“And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then – ”
When journalist Sean Peters caught wind that I wanted to revisit the worst story he’d ever told, he flew into a rage and then broke down in tears and eventually, reluctantly, talked on the phone. This is a dangerous story, he relayed to me. It is a story about the tragic, public suicide of a promising young man.
It is also a story of being unable to look away and the consequences of being unable to do so. Lastly, this is a story about living in an unpredictable world, a reality so infinite, so pregnant with possibility that it confounds the systems we devise to make order, make sense and sanity. By examining a thorny case to the point where our definitions of right and wrong, cause and consequence, disappear, we will enter into moral mayhem and, perhaps, emerge with a lesson, but you will not emerge clean.
If you wish to emerge clean from this story, I suggest that you move along at this point. A young man is dead, and that is tragic, and nothing in a narrative can change this fact.
Furthermore, this is not a story for those individuals at-risk of suicide, and if you have a history of mental illness or ideation – which runs deep in my family and for which I have boundless sympathy – I implore you to stop reading. “High Falls” contains information that may be harmful to persons with a psychiatric diagnosis, according to experts such as noted psychiatrist Dr. Madelyn Gould. Please stop reading if you even think that I might be encouraging you towards self-harm, which of course I am not. I am asking people to think critically about suicide as a human phenomenon and a human action – demystified and detached from moralization – an act of individual misery in a world that does not pay much heed to individual misery.
Although this is a story for those who care about the at-risk, it is not a story deemed safe for the at-risk to read. I am asking, as a matter of honor, that if you are presently seeking treatment or are vulnerable to thoughts of harming yourself to please stop reading or, if this is an emergency, to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at this number 1-800-273-8255.
If you read this story, you will know what I know by the end, and I cannot promise you will enjoy knowing any of it. To tell this story, I have to break several rules established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to govern the reporting of public suicides. I will describe a frightening cause of death, and I will write about it in detail and at length. “That’s not a story that we would certainly recommend anybody publishing,” Gould commented in an interview. “If it is about gore and guts, that just sounds like sensationalized coverage.” I write, nonetheless, because one death became a public event striking the heart of a social issue. Certain details, in this case, become unavoidable.
But there are stories I dread in the telling, and “High Falls” has certainly been the scariest for me, stories a person ordinarily does not give language because we know the human body is fragile, and our world is both hard and un-careful. And this telling will not be distraction from the hardness of the world but an accentuation that the hardness is cruel.
The WLWT antenna loomed over the University of Cincinnati (UC) campus like the Eiffel Tower. Indeed, the electrified steeple, for a local NBC-affiliate, broadcast a TV and radio signal with a seventy-five mile radius. And though the structure stood about forty feet shorter than its French counterpart, the hill on which it sat – housing a derelict TV studio once nicknamed “Mount Olympus” – more than compensated for their difference in height. The buildings were equivalently shaped, four-sided, steel and girder, pyramidal from base to tip, though the transmitter rose from the earth straight and linear while the Eiffel Tower sported an arched and curvaceous base.
From their heights, both provided quite a view of their crystalline cities, Paris being the City of Lights and Cincinnati being the Queen City, with the neighborhood of Clifton Heights perched below on a curving hillside campus teeming with 40,000+ students and a football stadium. Yet, despite its size, the WLWT tower lit few imaginations; vagrants camped under the cover of its adjacent foliage. A concrete stairway, from the television studio days, ran up from the street into a chain-link fence. The WLWT did not receive the same nighttime light display as the beacon of Paris. It was mostly left to gloom, except for a few blinking lights at the top to warn passing aircraft.
Dominating the landscape, the WLWT tower paradoxically did not belong to its landscape. The eye tries to skip over it; you will not find its likeness in film scenes or on the keychain of hotel heiress Paris Hilton. In fact, a smaller tower that had once stood on Mount Olympus – a transmitter featured in the opening credits of the classic sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati” – held greater fame. That piece of TV history, made redundant by the present monstrosity, had been bulldozed to make way. Stationed behind two barbed wire fences, the WLWT tower is not a structure to be climbed or admired or even looked at—except by a person lost or lonely or deathly curious. And that must have been what drew Tyler Cameron McDonough, a 23-year-old University of Cincinnati (UC) senior, in the early hours of May 1, 2011.
Tyler McDonough had the kind of smile that could change his face completely. Smiling and unsmiling in high school yearbook pictures, he looked like two different human beings.
Happy Tyler McDonough held the grin that said “all American,” big and apple-cheeked, framing almond eyes, a strong chin and brown hair shorn by clippers. Vacant McDonough, the one that stares back blankly from the frame, seemed to melt into his surrounding crowd of student athletes—epitomizing that adolescent stage when whole friend groups tend to dress and groom alike. Tyler McDonough was a star player at Oak Hills High School, one of metro Cincinnati’s largest public high schools that also boasted one of the largest and most respected athletic programs, yet he presented himself with shyness and a reserve that could make him almost disappear. “Ty was quiet,” recalled Tyler Roemer, a college friend of McDonough’s at UC. “Physically, he was a bit tall and lanky, and he was always super nice to everyone he met. A very humble, polite kinda guy.”
The son of an elementary school music teacher and a public school administrator who divorced when he was four, McDonough could, doubtless, hardly remember his parents living together. Yet he loved them both as each moved on and remarried, with varying degrees of success. His mother spent four years remarried before divorcing the new guy when McDonough was 11. McDonough’s father seemed to be the kind of perennial husband. The role had suited him through several marriages, and he’d hardly spent a year since 1972 on the singles market. Together, his parents had produced an elder brother and young McDonough in their seven-year union.
In 1993, Dad married again, this time to a 28-year-old, first-time divorcee, and the union brought Tyler McDonough a loving stepmother, who was a lasting presence throughout his teenage years.
So for the most part, Tyler McDonough enjoyed relative stability at the family homestead – two stories, a wraparound porch – one primary residence from his birth certificate until the day he left for college. McDonough grew older with his mom and his brother in a Greater Cincinnati town called Cheviot. Cheviot fell directly northwest of Cincinnati as a kind of a blue-collar hamlet born before the suburbs, halfway between urban and rural like stretches of Long Island. Dollar stores nestled beside diners and saddle shops on long stretches of developed road where neighbors still knew the names of each other’s children, and families sacrificed to raise their own.
Tyler McDonough’s driveway sported a regulation basketball hoop, where he played and practiced endlessly. His makeshift court backed up to a street with a perilous incline that sent balls careening towards a country highway, where cars sped by. This landscape must have provided early training for McDonough, teaching him to grab his rebound or never miss a shot. Eventually, he grew so tall that he could not only rebound and sink shots but also comfortably dunk. Tyler McDonough enjoyed summer trips to the Cincinnati Zoo and whitewater rafting along the Great Miami River. He tiptoed behind a high school crush named Jessica to surprise her in her kitchen and ask her to the homecoming dance.
By high school, McDonough towered above his classmates and parlayed that height into two years of varsity basketball. #33 “T-Mac,” he started as center in all twenty games in his senior season. Shining in the state playoffs, Tyler McDonough scoring a personal high of fifteen points in the Oak Hills Highlanders’ 60-51 route of rival Moeller. It was the greatest game of his life: eight rebounds, two assists, eight for eight from the free throw line. A solid player who got by on heart and hustle, McDonough had flashes of brilliance, for sure, but those glimmers weren’t enough for him to be seriously courted as a Division I athlete with professional prospects. Fortunately for McDonough, he’d kept up his academics in high school.
He boasted solid enough grades to gain acceptance to the University of Cincinnati’s famed Carl H. Linder College of Business with a partial academic scholarship. Thus did his backup plan click into place, catching him when big dreams of college ball failed to materialize.
Tyler McDonough attended most of his classes in a business school building that looked like it grew out of the parking lot beside it. He worked at a diner called Stone’s Restaurant in Cheviot while also interning for financial institutions and excelling at UC with a 3.29 GPA. He lived close enough to home to keep ties with family but far enough away to have his own life. He started going by the nickname Ty and became a charming presence on campus, the kind of generous person who’d stop and say a few nice things to familiar faces on his long walks to class. He ran into Elise Jesse, a fellow Oak Hills alumnus attending a nearby college, and the two of them reminisced about their glory days on the basketball court. Both of their varsity teams, boys and girls, had gone to the 2006 playoffs.
The route from Tyler McDonough’s hilltop apartment, located a block away from the WLWT tower, took him down winding paths to the B-school at the base. The trek back, hoofing it between buildings, offered an almost unobstructed view of that strange, blinking transmitter that served as an informal landmark for UC students.
Sometime during the months of freedom and pleasant weather during McDonough’s sophomore year, he and his father had a bonding day when they went together for their first “tandem” skydives from an airplane. Few moments compare to standing in a doorway that exits into atmosphere after rattling in a plane doing upward circles for twenty minutes. When that hatch flies open and 12,500 feet whips at your face, the sound of propellers overtake the ears. “If you’ve not jumped before, then it’s kind of hard to fully comprehend, but skydiving requires you to operate 100% in that moment,” said Tyler Roemer, McDonough’s friend and future skydiving buddy. “When the door is open and the pilot gives you the green light to jump, you’re not thinking about the test tomorrow, paying rent, or what you’re eating for dinner.”
Because this was a “tandem” dive for first timers, McDonough had to climb outside and grip the handles with an instructor attached to his back. Up so high, higher than the brain can process a visual distance, he was doing everything reason rejects, saying goodbye to sanity and ceding the Earth to adrenaline. It is less a decision in one’s head than the push-pull of the inner Wildman that precedes the ultimate leap. McDonough’s plane becomes a metallic bird, shrinking, and his brain flooded with endorphins. “Skydiving shuts off all other distractions,” says Roemer. “You are jumping out of an airplane, and you need to remain calm and perform what you need to perform, or else the situation about 80 seconds from now is not gonna be good.” At about 120 mph, McDonough’s body reached parity with gravity, and the sensation would be no longer falling but floating in the womb of creation. On a tandem jump, the diver is free as an infant until the professional at one’s back whacks a dial on the wrist to trigger the parachute. The whole process from jump to landing takes less than two minutes.
And then, then there is only the possibility of doing it again that makes every other rush, every manipulation of body and brain in life, miniscule by comparison. Cortisol levels measured in rookie and veteran skydivers show that repeated exposure to skydiving does not reduce the pre-jump anxiety or post-jump rush. Every time, chemically speaking, is the same as the first. It must have been something for McDonough and his dad to spread arms and free-fall above middle Ohio.
How strange now to consider the way this leap preceded another and another: the success of the dive when all landed safely and the addiction lit in the son.
Tyler McDonough joined the UC Skydiving Club, playfully nicknamed “The Dropouts.” The group boasted familiar faces from the B-school including Tyler Roemer, who was club president. Roemer had known of Tyler McDonough through his mother, who had been Roemer’s elementary school music teacher, and the two became buddies in college. “He became a good friend in a circle of friends that would often hang out together at night if we stayed a weekend at campus instead of heading out to the dropzone, which was about 45mins-1hr drive north of campus,” Roemer recalls. Fusing his love of extremes with his flair for business, Tyler McDonough became the skydiving club’s senior marketing correspondent. He spent Spring Break 2010 with the group at “Bodyflight 101,” a training seminar at the indoor iFly facility in Orlando, Florida. Hands at his sides, legs bent 45 degrees, McDonough floated about an indoor wind tunnel with an instructor guiding his midair maneuvers like Charlie and Uncle Ben in the Fizzy Lifting Drink chamber.
In June 2010, Tyler McDonough solo-jumped in a red and blue wind suit with two supervisory instructors and his own parachute—completing his Category A accelerated free-fall in the skies above Middletown, Ohio. He looked like Evel Knievel. McDonough was on a path that would move him through Category A jumps to Category H swoops and stops. After twenty-five jumps and Category H, he would qualify to receive his skydiving license from the United States Parachute Association. “He probably had about ten, fifteen jumps in him,” remembers Tyler Roemer. “And he always had a big smile on his face.”
You’ll notice I surmise half of these insights from yearbook photos and social media posts and the sideways words of friends. I do this, reporting (as it were) from the frame of the picture inward, because I must. I cannot know certain details because the McDonough family has declined to speak for this story despite repeated requests for several years. I truly sympathize with their declining to speak with me, and yet I also feel a duty to Tyler McDonough to provide what biography I can.
At the peak of his junior year, when Tyler McDonough was a director for two clubs and an Investment Administrator with the Lang Financial Group, a plank in reason broke in his brain, and he spiraled. According to The Jed Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting mental health awareness on college campuses, most mental illnesses manifest between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four—right when young adults are about to leave home for college or careers. Stress levels rise during these periods of transition, when eat, sleep, work and sex habits all become personal choices unobserved by authority figures. “During that time in our lives there are a lot of strong and weird emotions going through a young man’s brain,” explains Roemer. “I’m not sure if there were some other inner demons at play too, but he [Tyler] seemed like he was always a great kid from a loving home.”
More than half of all college students describe feeling overwhelmed with anxiety, hopelessness and sadness, according to the 2017 National College Health Assessment. Nearly twenty percent are treated for depression, and twelve percent report having suicidal thoughts or feelings. Multiple barriers exist to seeking help, most notably the stigma of confessing to a difficulty when newly independent.
There are varying degrees of self-denial and self-blame, as if succumbing to mental illness would signal to others that you weren’t ready for adulthood. For this and other reasons, many students choose to downplay mental illness as homesickness or simple growing pains. But, untreated and unobserved, a mental illness can compound in magnitude.
Sixty four percent of students who experience a mental health emergency drop out of college, and suicide is now the second leading cause of death for ages ten to twenty-four, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.), up from the third leading cause of death for those ages in 2007.
Tyler McDonough encountered troubles he’d never faced before. They overwhelmed him. He fantasized about harming himself, sought medical help and was briefly hospitalized in January 2011. He then rejected the aid of family, friends and clinicians and attempted to power through to college graduation on a regimen of willpower and tricyclic antidepressants. Tricyclics are an old breed psychiatric medication that inhibits norepinephrine and serotonin reuptake; they’re often prescribed as a last-line defense against treatment-resistant depression. McDonough managed to get through the Spring 2011 exam period, scheduled the last week of April – Monday the 25th through Thursday the 28th – and looked ahead to Commencement. It’s unknown if he was going to graduate. Between exams and Commencement, the annual “Dropout Day” with the skydiving club was scheduled for May 8.
Sometime around 3:30 a.m. on May 1, 2011, Tyler Cameron McDonough triggered alarms when he entered the WLWT transmitter station. Wearing layered T-shirts, grey sneakers and olive green cargo shorts, he walked the block from his apartment at 2241 Stratford Avenue and surmounted the fence with a backpack on his shoulders. He knew just where to get through. He and a friend had been doing this for months. “I had been up to the very spot…with Ty and another good friend of ours as well previously,” recalled Roemer. “It was pretty easy to find a way under or over the gate,” Roemer continued. But McDonough chose to make this journey alone. With a blood alcohol level of .22, almost four times the legal limit, Tyler McDonough reached the antenna base and began the steady, rung-on-rung climb up the service ladder.
A cool, southwesterly breeze blew through McDonough’s hair as he gained elevation, passing height markers that he and his friends had drawn on metal beams during previous excursions. His arms must have ached as he reached 200 feet, then 400. Bulbs pulsed around him to warn passing planes. Behind his eyes bobbed a brain emptied of its psychiatric prescriptions. He climbed until the ladder reached its terminus at a platform higher than the city’s tallest skyscrapers. Hands blistered and bled from gripping metal, and he lay on his back panting, the entire effort Herculean. Three concentric metal cages encased an unreachable space at the very top, he could see, where the tower gave way to a polarized broadcast antenna, a final spike into sky.
From his backpack, he pulled out an iPod and headphones, but nothing happened when he pressed play. To his chagrin, the battery had no charge; he’d made this trip so spur of the moment. Hammering on his Blackberry, a then-popular mobile phone with a keypad, McDonough texted his roommate. “One of the members of the club, and a good friend of both Ty and mine, was actually texting Ty the night of, and said he was receiving some weird messages,” said Roemer. McDonough bragged that he had finally made it to the top and that his hands burned like hell. Rustling again through his pack, he grabbed a can of beer and drank it down. The city unfurled before him in an incredible panorama. It would be hard to imagine any other twenty-three-year-old not feeling like the King of the World in this moment. And yet he did not. Something about this scene was not a gift to Tyler McDonough.
With his Blackberry, he snapped pictures and recorded a video of himself whooping and hollering at the city lights. No one knows exactly how long he sat up there wrestling with a question in his head as high winds swirled around the platform. His view was comprehensive: northward to the Cincinnati Zoo, northwestward towards the houselights of Cheviot, southward past to the Ohio River. A gust of 24 mph wind hit the tower around 5:53 a.m. but not before a Cincinnati resident named Jacob Westendorf stood before the antenna at ground level, on the corner of Rohs Street and Warner Street, and heard a loud bang.
Next came things that happened, but I’m not supposed to write because to write them is to invite you to imagine them, to cause a “contagion” in troubled minds prone to suggestion. But a greater truth is at stake, much as it’s easy to reject the shocking as sensational. Look, if you are mentally fit. If you are not fit, look away, but we have less to fear from offensiveness than deceit. If the world were fair, I would write that Tyler McDonough did not fall from the tower. If the world were just, I would write that his body cleared the structure. But the world is neither just nor fair. Nor was it glamorous, as the earth did not grant this man a final wish of going out on his own terms instead of in a series of unplanned turns.
Tyler McDonough entered the emptiness of the air. His feet were without floor. He became subject to downward force. He dove with the strength of legs—his brain, in its illness, craving the rush of a terminal velocity he could not possibly reach. As the tower widened beneath the platform, McDonough’s body met a briar of steel and braided wire, which cleaved him into uneven bits. It cleaved him as a natural consequence of not clearing the distance, of laws etched into the universe that do not allow two objects to occupy one space. Clothing tore from skin and skin from limb. (It’s unknown if Tyler McDonough disrobed and threw some articles of clothing down to trace their fall before making his own.)
Jacob Westendorf looked up to see what looked like a dark blur hitting metal, striking again and again as shapes cracked and spun off. The drop took six seconds, approximately, and it is unknown, in that span, whether McDonough maintained a consciousness long enough to perceive that things had gone terribly wrong before metal and gravity violated what was left. Six terrible seconds ticked by, six seconds between being Tyler McDonough and then not being recognizable as so. What had been McDonough became remnants of a shell of a human being as his body rained across a radius of three city blocks. Clothing and sneakers sailed, unmercifully, onward, exposing every bit of him to the ground.
He exited this planet more naked and afraid than the day he entered it. And then his high fall was done. Torso and legs smacked the ground together, compressing the earth with a grave-like divot, before bouncing a few feet to the right and resting in a heap. Something showered on the village of vagrants beneath the tree line. Something fell on the staircase of the hill. Something flew into the yard of Joseph Cerrato, a third-year pre-med student living at 2300 Rohs Street. Warm droplets fell on Warner Street, followed by a sprinkle from passing rain clouds, which mixed into red puddles.
Most Americans learn about suicide by way of rumor and private messages, not published articles like this one, in part because we lack a vocabulary to broach the subject in a public forum. It’s a topic few admit to discussing, and yet everyone whispers about, especially following an incident: Did you hear? Did you hear what happened? Did you hear? “People’s hackles come up naturally in the face of this subject because suicide is a scary thing,” explained psychologist and suicide expert Thomas Joiner. “It hits on a couple of sensitivities we have. One is to death. The other is to killing. Suicide is both. It’s pretty unique, and both things are feared, taboo.”
Suicide is a form of self-inflicted, violent death that invites endless speculation but offers few explanations, even upon analysis. Ascertaining the motive behind a suicide can be daunting; in many cases, it’s impossible. According to one 2016 study, about half of all people who attempt suicide do so impulsively. There are other statistical likelihoods. Thirty-three percent of all individuals who die by suicide test positive for alcohol. More than ninety percent have been diagnosed with a mental illness. White males, accounting for more than seventy percent of all suicide deaths, are most at risk.
Yet suicide touches every race, class, religion and nation.
The primary qualification for suicide appears to be being human. Eighty to ninety percent of individuals who die by suicide communicate their intent in some way before their death, which one would assume makes suicide preventable if only awareness of the warning signs could be improved. Yet the act itself is unpredictable; eight percent of inmates in U.S. prisons placed on suicide watch, in controlled environments with regular observation, still die by suicide due to the logistical strain of anticipating an attempt.
It’s controversial to say, because it kneecaps the field of medicine, but limited evidence exists to support the overall effectiveness of suicide prevention methods. “As doctors, we want to help people, and it can be hard for us to admit when our tools are limited,” psychiatrist Dr. Amy Barnhorst wrote recently in her New York Times essay, “The Empty Promise of Suicide Prevention.” For years, the FDA had approved just one anti-suicide drug called clozapine, and it was intended for schizophrenia patients. “There is one study of mood disorder patients that shows that treatment with antidepressants, atypical antipsychotics, and lithium reduced death by suicide,” writes the American Association for Suicide Prevention on their website. One study, you say?
Although serotonin reuptake (SSRI) antidepressants have been found effective for treating clinical anxiety and depression, many controlled studies have found that SSRIs can increase what’s called “suicidality” in certain groups, which is why SSRI prescriptions have come with the following “black box” warning since 2004: “Antidepressants increased the risk compared to placebo of suicidal thinking and behavior…” In recent years, only one major drug manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, brought a new suicide drug to market, and it’s called esketamine. Sound familiar? It’s a nasal spray derived from ketamine, a.k.a. the party drug Special K. Many clinicians who study suicide believe that ketamine might offer a kind of miracle cure, in large part because ketamine produces an “out of body” experience, but ketamine is also a highly addictive substance with its own set of risk factors.
Psychotherapy has proven more effective than psychiatry for suicide treatment, but it’s far from a cure-all. For example, in a 2011 analysis of fifteen trial studies in Australia, virtually no differences were found between treatment and control groups of patients considering suicide, except in the case of one cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) trial. A 2016 review of fifteen randomized trials studying CBT and suicide behavior found “some evidence” for therapies that focus directly on suicide cognition, which are generally called “CBT for suicide attempters” or “DBT” (dialectical behavioral therapy). However, “not enough evidence from clinical trials” suggest that generalized CBT, one of the most commonly available forms of therapy in America, leads to suicide reduction.
In other words, if a patient self-identifies as suicidal and then if a specially-trained CBT suicide counselor intervenes and then if that specialist has time to engage the treatment and then if that patient responds to therapy, evidence shows that such therapy may reduce suicide risk. This is the best we’ve come up with. How many “ifs” and qualifiers, disrupt-able by life, hang in that fragile sentence? And how much is access to such help dependent on economic privilege? Many Americans in need can’t get access to a suicide counselor or get a general CBT counselor by default or can’t leave work to make an appointment when therapists are generally available—midday. And that’s just focusing on the United States. Nearly half of the global population resides in nations that average one psychiatrist per every 200,000 people. In many poorer countries, according to the WHO, only thirty-six percent of people are protected by legislation that recognizes mental illness as a form of illness.
Volunteers at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, who endure a kind of psychological boot camp prior to beginning their difficult and courageous work, internalize the lesson that they cannot crawl through a phone line to intervene an immediate situation; they are less saviors and guardian angels than compassionate ears. All they can do is ask questions, listen and dial 911. Ultimately, no amount of medication or intervention short of full sedation and the denial of free will can stop a person who wants to die from attempting to do so. Empirically and logistically, clinicians are still tooling with micro-solutions that have not solved the macro issue.
Looking at suicidal impulse, or the interval between choosing to die by suicide and dying by suicide, clouds the matter further. One academic study that examined deaths by suicide in Houston among 15- to 34-year-olds found that, in more than seventy percent of the cases, the time between engaging a suicide plan and taking action was less than an hour. In twenty-four percent of the cases, the gap was less than five minutes. How can a civilization prevent or predict an action that, in nearly one quarter of the instances, happens spur of the moment?
Suicide, a private act carried out by an individual, is also an overarching public health concern, the tenth leading cause of death for all American adults in 2016, averaging 123 nationwide per day, according to the latest available figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s a shockingly common way to die, more common than deaths by car accident. Suicide rates are actually on the rise in the United States, up from 10.4 deaths per 100,000 people in 2000 to 14 deaths per 100,000 in 2016. These figures, which reflect an increase in the percentage of suicides in a growing population, have erased the statistical progress made through suicide prevention efforts in the late 20th century. We are not just back to but behind the point where we started.
I shouldn’t write that rates are “spiking” or that it is a “crisis,” as such language can provoke a thing called “contagion,” which we’ll soon discuss. But suicide is once again a major public health dilemma. And the problem isn’t isolated to Americans, which shouldn’t be surprising as cultures interlink in the global marketplace. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), suicide is also among the ten leading causes of death for all ages in its member states, and depression is now the leading cause of disability, affecting 320+ million people globally or around five percent of the human population. Based on current trends, the WHO estimates that suicide rates will rise worldwide and 1.53 million people will die from suicide in the year 2020. That’s approximately one death every twenty seconds, aggregating each year to roughly the population of Phoenix.
The WHO estimates an additional twenty suicide attempts per year for every suicide death. That’s around 20 million suicide attempts worldwide (no one knows the exact figure, as many regimes suppress the data). Nonetheless, millions of incidents, some leading to permanent disability or disfigurement, aggregate annually to roughly the population of metropolitan New York City. Many of these attempts are what’s called “parasuicides,” or deliberate injuries not intending to cause immediate death, a.k.a. cries for help, which nonetheless increase the statistical likelihood of a future suicide death by 100 times.
According to annual Gallup Values and Belief Surveys, suicide is one of the least morally acceptable activities in our society. Seventy-five percent of Americans called suicide “morally wrong” when polled in 2018; only polygamy, cloning humans and adultery fare worse in our moral assessments. Suicidologists, or psychologists, social workers and clinicians who specialize in the study of suicide and its prevention, have long recognized that our society stigmatizes those who perish in this manner. Americans commonly like to use the term “commit” suicide, as opposed to “perform” or even the neutral “die,” as it associates the action with other crimes commonly “committed” in our lexicon, such as murder or fraud.
Look at our religious texts, the cowards of our war films, the ghouls of our reality ghost shows. Our world continues operate as if a person who dies by suicide is somehow cursed as a self-murderer, judged so in our memories and our history books.
It is a rare death that physically harms no other person but carries a posthumous censure. “The legal and moral framework that still shapes our thinking and judgment about suicide is hostage to a Christian metaphysics that declares life is a gift from God,” writes philosopher Simon Critchley in his 2015 book Notes on Suicide. “In killing yourself, it is claimed by Christian theologians, one is assuming a power over one’s existence that only God should possess,” Critchley continues. These beliefs actually pre-date Christianity into ancient times. Aristotle considered suicide to be a wrong to both state and community. Plato, his teacher, considered suicide disgraceful with the exception of self-killing by judicial order, as perished Socrates, Plato’s teacher.
In Europe of the Middle Ages, suicide corpses were mutilated in public displays, and bodies of suicide victims were systematically denied church burials. Those who attempted suicide but did not die could face prison. In 1670, King Louis XIV decreed that suicide corpses be dragged through the streets face down and then tossed upon a rubbish pile. Properties could be confiscated and, in some instances, families excommunicated. In the 1700s, English common law, the basis of American jurisprudence, equated the felony crime of suicide with murder, an offense against God and King—in large part because God lost a sinner and King lost a taxpayer.
New York State law deemed suicide a “grave public wrong” until 1965, and, although most states have formally decriminalized it, one hasn’t, and therefore charges can still be brought in Maryland under English common law. In 2018, a 56-year-old Maryland man was convicted of criminal attempted suicide; he received a three-year suspended jail sentence, plus two years’ probation. Islam expressly forbids suicide, and it continues to be illegal in most nations of the Arabian Peninsula. The Roman Catholic Church continues to categorize suicide as a mortal sin and scandalizes suicide death. In December 2018, for example, a Catholic priest named Father Don LaCuesta publicly condemned 18-year-old Maison Hullibarger, who died by suicide, as a sinner at his church funeral in Temperance, Michigan.
Who knows how such medieval superstitions have persisted into contemporary life? Research shows that when one person dies by suicide, at least six people are personally affected, and as many as 135 are emotionally exposed to the death, which creates a ripple effect. An average 45,000 Americans dead by suicide per year multiplied by minimum six “survivors” (the term used not just for a person who survives an attempt but also for a person immediately impacted by this behavior) makes for 270,000 people. One hundred thirty five individuals emotionally exposed by a suicide touches more than six million citizens. The ripple expands. As each American knows about six hundred people on average, one can easily extrapolate (reducing the figure heavily to account for duplicate networks) that the 270,000 survivors know at least 80 million Americans. Even with this heavily underestimated number, we’re talking twenty-five percent of the U.S. population, one in four people linked in a chain filled with a chill beat.
We know these people; we may even be these people attending survivor support groups, which follow an A.A. model. We know what is happening. Still, when a person dies by suicide, nobody is certain how to respond. It’s as if we’re in such collective denial that we’re never quite ready for an event that happens all of the time. “It is still regarded as a kind of failing that invites an embarrassed response,” writes the philosopher Critchley. “We think that suicide is sad or wrong, often without knowing why. And we don’t know what to say, other than mouth a few empty platitudes.” We live with this behavior and are compelled to try to understand it because an existence in which life is meaningless is incongruous with personal happiness. Problematically, suicide also works to backfill a biography so that every action in a person’s life seems pointed towards a tragic endpoint, which of course is grossly deterministic. “Only the living seem incoherent,” continues Critchley, with irony. “Death closes the series of events that constitutes their lives. So we resign ourselves to finding a meaning for them. To refuse them this would amount to accepting that a life, and thus life itself, is absurd.”
Art is chock full of attempts at squaring the contradiction of human free will precipitating the will to die. In many fictional narratives, suicide becomes the decisive moment, a personal impasse externalized into a plot’s emotional climax. Look at our fictional depictions: Chekhov’s The Seagull, Death of a Salesman, 13 Reasons Why, Thelma & Louise, Romeo and Juliet, every samurai film depicting hara-kiri. There’s a reason Hamlet’s “To be or not to be?” is perhaps the most famous question in all of literature. Albert Camus once called suicide the “one truly serious philosophical problem,” and he attempted to solve that quandary in the Myth of Sisyphus by posing that art, not suicide, was the legitimate response to life’s absurdity. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” Camus insisted. (Perhaps “High Falls” is such an attempt from me.) Most suicide stories are meta-stories like this one – piling reference upon self-reference – because suicide is meta-behavior: using the consciousness to destroy the consciousness. Perhaps that’s why, as David Foster Wallace argued in his 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech This is Water, most suicides by gunshot are shots to the head and not the heart. Later, Wallace would die by hanging, or cutting off the circulation to his brain. It should be noted that human beings are one of just a handful of earthly creatures capable of carrying out suicides for any sort of non-instinctive rationale. Evidently, dolphins in captivity and dogs deprived of owners have also been reported to display this capacity.
A suicide is a phenomenon that news organizations hesitate to broadcast or print for fear of encouraging copycat behavior or provoking backlash from the aggrieved.
“Too often, the entire debate about suicide is dominated by rage,” writes Critchley. “The surviving spouses, families and friends of someone who committed suicide meet any attempt to discuss suicide with an understandable anger.” Media outlets from The Guardian to Buzzfeed to The Baltimore Sun have policies and style guide directions for exercising “particular care” and “using good judgment” when reporting suicide. Most publications will not publish a suicide victim’s name. In 2014, the Society of Professional Journalists revised the “Do no harm” portion of its ethical code to include, “Be cautious about reporting suicides that do not involve a public place or a public person.” Silence, it’s implied, is preferable to getting a story wrong or being distasteful; if necessary, proceed with utmost caution. Though suicide is more than twice as prevalent as homicide in the United States, our nightly news portrays homicide as the more common event.
In 1994, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention published a consensus set of recommendations for the reporting of suicide that linked what they call “suicide contagion” to news reporting. Suicide contagion, or the copycat suicide model, posits that deaths by suicide can be attributed to the learning of suicide-related behaviors from others or through storytelling mechanisms like books or TV. Can words kill? That is the ultimate question, and the theory of contagion says yes, possibly, a careless word in the right medium can possibly motivate the death. “The act of enacting one’s death is very difficult and very fearsome, and that’s a useful starting point for thinking about contagion,” explains Thomas Joiner. “What happens when one person dies by suicide, by whatever method, other people learn of the death. And via that learning, people may themselves become less afraid, less daunted. The process [of contagion] may involve an undoing, a chipping away at the natural fear and reluctance that people have innately to avoid pain, injury.”
Contagion is a human learning theory that describes how someone can be tipped over the edge by a trigger. Suicide expert Madelyn Gould describes how “contagion may be the last straw that really gets a vulnerable person to ruminate about suicide, to lower their resistance to what they’re thinking about doing, to present suicide as a realistic option.” Contagion is also sometimes called “Werther Syndrome,” named after a cluster of 18th century suicides that mimicked the suicide of the main character in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. David Philips, the UCLA sociologist who coined the term “Werther Syndrome,” argued that “hearing about a suicide seems to make those who are vulnerable feel they have permission to do it.”
In a series of studies, Philips found that after a nationally publicized suicide, the suicide rate increases over the next month by about two percent for all ages and seven percent among teenagers. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention estimates contagion at closer to one percent for all ages, one to five percent for teenagers. But this boost, experts conclude with near unanimity, demonstrates suicide’s capacity to spread like an illness.
Sean Peters, a 24-year-old undergraduate and the chief reporter for the UC newspaper The News Record, sprinted around the corner onto Rohs Street. Sean dressed like a punk rock librarian: ripped jeans, button-up shirt, trimmed beard, Weezer glasses. Sean stood a skinny 5’10” with blond bangs that occasionally fell into his eyes. He looked responsibly rumpled, as was his general demeanor: the hipster intellectual, right when hipster-ism was having its moment. Notebook in hand, and not exactly an athlete, Sean slowed to join his colleague Sam Greene, the photo editor of their student newspaper. Each struggled to catch their breath.
It was just after 11:00 a.m. that Sunday, May 1. Ahead, they saw police cars at the end of Rohs, which coursed down a steep gradient and then swept like a skateboard ramp against the up-jump of WLWT tower hill. Blue lights flashed, and Sean and Sam walked briskly towards them. Located about a block from the edge of the university, this section of Rohs was known as a haven for off-campus ragers, which occurred almost nightly during this, the end of the spring quarter. Minutes before, a student reporter named Erin Leitner had frantically texted Sean and Sam a message. Erin lived on Rohs. Steps away from her front door, she’d walked into a scene she could barely describe or believe.
Sean’s phone had buzzed.
“Someone found a hand,” he’d read groggily.
Sean had been set for the morning, feet on desk, ready to loll a few uneventful hours in the offices of The News Record, the UC student newspaper with digs in the basement of a mid-campus lecture hall. As he recited Erin’s text to Gin Ando, his editor in chief, Sean’s head had cleared. “I remember just having this very sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach,” recalled Gin. “Anybody who’s at the UC knows that tower because they’ve seen it before.” Erin had sent a follow-up text – “I’m here now” – and Gin had quickly assigned a team of three to the developing story: Erin, Sean and Sam. Sean had called Erin before he left to pepper her with questions: “What happened?” “Where are you?’ “Male or female?” “Right or left hand?”
Then Sean and Sam had dashed across campus to join their colleague. As they ran, Twitter erupted with news of something dreadful on Rohs Street. WLWT engineers had tipped off their news station, and WLWT.com posted the first “Man Dies In Fall From TV Tower” story, a brief 200 words. “Investigators initially weren’t sure whether the man was electrocuted or fell,” the story read. @karentvchick reposted WLWT’s article with the comment “You knew SOMEONE was gonna be upset over All My Children,” alluding to the soap opera’s recent cancellation. Dirk Dachs, @soapyjohnson, tweeted, “That explains the poor reception,” using the death as opportunity to jest. More tweets poured forth, many immature, some treating the article’s speculation about electrocution as fact. From The News Record offices, Gin tracked the rumor mill aghast. He sensed a genuine news need to correct a narrative spinning wildly, irresponsibly, out of control, and he texted so to his team. “When there’s something that can garner that much attention with so many people in such a small area,” Gin explained, “I wanted to cover everything that anyone could ever say about it.” He sensed that fact-based reporting could be a tonic.
Sean and Sam jogged down the rest of Rohs. They knew these blocks well. Many friends resided on this long straightaway lined with slumlord housing. Two years before, Sean had actually lived at 2312 Rohs Street with an ex-girlfriend. They’d once had sex so hard they broke the wall. Friends now knew to avoid the subject, as she was the first and only girlfriend with whom he’d cohabitated. It didn’t end well, because what does with nubile young love and an apartment lease? Still, passing that address, which had held his failed shot at domesticity (four houses down the right-hand side from Warner), prodded memories. Just beyond, police tape stretched from house to street to house before the T-intersection of Rohs Street and Warner Street, which cut across sidewalks and made the juncture inaccessible by the length of several cars.
Sean and Sam entered a scene of mayhem that assaulted the senses. A crowd of more than forty students gathered immediately behind the line of fluorescent tape, which demarcated a “caution zone” for city personnel, since no one could officially call it a “crime scene.” Several officers stood sentry, ignoring questions and asking the odd college kid to move back a step or two. As “men in blue,” they made room for emergency workers in biohazard suits floating about like astronauts. Occasionally, one of the moon-men stooped to gather what appeared to be biological samples and place them in plastic bags. Sean could see police detectives interviewing homeless people, who evidently camped in the tree line beneath the tower; the faces and clothes of these individuals seemed to be covered in something maroon.
Morning runners stopped and gawked and made vomiting gestures at the acrid, metallic smells, which were likely traces of iron in bits of dried up blood circulating throughout the air. Neighbors gossiped. Some craned their necks out of second-story windows and asked what the hell had happened. “Yellow tape just brings people together,” recalled Sean, sardonically. Standing beside Sean, a woman yelled into her cell phone as her small dog on a leash eyed what appeared to be a human bone. A right wrist bone, Sean observed as he looked more closely.
Sean scanned the premises further from side to side. He didn’t see a single reporter from any other news agency. He surmised that The News Record must have “the scoop,” or be first on the scene, unaware that WLWT engineers had already blown the whistle, and WLWT.com had posted the speculative story now fueling Twitter. Sean and Sam spotted Erin, their colleague, behind the police tape. They waved. She waved back. Earlier, police had lowered a section of the tape to let a hook-and-ladder fire engine into the caution zone, and Erin had snuck through.
Sean and Sam could see Erin, notebook open, interacting with distressed witnesses. “Are you a reporter?” someone asked her. “A student reporter,” she answered. The person waved her off, as if waiting for a real journalist. Erin then approached a group of residents standing outside of 2304 Rohs. “Do you know what’s going on?” asked Erin. “I don’t know,” answered a girl sitting on a staircase, “but there is a hand next to my car.” The resident pointed to a pale, purple shape several yards away. Erin stepped closer to examine the mound, and she felt something in her stomach clench.
Sean examined the same scene almost empirically, his emotions dancing at a remove. He refused to avert his gaze or ignore what was plainly disturbing to see, the way many cellphone photographers at tragic events know when to flinch and turn away. He didn’t have time to wonder why he could do this as others retched or ran. He couldn’t see anyone crying, but people were shaking their heads and looking solemn, as if attempting to reconcile bloodshed with the sad fate of a stranger.
Sean began his career with The News Record as an 18-year-old freshman in 2005, after an alt-weekly called Cincinnati CityBeat published a profile of his high school band. Sean played bass, and the profile had dug into Sean’s musical upbringing. “Our family time equaled music time,” Sean told CityBeat. Sean’s mother played guitar and taught kindergarten. His dad had toured with a New Wave band before trading those rock star dreams for a more stable career in Information Technology, which kept him off the road and in the lives of the ones he loved.
Being featured in CityBeat had introduced Sean to the world of music journalism. Music felt like a subject about which he was qualified to write, and so he decided to give it shot as a college novice. The News Record, a 131-year-old independent publication run by students and largely funded by its own advertising, regularly accepted student freelancers, and Sean was impressed by their operation. The News Record was hailed as one of the finest college newspapers in the country, with what faculty advisor Jon Hughs deemed a “responsible, highly awarded staff.” Students essentially had free reign to publish whatever they wished in its pages. “It’s independent, editorially,” Hughs continued. “So I wouldn’t, nor would any media advisor or director of student media, be involved in any way in what was going into the publication unless students came to us for advice.” Sean saw an opportunity at The News Record to simultaneously express himself and learn a trade.
His first article for publication was a review of the Radiohead album “In Rainbows.” Gradually, Sean parleyed a knack for writing arts profiles and new journalism-style concert pieces into being named entertainment editor. Soon enough, The News Record provided him with his full-time source of work. “In every section,” Sean remembered, “I was just trying to get my taste for what I was best at.” The title of a photojournalism textbook that Sean often reflected upon in this period was Truth Needs No Ally. He sometimes felt like Doc Holliday, a truth-bombing gunslinger.
Twenty-one-year-old Gin, Sean’s boss, dressed the part of a classic newsman, routinely waltzing into The News Record offices in suit and tie with a waft of smoke (likely from his last puff) or an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. Gin had risen through the ranks alongside Sean—from a freelancer earning $10 per story to the Big Man on the publication masthead, netting an envied $8.25 per hour. Working two other jobs to pay his tuition, Gin often donated his newspaper salary back to the publication so that his editors could have more workable hours. “It was one of the most hectic times of my life,” recalled Gin. “Because from the second I would wake up, I would go to the newsroom, get done whatever we could with whomever’s there. Then, go to class and work and regularly be in the newsroom ‘til midnight.”
In such a pressure-cooker atmosphere, where editors typically lean hard on staff reporters, Sean continually impressed Gin with not just his arts features but also his deadline delivery. Sean was fast, accurate, gifted with language and efficient with his time. “He could get to the story first,” recalled Gin, “and get it right.” By 2011, Gin trusted Sean so implicitly that he had promoted him into pulling double-duty as college living editor and chief reporter—the go-to journalist sent on-the-scene to campus events and expected to come back with factual observations and quotations: the lifeblood of breaking news.
For this work, 24-year-old Sean earned a paltry $7.25 per hour, a minimum wage but a career-related wage nonetheless. “Editor” and “Chief Reporter” looked more impressive on a résumé, Sean figured, than other job titles held by his friends. Sean also supervised a team of freelancers, who filed stories for The New Record’s three weekly print issues (Monday, Wednesday and Thursday) and the regularly updated newsrecord.org website.
Working for a storied paper gave Sean a sense of identity on campus, a persona at parties, a source of pride and swagger, and Sean became a de facto “face” of The News Record when his sultry, yet surly mug appeared in their weekly print edition with the reminder, “Sean Peters says, ‘Add The News Record on Facebook.’” Sean was elected vice-president of their college chapter of The Society of Professional Journalists just as that organization listed The News Record in the top three student non-dailies in the Midwest and the top forty nationwide. With a weekly circulation of more than 22,000 and a readership of 52,000 throughout the university, plus neighborhoods bordering the school, The News Record ranked easily among the top five most-read publications in a city of 300,000 people—after The Cincinnati Enquirer (the professional “paper of record”) and the alt-weekly Cincinnati CityBeat.
Their expanding audience, in a time of layoffs and brutal retraction throughout newsrooms like The Cincinnati Enquirer, made The News Record emblematic of the 1,600+ student-run college newspapers nationwide picking up slack and filling gaps in local coverage for the 1,200+ daily newspapers left in existence. Overall newsroom employment was dropping an astounding twenty-three percent between 2008 and 2017, according to the Pew Research Center, and an overwhelming seventy-three percent of journalism jobs were being relocated to either coast, according to the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, creating “news deserts” in the nation’s gaping middle. More readers than ever were counting on journalists like Sean to produce local news at professional standards but without professional pay or professional editors. Fortunately for The News Record, their student editorial team had proven up to the task. As they liked to say, they were “small but mighty” and ready to cover the world.
Sean, admittedly, came to prefer their newsroom to any classroom, even his journalism classes. “As somebody who really loves the kind of journalistic writer persona, like Hemingway or Twain to a certain extent,” recalled Gin, “he really loved just getting into anything that was happening at that moment.” Sean’s grades were, generally, lackluster, as he only applied himself to reporting seminars or writing workshops. As a selectively motivated student, he didn’t really care about what formal education offered him. “I wasted a lot of credits just jumping around not dedicating to any major, wasting a lot of money,” he recalled. He sometimes withdrew from classes or skipped academic quarters. But he never left his post at The News Record for very long, even during “off-seasons” from university when he worked various full-time jobs. “I was extremely loyal to The News Record, and that’s a big reason why I stayed in school, was just to have a reason to work at The News Record,” Sean recalled. Losing direction in the life department gave birth to “Slacker Solutions,” Sean’s popular humor column, in which he proudly chronicled personal events like moving back home with his mom and discovering TiVo. Six years into his duration at UC, Sean had filed more than seventy original stories but was little more than halfway to completing his Bachelor of Arts in Journalism degree.
Erin watched a coroner in a lab coat snap on blue gloves, approach the severed hand and place it in a metal can. She stared at the spot where the hand had been and observed the indentation in the grass. A dried up pool of fluid covered a small stick. She thought she might be sick. Avoiding close-up shots of what could best be described as red goop, Erin’s colleague Sam Greene photographed a pair of torn cargo shorts, which hung from a tree, and a stained wallet on the sidewalk, which lay open.
Cincinnati Police Sergeant Jeff Gramke of the Homicide Unit approached Erin and made a statement that linked the severed hand to a break-in at the transmitter earlier that morning. With this scope of carnage, Gramke said, investigators weren’t certain how the victim had perished. “We don’t know much,” Gramke told her. “And we found the torso at the bottom of the tower.” Perhaps he fell, Gramke speculated as he walked off. Everyone knew the victim’s gender definitively, as the body had been stripped of clothing on the way down. Mercifully, the torso rested behind the fence, up the hill and out of direct view.
Less than five minutes had passed since Sean Peters had reached the intersection. A fire truck was now extending its ladder into the trees. Firefighters pulled and bagged the cargo shorts and torn T-shirt. Someone was bagging a pair of New Balance running shoes. “I felt like I was auditioning to be a war journalist,” Sean recalled. Sean was new to death, and, though he understood that what he was reporting was appalling, it didn’t deter him from observing keenly. “My blood was pumping,” Sean continued. “I was freaked out, but I was also energized by it, and I feel like my response was almost instinctive.” Something just clicked. He could look at body parts without feeling nauseous because he felt that nothing human should offend him. That was part of a quote he knew, maybe from Oscar Wilde; he wasn’t sure. It became a running mantra in his head.
“I reported what people told me and what I saw,” recalled Sean. “And, you know, taboos be damned.”
Sean maneuvered around the police tape, careful not to contaminate evidence that emergency personnel had missed, and interviewed more than a half dozen individuals all while texting and phoning details back to Gin. He approached a third year biochemistry student named Justin Cerrato, who described his morning in a stream of consciousness. At 9:15 a.m., police had banged on Cerrato’s door and asked if they knew any reason why there would be a bloody hand in front of his house. “They found bloody underwear,” Cerrato told Sean. Cerrato continued, “Body parts strewn throughout the woods, pieces of meat everywhere … bloody chunks in my yard.”
Back at The News Record offices, the rough outline of a story was taking shape, a framework of quotes and reported facts relayed by Erin and Sean to Gin and, through Gin, to the keyboard of news editor James Sprague. Sprague, a thirty-something military veteran who was getting his Bachelor’s degree on the G.I. Bill, could hardly believe the quote he was typing: “bloody chunks.” Sprague flinched at the phrase, as it brought back memories of his service in Guantanamo Bay. This sounded like War on Terror reality. Sprague sensed that few civilians would be conditioned to hear such a frank description, but this also wasn’t his story to interrogate. He viewed himself as merely the conduit tasked to organize information. “From my point of view,” recalled Sprague, “I didn’t want to alter a direct quote from a witness.”
Between calls and text messages from the scene, News Record staffers debated about what they were reporting. Gin phoned faculty advisor Jon Hughs and apprised him of the details. “It’s the first experience that I had had as an educator, since 1972,” recalled Hughs, “where this kind of event and the aftermath of it could be observed by the students; for anyone to first experience the fallout of as traumatic event as this is very difficult.” The newsroom, a glassed-in enclosure wrapping around a white conference table, sang with cacophony like voices in a cafeteria. It could have been murder, a fall, a stunt gone array, but the reporters and editors collectively surmised that the likeliest explanation was suicide.
Sean already presumed so. “I wasn’t reporting on a young man’s life that had been taken,” insisted Sean. “I was reporting on the scene that was left. For many of us, that was the more lasting effect.” Sean couldn’t be certain, but the event’s proximity to campus increased the likelihood that the victim was a fellow student. Investigators carried grey bags out of the caution zone, while firefighters used a pressurized hose to wash bits of flesh and tissue from nearby vehicles, which Sam Greene documented. A news team from The Cincinnati Enquirer pulled up late and began the process of seeking out witnesses to interview. One of their reporters, rushing around in neatly combed hair and a spring blue shirt, looked like he’d been pulled straight out of church. Sean, Sam and Erin huddled and chuckled at the bad luck of their fellow journalist. They’d all, likewise, tasted the bitter end of chance in the game of breaking news. It’s called getting scooped.
Just as the trio was about to head back to campus, a person standing on a second-floor balcony invited them up so that Sam might take some aerial shots. Erin followed Sam up to the balcony, while Sean chatted more on the phone with Gin. From the balcony, Sam zoomed onto the red-stained wallet on the sidewalk with his telephoto lens. He could make out a portion of a UC Bearcat student ID and a driver’s license with a name: Tyler McDonough. As Sam’s camera fluttered, someone in the apartment told Erin that his friend had witnessed the actual fall.
Erin’s heart leapt. Police estimated that the death had occurred around 5 a.m., when the streets of this neighborhood tended to be empty, cleared of partygoers but not yet patronized by early risers. The odds of a person being outside and facing the tower and observing the few seconds of a body in free fall and having sober eyes after a Saturday night all seemed slim. Skeptical but also elated, Erin wondered if she’d stumbled upon the ultimate break in the story: what could be the sole living witness to the incident. The gentleman’s name was Jacob Westendorf, and she now possessed his cell phone digits.
Erin called. Westendorf picked up. He was 30 minutes away and agreed to return to the site. Sean and Sam sprinted back to The News Record – partially, in an effort to scoop The Cincinnati Enquirer – while Erin stuck around on Rohs Street for what could be their reporting coup de grace.
By this time, police bagged the wallet on sidewalk and noticed the nearby address on the driver’s license: 2241 Stratford Avenue. Officer Gramke ventured those few blocks, knocked, entered the premises and met Tyler McDonough’s roommate. The roommate immediately admitted to the game that he and McDonough had been playing with the tower and the text messages from the previous night. “He [the roommate] saw sirens and lights surrounding the tower shortly later,” recalled Tyler Roemer, their mutual friend and skydiving mate. Gramke walked into McDonough’s room and found a thumb drive beside his computer. “Mr. McDonough left a message to his parents on a thumb drive,” Gramke recalled in an email. “It was cut and dry,” he continued. Soon after, it was the Cincinnati Police Department’s duty to phone Tyler McDonough’s parents. Officers had to do so in two separate calls, as the couple was divorced, each time bearing a message that felt like it should be unsayable. Somehow the words came out.
The shock to the parents was absolute, their grief no doubt unimaginable. Nobody raises a child and teaches him to sing and installs a hoop in the driveway and watches him practice and drives him to games and buys him a suit and kisses him when he leaves for college just so that he could perish in this way. Such a death seemed like a violation of every law in the universe. Police had to tell the parents that they possessed a thumb drive with a final message from their son. The officers did not know if they were handing them a death stick, if such a message could kill another human being. “The thumb drive was given to his parents,” Gramke confirmed.
Watching the police as she waited, Erin saw a group of officers shake their heads as they quickly left the caution zone. They seemed to be picking up the pace and carried several grey bags. As they stripped off their moon suits and gloves, Erin wandered over. She stood at a respectful but conspicuous distance—a reporter’s trick to make sure they knew she wanted to talk.
Seemingly in a hurry to finish their work, they loaded equipment into their squad cars and tore down the police tape. Erin noticed the Hamilton Country Coroner separating himself from the pack, and she pounced. She asked for an interview. He said he couldn’t. She pushed a bit.
“All I really want to know is if you have found the head,” she said. She couldn’t believe she was asking the question. “I just got to know.”
He looked with understanding eyes. “We have the majority of him,” he responded.
She nodded. “Would you be willing to put your name on that?” she asked.
“No,” he said flatly. He ducked into the last white car and sped off.
Erin stood alone at the scene, disbelieving everything she’d just experienced on her own street. The hill remained a horror show. She could see flesh in the grass. Majority of him? Why not all of him? Inconvenient as it may be, wasn’t this person now the responsibility of city agencies? What about this death made them, suddenly, prematurely, scatter?
When the witness Jacob Westendorf arrived, Erin pulled him towards her apartment down the way to spare him the brunt of the aftermath, which grew more pungent and repugnant as remains sat in the sun. “How are you doing?” she asked. Westendorf shrugged and lit a cigarette. He looked to be about 20, 21 years old, possibly a student. “At 4:30 a.m., I heard a noise and looked up,” he told her, “and I saw a body falling from the sky.” The fall came from the very top, he said, falling to the left-hand side of the antenna. He remembered smaller dark shapes breaking off from a main shape: “I heard a thud and another thud.” He’d gone inside to ask other partiers, “Was that a body?” But no one else saw what he saw.
Friends had barely believed his story, and light hadn’t yet revealed the extent of what had landed near and around them. Westendorf hadn’t known what to do, and he started to doubt himself, to question whether what he knew could be important. So, Westendorf explained, he’d just gone home and crashed on the couch. He resolved to give a statement later on, if necessary, but police never called him.
Meanwhile at The News Record, Sean and James were fine-tuning edits on their 450-word breaking story. Sam selected photos with care, omitting the carnage but also communicating the dramatic impact of event. Sean and Gin opined that the words of the article, not the imagery, should convey the full thrust of the violence. No doubt feeling an onrush of sympathy for family and friends of the victim who might read the story, Sam chose an establishing shot of a police car near the tower and then an additional shot of a police office bagging a pair of cargo shorts. Privately, quietly, Sam and others teared up in the process. (Erin Leitner wouldn’t cry until later that night. Sean wouldn’t cry for several years.)
Conferring with faculty advisor Jon Hughs, Sam chose not to publish the image of the driver’s license with the name Tyler McDonough. “I remember the wallet conversation, and my saying that it could belong to someone else, maybe not the victim,” recalled Hughs. “You don’t know who that belongs to.” Dizzy, slightly wheezy, Erin rushed into the newsroom and delivered Westendorf’s quotes about the fall. “I submitted it [to James] and Sean turned in his notes as well,” recalled Erin. “We had James Sprague compile what we wrote… I looked where James placed my content, and I was satisfied that he did my portion to my satisfaction.”
James placed Erin’s quotations in the middle section of the story. Sean then had a discussion with James and Gin about the more graphic testimony: “bloody underwear,” “pieces of meat.” James moved the quotes around, trying to reconcile their descriptiveness with sensitivity for the situation. But Sean stood firm that the quotes were essential for understanding the event itself. “When so many people see parts of a human body,” recalled Sean, “I think the reader needs to understand what the population of that very small area went through.” A part of Sean grew frustrated; the quotes reflected the scene. “As a reporter, I value the truth over everything,” said Sean. “My girlfriend would tell you that I don’t lie about anything. Even when it hurts to tell the truth. She really thought I was going to like that new purse, but I didn’t, so I told her.” What happened to the victim was twisted and sordid and gruesome and unfair. It also happened to be true. “I understand that it was gory,” recalled Sean, “but that was a shared experience for too many people to be overlooked.”
James decided to put these graphic quotations in the final paragraphs of the story. Since breaking news stories follow an inverted pyramid format, with essential information up front and the least important details at the end, James rationalized that The News Record would be eschewing sensationalism by relegating the most grisly material to a place where the least number of readers would see it: not in a headline or a lead sentence or even the front page of the paper but buried with contextual evidence and background facts. Erin proofread the piece for grammar and style. She gave her all clear. Gin added a final “the incident remains under investigation” qualifier as the end sentence and pressed publish at 12:22 p.m. EST.
Celia Watson Seupel, a New York Times-published journalist who was part of my Columbia Journalism School cohort, lost her son Spencer Watson Seupel, a 21-year-old student at Penn State University, to suicide in 2012. In the aftermath of his death, Seupel contacted the student newspaper, The Daily Collegian. She presumed that they would be writing an obituary and need to contact the family. Seupel hoped for, in her words, “an article that might help other young people at school become more aware of the real threat of suicide.” The editor-in-chief dashed that prospect. He informed her that The Daily Collegian didn’t report on any suicide as a matter of policy and that no obituary for Spencer would be forthcoming.
It felt like people would rather disremember her son, or deny him public mourning rites, because they didn’t know how to talk about the way he died.
Incensed, Seupel purchased ad space in The Daily Collegian and published an obituary that she wrote herself: “My beautiful son, Spencer Watson Seupel, of High Falls, New York took his own life in his fraternity room at Penn State.” Days later, in response to widespread reader reaction to Seupel’s ad, The Daily Collegian published a story about college suicide and mentioned Spencer as a recent example. “I guess they changed their minds,” Seupel reflected. In that story, a representative of Alpha Tao Omega, Spencer’s national fraternity, said that no brother from the Penn State chapter would comment, citing the need to for them to be put in a “bubble” of protection while grieving. Seupel called this compulsory silence, wherein fraternity members were prohibited from commenting to the media, “wrong.”
Penn State University and Alpha Tao Omega, according to Seupel, feared the consequences that could arise from talking about the tragedy itself or from copycat behaviors that might arise afterwards. Stifling public speech, they were practicing risk management and reducing liabilities. “She [Seupel] said it exemplifies the problem of depression and suicide — being more concerned about image than reality,” concluded The Daily Collegian story. No copycat suicides, it should be noted, were documented after The Daily Collegian published their suicide story. Such caution wasn’t always the reflexive policy within newsrooms and media conglomerates when it came to suicides.
The theory of contagion, and its containment, developed over decades and only caught its stride during the 1990s. Graphic depictions of suicide, of the kind made famous by the photographer Weegee, were highly sought after and published throughout the 20th century as grisly exemplars of true crime. Famous suicide deaths regularly made front-page headlines. “Marilyn Monroe Dead, Pills Near,” ran The New York Times on August 6, 1962. When poet Anne Sexton died by suicide in 1974, her New York Times obituary read: “Anne Sexton, the poet who won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for her volume ‘Live or Die,’ was found dead yesterday inside an idling car, parked in her garage.” Many newspapers operated with the assumption that shining a light on suicide behavior could yield positive results by demystifying the deaths and/or shaming the at-risk into seeking help. Plus, as the old adage went, blood was news.
The effect of this prominent suicide coverage was often glamorization of the victim or romanticizing the victim’s behavior. Headline-hogging portrayals of suicide as tragedy or suicide as protest or mass suicide as mass spectacle often blurred the lines between what were the confused actions of broken people and what were sobering reflections of a broken world. For example, a rash of New York City Police Department suicides in 1994 led to vivid coverage in The New York Times and The Washington Post, with one officer, the Times revealed, leaving a note expressing regret about his being implicated in a corruption case, and another officer, the Post revealed, executing himself with his sidearm in a Times Square restaurant on Christmas morning.
Photographs circulated internationally when a Buddhist monk named Thích Quảng Đức set himself ablaze on June 11, 1963 to protest the corruption of the South Vietnamese government. An image of the incident was taken by A.P. reporter Malcolm W. Browne, who then won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. Media outlets reported the 1978 mass-murder/mass-suicide of 918 people at Jonestown, Guyana with vivid detail, channeling the pervasive shock that a religious leader like Jim Jones, a former Time magazine “Humanitarian of the Year,” could inspire a massacre of such scale. The primary instrument of death, summer camp-style “bug juice” laced with cyanide and voluntarily consumed by many of the followers, gave birth to the popular catchphrase, “Drinking the Kool-Aid,” now a cliché used almost daily on business conference calls. Jim Jones himself, it became known, died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. NBC News, in possession of exclusive footage from Jonestown, aired the images on repeat. Similarly, ABC News broadcast the aftermath of the 1997 mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult and revealed the ritual “death garb” of several cult members.
On January 22, 1987, Pennsylvania State Treasurer Robert Budd Dwyer broadcast his suicide on live television when he placed a .357 caliber revolver in his mouth at a press conference and pulled the trigger. In an agitated speech before the bloodshed, Dwyer blamed federal authorities who pursued him on bribery charges for engineering his downfall. The gruesome scene that followed became something of a cultural legend, inspiration for the song “Hey Man, Nice Shot” by 90s grunge band Filter and grist for comedians like Norm Macdonald. (A copy of the uncensored video, in which Dwyer collapses with blood pouring from of his nostrils, has racked up more than 5 million views on YouTube.)
Most reported instances of suicide throughout the 20th century would reveal a suicide’s method and motivating rationale, if anything because journalists were reporting suicide as they would any other fatality. Death reports, especially obituary stories, have long served a public good by protecting societal laws and citizen legacies. Since the dead have no direct means of recourse, they often become prey to criminals and hucksters, and public oversight provides a means of defense against foul play and safeguards the respectful internment of remains. (It’s argued by archeologists that burying one’s dead is actually a first marker of civilization). Beyond all that, suicide stories proved to be especially compelling to audiences.
Each human suicide was a specific event, mystifying in its specificity but also touching to the heart universally because the human heart understands pain and yearns for its own pain to be understood. As John Steinbeck once wrote, “Who among us has not stared into the black water?” I, for example, have pondered about the meaning of suicide every day since I was seven years old. It was my cousins who first spoke the word in the front of me, and I had to ask my dad what it meant. We were at a family reunion, and my cousins were laughing when I asked, as the question was totally inappropriate for the room. Rattled, he took a curious son aside and quietly explained that when life accrues too much suffering, some choose a voluntary exit. I asked why someone would choose such a thing forever. “They don’t feel life’s worth living anymore,” he said. I’ve thought about why he said worth ever since.
Whenever a public personality died or an unknown person died in a public way, reporters went about the business of acquiring facts to establish cause. Starting in the late 1960s and expanding into the 1990s, a widening body of research began to pose that a relationship existed between media coverage and suicide clusters. For example, when Marilyn Monroe died by suicide in August 1962, the suicide rate jumped by twelve percent the following month. Experts determined that Monroe’s fan base largely mimicked her behavior. Thus was the broader “suicide prevention lobby” born to quell what was believed to be a social plague, and it grew on a parallel track with alarming research about suicide spreading from person to person.
Volunteer suicide prevention programs, often tied to religious organizations, had been around in London and New York City since 1906, but suddenly doctors and clinicians demanded the prime position in anti-suicide efforts. “Suicide clusters,” or suicides occurring among interlinked groups in the same region and around the same time period, had been observed by clinicians since at least 1911, when a researcher identified an epidemic of suicides in Russian schools; in 1954, a psychologist named Bakwin extended that research into the United States, observing that “in a report from Yale for the years 1925-1955 suicide was the second most frequent cause of death.”
In 1958, the first federally funded suicide prevention center opened in Los Angeles, and it ran the first 24-hour suicide crisis line in America. In 1966, the National Institute of Mental Health established the Center for Studies of Suicide Prevention, and that Institute presented its first recommendations on suicide prevention in 1973. In that report, members of the news media were broadly defined as “Disseminators” of suicide prevention information. In the established hierarchy, Level B “Disseminators” would take direction from Level A “Discoverers,” or clinicians who created and tested anti-suicide measures. There it is in black and white: journalists downgraded to functionaries tooling under master scientists, like serf to lord, page to knight.
An unexamined consequence of this hierarchy involved the yoking of a free press, whose primary mission as members of Burke’s vaunted “Fourth Estate” extended beyond suicide prevention into, generally, informing the public and holding power accountable to the truth. Regardless, in the eyes of hyper-focused suicidologists and clinicians, the press need be acquiescent in clinical efforts to reduce suicide rates. Predictably, “recommendations” for journalists in 1973 advanced into what the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and like organizations would commonly call “guidelines” by 2001, whereby informed suggestions to avoid “glorifying suicide” or “how-to descriptions” transformed into instructions for specific story angles to pursue over others.
Symbolically, experts leaned in closer over the necks of journalists at typewriters and computers. They provided an increased level of oversight to help reporters craft a safe suicide story that could serve as a kind of public service announcement, replete with lists of suicide warning signs (e.g. talking about wanting to die, talking about feeling hopeless) and prevention hotlines (Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK). Some of the reporting recommendations were vague, others explicit. Keep the tone dispassionate. Omit the gory facts. Don’t place the story prominently on a page. Don’t make the story a series that runs for an extended period of time. Don’t use the word suicide in a headline. Don’t quote a suicide note or state the method of death.
The upshot has been the creation of public health stories that inform while fundamentally lacking drama, which vastly differs from how suicide is experienced by survivors on a firsthand basis, a la witnesses to the death of Tyler McDonough. Meanwhile, the suicide prevention lobby engaged in a widespread effort to criticize the publication of any type of story that would suggest that an individual suicide might mean something larger about our world, lest the at-risk mimic the same behavior to be understood by others or gain significance. The suicidal are not to be learned from, experts posit; it’s disturbed behavior. Suicidal ideation has been branded as psychological torment with psychological solutions rather than a societal quandary that might require broader changes to our social system.
For example, when individuals died by suicide in political acts, such as street vendor Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide by immolation in Tunisia in 2010, which set off the Arab Spring, the suicide prevention lobby discouraged news outlets from publishing images of the incident, which nonetheless circulated freely on social media. Instead of comparing overall suicide rates in nations before and after the Arab Spring, suicidologists focused on the possible “Werther effect” of Bouazizi’s self-immolation resulting in other deaths by self-immolation throughout the region.
More U.S. publications adopted CDC guidelines as formal policy, just as more research into suicide clusters published in scientific journals across Europe, Australia and the U.S., in part because suicide clusters attracted a level of media attention that naturally drew researchers, which in turn led to more inquiry about suicide coverage. For example, Madelyn Gould authored “Suicide Clusters: An Examination of Age-Specific Effects” in 1988, which concluded that although there is “no explicit definitions of a ‘suicide cluster,’” nonetheless “suicide clusters appear to primarily occur among teenagers and young adults.” In 1990, she authored “Suicide clusters and media exposure,” which built on previous scholarship to argue that the media may play a role in the occurrence of suicide clusters, especially among the young and vulnerable. So the circle spun.
Although most suicides are discrete events that go underreported or misreported due to stigma, suicide clusters have a way of announcing themselves.
Eventually, clusters and their coverage would be empirically correlated, meaning that one phenomenon tended to exist in the presence of the other, and explained by the theory of “contagion.” However, the exact degree of the correlation was never definitively established, and has never been, to date. “We’re not really sure of the mechanisms by which suicide contagion works,” Gould admits. “How it’s been considered,” is one phrase she uses to frame the state of knowledge. “I don’t think it’s terribly well understood,” suicide researcher Thomas Joiner admits about contagion. “One angle on it,” is a phrase he uses. No single suicide case has ever been wholly attributed to contagion, and no coroner in the United States will list suicide contagion as a legal cause of death.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline went live in 2004. In 2012, the CDC collaborated with a range of suicide prevention groups to sign off on its most explicit set of reporting strategies. “Instead of this,” the report read, “Do this,” with an associated list of bullet points. Instead of “Big or sensationalistic headlines,” the CDC proposes, “Inform the audience without sensationalizing.” Instead of “John Doe left a suicide note saying…,” the CDC proposes, “A note from the deceased was found and is being reviewed.” In the Internet era, journalists and suicidologists reached such cohesion that major publications took their cues on reporting suicides from think tanks like The Annenberg Public Policy Center. The Columbia Journalism School houses The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma in its very building.
Emboldened suicide experts like Dr. Madelyn Gould then began to express that certain forms of published speech on suicide were too “dangerous” to for the public to see and hear, lest the at-risk be triggered. Some spokespersons encouraged outlets to disregard stories of suicide deaths and instead report stories of suicide prevention. That way, explained Gould, “you’re actually providing messages of hope and recovery … that will then impact vulnerable people in a way that will actually decrease their suicidal behavior.” Organizations like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention often used the word “sensational” to shame media outlets and curtail “graphic” reporting, employing the very language that federal and state censors used throughout the 20th century to enforce laws against obscene speech.
It’s little wonder, then, that a college newspaper like Penn State’s The Daily Collegian would flinch at reporting a fellow student dying by suicide in 2012. The ideal suicide story walks a line so fine that some publications cannot grasp it and therefore avoid the risk entirely. “There is an ironic and destructive clash between the real fear of suicide contagion – of glamorizing suicide and tipping the scales for someone who might be leaning in that direction – and of the need for suicide realities to be out there in the public: for suicide to be reported and understood,” reflected Celia Watson Seupel. “Without education and awareness, suicide can’t be prevented.”
Suicide prevention efforts seemed to be succeeding in the U.S. between the years of 1992 and 1998, when overall suicide rates decreased during an era of greater awareness and unprecedented economic prosperity. Yet, despite increasing vigilance and volume by the suicide prevention lobby in more recent years, suicide rates in the United States have been rising since the turn of the century, increasing by thirty-three percent between 1999 and 2016 according to the CDC’s National Vital Statistics System. Of the top ten causes of death in the U.S., suicide is one of only three that is growing year to year, the other being Alzheimer’s disease and drug overdoses. An analysis of this data by the Associated Press reveals that the suicide death rate is now at its highest point in half a century—dating, roughly, to the birth of the suicide prevention lobby and calling into question the efficacy of all work related to suicide prevention in America. Indeed, medical science has not solved what religion failed to solve for millennia and then ceded to nations, which failed for centuries. The quagmire of suicide has, in fact, deepened, and likely due to no fault of the clinicians and sociologists working honorably and in good faith to plug up holes in a veritable sinking boat.
As a culture, it’s as if we’re frightened to admit that we know so little about suicide and that what we know is not working. Those who call attention to this lack of knowledge run the risk of being pilloried for asking unresolvable questions, much like Socrates. Success stories, which do exist, remain case-by-case and constrained by not just byzantine health and insurance industry practices but also by the self-help-oriented messages enforced by experts with a stake in the media sharing what the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention calls “the hopeful message that suicide is preventable in language, tone and images.” Yet, just try making a first-time appointment with a DBT therapist in your city who accepts your particular form of insurance and can meet in the morning or evening.
Rising suicide rates have coalesced with rising opioid deaths to do what was once thought unthinkable in this country: reducing overall life expectancy, which dropped in 2015, leveled off in 2016 and dropped again in 2017. The question keeps arising: why continue to harp on contagion and constrain speech, a fundamental precept of most Western societies, when the combined efforts of the suicide prevention lobby, including voluntary speech restriction, have failed to decrease suicide rates? Other explanations for suicide clusters that discount the contagion process such as homophilic preference (birds of a feather flocking together), shared social history (such as an economic downtown or wartime trauma) or assortative mixing (similar people having similar attributes) presume that “already-suicidal people may be socially clustered [naturally], but no meaningful risk is produced by their interaction with one another,” according to suicidologist Ian Cero.
As psychiatrist Jose Bertolote wrote in a 2004 white paper, “With few remarkable exceptions, most evaluative research in suicidology clearly reflects the ideological and etiological views of its authors and addresses the factors… believed by them to be relevant in the suicidal process and ignores all others.” In other words, to a clinician studying the use of ketamine, ketamine tends to be the cure-all. To a researcher studying suicide contagion, contagion tends to become the primary motivator. To borrow a schoolyard phrase, one’s epidermis tends to show when one has skin in the Level A expert game. Could it be possible that speech restriction might have reached a law of diminishing returns, whereby stifling speech can actually contribute to an increase in overall suicide rates by stifling a sense of national urgency about a public health issue so dire that it’s contributed to the longest period of decline in American life expectancy since the Spanish flu?
To keep with this metaphor, could it be that contagion has been mistaken for the flu, when it is possibly the fever? Presently, although the relationship between the media and contagion is among the more studied areas of suicide prevention, less research exists as to whether this relationship is primary in most cases or whether it is merely an over-studied niche in a relatively new and underexplored field. “Most research on suicide contagion has focused on natural experiments in which an initial suicide (often of a celebrity) leads to imitative suicidal behaviour or clusters of subsequent suicidal events, usually associated with insensitive or sensational media coverage,” wrote suicide expert Dr. India Bohanna for the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2013. “This focus on unusual suicide events and celebrity suicide reduces our confidence in the broader applicability of the findings of the research. In this sense, research on suicide contagion is in its infancy.”
More people are dying by suicide in this country, and just talking about it can result in more people dying by suicide in this country, experts maintain. Words kill, they insist.
It’s what you call a Catch-22 for journalists and concerned citizens, who do not wish to effectively murder the at-risk with unsettling language, if such language is capable of killing in that way. Still, events do happen each year that hasten the at-risk towards a mass death. When Robin Williams died by suicide on August 12, 2014, calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline leapt to approximately 7,400 from the usual 3,500 per day. Nearly 2,000 additional suicide deaths, a ten percent increase in expected rates, occurred in the four months that followed, according to a Columbia University study. Suicides involving suffocation, Williams’ reported method of death, rose thirty-two percent over that time, said that same study.
Though it’s difficult to dissect if these increases were due to contagion flowing from tweets like “Genie, your free” by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences or any number of other factors (it’s not like our society is a closed system with control groups), researchers have used this data to reflect on the emergent risk of contagion from social media. Perhaps another point of inquiry could be this: How are so many people so at-risk that the death of Robin Williams would motivate their own deaths? Can you imagine if Paul McCartney died by suicide? None of us could control it, certainly not the journalists. How are we to protect the at-risk if we ignore what creates “at-risk-ness,” to begin with?
The headline on newsrecord.org read “Police respond to death at WLWT tower.” Sean and Erin and James shared the byline together. They’d beaten the Enquirer to press, plus a host of other news organizations in the Cincinnati area. They’d taken little more than an hour from scouting to filing to publishing the story. “I think that speaks to the dedication and the rather remarkable professionalism of the staff involved in understanding the importance of the story,” recalled faculty advisor Jon Hughs, “and understanding, at a relatively early stage, the importance of getting information out there.”
Within minutes, their online article received an unprecedented five re-tweets–an adorable figure now but heavy engagement for a newspaper with less than 900 followers in an era when Twitter was young. Website traffic spiked, and a quiet pride filled the newsroom. Most staffers took a breath or went outside to smoke. Minutes later, a random individual contacted Gin with an offer to sell video of a pack of wild dogs sniffing around body parts near the tower. Personally disgusted by the footage, Gin declined to purchase the material. “Though we did publish and cover a lot,” recalled Gin, “it was still just seventy to eighty percent of the things that reporters and photogs got out there, which we didn’t use.”
Then “Rest in Peace” messages tied to the name Tyler McDonough began appearing en masse on Twitter and Facebook. Sean and Sam knew that McDonough was the last name on the license in the wallet found at the scene. Gin now felt as certain as he could, without an official pronouncement, that Tyler McDonough was the person dead on the corner Warner and Rohs. Still, Gin believed that this instinct wasn’t enough to publish. To be absolutely certain, The News Record needed a verifiable announcement handed down from a reputable source, like a university organization or the county coroner. The Cincinnati Police Department had not yet made Officer Gramke’s Incident Report available to the press. (It would contain just one sentence: “On May 1, 2011, Tyler McDonough entered onto property at 2222 Chickasaw Street, climbed the transmission tower and fell to the ground causing his death.”)
Listening to his reportorial “spidey sense,” Gin punched the name Tyler McDonough into Facebook and found what appeared to be a suicide note. The newsroom sat silent as Gin and Sean scanned through what appeared to be Tyler McDonough’s final post. It was time-stamped and dated May 1, earlier that morning. “The most devastating, heart wrenching note,” as Sean described it. In the post, McDonough revealed that he’d been rejected in love and couldn’t eat or sleep. “I believe that it was a girl,” said Gin. “I’m not even sure if it was a case of unrequited love.” These words pulled the reporters behind a private curtain of pain. “It would have been misconstrued as melodramatic under any other circumstance,” recalled Gin. The final line, or close to the final line, wounded Sean and Gin in a way that they both cannot fully remember and cannot fully forget.
Gin doesn’t know if time erased the words or if his brain blurred the message as a form of self-defense. McDonough wrote about wanting to end it all by doing the thing that he loved. Gin continued, “I distinctly remember him saying that he wanted to fly. If memory serves me correctly, I believe he said it was the last thing he wanted to do. Ever.” The note felt dangerous to Sean and Gin, giving words to ideas with few words in the English language because to speak them is to give them power. “That was something that still affects me,” admits Gin. Perhaps this was the force of contagion: sadness so big it seeks a new host. “Just a gut shot,” recalled Sean, “absolutely bewildering.”
Tyler McDonough’s words threatened to make easy sense of a complex event involving alcohol and mental illness and life stressors and the random inclusion of an extreme sport. “I don’t think what happened had anything to do with skydiving,” suggested Tyler Roemer, his skydiving friend. “I think if he had very difficult issues, that skydiving gave him a break from those issues… ,” Roemer continued, “I personally felt like when I got into skydiving, that it allowed me to put some of life’s issues into perspective, and I believe many jumpers find that same satisfaction.” The average skydiver doesn’t have a death wish but a life wish. He or she seeks to transcend fear and suffering by courting extremes without crossing them. The dive is a way of pantomiming birth and death, hence the countless safety precautions to reduce the chance of accident or injury before, during, and after each leap.
Skydivers experiencing suicidal impulses or serious mental illnesses are flagged by instructors and not permitted on a plane. “Ty’s skydives were completed by USPA instructors outside of the club,” noted Roemer. “This would have been noticed by his instructors. There are skydivers who occasionally commit suicide by skydiving, but all gear that Tyler was using would have had a CYPRES brand AAD, or automatic activation device. This device measures speed and altitude and would automatically deploy a parachute, say in the instance the jumper collided with another and was knocked unconscious. This is required device by the USPA for all student jumps.” Nonetheless, Roemer rues: “Ultimately, I don’t really know what happened to Ty. I don’t believe the ultimate outcome is what he was looking for.”
Although no one at The News Record had known Tyler McDonough personally, some admitted that it felt like they were getting to know him through the Facebook post. Gin sensed that it was a familiarity built on false intimacy. “It could have been any of us,” insisted Gin. “To tell you the truth, man, if you feel the way he did, what he wrote, it could have been any of us.” Sean and Gin stood and stared. They didn’t move to screen-grab the note or print it out. The page went blank within minutes, as is Facebook policy when dealing with possible suicide cases. Some administrator in California must have known to press delete.
Meanwhile, the online gossip raged to new levels. “Apparently he tweeted how the view is sweet up here and that it was windy,” tweeted Ricky Ross. “My friends said there’s like fencing around the tower so I think it may have been possible he might have been electrocuted,” wrote THPSfan14 on the gaming message board LurkerFAQs. “Reminds me of the Patsy Cline song ‘I Fall to Pieces,’” wrote Tim58hsv on the message board DTVUSAForum. Misinformation, mixed with a lack of maturity, ran roughshod. “Only in Clifton, this is so ridiculous,” tweeted Andy Vielhaber, using the tragedy as opportunity to critique the hipster-friendly neighborhood surrounding the university. Simultaneously, almost every newspaper and news channel in the region picked up the story. “Man killed climbing TV Tower: Severed hand found,” announced The Cincinnati Enquirer. Lauren Evans of nbc41.com wrote of the “death of a man whose body parts were distributed in a large area.” By 5 p.m. EST, Fox News caught wind of the story and published in online affiliates from Cincinnati to Orlando to Chicago: “Dismembered Body Found.”
“They were basically diet versions of ours, our story,” recalled Sean. “Although these are institutions that have much more experience documenting tragedy.” News Record staffers scrambled to make the midnight production deadline for their Monday, May 2 print edition. It was going to be a big one: 20,000 free issues to be delivered across the city while newsrecord.org page views soared to unprecedented heights. Gin slated “Police Respond to Death” to run as the Page 1 top story, with the goriest sentences, Cerrato’s “bloody chunks” remark, stowed in small print in a Page 2 subsection. Gin put the finishing touches on his editor-in-chief Off The News Record blog in anticipation of a reader reaction due to the story’s descriptiveness. “It is unsettling; it’s disturbing; we went because we are obligated,” wrote Gin. Then news broke of Osama Bin Laden’s death.
Whatever happened on that moonless night in Abbottabad, Pakistan became a global sensation. The release of major news so close to midnight, May 2, upended The News Record’s production timetable. “Not only were we covering this very public, very messy event,” explained Sean, “but the same reporters were also basically kept four hours past our printing deadline to come up with this Bin Laden press release story.” Gin positioned the world’s biggest news item, Bin Laden’s death, on the Page 1 centerfold beneath the WLWT tower death, which maintained its position at the top story. “I knew for a fact that people would go to The New York Times or Los Angeles Times and find something about Osama Bin Laden,” explained Gin, “but I’m sure that everybody at least on that part of campus who lives near there or had heard anything through social media wanted to know what was happening there.” The News Record chose to forgo international news for a campus story. “We’re a local paper,” said Sean, “so we emphasize local news.”
As the editorial team rejiggered the print issue, reactions to their online WLWT story went from immature to angry. Andie Anderson, a blogger whose “A Blonde’s Guide to the World” boasted some readership on campus, tweeted “@NewsRecord_UC has disappointed me. Extremely Disappointed in Bad Journalism.” She followed up with, “please change the publishing of the story.” Sweet Libertine, a local cosmetics provider, would tweet, “Horrific details are written with no respect to friends or family” alongside the Twitter hashtag #UCHackjournalism. Phones lit up in the student newsroom. Gin’s editor-in-chief email inbox was deluged. One of McDonough’s relatives wrote in a Facebook comment box attached to The News Record story, “I am really pissed that someone would refer to my cousin as a pile of body parts.” And vitriol rained on the first name listed on the WLWT story byline: Sean Peters. “I don’t know if people understand how to read bylines,” said Sean, noting Erin Leitner’s and James Sprague’s names next to his own. “Everything else was just like ‘whoever did this.’”
Comments read “inconsiderate and amateur,” “unprofessional and disrespectful,” “SO GROSS.”
“I assumed a lot of the people who were so angry with me were the people who had a direct relation to him,” recalled Sean. A person identifying as Tyler McDonough’s brother commented anonymously on The News Record website and called the story offensive. A friend of Sean’s at the U.C. radio station accused him of being a “yellow journalist.” One reader rifled through the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics and quoted the “minimize harm” section at the newspaper: “Pursuit of news is not a license for arrogance.”
Tyler McDonough’s parents bypassed Sean, James and Erin in their distress and emailed Gin with their complaints. Gin took care responding to the family, explaining that it was The News Record’s duty to report tragic events accurately. “I won’t apologize for running it,” wrote Gin in his Off The News Record blog, summarizing these emails. “If anything, I apologize to the man. I will not apologize for doing my job, but I will apologize to a man who met his end in that way.”
Gin stood by his reporters. “It came to very personal blows,” recalled Gin, “with people calling out both Sean and Erin, talking about, ‘What do you call this journalism?’” Sean reeled, taking each reaction seriously. Doubting questions naturally sprung to his mind: Why should the facts of a scene be offensive? “Offensive is just the challenging of one’s own sensibility,” said Sean. Can stating a truth be arrogant? Was he missing the compassion some thought was lacking? “Stories are what keep my interest in interacting with people,” Sean insisted. Had he damaged his credibility, the foundation of his ability to be a journalist?
Citizens and government leaders across the political spectrum have embraced the CDC’s suicide reporting guidelines. With the call for voluntary speech restriction to reduce contagion, a variable phenomenon at best symbolically understood by the public, suicide experts appeal to both far right and far left factions of Americana. Most on both sides of the aisle cannot cite “contagion” as the reason why talking about suicide is wrong, but they delight in the way that scientists and clinicians provide them ammunition to silence what affronts them.
The far right, in general, favors speech restriction for reasons of offensiveness, and suicide is widely considered offensive by both religious and military circles, sinful by the devout and weak by the hawkish. For example, in response to a reported ten-year high of suicides among active duty U.S. Marines in 2018, General Robert Neller told CNN, “While there is no dishonor in coming up short, or needing help, there is no honor in quitting.” Conservative families and institutions wish to be spared association with behavior they believe is reprehensible. They police the airwaves for public decency.
The far left, on the other hand, favors speech restriction for reasons of public safety and political correctness. Armed with more than fifty or so studies correlating sensational reporting with some degree of contagion, a small army of online experts and social justice warriors police our culture and flame violators. For example, in early 2018, when popular YouTube creator Logan Paul posted a video of a body handing from a tree in Japan’s Aokigahara forest, widely known as the “suicide forest,” Paul faced an avalanche of condemnation. A tweet from actress Sophie Turner calling Paul a “gargantuan arsehole” drew some 380,000 likes. The outcry prompted Paul to take down the video but not before it amassed more than 24 million views. Punitively, YouTube removed Paul’s video accounts from Google Preferred, an elite advertising program for top creators, which cost Paul an estimated $5 million in ad revenue.
As another example, the most banned book of 2017, according to the American Library Association, wasn’t anything from the Harry Potter series (despised by Christian evangelicals for years for its depictions of witchcraft) but the young adult novel Thirteen Reasons Why, which was challenged and eliminated from libraries in liberal regions across America because it graphically depicts the suicide of a teenage girl. Google queries about suicide rose almost twenty percent in the first nineteen days after the television adaptation of Thirteen Reasons Why first aired on Netflix, and suicide prevention experts denounced both the show and the book. In general, liberal activists and institutions wish for people to spared materials they believe to be dangerous, such as images of a hanging person or a teenage girl who intentionally bleeds to death. They police the culture for ideological adherence and public wellbeing.
The far right and far left, however, will make exceptions when it suits an agenda. Throughout the 2016 presidential election campaign, for example, Donald Trump often speculated about the 1993 suicide of former Clinton White House deputy counsel Vince Foster, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head in a wooded park, because it drew shame upon a perpetrator of so-called shameful behavior and cast a pall of intrigue on his opponent Hillary Clinton. The 2014 death by suicide of transgender Cincinnati teenager Leelah Alcorn, by contrast, sparked a wave of advocacy for transgender youth following the widespread publication of Alcorn’s suicide note. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention implored that this note be removed from the public space because it “has the potential to promote copycat suicide behavior,” yet LGBT+ advocates persisted.
It is impossible to say how many lives were saved by raising transgender youth awareness through Alcorn’s final words versus how many lives were lost when at-risk youths read Alcorn’s note and imagined their own deaths as symbols.
It’s also difficult to estimate how many at-risk citizens resolved to die by self-inflicted gunshot after Trump drew attention to Foster’s method of death versus how many self-identified Republicans pondering suicide decided to seek help rather than end up like Foster, belittled in death.
There are, of course, suicide experts who hedge the kneejerk impulse to restrict speech. “A free press is pretty paramount,” said suicide researcher Thomas Joiner. “But I am of a position on these issues that is pretty centrist,” he added. “A lot of the field has moved pretty far in one way in that my peers say we have to be extremely careful, extremely responsible with reporting, never mentioning any detail. And that’s not where I’m at with it. Needless details, those are probably unwise. But things that inform and tell the truth, those can be for the public good themselves, so long as it helps people understand that suicide is not in any way easy or a relief or romantic or any of that. You can scare people off of it, actually.”
But Joiner’s centrist view is becoming more and more of a rarity. Other factors motivating suicide have been deemed less important for suicide prevention than pressuring journalists to tow the line because so many people exist at such a tipping point that a misplaced word will blow them off a metaphorical cliff. “Suicide contagion, within a broader context of factors that impact someone’s motivation to die by suicide, is not one of the major ones,” said Madelyn Gould, surprisingly. “It’s underlying psychiatric problems and various stresses. Environmental factors, between those and underlying psychiatric vulnerabilities, they create a quote unquote ‘perfect storm.’”
The powerful connection between suicide and gun violence, which accounts for more than half of all deaths by suicide, is not the major concern, perhaps because it upsets suicide awareness advocates and gun rights advocates in equal measures. It’s controversial but accurate to write that firearms provide the most common method of suicide in the United States or that suicides account for more than sixty percent of all gun violence deaths, nearly twice the rate of firearm homicides according the latest figures from the CDC. Having access to or training in firearms increases one’s risk of suicide, in general.
According to a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs study, guns were used by nearly two-thirds of military veterans who died by suicide in 2015. More historically, musician Kurt Cobain and writer Ernest Hemingway and former NFL-star Junior Seau and Matthew Warren, son of mega-pastor Rick Warren, all died by way of self-inflicted gunshot. Being a survivor of gun violence, wracked by the guilt of having lived, also increases one’s chance of suicide. In March 2019, two teenage survivors of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory-Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida died by suicide in the same week.
Likewise, the parallels between suicide and bullying, especially among the young, have been deemphasized, especially in an era when political leaders model bully behavior for school-age males. The fact that the at-risk can be broken by a tormentor or that “kill yourself” is a primary taunt of the cyberbully is ignored by many parents. Child bullying victims are two to nine times more likely to report suicidal thoughts than other children, according to a review of suicide studies performed by the Yale School of Medicine. In August 2018, a nine-year-old Colorado boy self-identifying as gay died by suicide several days after he started the fourth grade and faced what his mother characterized as another year of torture from his classmates. In July 2014, a teenage girl named Michelle Carter sent text messages encouraging her then-boyfriend, 18-year-old Conrad Roy III, to proceed with a suicide plan, and Roy perished by locking himself into a vehicle and asphyxiating on carbon monoxide.
Legal adults can also succumb to bullies, be it in the form of an abusive peer or a tyrannical employer. In 2012, Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi illicitly filmed and then posted a homosexual encounter of his then-closeted college roommate Tyler Clementi, who then leapt to his death off the George Washington Bridge. Alternately, a 23-year-old Foxconn employee named Xu Lizhu created a series of poems bemoaning the “dark night of overtime” before jumping seventeen floors to his death in Shenzhen, China on October 1, 2014.
Nor does the suicide prevention lobby adequately examine the constraints of our global workplace that lead to the “Blue Monday” phenomenon in nations like Japan, with suicide rates being almost 1.5 times higher at the start of a workweek. Suicide rates among working age Americans have actually increased thirty-four percent between 2000 and 2016. Additionally, the relationship between suicide and unemployment, with suicide rates for the out-of-work being two to four times higher than the employed, according to figures from the American Association of Suicidology, is a reality frequently sidestepped by managers and human resources executives making hard decisions during times of downtown. Oxford University researchers identified what they called 10,000 “economic suicides” between 2008 and 2010 in the U.S., Canada and Europe during the austerity years that followed the global financial crisis.
Best not look at studies linking occupation and suicide, with physicians and lawyers and dentists – the cream of our workforce, by reputation – almost 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than the average worker. Success in the global marketplace, it’s presumed, inoculates an individual from suicidal impulse. And yet, the top U.S. naval commander in the Middle East Admiral John Richardson died by suicide in 2018. Legendary fashion CEO Kate Spade died by suicide in 2018, and best-selling author and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain died by suicide in 2018.
The link between consumer debt and suicidal ideation, with those in debt twice as likely to think about suicide according to a 2011 study in Psychological Medicine, is often downplayed by a global financial system determined to curtail debt relief, such as the inability for a U.S. federal student loan to be wiped by any form of bankruptcy since 2005. The parallels between rising state-level home foreclosures and rising suicide rates between 2005 and 2010, independent of other economic conditions, is an inconvenient truth circumnavigated by the home mortgage and banking industries just fulfilling their end of contractual agreements. Is a good debtor a dead debtor, or is any contract worth pushing a debtor towards self-inflicted death?
Let’s not dive into the dance between medical bills and suicide, which can motivate the terminally ill to chose voluntary death over the prospect of leaving their families in destitution, or rising suicide rates among physically healthy individuals over 65, reflecting the marginalization of the elderly, or suicide rates among individuals with disabilities or suicide rates among teenagers separated from their families in migrant camps or suicide rates among birth mothers giving up children for adoptions (which are downplayed by Pro-Life advocates) or adolescent suicide rates for adopted children (approximately four times greater than for non-adoptees, according to a 2013 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics) or suicide rates among the estimated 700,000 LGBT+ Americans exposed to conversion therapy in states where such practices are legal or lifetime suicide attempts among transgender Americans pre- and post-gender reassignment surgery (which generally decrease but stay higher than the cisgender population due to numerous factors including medical risks and transphobia) or the turnkey association between alcoholism and suicide, with alcoholic adults being 120 times more likely to die by suicide than adults of the general population, or suicides among active U.S. military personnel (3.8 per day), not to mention military veterans (16.8 per day). Between October 2017 to November 2018, seven military veterans died by suicide in VA hospital parking lots.
Best avoid the perilous dance between suicide deaths and opioid deaths, and the hairs that medical examiners must split when declaring an overdose to be intentional or accidental, a la a slow-motion suicide or a helpless descent into poisoning. Intentional drug overdoses, according to CDC researcher Dr. Holly Hedegaard, now account for about ten percent of all suicide cases.
Maybe we shouldn’t delve into the suicide “jumper” phenomenon at competitive East Coast colleges like New York University and Cornell, where winning students are supposed to be well adjusted. In 2012, New York University enclosed the twelve-story atrium of Bobst Library with aluminum screens after three students leapt to their deaths in that location between 2003 and 2009. Similarly, in 2012, Cornell University installed steel-mesh nets beneath several gorge bridges on campus following twenty-seven reported suicides in those locations between 1990 and 2010. Better bypass the “jumper” phenomenon on pieces of public infrastructure like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, where more than forty individuals leap each year—almost always on the side facing the city, the world to which they’re bidding adieu. Roy Raymond, the founder of Victoria’s Secret, died at age 46 by intentionally falling from the Golden Gate Bridge. In 2014, the Golden Gate Bridge Board of Directors voted unanimously to approve $76 million in funding for a series of anti-suicide nets.
Perchance it’s imprudent to address the “ghost driver” phenomenon, or suicidal individuals behind the wheel causing intentional accidents. For example, in 2018, a woman experiencing suicidal thoughts intentionally drove in the wrong direction at high speed on a California highway and killed an aspiring doctor. As another example, in 2012, a taxi driver who’d written a suicide note intentionally drove his car into oncoming traffic and killed three members of a British family, including an unborn child. In 2005, a Chicago trade-show model recently released from a psychiatric hospital was convicted of reckless homicide after she intentionally caused a 90 mph collision, killing three.
No, perhaps it’s easier to think that a journalist has the deepest and most immediate impact on a suicide case, rather than a bully or a politician advocating for the separation of migrant mothers from migrant children or a bank foreclosing on several hundred thousand dollars of law school debt or a hospital shooing out a mental patient or a dad with too many guns in the drawer to count. On balance, one wonders if this self-enforcing focus on contagion is of greater benefit to the apathetic than the at-risk or if calls for constraint in speech give suicide’s major contributors a pass while bolstering preconceptions that the act is shameful and that talking about suicide is always in bad taste.
The other side of the Catch-22 of suicide contagion is revealing in its own light: even if you do away with contagion, you cannot mathematically remove suicide from a social system, since a prevalence of contagion would depend upon a prevalence of suicide a priori. In other words, contagion is the parasitic fish feeding on morsels that escape the mouth of a larger predator. Remove the one to two percent contagion on planet Earth, and you still have ninety-eight to ninety-nine percent of all of the suicides continuing to occur. The idea that you should speak about suicide only if you speak perfectly ultimately serves whom?
What was happening? Sean wondered. Why was he, of all of the authors of all of the stories written about this particular death, the only journalist to become a target? “A lot of people called for me to get fired,” recalled Sean, observing the irony of a minimum-wage employee being shit-canned. “A lot of people called for me to give a public apology.” Fox News’ headline featuring a “dismembered body,” The Cincinnati Enquirer’s reporting of a “severed hand,” NBC News’ subhead about a “man’s body in pieces,” the insensitive jokes of Internet commentators, all of that seemed to go ignored in the online detritus. What mattered, to an irate public, were sections of Sean Peter’s quoted interview about “bloody chunks” and “pieces of meat,” which transmogrified and merged along the gossip chain into a more offensive shorthand: chunks of meat. “As a reporter, I never had any negative repercussions for my writing,” Sean recalled. “I was doing very harmless, very sterile college newspaper writing.” Suddenly, Sean watched as a story bearing his name racked up views in the tens of thousands—marking what Sam Greene would then call “the highest traffic day for newsrecord.org of all time.” Sean had always hoped that a thing he reported would, someday, make him famous; instead, he was infamous. “It was,” he recalled, “a very tough time for me.”
“He should have had some faculty advisor helping him write this story, especially since this Tyler McDonough’s death turned out to be a suicide,” said Madelyn Gould, when apprised about Sean Peters’ story. “Other students probably felt very protective of McDonough as well. I guess that’s why they felt so outraged by it. But I doubt that Sean Peters intended to malign someone.” Widespread indignation forced Sean to ask himself hard questions. He sat in The News Record office, the place where he felt safest on campus, and reflected on personal history. “That was home,” said Sean. “The News Record office was the center of my life.”
Did he have some unexamined bias, a score that he unintentionally attempted to settle in the reporting of hard news? Sean felt it his duty to tread into the grey-matter of memories, where personal id and professional ego dueled in the mostly unconscious process of decision-making. Sean caught a thought-train he didn’t want to take, and it carried him into his past.
When Sean was 13, while Sean’s parents were divorcing, a close family member of Sean’s, who’d served as an elderly role model, threatened suicide. It was a gambit to keep the family together. It was the kind of vocalized life threat, Sean contends, that only an ill person would make—an alarming example, if such a thing is possible, of illness speaking. “That definitely shaped my attitude to suicide as an alternative [to life],” said Sean. He characterizes this family member’s decline as part of a mid-life crisis that coincided brutally with a professional downward spiral. Still in the midst of the family divorce, Sean, Sean’s mother and Sean’s sister had to move out of the family house and into the residence of a nearby friend. At some point, this close family member turned up at said residence. Sean remembers the individual wearing a raincoat in snowy weather and demanding entry. Sean recalls shutting a glass front door in the face of this authority figure. It was a boy’s first act of defiance, one that both harmed and hardened him.
When the divorce went through, Sean’s close family member received medical help after confessing desperate thoughts to a religious pastor. Sean remembers the individual being admitted to the hospital on the night of his middle school play “Treasure Island.” When asked if he wanted to go to the infirmary, Sean resolved that he wasn’t going to miss a performance to visit a loved one in such a condition. “Why would you put me through that?” Sean would ask later, when the family member returned to health. “I think I’m adaptable,” said Sean. “But I also think I’m very sensitive to change, and it affects me on a base psychological level where I’m just pushing myself to be okay.”
Throughout high school, according to several friends, Sean came to hate losing even simple board games because it could make him feel irrationally helpless. Perhaps he associated loss with becoming the kind of person who inadvertently causes harm in the act of falling apart. “I’d say it shaped a lot of my worldview,” Sean assessed, “it” being the nightmare that he would someday lose a loved one to suicide, to a confluence of pain and despair that he could neither predict nor prevent. Losing, for Sean, invited in that paralyzing feeling of watching the big life happen from through your small movie screen, like a toddler observing a parental argument. Control became important, then, for Sean strategizing to win or quit early to avoid a loss. “At the same time when he gives up on something,” observed Mike Hamer, Sean’s close friend of 15 years, “he has a way of making you feel like you’re stupid for caring as much.” Thus did young Sean transform into his own male authority figure.
Sean used to love watching reruns of the TV show M.A.S.H., but he came to resent the theme song “Suicide is Painless” because it reminded him of what his family had just endured. “Painless for the person who wants to take his or her life, maybe,” said Sean, “but there’s got to be someone left to literally and figuratively clean up the mess.” Sean became a defiant kid, equal parts brilliant and defensive, witty and expressive, but also resentful of outside authority figures and their empty displays of strength. Perhaps that’s why journalism appealed to Sean almost preternaturally: it could make him an independent check on authorities and institutions with pithy headlines and vast control of the news page, with the ability to start and stop time and choose quotations in the process of meeting and understanding sources.
“It’s a survival tactic,” said Sean. “Writing is a survival instinct. Writing is absolutely a foundation for sanity for a lot of people. Me.” Yet, even after examining himself so brutally and so ruthlessly, Sean still concluded that he hadn’t denigrated a suicide victim because of misdirected anger at his family. Sean loved and admired the prodigal family member who’d descended into personal hell but found a way out, who’d made the difficult journey through mental illness back to the self. The two had reconciled fully. “We are in a much better place than we were when I was 13,” Sean said. “We get along fine. I am just more aware of the false narrative of older family members being infallible.” Sean, as an adult, understood that those who face difficulties and get help and ask for forgiveness can be forgiven for their previous behavior. People do get better. Sean’s family member was a good person who got better, and Sean was grateful.
Nope, as a reporter, Sean had simply assessed an out-of-ordinary scene and relayed the information exactly as he’d seen and heard it. “As a journalist, my job is to tell people what I learned, and this was what I learned,” he explained. The event was so appalling that there was no need to embellish, especially not with the quotes that offended people. It was a simple enough, sad enough concept that even a preschooler could get: a person who falls from a great height dies a terrible death. Perhaps, Sean concluded, some of the anger misdirected at messengers like him might be anger and grief intended for the victim.
Sean determined that an apology should not be forthcoming from him. He didn’t feel he should be held responsible for what transpired to cause a death. He had merely walked into an aftermath, alongside a score of other innocents like Erin Leitner, his colleague who lived on Rohs Street. Most people, strangers to violence, have not been exposed to human innards in an everyday context. The effect was “traumatic,” Sean argued, meaning that it created a psychological disturbance that would have to be dealt with at a later point. “When it became apparent that this was a suicide,” Sean recalled, “I was then resolved not to apologize because this kid made a decision.” Though it’s debatable whether someone in Tyler McDonough’s mental state could fully understand the choices in front of him, on balance, Sean himself hadn’t acted out in a way that ended his own life and adversely affected so many others. “I think that by showing the gross aftereffects,” recalled Sean, “maybe, maybe, maybe you could help somebody from making that same decision.”
Was it fair for a bystander to require therapy, perhaps paid out of pocket, just because that person made the mistake of leaving his or her home that morning? Couldn’t many kinds of pain be real, in this wild circumstance, not just the pain of a deceased victim and the bereaved? And wasn’t insisting that only a certain pain be relevant tantamount to forcing a narrative upon reality and imposing what journalists avoid: a bias? “I hate to say that in his death, he affected so many people negatively,” Sean continued, with a sincere note of apology in his voice, “but that’s what happens when you commit suicide in public.”
The fact that a newspaper from McDonough’s own university published the story with the most explicit quotations compounded the ire of many students. “I’d lean towards the side that people were venting because it was the death of someone they knew, a fellow student,” said The News Record editor James Sprague. “The way the story was written, it was cut and dry. There wasn’t anything to misconstrue.” Readers, seeking direct outlets to express feelings and opinions, flamed each other in the comment section of The News Record website. “Where were his family and friends to help this guy when he obviously needed it?” wrote an anonymous commenter. “To help him keep from falling off a thousand-foot tower?” the comment continued, “Probably too wrapped in their own lives to care about him. Now someone reports his death and you want to cry and whine.” The next commenter responded, “Dear most recent anonymous, you are a bastard. Who do you think you are to discredit this man’s loved ones as ‘wrapped’. I can say, as a member of his family, that he was only alone with his demons. He had the love and support of his family.”
Students poured into Professor Jane Friedman U.C. “Ethics of Mass Media” course holding copies of The News Record and virtually hijacked the class to express shock at the story’s descriptiveness. “As it happened, students were talking about it,” Friedman recalled. “Community reaction saying, ‘We don’t think what you’re doing is appropriate,’” she continued, remembering with particular distaste the phrase “bloody chunks.”
Meanwhile, the UC Skydiving Club posted an update on their website entitled “Lost one of our own.” The club named Tyler McDonough as the person who had passed away at approximately 4:30 a.m. that Sunday, May 1. John Wright, a club member, commented that, “He was killed from an accidental fall from a tower,” while another club member remembered how McDonough “always had a smile on his face.” “Blue skies forever,” “fly free,” “have fun up there,” fellow skydivers told him. With Tyler McDonough finally identified as the victim by an official university organization, journalists at The News Record felt that they now had adequate confirmation to publish the victim’s name.
Gin made the call to his editorial staff. They linked to the post and both quoted and paraphrased its content. “He was one of the funniest people we had ever met, and one hell of a skydiver,” wrote the team. “McDonough, a Clifton resident,” noted The New Record, “writes in his profile on the website that he joined the skydiving club after taking his father on a skydiving excursion.” To avoid further blowback on any individual reporter, no byline was included on the piece.
Student reaction became so fierce that The News Record editorial staff convened an emergency meeting with faculty advisor Jon Hughs that Monday. “Should we take it all down?” the students asked him. Erin Leitner recalled how Hughs calmed them by saying that this is what it’s like in the real world; people will not be happy with everything you write, but if you report the truth, there isn’t anything more that you can do. “I’m a real, real supporter of independent student journalism,” Hughs recalled. “I think that is essential. In fact, as a state employee, and this is my own take, I don’t believe that I have the right or the responsibility to edit anything that students produce. I mean, that is censorship.” Eventually, one of McDonough’s brothers emailed Gin and said that he understood why The News Record had reported the story in the manner that they did. Sean exhaled a bit, but Hughs still felt the need to offer more counsel. “I know that in the aftermath, that Sean was upset at the reaction,” recalled Hughs. “I talked with him.”
Much like Hughs, most people in the journalistic community reached out to support The News Record. However, Sean observed, “Most people guided by their own moral compasses instead of the overwhelming truth tended to favor a censored edition [of the story].” Hughs encouraged such debate. Upon prompting, with descriptions of reader reactions, Hughs eventually conceded that it might be appropriate to make a small compromise by amending the WLWT story’s last few quotations. “It gets particularly young journalists thinking about the ramifications of what they report, particularly in situations like this where there are families involved,” he said. “And it’s part of, frankly, what we journalists go through as students and sometimes as professionals. And we make decisions and sometimes it’s uncomfortable.” At 1:05 p.m. on May 2, 2011, a story update posted on newsrecord.org that excised “bloody chunks” and removed two of the last three paragraphs describing the gore. “We couldn’t omit it from the print version that’s already in paper,” explained Sean. “You can’t take everybody’s newspaper and take a sharpie to it.”
Candlelight vigils for Tyler McDonough lit up across campus for the next several days. “I know we got the [skydiving] club together,” recalled Roemer, “just to get everyone a chance to be with one another.” The McDonough family submitted an obituary to The News Record for the next issue, which printed that Wednesday, May 4. Sean watched his editors publish the family’s words – “Beloved son of …” – verbatim.
Undoubtedly, The News Record had softened its coverage of the death in response to public outcry.
“I believe Mr. McDonough’s was the only submitted obituary we ever ran,” remembered Gin. Within days, The News Record had gone from conducting original coverage to having Tyler McDonough’s family to dictate the language appearing in their newsprint. As if sympathizing with this newer, more sensitive line of inquiry, News Editor James Sprague wrote a feature story detailing his own close brush with suicide following his service with the U.S. Army at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This was the type of narrative that suicidologists like Madeline Gould would approve: a suicide survival story.
Sean felt increasingly disoriented by the experience. “It sort of ruined me on journalism for a bit,” Sean admitted. “My confidence was shaken quite abruptly.” Gin felt that he had defended his team well while also doing the decent thing. “The biggest lesson that all of us learned was that the truth isn’t pretty,” recalled Gin. “I mean, I was wholly confident in everything that we did, and I thought we did a great job.”
Around the day of McDonough’s obituary in the student newspaper, May 4 or 5 according to official Hamilton Country Coroner documentation acquired for this story via Freedom of Information request, investigators “returned to the news tower” for a purpose unknown to the media and undisclosed to the public. A coroner and a police detective, it seems, had deduced together that some of Tyler McDonough’s body remained at the site. They intended to scour the premises “to find the mandible,” or jawbone. “If intact,” says the document, “it is a large piece to be missing.” Indeed, with the gift of hindsight, it appears that there might have been validity to the video of the street dogs, which Gin had declined to purchase because he believed the footage to be abhorrent. Were animals interacting with biological remains on the video because police had failed to gather up the entire victim?
As Erin Leitner could attest, police had left in a hurry on the morning of May 1. And in doing so, those authorities had abandoned portions of the victim to the elements. “Some muscle was found a building attached to a wire fence,” noted police investigators when describing their second trip to the site. “After about 10 minutes, the detectives discovered the second half of the maxilla [a portion of upper jawbone forming the nose and eye socket] on the outside of the fence line, part of the mandible and a large pile of brain tissue.” Police detectives found parts of the body that they hadn’t even known were missing—left at the location for more than seventy-two hours. “The bone was collected,” notes the account. Nothing is written about removing the excess brain tissue from the scene. It’s plausible that police left that material in the “sharp incline of trees, bushes and muddy soil,” where they’d found the rest of a human being.
Additionally, it’s unclear from official documentation if these investigators had informed the McDonough family of their discoveries or transferred said material to the mortuary in time for the victim’s wake and funeral. The McDonough family received mourners for visitation at the Northminster Presbyterian Church in the Cincinnati suburbs on Friday, May 6, about twenty-four to forty-eight hours after the police’s second visit to the tower site. “Many of us attended the visitation for his family,” recalled Roemer, who was distraught to see McDonough’s mother, his own elementary school music teacher, devastated beyond words. In lieu of flowers, the family requested donations to the Oak Hills School District for the establishment of a scholarship in McDonough’s name. Right around then, as the timing would have it, police investigator Justin Weber stood at the WLWT tower once again.
On this third visit, Weber watched a maintenance man climb the service ladder to “look for impact sites or other personal effects.” Police, evidently, had searched through McDonough’s phone and found the video that he had taken of the city lights from up high. In that video was a backpack, which also hadn’t been recovered yet. Persuaded that such items might still be up on the structure, susceptible to winds and creating a safety hazard, police explored the lead.
When the tower maintenance man reached the topmost platform, which creaked beneath the final spike of the polarized antenna, he found the backpack and beer can. The maintenance man then observed, scrawled in bold Sharpie on a nearby beam, the name “TYLER” in capital letters. It was the young man’s final signature, announcing his highest height reached.
“No damage to the structure of the tower,” notes the official report of this visit, “and pictures are not clear enough to decide of [sic] it is rust or blood.” Thus did two separate trips to the tower occur after police had filed their incident report for McDonough’s May 1 suicide. It is unknown why it took to the middle of the week to adequately recover his body or to the week’s end for someone to climb the tower, assess its underlying integrity and recover evidence. It’s worth questioning if the unhurried pace was shaped by the fact that neither McDonough nor his parents were rich or politically well connected. One has to wonder about whether police motivation could have been affected by such class distinctions, where authorities would work hardest at the cleanup of a wealthy suicide, less hard for a middle-class suicide and least hard for the suicide of a poor person.
Clearly, an unintended consequence of people advocating for the living memory of Tyler McDonough over the reality of his deceased body was entrusting city agencies to do their jobs without oversight. The blindness of that trust permitted those agencies to perform their duties at a pace that led to further damage to the victim’s remains. Who was advocating for Tyler McDonough in those long days when fractions of him sat on the tower hill, especially when independent news agencies like The News Record had been discouraged by friends and family from inquiring further? What served Tyler McDonough better that week: a deferential silence or a painful truth? And which was more real, more respectful when applied to the victim: the truth, which hurt in one way, or the memory, which hurt in another?
Almost as quickly as social media appeared online and integrated itself into the milliseconds of our daily lives, individuals in distress began posting messages about their intent to die by suicide. For example, in 2003, a thirteen-year-old Vermont teen named Ryan Halligan began to be bullied by classmates via AOL Instant Messenger, a predecessor to text messaging and Facebook Messenger. After a popular girl named Ashley called him a loser, Halligan responded, “It’s girls like you who make me want to kill myself.” He died by hanging several months later. Likewise, in 2006, a fourteen-year-old Missouri teen named Megan Meier fell victim to cyber bullying on MySpace and posted, “You’re the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over,” to a male tormentor before hanging herself in her bedroom closet. In 2009, an aspiring model battling heroin addiction named Paul Zozelli posted a suicide note on Facebook before hanging himself on the monkey bars of a Brooklyn playground.
The startup companies that ran these new platforms, such as MySpace, Friendster and Facebook, soon engaged in suicide prevention efforts to buffer the immediacy of their social networks (usually a selling point) from the inherent danger of someone wanting to broadcast their suicidal intentions to an audience. Facebook teamed with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in 2007 and developed a system whereby disturbing posts could be spotted and reported as “suicidal content” to site monitors. Today, Facebook engages AI algorithms to scan for suicidal content and, after human review, relay confirmed hits to law enforcement. The effectiveness of these measures, opaque to news agencies and suicide prevention experts alike, is debatable. “The credentials of Facebook’s Community Operations team who reviews these data and the outcomes from approximately 3500 notifications to local emergency services to date are less clear,” wrote Dr. Ian Barnett and Dr. John Torous in February of this year.
Facebook now gives special attention to the speedy deletion of suicide notes, as suicide prevention experts almost universally cite a compellingly written “final declaration” as one of the greatest contributors to suicide clusters. In 2016, an individual with the screen name Krause complained to Facebook Help Community, “A post on my timeline was deleted that explained my reasons for wanting to end my life and then Facebook notified me today that it was removed because it encouraged self-harm which violates the Community Standards.” Back in 2011, when Tyler McDonough posted a note about his intent to die by suicide, mechanisms for censorship and emergency notification were far less stringent. On Christmas Day 2011, for example, a forty-two-year-old British citizen named Simone Back posted a suicide note viewable by her 1,048 Facebook friends. Many of these contacts, instead of trying to get help, left taunting comments in response. Nobody called the police until the next day, at which point Back had died from an intentional overdose.
That Tyler McDonough posted his final note on Facebook marked him blazing a dangerous digital trail followed by many. In general, it’s widely debated what percentage of suicide victims actually leaves behind a suicide note via any means, but most studies estimate that about one-third do so, with a digital post now taking the place of the traditional handwritten epistle. “It has recently become increasingly more common for suicide notes or final communications to be left via social media such as Facebook or Twitter, text message, or video,” concluded four researchers in the 2014 study “Who Leaves Suicide Notes?”
Thus, a victim like Tyler McDonough providing a suicide note for his soon-to-be bereaved parents represents a rarer occurrence, although studies do show that factors like McDonough’s gender and class and literacy levels likely did not sway his decision to leave such a message. No one knows why two-thirds of American suicide victims do not leave notes, and no one can agree whether leaving or not leaving a note is helpful or healing for survivors. Would you rather know why or not know why, and what if there isn’t a why to know, as is usually the case? What if the note is not poignant but accusatory or incoherent? It’s a psychological and sociological black hole.
The published suicide note was a phenomenon borne out of post-Renaissance Europe as public literacy rates expanded in the 18th century alongside the unprecedented boom of newspapers and the widening availability of the printing press. In April 1732, an English bookbinding family of three named Smith, who were living in extreme poverty and facing debtor’s prison, wrote a carefully reasoned letter for dying by suicide after taking the life of their two-year-old daughter to prevent her from being “friendless in the world, exposed to ignorance and misery.” This letter received no small amount of notoriety when it received publication in London’s The Gentleman’s Magazine.
Similar notes followed throughout the decades and centuries—routinely sent to the press as a mutual piece of explanation and publicity, so that others could not just understand but also share in a suicide victim’s lonely and frightening final act. It’s something people do and did. When newspapers stopped publishing and quoting from these messages at the request of the modern suicide prevention lobby, suicide notes continued to circulate via less formal means, often passed hand to hand or read aloud. They continued to be “published” but to audiences of variable sizes.
In 1994, Kurt Cobain wrote a suicide note that his wife, Courtney Love, chose to read at his funeral. In 2005, before dying by self-inflicted gunshot, Hunter S. Thompson wrote the following to his wife Anita:
“Football season is over. No more games. No more bombs. No more walking. No more fun. No more swimming. 67. 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted…”
Rolling Stone magazine found this note to be so apropos that they chose to publish it to honor their former correspondent. Suicide notes can constitute “final declarations,” which can be admissible in court, and also messages from beyond: an act of speaking from the grave to make oneself seen and heard for the last time, or perhaps for the first time in some cases.
On social media, the suicide note can be especially potent because the poster and the reader connect screen to screen, and the lack of filtration between the sick and at-risk can, thus, be alarming. “The social media platforms are popular, fast and unregulated,” agreed Thomas Joiner. When a victim and a user connect via online “friend” pages, the resulting communication can feel like a direct address, an I-to-you communiqué, but the intimacy is often artificial and forced. Each party forever remains frozen at their last level of familiarity, which mostly means that the suicide victim and the suicide note reader continue to be only distantly acquainted. In many cases on social media, the suicide victim never even knew the suicide note reader’s name.
Still, emotional and logical forces duel behind the eyes as one attempts to comprehend another person’s incomprehensible leap. But we cannot claim to know Norma Jeane Mortenson, a.k.a. Marilyn Monroe, by reading her suicide note. We never really knew her. Reading and rereading a final post will not make you best friends with deceased figures like Leelah Alcorn, yet the simultaneity of the message, the light-burst of data ported from brain to device to device to brain, has the effect of compressing time and encouraging reactivity. Hence the “gut shot” that Sean described upon viewing Tyler McDonough’s final post and the pain that Gin expressed upon reading how McDonough wished to “fly.” But we cannot know Tyler McDonough through such an expression of language. We never knew him in life.
Although suicidologists agree that social platforms like Twitter are potent terrains for research, surprisingly few studies exist about social media’s capacity to contribute to suicide clusters and/or foster suicide contagion in groups. In part, this lack of study can be attributed to the recentness when these platforms became ubiquitous.
Though most suicide stories, and most stories in general, now break on social media before traditional media can respond in kind, little inquiry exists as to the ideal role for media professionals to play in this radical new landscape. Journalists now mostly fact-check, contextualize and analyze information circulating widely. For example, gross inaccuracy and immaturity on social media in large part drove The News Record’s effort to cover the aftermath of Tyler McDonough’s suicide as a breaking story. Their published account, offensive to some, served as a corrective to an online grapevine that faced few consequences and no accountability for circulating false information and/or treating the tragic event as a subject of entertainment.
Although experts like Thomas Joiner cite the value of journalists “modeling behavior” for proper suicide reporting so that social media users might mimic best practices and tag more closely to CDC guidelines, it’s unclear what evidence supports the notion that, when presenting an authoritative account of an event, there is value in denying readers and viewers information that they’ve already learned from other sources. The embargo, the blockade on stating a method of death or quoting a suicide note has often been breached on a platform and then silenced by the provider and then reposted by users via screen grabs before a journalistic account can go live.
“I think that you’ve identified the major challenge that we have, with social media running ahead of a story,” said Madelyn Gould. “The speed with which information is shared, the magnitude is so different. The retweeting, I won’t say it’s an insurmountable problem. But for someone trying to write a responsible story when you know that something’s already out there anyway, I think we all have to try our best to at least present good models.” Though the CDC recommendations are old, experts insist, they’re all we have, so we must hold to them as a matter of faith. Although it’s un-established what role social media or social media contagion might play in suicide cases, some studies do tie social media to an increase of anxiety and depression.
Yet, social media is also now the medium through which some who cry out for help are also heard. For example, Saturday Night Live cast member Pete Davidson posted a worrying message on Instagram in 2018 that alerted authorities, who were able to respond quickly. Author George Hodgeman also posted an alarming Facebook message in early 2019, which provoked a wellness check. Suicide prevention has, in part, risen to the meet the needs and speed of our era of simultaneity, but one must caveat that Davidson and Hodgeman are celebrity artists to whom users naturally pay attention on a daily basis. What of most suicide victims: the un-famous, who struggle for ‘likes’? If Tyler McDonough wrote his final Facebook post today, would he be spotted by AI and referred to the police? Would there be time enough before he began his climb?
Perhaps suicide researchers are correct to consider social media a prime field of study, as what is social media but a record of human activity? Why else would every tweet have gone to the Library of Congress until 2017? Individual suicides might be incomprehensible events, but suicide in aggregate can be a powerful indicator of the health of societies and nations. There’s a reason totalitarian regimes like East Germany, historically, or Russia, presently, suppressed and suppress the publication of accurate suicide statistics, especially among politically oppressed groups, for what is a high and rising suicide rate but a verdict on a social system?
A suicide rate is the annual percentage of citizens who forgo the promise of future life to escape a reality that they know. Influenced by mental illness, trauma, abuse, social history, bleak future prospects and other factors, that percentage has experienced enough suffering to overpower their life-preserving instincts. A youth suicide rate provides an even more powerful verdict, as it signifies the intentional deaths of individuals who are generally not facing chronic ailments. It must be telling when the young opt out of decades of future lifespan at the moment they first comprehend the world as it is. For example, suicide is now the leading cause of death among Japanese children between ages ten and fourteen. Eyes opening, they seek escape.
Every system creates and sustains this percentage of citizens. They represent the casualties of the everyday, collateral damage of our best ideas for organizing lives into cultures and civilizations. In healthy societies, where social ties are robust and/or the ruling class maintains equilibrium with its citizenry, there is less collateral damage to the normal course of business. In unhealthy societies, where social ties become severed and/or the ruling class persecutes its citizenry, collateral damage occurs at a greater rate. Should it be surprising that suicide rates in Sweden and Jamaica are lower than suicide rates in Russia and Korea?
Should it be surprising that suicide rates in Jordan are lower than suicide rates in Sudan, a destabilized nation, or Qatar, a nation in radical transition? The role of religions that forbid suicide, especially Islam, should be noted for their general role in suicide reduction, although its plausible that many suicides in Islamic nations go underreported or misreported when families stage-manage suicide deaths to look like accidents to avoid social and legal consequences. Some nations with strong religious traditions, such as Bhutan, have high suicide rates in spite of suicide being a social taboo.
Suicide rates are rising worldwide as regional economies interlace, and all cultures engage in a singular economic experiment: the global capital marketplace. Even so-called communist nations have capitalist companies engaged in daily trade. Increasingly everywhere, governments go to work for “job creators” and industries. It shouldn’t astonish that nations with the most class-based economic oppression, such as Guyana in South America, or brutalizing corporate cultures, such as Korea, tend to have high suicide rates. Global market capitalism, vastly unregulated and resistant to employee protections, demands that the sick and the injured work alongside the well. It is an unforgiving, ever-accelerating economic model that maintains its performance expectations of every human being regardless of the human capacity to meet them. What strange is that none of us chose to live in this One System; it was here, or tracks were being laid, when we were born.
In China, “996” has become the accepted work practice for not just manufacturers but also start-ups and tech companies. Salaried employees must work twelve hours a day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. for six days a week without overtime pay. Jack Ma, one of China’s richest executives, has explicitly endorsed this regimen. Performance is the new human expectation from birth to death, culling out inefficiencies like childhood or adolescence or addiction rehabilitation or injury recovery or old age, which could explain why nineteen high school seniors in India died by suicide this year after they received their college entrance exam scores; having underperformed academically and disappointed families in cultures that prize academics, they take their lives like samurai who outlived their lord. How else could it be that “burnout,” from extreme work stress, is now a legitimate medical diagnosis in the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases—one of the few mental conditions wholly based in environmental factors, like PTSD? It’s a striking example of how the working world can mangle a human psyche.
Remember, suicidal thoughts are one of the primary indicators of clinical depression, and clinical depression is now the leading cause of disability worldwide according to the WHO. Most workers do not live in nations with social safety nets, and since those who are disabled cannot work, those who cannot work in nations without worker protections eventually cannot house or feed their families or themselves; it’s an inevitable consequence of prioritizing human productivity over human health and wellbeing. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die every day due to poverty and hunger. Precariousness still rules the average global lifespan, and half of humanity yoyos between poverty and extreme poverty depending on the year. The sad must find work or starve. Global market capitalism seems to be the greatest notion human beings ever devised for economically organizing the world, yet it also fails on a daily basis in its ability to serve human life.
Philanthropy and foundational giving, attempting to undo the damage of the normal course of business, has risen side by side these economic realities, powered by financial inequality instead of countering it just as the Carnegie and Rockefeller families became prolific humanitarians to quell social rebellions during the American Industrial Revolution. In more prosperous nations, like the United States, six in ten citizens don’t have enough savings to cover a $500 emergency, and a growing segment of the new lower classes still irrationally insist on defining themselves as middle class, though they do not fall in a middle class tax bracket.
More and more citizens, despite best efforts, find themselves at the bottom of the socioeconomic food chain. In the United States, three men now personally own as much as the other half of the civic population. On planet Earth, twenty-six billionaires possess as much wealth as 3.8 billion people—the other half of the world. What are these men, overwhelmingly men, but kings by another name? And what is this but a New Gilded Age, where inherited and invested capital grows faster than wages—running contrary to a market ideology that brands the poor as lazy by pinning class advancement to work ethic? Extolling the benefits of “996,” Jack Ma waxed philosophically, “Or why bother joining? We don’t lack those who work eight hours comfortably.” Fueled by a global business elite that profit from fine-tuned obliviousness to human suffering, “work or die” is the unspoken credo. Those who work must sacrifice body and mind to raise pyramids for the Job Creators. Those who don’t (or won’t) must perish, by one way or another. Sing in your chains like the sea is the overriding message, to paraphrase and then bastardize Dylan Thomas.
One of the first examinations of suicide in 1897, a study of European “normlessness” during the Industrial Revolution by sociologist Emile Durkheim presented the theory of “anomic suicide” or periods of anomie (normlessness) leads to an increase in suicide rates as an expression of general suffering during periods of upheaval. Several analyses into “anomic suicide” after the 2008 financial crash found conditional support for Durkheim’s theory that economies can promote suicide by removing the foundational underpinnings for social identity and dignified wage earning. Financial systems, in essence, murder people by walking them up a metaphorical cliff and then blaming them for taking the last step.
If “anomic suicide” is the major factor contributing to today’s rising suicide rates, it is a factor that psychologists and psychiatrists, who run businesses billing hourly, as well as the suicide prevention lobby, which depends upon financial replenishment from foundations and donors, would be the least capable of handling honestly. “Anomic suicide” is also a factor that journalism would be least capable of investigating today, when its industry is financially beleaguered and layoffs remain commonplace. America’s great “Fourth Estate,” it seems, is the only democratic estate wholly dependent on capitalism to survive. And since 1990, according to The Washington Post, more than sixty-five percent of newspaper jobs have been eliminated, more than the fishing, steel or coal industries.
The effect of roboticization, further eliminating the need for human labor and striking the “gig” economy directly (i.e. Uber drivers being replaced by autonomous vehicles), plus the evolving definition of “work” in a monetary system wherein the demands and definition of “money” remain fixed will also contribute to suicide, especially in an ideological framework wherein those who struggle the most must compete more fiercely for fewer opportunities or be blamed for failure in the One System. As Camus wrote in the Myth of Sisyphus, “A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future.” It’s brother against brother, sister against sister, above a cliff of destitution and shame.
Perhaps it’s significant that Tyler McDonough was a business major, his business school building growing out of the parking lot beside it. How wouldn’t a high school basketball star lose his sense of purpose when he suddenly had to stop playing and engaged with the world of boardrooms and spreadsheets? How wasn’t skydiving an obvious replacement for the rush and immediacy he once felt as a varsity athlete? And, as his thrill chasing grew in intensity and desperation, leading him to his climbs up the tower, how weren’t those attempts at replacement failing, riddling him with insecurity and loathing to the point of hospitalization and illness? What in McDonough’s work ethic, which once endowed him with self-worth and the ultimate youthful winning streak, wouldn’t let him pause to heal or pushed him back to class from the hospital that January? Why not rest and recuperate from a mental break so severe it required tricyclide medication? What about McDonough’s death was like the deaths of those nineteen high school seniors in India? All is now speculation.
Yet ideological fragments must have echoed inside McDonough’s mind. How could he not, in his exhaustion, resent the bullshit of those long walks to class, where he listened to rich businessmen encourage him to reach harder and further, men without long-term plans for the human race besides getting the most before they croaked, men expounding like philosopher-kings in the greatest economic system ever devised to turn Scrooge McDucks into living gods above mounting thrones of coin: Darwin of the fittest, Cain and Abel dueling above the precipice for the favor to drive Uber for some Job Creator who might as well live in the sky, and let the chips fall a high fall to oblivion, as they do every day. See the plummet. Please hold my hand as I say this, because I ask this question as a friend: Did Tyler McDonough, in the blindness of his pain and senselessness of his final seconds, not suspect that something was rotten beside the thoughts in his head? All is speculation. And you’ll get no answers from the dead.
As Ursula K. Leguin once wrote, reversing the dynamics of suicide and murder as a philosophical exercise, “If it’s all the rest of us who are killed by the suicide, it’s himself whom the murderer kills; only he has to do is over, and over, and over.” Are we who persist, survivors of a suicide by nature of our next smile and our next breath, also survivors of a civilization that effectively, like man stabbing himself over and over and over, murders the ones it breaks?
“Of course Peters’ story should have been told,” said Celia Watson Seupel when she learned of the reaction to his reporting. “It is a story that should have expressed his own shock and horror and sadness at the way a vibrant life was turned into something unspeakable, and Peters’ own lack of understanding of what drives a person to suicide.”
After Tyler McDonough’s funeral, Professor Jane Friedman resolved to include Sean Peter’s WLWT story as a case study in her media ethics classes. Probing questions in her accompanying questionnaire like “Did the News Record cross a line in its original reporting?” and “What do you think of the ethical validity of this justification: ‘If you don’t want to know the information, don’t read the story’?” prolonged the institutional memory of the story on campus for months and left Sean’s reporting up for debate as a deterrent example. “I was like the answer to a test I think,” said Sean. “You know what I mean? I became a notorious writer within the university.”
Sean abruptly resigned his role as chief reporter for The News Record. He quit doing breaking news and eschewed controversial topics for his established safe-zone of music and movie reviews. When Sean was first at the scene of a firebombing near campus, in which a restaurant owner emerged from a building engulfed the flames, Sean faithfully gathered quotations from witnesses but chose to remain absent from The News Record byline. He’s credited, instead, as a “contributor” in the story postscript. Curiously, when the firebombing story received a “Mark of Excellence for Breaking News Coverage” from the Society of Professional Journalists in March 2012, Sean did talk up his role. He boasted on his LinkedIn profile, “The News Record’s coverage of the initial incident beat the metro daily at press. I remember giving some of my notes to a latecomer reporter for one of the local metro papers.”
To Gin and Sean’s mutual delight, reporting on tough breaking stories (like the firebombing and the WLWT death) throughout 2011 helped The News Record win the Society of Professional Journalists’ coveted “Best All-around Non-daily,” recognizing the top student newspaper in the region. Gin had met his goal as editor in chief. They were officially the best. It was a last hurrah for the two of them, as writer and editor.
Sean resolved to quit journalism when he quit school that UC winter quarter, 2012. He took an internship at an advertising agency and wrote ads and social media posts for brands without the added pressure of including his name anywhere. Sean hid an inner smirk as he joined a virtual army of propagandists inundating the Internet and overrunning news agencies with what they called “brand journalism,” to the point where the U.S. economy would support five public relations professionals for every legitimate reporter by 2016. The pay gap between p.r. professionals and journalists also blossomed in this time to the point where a $6,000 average yearly salary gap in 2000 would grow to what would be a $16,000 salary gap by 2017. Once the face of The News Record’s Facebook advertisements, Sean now employed that same savvy to help more or less faceless corporations be better understood by the public. More and more, Sean was finding out professionally, bullshit paid dividends, half-truths paid less and the truth paid the least.
Then Sean’s paternal grandparents called with terrible news. Uncle Mike was dying of brain cancer. It was end stage, and they were too old to care for him alone. “It wasn’t them asking for me to come,” said Sean. “It was them telling me what was happening, which made it a very easy decision.” Sean left his advertising internship without notice and drove south to the homestead of Granmama and Papa and the rest of his father’s brood in Covington, Georgia. He arrived to find Uncle Mike in his last cognizant moments.
There lay the man in a hospital bed in his grandparent’s living room. It was a sight that used to be so common among the American working class before death became quarantined to hospitals. The bed faced his grandparent’s front door. As Sean described it, as soon as he walked in, he was at the man’s feet. This would be his new reality, Sean sensed, for however long it took. “He’s my dad’s younger brother, so he looks exactly like my dad,” said Sean, “which means he looks exactly like me.”
Uncle Mike fell into a restless sleep. There were no doctors, only hospice workers who visited every few days. The man was long past the point of treatment, so Sean’s role was palliative. Sean dripped cherry-flavored morphine drops into his uncle’s mouth and rubbed an analgesic gel to relax the man’s muscles. Though they shared a portion of a name, with Sean’s birth certificate reading “Sean Michael Peters,” Sean felt little to no emotional connection to this uncle. They’d never spent much time together during Sean’s childhood years or after the divorce.
The “Michael” in Sean’s name, Sean’s dad once told him, was meant to honor Sir Michael Phillip “Mick” Jagger of the Rolling Stones. Still, the forced intimacy of providing end-stage care to a relation like Uncle Mike didn’t bother Sean. “I think every human should make a Hippocratic Oath, not just every doctor,” he said. Sean spent two and a half weeks wiping vomit and cleaning his uncle’s catheter bag and changing his diapers. “If he was awake, he was having a seizure, basically,” said Sean. “He had a brain tumor that had been operated on, and it hadn’t worked.” Initially, Sean didn’t know how he could withstand the “yuck factor” so easily, with all those fluids everywhere. Most of Sean’s friends expressed terror at facing similar circumstances. But Sean didn’t flinch. He was helping his grandparents. “I think I’m good in an emergency,” Sean explained. He’d seen it all before and worse. Nothing human could offend him.
Something weird happened when Uncle Mike passed away at one in the morning on March 11, 2012. Sean stood by the hospital bed and sat vigil with his father, who’d listened to Sean’s entreaties and traveled to be with his brother. Sean was present and talkative and acting cogent, according to everyone in the room. Uncle Mike was breathing, and then he was not. There was gurgle, and that was it: the crescendo of his brain accelerating in an inner chaos like the end of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” sights and sounds darting and stabbing until the orchestra shrieks in a final end note to living and then: TADAAAAAAA!
An orderly procession of medical professionals carted away the man. The next morning, Sean woke and walked into the living room. He was shocked to find Uncle Mike’s bed empty.
“Oh, when did that happen?” Sean asked.
“Are you kidding me?” his dad answered.
Sean remembered nothing of the previous evening, of the man who looked like his father gurgling and fading with bubbles on his lips. Something in Sean’s brain would not let him see death, witness that slow rolling fall from one last inhalation of breath. Something within Sean had closed the proverbial glass door on the person in the raincoat, and it would not let him see that person again. When Sean tried to picture what happened, all he saw was blackness. What else slipped his grasp? Not the body but the leaving from the body as it heaved, not the prelude or aftermath but to Death itself, to that Sean remained, we all remain, blind in this story.
Standing beside death without flinching had become something of a superpower for Sean, but such a power took its toll when called upon twice in short order. “For me, all of this experience is a few days, but, oh, what can happen in a day can change the rest of a life,” Sean reflected on McDonough’s death. “And I would say that I carry reserve trauma from it, just from the active human remains. I don’t think I’m suffering from PTSD as a result of it, but I do think it hits same part of our brain.” After Uncle Mike, Sean quit writing entirely until he completely ran out of money. From March to June 2012, for the first time in his adult life, whenever an idea popped into his head, he did not feel the need to get it down on paper. He did not feel that impulse to rush to the computer screen and create an explosion of new language. He grew a beard and played guitar and smoked weed and drank. He had decent and frequent enough sex to please any young man his age.
And he did go back to work, when he had to, first as a copywriter and then a business journalist writing easygoing feature stories for local startups seeking capital investment. Sean strung together a lower middle-class life and was happy enough, never quite loving or hating his lot, never idealizing sadness or self-inflicted death, in large part due to the inverse example his family member had set when Sean was younger, although Sean would later wonder if perhaps he had been too hard on that authority figure. “It’s all true,” Sean reflected, “but it was through such a cold filter.” More life and more time with the ones we love, Sean resolved, was always better than any alternative.
Although Sean denies any direct emotional connection to a source he never knew, the similarities between he and Tyler McDonough were eerie. Both had mothers who were elementary school teachers. Both were products of divorce. Both had lived near the tower.
“It’s definitely, he’s definitely, changed my life more than any other source has up to this point,” Sean admitted.
Sean pulled out of his loop of self-avoidance, his extended life detour, when he chanced into love with a great woman named Sarah. “My first date with Sarah, I had just escaped from a bedbug house, and so before my new lease started up, I was living in a tent,” Sean says. He was honest about his situation to her. He hated bedbugs and couldn’t return to even a fully exterminated room that once had held them. Sean possessed a car in his name and a salaried job, but he was also technically homeless. Sarah somehow peered through all his defenses and coping mechanisms and saw a brilliant person. “She kept me accountable to myself,” he recalled, “and she asked me simple questions that I hadn’t had the courage to answer.” They fell deeply and moved in together, and Sean began to write creatively again, mostly speculative fiction for young adult readers.
Soon, Sarah prodded Sean that perhaps enough time had passed for him to finish his degree at UC. “Why did you go to school in the first place?” she asked him. “Don’t you usually finish what you start?” Sean agreed that his incomplete degree was an unresolved issue; it stood for more, in his life, than the piece of paper. He reenrolled at UC for the 2013 fall semester—about a year and a half after the WLWT story ran and preceded his dropping out of school. It had been, by far, his longest gap in enrollment. Fortunately for Sean, a year and a half was more than enough time for entire eras to pass on the UC campus. No one recognized him anymore as that “yellow journalist” tied to Tyler McDonough’s death.
Back in class, Sean got mostly A’s and even made the Dean’s List. But he avoided The News Record newsroom like an STD and counted on part-time journalistic work at other Cincinnati publications to float him financially. He just couldn’t go back to those old offices. Gin and Erin and James and Sam and everyone he knew on the masthead had graduated and left. After college, James Sprague had moved back to Indiana and become editor of the Connersville News Examiner, a hometown paper. Erin Leitner had entered the field of p.r. and marketing directly out of school and now works an online fundraising platform serving nonprofits; reporting the WLWT story, she says, has made her pay closer attention to suicide stories in general, including coverage of the 2014 disappearance and suicide of another male University of Cincinnati student residing in the Clifton Heights neighborhood. Sam Greene had become staff photojournalist at The Cincinnati Enquirer, the publication they’d once scooped and impressed so profoundly. And Gin…Gin had persisted in the life of journalism at The Cincinnati Enquirer until he could no longer take the rigors and irrational hours of the industry, especially when his wife got a job in another city. “It came to a certain point,” Gin explains, “where, you know, maybe this isn’t for me.” He moved on and became manager of an REI store in Columbus, Ohio, where he now lives happily with his wife and daughter. They go camping frequently. He continues to defend his staff’s reporting of the WLWT tower death but feels that anything that happened involving the site cleanup subsequently was “a continuation of more of the same story.”
One blurred out summer evening in 2014, Sean was scanning Craigslist for random gigs, and he saw a note from a casting agency looking for movie extras. Instead of applying with a professional headshot, he sent a photo of himself playing guitar at Bonnaroo while seated near a large wooden duck. Days later, producers cast Sean as actor Ewan McGregor’s on-camera “stand-in” for the local production of the Hollywood feature film Miles Ahead. Suddenly, everyone in Sean’s outermost circle of friends couldn’t get enough of Sean Peters again.
Sean got to hang around Ewan McGregor – who played Obi Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels – for a decent chunk of a summer on a movie set. To manage his anxiety, Sean kept a journal. “Sometimes, it was just me talking myself into not quitting,” he said. “It’s a mixture of exhaustion and fear of failure. I had so much attention from it that I was worried about it getting out of control.” Shooting ended, and Sean published an article for Cincinnati CityBeat about the experience. His editor added the crowd-pleasing headline, “Seeing Double: I was Ewan McGregor’s stand-in, or how I spent my summer vacation.”
Sean posted the story on Facebook and watched it rack up more than 300 likes. “Seeing Double” was such a hit that Ewan McGregor read and re-tweeted it to his 700,000 followers.
The same city, and some of the same readers, that once villain-ized his hard-hitting journalism now couldn’t get enough of his harmless clickbait.
On May 2 2015, Sean Peters graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism, plus a special certificate in creative writing. He was 28 years old. The degree took him nine years, start to finish, to complete, and when he finished, he didn’t even attend Commencement. When asked why, Sean responded that he didn’t know what the point would be. Perhaps he didn’t want to stand in that football stadium in the center of campus and consider the tower in the distance. “I see it almost every day,” Sean says. “And that event is never far from my mind, especially since I lived in its shadow.” Perhaps skipping Commencement was also an unconscious gesture of solidarity for other young men and women, who’d never be able to graduate.
Sarah proposed to Sean Peters in early 2017, and they married in October of that year at her family farm in Indiana. “It was the first time that I got my parents in the same room since my sister’s wedding in 2012,” Sean recalled. Sean, presently, writes weekly food features for Cincinnati CityBeat and is rolling out a weekly column called CityBites. “Writing about food is 70 percent writing about people anyway,” he says. “It’s nice to meet someone, like a chef, hear as much as I can about them and try to explain them through food.”
Whenever Sean walks past Rohs Street, he shakes his head. What loss, he thinks. What an irreplaceable loss is a human being. “It’ll happen to everyone,” Sean reflects on death and devastation as he chokes back tears, “just not as quickly as this…but this is a shared experience for everyone in the world.” Sean cannot make sense of what happened, either to the victim or to himself, the messenger, the bearer of the worst news imaginable. “Life’s not a moral narrative where things get resolved,” Sean concludes. “It’s just one of those peculiarities you come across.” He’d found his own meaning, somewhere, singular but arguably a personal answer to Camus’ struggle on the question of suicide and the absurdity of life. “Life has to be absurd,” Sean insists. “You need to be the straight man to the absurdity of life. It you get shocked by anything, the world’s winning.” But sometimes, Sean admits, the world does win, and he deals in pieces then. Although the world can be a bastard, nothing human can offend him.
Whenever Sean looks up at the tower, he now knows because I finally had the heart to tell him, he passes a structure that once bore the signature of a promising young man. “Have they wiped it away?” Sean wonders. “Did they cover it up? Is it still there? That’s the question I don’t want people to find out.” This, of all questions, is the one Sean Peters wishes to be left alone. Above that signature was once an arrow, according to the official case narrative from the Hamilton County Coroner, drawn with the same marker as TYLER, the name in capitals and indelible. The arrow pointed upwards and, I’ve come to think, outwards to a world he once loved but ultimately abandoned to the wind, scattering a story of untamed pains from the first to the last of our race, suggesting where he has gone.