if it only meant watching over a web camera. This would spare the feelings of unwilling witnesses, such as the poor train driver, yet it would not force upon a suicide the cruelty of dying alone.

As it is, there are major problems – most of them legal – faced by people who would comfort a suicide in his last moments. In a 2007 This American Life episode (How to Rest in Peace, at 39:35) a son (“Edward”) describes helping his mother to commit suicide, at her insistence – but not being able to be with her while she died, for fear of being prosecuted for having a role in her death. His mother was forced to choose between dying alone and staying alive against her will – and chose to die. But she should not have been forced to make this choice.

Barring major changes in laws against assisting suicides, pre-arranged company via web camera offers a measure of comfort to a dying person. (Still, allowing one’s suicide to be viewed by one person or a few people seems more justifiable than publicly broadcasting one’s suicide to the entire internet.)

2. In the interest of providing information

Despite hysterical claims to the contrary, there is very little information available about dying certainly and comfortably. (Even The Peaceful Pill Handbook is not ultimately helpful without access to barbiturates.)

However, if a suicide were to demonstrate a method in the interest of increasing available information, it would be a public service to other would-be suicides to share the method and experience – good or bad. Others would be able to see first hand the use of the method and its apparent effects. While some viewers might find this disturbing, I think it is ethical as a civil disobedience against the unethical suicide prohibition, especially if the video could only be accessed by those who specifically sought out such information.

From the This American Life episode mentioned above, at 51:20:

Ira Glass: It just seems so sad that she has to be alone at that moment. It seems like that’s the moment where, of all moments, she would want somebody with her to hold her hand and comfort her.

“Edward”: It was terrible. It was terrible. Exactly. That was probably the worst part of it, that she had to do it alone. Me and her other family members could not be there, because we live in a society that does not respect people’s desire to control the end of their life.


Written by Sister Y

February 6, 2009 at 10:41 pm

35 Responses

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  1. I find myself with competing intuitions on the general question of whether to die alone that turn on the substantive reason for my suicide. If I were going to choose death because of the pain and hopelessness associated, say, with a fatal diagnosis of some sort, I would probably want my loved ones there with me, so that we could “see one another off.”But if I were to choose death out of a conviction that life is just plain pointless, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want any company. I suppose part of the reason is that such profound pessimism is just too alien for most people to expect that anyone would agree with and support my decision. (And were a friend to make that choice and invite me to his or her suicide, I think I’d have to decline.)

    Michael Drake

    February 7, 2009 at 9:58 pm

  2. I suspect that your position is common. Even without the overbearing restrictions on “assisting a suicide” merely by being there, most people would not choose to hold the hand of a friend who wanted to die by suicide unless that friend were physically ill. And I think it is a great deal to ask. Yet – I think <>some<> people would be willing, and perhaps it is better that these people be strangers to the suicide. Years ago I worked for a suicide hotline and my mentor told us that some people just don’t want to die alone, and that if it was consistent with our values, we were free to serve the function of company. (Though tracing the call and calling the police to “save” the person was also one of the options available to us, unfortunately.)I don’t see any reason why a person who wants to die because life is essentially meaningless couldn’t also want comfort in his last moments. Also, there’s a third motivation for suicide – not that life is necessarily meaningless, but that life is just too painful <>for him<>, with no redeeming meaning <>for him<>. This is, in fact, not very different from the motivation of a terminally ill suicide.

    Sister Y

    February 7, 2009 at 10:38 pm

  3. There’s a blog I follow by a lady who’s trying to get her novel published. In the < HREF="" REL="nofollow">first chapter<> of this novel, the main character helps her father commit suicide using poisonous mushrooms. He advises her to leave because of the possible legal implications, and she refuses, not wanting to leave him alone.

    Fiat Lex

    February 8, 2009 at 1:32 am

  4. Curator — while finding a <>motivation<> in life’s essential meaninglessness is probably a never acted upon factor poised in the dormancy of far more minds than is commonly assumed, I find it hard to accept that it is ever a <>sufficient<> motivation, without the assistance of, or a personalizing transformation by, the third sort of motivation you specify.I would be highly suspicious of a suicide wannabe who claimed such a loftily impersonal reason without being complemented by the more specifically self-referential sorts (which, I believe, do the bulk of the motivational work resulting in suicide).Your and Michael’s exchange reminds me of of Eric Steel’s response in this Charlie Rose interview to the charge of exploiting the final moments of the Golden Gate jumpers which appear in his interesting (yet, I feel, problematic) film <>The Bridge<>: reminds us that these folks sought out a highly public place, in broad daylight, at which to end their lives.


    February 8, 2009 at 2:31 pm

  5. Yes – according to Thomas Joiner, <>meaninglessness<> is only a motivation for suicide in a very personal sense – the feeling of being a burden and a lack of connection lead to suicide, never just an abstract, philosophical realization of life’s meaninglessness.

    Sister Y

    February 8, 2009 at 4:57 pm

  6. I just watched The Bridge. I was fascinated by the commentary offered by friends and family of the suicides. No one seemed particularly shocked by the suicides of their respective loved ones, because of the depression, previous attempts, and sometimes blatant references to their intended acts expressed by the suicides leading up to the events. One woman in particular stuck me. She was the only interviewee shot in shadow, to preserve her anonymity. She was ripped apart by commentors (on YouTube), who blamed her for not intervening… I felt sympathy for her, because, although I agree she acted foolishly in some regards, I am willing to give her the benefit of doubt that she wanted to respect her friend’s privacy, and his wishes to end his pain. It made me wonder how I would act if someone I cared about revealed (overtly or covertly) his/her intentions to end life. How could I both be “supportive” and yet not help push my friend over the ledge if there was still some uncertainty? It has also made me think carefully about how honest I would be with the people I love if I ever get to the point of suicide myself. The last thing I would want would be for people to look back, realize I was “crying out for help” (or so they thought, in retrospect), and live a life of guilt thinking they could have done something to prevent my death.


    February 8, 2009 at 10:08 pm

  7. This is why the ethic of “suicide is always preventable, look for these warning signs . . . ” is particularly cruel.

    Sister Y

    February 8, 2009 at 10:10 pm

  8. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, but I recall being dismayed, and even angered, by the fatal obtuseness of that woman in shadow as she recounted how she declined the guy’s request for her company <>after<> he had clearly shown what a sad mess of a state he was in. And if my memory serves, that state presumably had something to do with the fact that he was taking, without supervision, meds she’d lent him.


    February 9, 2009 at 12:05 am

  9. Rob, you remember correctly. She gave him her own meds. The reason she stopped taking them herself was because they made it difficult for her to sleep. He took them, and then when he had the episode that eventually led to his suicide, he told her that the meds were keeping him awake, too, and it appeared that this contributed to his depression/despair. I agree that she should not have given him her meds. I also found it atrocious that when he reached out to her, and wanted to be with her that fateful evening (so as not to be alone), she told him “no”… That, of all things, is what really shocked me. However, I sensed when she recounted that part, that she deeply regretted turning him away when he most needed a friend. I can’t come down as hard on her as I think a lot of the other viewers of the film have. Who knows how many times he acted desparately in front of her? Perhaps it became hard to take him seriously (one of the friends of one of the other suicides in the documentary came right out and said she reached a point where she no longer took her now-deceased friend’s talk of suicide seriously). It’s easy to look at someone’s behavior and “know” you would have made “smarter” choices, but that’s not always a safe assumption. Besides that, I do believe at some level she thought that she was doing what she should for him. Her final comment was telling, though. She said something to the effect that from now on, she will NOT respect the privacy of a potential suicide and she will actively intervene (major paraphrasing here…)


    February 9, 2009 at 2:26 am

  10. This issue of whether a sense of meaninglessness on its own would motivate suicide is interesting. By my lights, the felt meaninglessness of life is fraught with a normative sense that existence should be otherwise — that there really <>ought<> to be some kind of point to it all. But nature systematically thwarts that conceit, and one perhaps comes to think that the very act of holding out hope that anything could (or believing that anything should) be otherwise is as loathsomely pathetic as “engaging” in the trivial diversions of life. At that point, it’s a simple calculus: of suicide and perseverance, which will take the greater effort?

    Michael Drake

    February 10, 2009 at 2:17 am

  11. That’s somewhat different from how, based merely on my own experience, I would describe, as you put it, the felt meaninglessness of life. There’s an implicated normative sense, but it’s pressing for a numbing acceptance of the denuded and barren outlook on life that accompanies it like a revelation (of how, finally, stripped down to its unaccommodating essence, everything <>really is<>). It takes something more specific to my particular circumstances to make such a generalized sense of deflation the prelude to sustained consideration of suicide.The final segment of Antonioni’s <>L’eclisse<> captures something of the contraction of significance, removal of depth, and stasis I’m driving at (though it might be too sinister):


    February 10, 2009 at 4:53 am

  12. You boys clearly have more experience with the continentals than I do, but I < HREF="" REL="nofollow">touched on<> this issue (or perhaps a slightly tangential issue) to some degree previously.

    Sister Y

    February 10, 2009 at 7:36 am

  13. Yes, my sensibility in these matters is quite obviously mediated by an inordinate diet of Continental philo, lit, and flics. And so I can only hope that the effortlessness and spontaneity with which I, like so many others, have responded to these culturally specific constructions of futility and malaise indicate that they are nevertheless addressing something that isn’t quite entirely created by them. (Of course, such a hope itself may be just another aspect of the construction!)Also, I would note that female acquaintances have given me cause to wonder how much of this way of structuring meaninglessness is sex- or gender-specific.


    February 10, 2009 at 2:18 pm

  14. Oh no, it <>is<> something real – I think there’s evidence that meaninglessness and the perverse desire for meaning are not mere social constructs, at least in the sense that the former is a culturally independent truth and the latter seems to be an inevitable psychological fact regardless of culture (like male proprietariness). I am thinking of the < HREF="" REL="nofollow">mortality salience/terror management<> stuff.I think you’re correct that females are less likely than males to suffer from this particular problem or to articulate it in this way. However, I don’t think that makes it gender-specific or less universally applicable.

    Sister Y

    February 10, 2009 at 10:20 pm

  15. I’m much less continental than Rob. I guess that makes me incontinental.

    Michael Drake

    February 11, 2009 at 1:47 am

  16. Really, I was being a bit facetious: never have I had a moment’s doubt that there really is such a problem, given what seems to be a fairly universal problem of meaning. But acquaintance with several women whose sense and sensibility dwarf mine has convinced me that it can be helpful, if not therapeutic, to remind oneself of how variously in character and intensity the problem can figure, given accidents of upbringing, cultural environment, natural disposition, season of life, etc. (Especially when, given such an incontinently Continental dietary regime, one is at heightened risk of seduction by a cult of Angst.)


    February 11, 2009 at 6:12 pm

  17. Though, to stray even further afield, I’m skeptically tantalized by Daniel Everett’s portrait of the Pirahã as perhaps immune from the problem of meaninglessness, given the enviable way in which he alleges their linguist practice mediates their sense of being in time:<>‘Committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real, the Pirahã do not think, or speak, in abstractions—and thus do not use color terms, quantifiers, numbers, or myths. Everett pointed to the word xibipío as a clue to how the Pirahã perceive reality solely according to what exists within the boundaries of their direct experience—which Everett defined as anything that they can see and hear, or that someone living has seen and heard. “When someone walks around a bend in the river, the Pirahã say that the person has not simply gone away but xibipío—‘gone out of experience,’ ” Everett said. “They use the same phrase when a candle flame lickers. The light ‘goes in and out of experience.’ ”To Everett, the Pirahã’s unswerving dedication to empirical reality—he called it the “immediacy-of-experience principle”—explained their resistance to Christianity, since the Pirahã had always reacted to stories about Christ by asking, “Have you met this man?” Told that Christ died two thousand years ago, the Pirahã would react much as they did to my using bug repellent. It explained their failure to build up food stocks, since this required planning for a future that did not yet exist…’<>Source: once had an opportunity to probe him on this point about how, lacking any aptitude for eschatalogical thought, the Pirahã would appear to be deeply immune from Christianity, but he didn’t really have anything more interesting to say than what’s in the article.)


    February 11, 2009 at 6:31 pm

  18. I want to advise some caution with Everett. His writings on Pirahã are considered somewhat suspect in the linguistic community and it’s been suggested that there are numerous misanalyses of the data. Plus, they haven’t been double-checked. You don’t like to believe only one single field linguist.Also, note that it is absolutely unclear why the confinement to more or less immediate experience should bar color terms, numbers and other quatifiers. His use of “abstraction” is very fishy.Just a few words about what I said above. In fact, I do require that A be convinced by the evidence. The part about reasonable expectiations is only to give you time to present it. But it’s a problem if A’s opportunity for his intended action is singular, true…


    February 12, 2009 at 1:49 pm

  19. Everett’s theory on the Pirahã is fascinating even if it’s wrong, which it probably is. Does anyone know if Steven Pinker has weighed in?


    February 12, 2009 at 6:12 pm

  20. Pinker:<>I have favorably cited Daniel Everett’s work with the Pirahã, both in a scholarly article and in my forthcoming book, and believe that linguists should take his criticisms of the field seriously. But I have become increasingly skeptical of the strong version of his claims, and of the importance that has been attached to his work by the media.<>


    February 12, 2009 at 8:24 pm

  21. Everett:<>What is unusual, perhaps unique, about the Pirahãs (though, again, nothing at all hinges on them being unique in any of these matters) is the way in which they have codified a principle of immediacy of experience and the way in which it constrains their grammar.<> intrigues me is the question of whether such a codification provides immunity from the problem of meaninglessness that, in light of the exception it may constitute, we early 21st century bourgeois Westerners are perhaps inclined to over-generalize or essentialize. I’m very skeptical, but fascinated.


    February 12, 2009 at 8:45 pm

  22. Chip

    February 12, 2009 at 9:39 pm

  23. (Chip and Rob cross-posted above before I got around to publishing them.)I’m not sure how you would measure differences in cultural perception of meaning(lessness) – maybe look at cultural variation in responses to mortality salience induction?Rob, it actually sounds like your point is similar to what Freud is saying in <>Civilization and its Discontents<> – e.g., meaninglessness and suffering are partially caused by being in an environment drastically different from our EEA. This I kinda buy.I can’t help doing evo-bio reality testing when faced with cultural anthropology – a little of which would have saved us from the influence of Margaret Mead.(Still, as Chip says, the Everett stuff is awesome – in the same vein of awesomeness as Julian Jaynes. And most of Freud, for that matter.)

    Sister Y

    February 12, 2009 at 10:28 pm

  24. Yes, and check out (particularly the Second Treatise of) Nietzsche’s <>Genealogy of Morality<> (the Clark/Swenson translation), a far more than passing acquaintance with which is surely an unacknowledged foundation for central portions of <>Civilization<>, despite Freud’s strained affectations of coyness to the contrary.As for the mortality induction measurement suggestion, perhaps, but I’m skeptical about TMT, at least from my superficial introduction to it in the form of this sketchy film which apparently features luminaries in the field:


    February 12, 2009 at 11:49 pm

  25. <>What intrigues me is the question of whether such a codification provides immunity from the problem of meaninglessness that, in light of the exception it may constitute, we early 21st century bourgeois Westerners are perhaps inclined to over-generalize or essentialize.<>It seems to me that there is a lack of differentiation between the two aspects of meaninglessness here: the one is the conceptual part, the view that no such a thing as an absolute meaning is even intelligible and that there are no absolute reasons to prefer one purpose over another. This we can safely generalize, if it is true, for then it is a conceptual necessity. The other, however, is an empirical issue, it’s the psychological/anthropological question of whether we are aware of these fact and how we react to them, how susceptible we are to “feelings of meaninglessness” and so forth.PS: I just realized that I got confused… The stuff about the after-life believing suicide wasn’t here after all but under the previous article. Sorry for that.


    February 12, 2009 at 11:55 pm

  26. Though it strays far afield of the original blog post, this may be worth sharing in light of the interest it generated among the comments above:<>An update on the Pirahã<>


    March 23, 2009 at 3:11 pm

  27. An < HREF="" REL="nofollow">update on the Pirahã<>, courtesy of Rob Sica . . . thanks.

    Sister Y

    March 23, 2009 at 5:02 pm

  28. Of possible (and related) interest:

    <>Doing being ‘on the edge’: managing the dilemma of being authentically suicidal in an online forum.<>


    May 4, 2009 at 9:41 pm

  29. “Discursive psychology,” I hadn’t heard of that one. It sounds like psychology crossed with critical theory.

    Sister Y

    May 4, 2009 at 11:00 pm

  30. John Hawks < HREF="" REL="nofollow">reminds<> us that we may have evolved some resistances to the “diseases of civilization”. Others have < HREF="" REL="nofollow">speculated<> that we evolved the ability to digest lactose and gluten in order to tranquilize ourselves into putting up with a non hunter-gatherer lifestyle.


    May 20, 2009 at 1:21 am

  31. Hmmm, I can’t view your link to the lactose/gluten thing. Are Northern Euros and Tuaregs more blissed-out, docile, and civilization-adapted than Asians?

    N.B. Robert Lindsay’s blog is apparently “under review” and not viewable by non-authors. And anyway you’re not excused from getting high with me just ’cause it causes brain damage or whatever.

    Sister Y

    May 20, 2009 at 6:37 am

  32. I’m pretty sure there are better tranquilizers available than gluten.

    Michael Drake

    May 20, 2009 at 2:00 pm

  33. Cursed linkrot. Fortunately, ashen man’s original is still < HREF="" REL="nofollow">available<>. I believe the “official” version is now < HREF="" REL="nofollow">here<>. I didn’t know gluten intolerance was common in east asia, but apparently their diets usually don’t contain it. I’d like to investigate your cross-civilizational question. Perhaps using the World Values Survey?

    Lindsay got fed up with google’s blogspot and moved to wordpress after the warning was put up. I haven’t visited as much since then.

    Michael Drake, I’m sure that’s true now but I don’t know if it had serious rivals at the dawn of agriculture.


    May 21, 2009 at 1:27 am

  34. I’d be interested to see how that would turn out (red: WVS). It would be awesome if Cheez-its were the actual opiate of the masses.

    Sister Y

    May 21, 2009 at 4:10 am

  35. Dave Barry had an old column on just that claim. I think the Herald charges for access now, but thankfully < HREF="" REL="nofollow">some vegans have preserved it<>.


    May 22, 2009 at 12:55 am

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