We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
–Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night.
We give it lip service, of course. But you don’t really appreciate the anonymity afforded by the Internet until you explore it a bit. Conventional wisdom says that we can uniquely and completely reinvent ourselves online, become someone who we are not, and our cyberassociates would be none the wiser.
But is that really true?
Take, for instance, our beloved cyberpal K9 (or She, or Chickory, or one of her numerous other handles). During her first year of blogging, she posed as a guy.
Did she do this to deceive us? Not really. As she explained in a three-part series on Sparring K9, she didn't claim to be a guy. In fact, she didn't claim to be anything. It just so happened that on one particular night she clicked the “next blog” button on the top of her page, and came to a “liberal” page. Well, you know how our friend is so vexed by those liberals. In the comments section, she responded the way one would expect her to:
i came out swinging as ‘anonymous’ and busted up the place pretty good; and the bloggers in there freaked out and demanded that i ‘show myself.’ actually, it was the women who came to this guys defense which intrigued me. so while in the heat of battle i had to develop an identity. and i couldnt go in as ‘gone native’ [a previous Web handle] because i sure didnt want these haters coming back to my sweet little nature blog.
Because she’d always liked the rottweiler breed (she called them “scrappy”--a fitting analogue of her annoyance), she found a picture of one such pooch (see above) to serve as an avatar. Because of the image and the aggressive posture of her written statements, other commenters perceived her as masculine:
now. somewhere along the line, because of the fact i was a black dog, and that i said something to the effect of ‘people cross the street when they see me coming’ an assumption was made that i was a. black and b. male. and i never did anything to correct them. in fact, i made an amazing discovery: that my point of view was received in a way the point of view of some random white chick never would have been.
So, as it turns out, K9 didn’t take on a persona so much as others thrust one upon her. By not clarifying certain aspects of her identity, and playing along with the misconception, she learned something about the ways that others frame statements when they attach a mental picture of a commenter’s physical appearance.
While we might first look at this as a typical type of Internet deception–an attractive woman posing as a grubby guy (it’s usually the other way around, isn’t it?)–the fact is that K9 is still K9. In other words, she didn’t misrepresent herself. The views she expressed in her initial comments as K9 reflected her true feelings about the subject at hand. The ideology of her posts and comments didn’t suddenly change after she came out of the cybergender closet, so to speak. They apparently represent at least some aspect of who she is in meatspace.
I say apparently, because I’ve never met K9 in meatspace (although I once had the privilege of talking with her over the telephone). For all I know, she could be a leftist activist who’s trying to infiltrate right-wing circles by posing as one among them.* (The very thought of that makes me smile.) On the other hand, she could turn out to be Andy Kaufman, (which would be really cool).
Of course, as Vonnegut said, even if it’s all pretense, your make-believe becomes real at some point. This sometimes happens to spies when they have to infiltrate a nation or organization posing as a loyal citizen or member. Every now and then, they wind up actually becoming a loyal citizen or member of the “enemy” nation or organization.** In spy parlance, such operators become known as ‘triple’ or ‘redoubled’ agents who have developed an ‘emotional attachment’ to the target.
Then too, hiding behind a false identity hardly began with the Internet. People have misrepresented themselves for millennia. In fact, many a rascal, con man, psychopath and villain have donned various guises to obfuscate their true intentions. And history shows that a warm meatspace smile and attractiveness easily beats a Web-handle or carefully constructed cyberpersona when it comes to masking who we really are. After all, when we encounter someone on the ‘Net, we still have some degree of skepticism about their identity. When children engage in IM’ing, for example, parents often fret that the friendly child on the other end is really some deviant out to get them. And people often wonder, when visiting dating sites (so I’ve heard–I don’t surf those), about the age of the photograph representing a potential beau, or if it’s really their picture.
In meatspace, on the other hand, people so often rely on first impressions that it takes quite a bit of work to undo them. Those who deceive recognize the relative confidence that people have in assessing strangers (or even friends) in “real-life” based on the mark or target’s prejudices and cultural stereotypes about physical appearance. In fact, deceivers rely on it. They play the role. They groom themselves for the part. They learn how to disarm even the slightest suspicion.
For example, when the CIA embarked on Operation CHAOS, they had a logistical problem infiltrating all of those activist organizations. According to the Church Committee’s final report, they didn’t have enough personnel to successfully pose as countercultural youth. So they relied heavily on young officers from local police departments, and recruits from Army Intelligence to fill those numbers. These domestic spies not only looked the part because of their age, but they also understood the culture, the jargon, the mores and the history of the target better than the brass at the Pentagon or at Langley. In short, they could effectively hide their identities by adopting the look, talking the talk, and partially walking the walk.
Okay, so we know people on the net aren’t always what they appear to be. But the same goes double for meatspace. Either way, it takes a whole lot of effort and bother to maintain a facade.
After all, K9 ditched hers.
*I actually have a friend who did this, but not in cyberspace.
**For example, the FBI approached Katrina Leung, a Taiwanese national who immigrated to the US as a teenager, asking her for information about her neighbors. At the time, she lived in Los Angeles in an apartment building that housed a number of pro-China activists, and suspected Chinese spies. So, Special Agent James Smith convinced her to snoop on other expatriated Chinese, one of whom she developed a close friendship to. At the same time, she began an affair with Special Agent Smith. She was then recruited and commissioned by the Ministry of State Security (MSS), the Chinese equivalent of the CIA.
The FBI considered Leung their double agent. The MSS considered her their double agent. There’s possibly truth in both positions. She appears to have compromised both spy agencies. Some speculate that this might have been in part because of the conflicting loyalties to the people closest to her.
Psychological Operations are operations planned to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups and individuals
“War.com: The Internet and Psychological Operations,” a 2001 paper written for the US Naval War College by Army Major Angela Lungu, outlined the challenges and the opportunities afforded to psyop spies by the World Wide Web. While the Internet offered an increased opportunity for American Intel to influence public perceptions and opinions, it also allowed just about anyone else to influence public opinion. Moreover, interests deemed hostile to US national security could make their case on nearly equal footing due to the wide open nature of the 'Net. She also griped about the policy and legal constraints placed on American psy-operators, and argued for substantial changes in order to free Intel’s hand in creating cyber-psyop campaigns.
Maj. Lungu was by no means the first person to realize the psyop potential of the Internet. A year earlier, Gary Whitley, a civilian employee for the US Navy, wrote another Naval War College paper titled “PSYOP Operations in the 21st Century,” in which he wrote:
A revolution in Psychological Operations (PSYOP) will occur in the near future. The Internet will be the vehicle to enable a revolution in PSYOP and improve the capabilities of PSYOP to achieve objectives specified in the National Security Strategy (NSS).
Whitley began by describing the general nature, purpose and goals of psyops. He broke down this information in a series of charts, tables and bulleted points. For starters, he defined the difference between ‘white propaganda’ (influencing opinions with truthful statements), ‘black propaganda’ (influencing opinions with lies and deceptions), and ‘gray propaganda’ (influencing public perceptions by offering information derived from an unidentifiable or unreliable source, thus causing differences in opinion as to its accuracy). He then presented a table showing the purposes of psyop.
Figure 1. Whitley Table
While the bulk of these purposes might seem to indicate that psyops primarily constitute methods appropriate for times of armed conflict, Whitely made it clear that the objectives of psychological campaigns extended far beyond the battlefield. As he wrote:
Planned military PSYOP nay affect not only military targets but also political, economic, or social structures within the target areas. The general objectives of joint PSYOP are:
1. To reduce the efficiency of opposing forces;
2. Further the US and/or multinational war effort by modifying or manipulating attitudes and behavior of selected audiences;
3. Facilitate reorganization and control of occupied or liberated areas in conjunction with civil-military operations;
4. Obtain the cooperation of allies or coalition partners and neutrals in any PSYOP effort; and
5. Support and enhance humanitarian assistance, foreign internal defense, and/or foreign nation assistance military operations.
Most important, Whitley broke down the essential factors of a successful psyops effort:
1. A clearly defined mission; analysis of all targets;
2. Actions that are evaluated for psychological implications;
3. A reliable medium or media for transmission;
4. Rapid exploitation of PSYOP themes; and
5. Continual evaluation of the results of PSYOP for relevance to the mission and goals.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see how valuable a tool the Internet could become in the goals and execution of psyops. It’s certainly an accessible and reliable medium. Because so many of us have a web presence (even those among us who rarely or never surf), gaining information about anyone is made that much easier, thus giving Intel increased abilities to analyze targets. Viral videos, which are easy enough for amateurs to manipulate, let alone professionals, have already influenced our culture and our attitudes.* And its immediacy allows not just rapid exploitation of any themes or memes, but instantaneous dissemination of ideas and content. Indeed many events can be covered live, and in real-time.
Both Whitley and Maj. Lungu cited the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 as an obstacle to effective use of the Internet as a psyops tool. Congress passed the law to keep government-prepared information meant for foreign dissemination out of the hands of Americans. The reasoning implied a congressional belief that the US government should not lie to the American people. Yet in order to engage in public relations abroad, they conceded the need to engage in both black and gray propaganda. Smith-Mundt seemed to be an attempt to bridge the government’s desire to refrain from active deception on the homefront (although it can classify or keep secrets till doomsday), and its need to project an ideal image abroad.
Of course, in 1948, television, print media, radio, music and the movies were far more localized than they would be forty years later. But the Internet shattered the boundaries between one nation’s communications and that of another. If you put out a radio message to play in Eastern Europe in 1948, for example, there’s little chance that an American audience would have ever heard it. But if you post something on the Internet for a broad Eastern European audience, there’s nothing to prevent an American citizen from downloading it from her living room desktop.
In May 2012, Representatives Mac Thornberry and Adam Smith subsequently introduced a bill that would “modernize” Smith-Mundt to allow for the dissemination of psyop materials that could find their way into the hands of American citizens. If this bill passes, psyops meant for foreign eyes and ears would have no restrictions on usage, and could thus legally serve the purpose of misinforming and disinforming the American public.
I stress the term “legally.” After all, if Cointelpro, CHAOS, MERRIMAC and RESISTANCE taught us anything it is that US Intel wasn’t above using illegal means to conduct domestic ops within the United States against dissenting opinions. They obviously continued to engage in these activities up until the present day, possibly bolstered in part by legal changes brought about by the PATRIOT Act.** And given the importance US Intel placed upon the Internet as a tool for managing and thwarting psyops, it’s not a far-fetched notion that Intel has already utilized the Internet for psyops campaigns targeting dissident US citizens.
*For example, such tunes as Antoine Dodson’s “The Bed Intruder Song” and Rebecca Black’s “Friday” managed to reach massive international prominence without the intervention of record labels or other cultural gatekeepers. Likewise, such documentary films as Zeitgeist, and Loose Change had substantial impact on public opinion.
**Initially signed into law in response to the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, the PATRIOT Act has been extended in modified form several times over the past ten years, with various provisions dropping out. The last extension, signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2011, kept only three of the original provisions.
Between 1975 and 1976, the US Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities chaired by Senator Frank Church published fourteen reports on their official investigation of US Intel, which illegally conducted domestic surveillance and operations against law-abiding American citizens during the 1950s, '60s and '70s. At the center of the investigation were the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO); the CIA Projects CHAOS, MERRIMAC, and RESISTANCE; President Richard Nixon’s Huston Plan; and the support given to these operations by each other, the National Security Agency (NSA) and the military.
I’ve written about these domestic ops before, and have mentioned them during various series on the blog as they came up. So I don’t feel the need to repeat that information in depth here. But in brief summary, all of them entailed both the collection of intelligence on American dissidents (even potential or wrongly perceived ones), and operations meant to undermine an individual or group’s efforts to effect change in a legal manner.
The NSA operations utilized wiretaps and mail intercepts. Black bag jobs, the surreptitious breaking and entering, became a
means by which the FBI could plant evidence, steal important documents
or money stashes, bug or wiretap The FBI and CIA’s efforts also included infiltrating agents into student, leftist, civil rights and antiwar organizations. Such spies both monitored the activities of these people, and played (for the lack of a better word) tricks on them in an effort to get them to do something stupid.
Like the cheating spouse caught red-handed, Intel assured the Church, Pike and Rockefeller Commissions that all this wrongdoing occurred in the past. They had since cleaned up their act and straightened things out. The illegal activities had ceased. And they’d never, ever, ever, happen again. Never, never.
And like the philandering spouse, US Intel would not only continue domestic ops, they’d also get caught again. I can cite numerous examples of this, but that could make for a whole blog in and of itself. So here’s one instance you might have actually seen before.
Figure 1. Clip from Fahrenheit 9/11
Now, as then, Intel rationalized domestic operations as necessary to curtail some immediate, violent, foreign threat against the people and government of the United states. During the Cold War, communism served as a capable boogeyman. Nowadays, it’s the relentless threat of terrorism, the dread of living through another 9/11. In each case, it became rather obvious that no foreign government had directly managed or financed American dissent. In fact, the Church Committee cited twelve major investigations, and numerous minor ones, conducted by the various US spy organizations themselves. All of them found no connection between the USSR and the “new left” organizations American Intel snooped on.
The Church, Pike and Rockefeller Commissions repeatedly demonstrated that although Cold War concerns might have initially prompted domestic ops, the continuous efforts to monitor and manipulate American citizens had nothing to do with national security, and everything to do with maintaining the political status quo. Thus, the activities in which Intel engaged in–infiltration of student, civil rights and feminist organizations in an effort to goad activists into violent or other discrediting actions–would have had little effect on curtailing Soviet intelligence collection or subversion. After all, the Soviets didn’t start these activities. And Intel knew this as early as 1964.
So, nowadays we have a declared “war on terror,” where terrorism itself is only vaguely defined. As the FBI says:
There is no single, universally accepted, definition of terrorism. Terrorism is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85).
The FBI further describes terrorism as either domestic or international, depending on the origin, base, and objectives of the terrorist organization....
In other words, the current working definitions of terrorism are so broad as to include a number of people and lawful acts, since anyone “suspected” of being a “threat” to the public good, or supporting “the objectives of a terrorist organization,’ can be deemed a terrorist, even if they neither engage in violent behavior nor advocate it. For example, if the President says that war is necessary to stop terrorism, the FBI’s definition could peg anyone who demonstrates for peace as a terrorist, since that would presumably be in the interest of the terrorist organizations targeted for attack. Thus, like the (what proved to be imaginary) threat of communist infiltration and domination of the United States during the Cold War, the threat of terrorism has given Intel political leverage to go after dissent.
Now, as in the 1960s, Intel relied heavily on psychological operations to sew mistrust among activists and to undermine the efforts of political dissidents to communicate to (and consequently, enable them to persuade) the mainstream public. Back then, the tools of psyops consisted of such things as movies, television, mimeographs, photocopies, recordings (on magnetic tape and vinyl); or in other words, totally analogue media.
The current century has brought with it a new challenge, a technology that allows dissidence greater access to the mainstream: a venue that is simultaneously everywhere, yet nowhere.
Out of all of the people I have encountered in this life, I’ve only known one murder victim. And I didn’t know him very well. On the other hand, I’ve known three (possibly four) people who have suicided.*
J. was the first. But his story is pretty much identical to the other two: a loss of control, a feeling of helplessness, emotional and/or physical pain, seemingly with no end in sight.
There were also the suicide rituals. Like J., the other two had been hospitalized for depression and previous suicide attempts. None of the attempts was very serious. In hindsight, many might see them as working their way up to it. But I see it more as a means of empowerment, a person playing God over his or her life by determining their immediate fate.
It’s not like J. wanted to die. He wanted relief. The initial relief came from the fantasy. If we regard the fantasy as a drug, then we can say he had a developed a tolerance for it. He had to keep upping the stakes in order to get the same solace he first found in his daydreams. If you ask me, the moment that he pulled the trigger of a live loaded gun was the very moment he realized no further relief would come.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH), the US suicide rate is approximately 11.8 per 100,000. The murder and manslaughter rates combined are about 4.2 per 100,000. So with respect to the ratios of knowing suicides vs. murder victims, I’m quite average. Suicide is roughly three times more prevalent, it would seem.
Yet, despite its relative prevalence, it surprises me somewhat how much the act of suicide stirs up so much mystery and mythology within our society. Suicide has become a staple tagline for urban legends, for example. “She was so embarrassed at being seen naked in public, she ran home and killed herself,” says one such tale. Or, “The rat in her KFC traumatized her so much she ran in front of a moving bus.”
You’ll note that its usually a she who is either so humiliated or shocked that suicide becomes a quasi logical consequence in this brand of popular culture. It plays upon the stereotype that women and irrationality go hand-in-hand. In real life, however, women are three times less likely to commit suicide than men. Moreover, shock or humiliation in and of themselves wouldn’t likely lead to anyone’s suicide.
And that’s for starters. A lot of people think that suicides usually leave notes. Well, they do in the movies, and on TV. Let’s face it. It’s a cheap and easy dramatic device. But here in the empirical world, only about a fourth of suicides leave notes.
It shocked me to learn that most people think that the bulk of suicides come out of the blue, or if indicated only in subtle “signs” (e.g., giving away a cherished memento) that are easily missed, or reasonably passable as some other gesture. You hear it on the news, someone saying that some family member or friend was “definitely not suicidal,” with the rest of the coverage implying (and sometimes stating it through police or other officials) that relatives always say that, because they’re the last to know something’s wrong. The implication is that it’s typical for suicides to blindside their loved ones.
I guess that some people are really good at keeping their inner thoughts a secret, especially if they’re estranged from everyone they love. And truth be told, some families are just downright insensitive to the obvious. Yet, this was never my experience. Just about anyone who knew J. could see the suicide coming from lightyears away. Same with the other two. There was no mystery or shock. For that matter, Anne Sexton’s suicide surprised no one who knew her even casually.
And on, and on, and on.
I’ve made a major study of suicide over the past three decades, both formally and informally. So when I look at conspiracy hypotheses involving a purported suicide, there are certain things that strike me–most notably a demonstrated desperate desire for personal autonomy. At someone’s request, I looked into the death of Kurt Cobain, for example. After reviewing what appeared to be a legitimate evidence log, along with the police report and (yuck!) the crime scene photos, I’m thoroughly convinced Cobain actually killed himself. The forensic evidence was overwhelmingly consistent with suicide. More important, Cobain had a documented history of depression and suicide attempts, one only months before his death. Of course, what made the suicide painfully (stress painfully) obvious was the condition of the corpse. Cobain shot himself in the left side of the face. So that’s not very pleasant to look at. But the right side of his face was virtually undisturbed by violence. Photographed at a specific angle, you can see that this was a calm, relaxed man--in fact he looked like a sleeping guy in the middle of a mundane dream. In other words, I saw the look of relief on that face. Given prior public statements (and private musings that posthumously became public), this looked like a man who felt as though he had lost control of his artistic vision to what Joni Mitchell termed “the star-maker machinery behind the popular song.” Like J., his marriage faced difficulties, although he didn’t share my acquaintance's financial difficulties.
Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster likewise had a history of depression. Shortly before his death, doctors put him on Trazadone, an anti-depressant medication. And the forensic evidence matches that of a suicide. Of course, conspiracy hypotheses, most of them put out by the reactionary right-wing Arkansas Project averred that someone (read Hillary Clinton) had had political reasons to do Foster in. However, motive in and of itself is not compelling evidence that negates a suicide hypothesis. Moreover, the Arkansas Project had its own political motivation for putting out the speculation: namely to discredit the First Lady, and by association her husband, President Bill Clinton.
By the same token, many have scoffed at the notion that JFK conspirator David Ferrie committed suicide. True, the forensic evidence wasn’t exceedingly strong (it literally took years to determine a cause of death), and one can see that the information he privately gave Orleans Parish DA Jim Garrison would earn him some mighty powerful enemies who’d just as soon see him six feet under. So while I can’t say with any confidence that Ferrie actually offed himself, the suicide hypothesis (ultimately the official finding) isn’t farfetched. We can see him as a man getting squeezed on all sides–by such fellow conspirators as Clay Shaw, and by Garrison himself. Garrison also believed that Ferrie had genuine remorse over his role in the assassination. If that weren’t enough, Ferrie suffered unrelenting physical pain because of cancer. One could speculate that upon hearing of the ultra-violent death of yet another co-conspirator (Eladio del Valle) earlier that morning, Ferrie saw suicide as a means of taking charge of his death, instead of leaving his demise in the hands of goons who would torture him.
Marilyn Monroe had a history of depression and suicide attempts. If left untreated, she could very well have killed herself one day. The problem here is that the forensic evidence strongly suggested otherwise, thus prompting Los Angeles County to reopen Norma Jeanne’s death as a cold case in 1982. Because of the physical evidence, one can see the implausibility of the suicide hypothesis here.
In all of the above cases, there’s a considerable amount of publicly available information that allows us to weigh the pros and cons of a suicide claim. But there are other cases where public information is scarce and unclear about the particulars of the suicide itself. Moreover, there are parties with a possible motive to frame a decedent for their own murder; yet the validity of those motivations isn’t set in stone. Then again, I can think of times when it takes a bit of subjective (perhaps even creative) interpretation to discern suicidal ideation in the first place.
When that happens, you wind up with a lot of gaps. And people are often quick to fill in those gaps with speculation.
Obviously, I don’t see anything wrong with speculation. But we can get into some serious trouble masquerading it as analysis or proof.
*One of my former acquaintances fell ill with a condition that left her in physical agony. Medications rarely worked, and she openly considered suicide, despite the fact that she had a substantial (although admittedly less than fifty-fifty) chance of survival. She had joined some pro-suicide group that she found on the Internet. She eventually left for South America to try some cure that’s prohibited in the US. I never saw her again, nor did I ever hear what had happened to her. If that cure didn’t work, she might have possibly done it. I just don’t know one way or the other, and I really don’t want to find out.
Dr. L is quite real, as am I. In fact, this story is quite real. However, I have fictionalized a number of aspects in order to protect the privacy of “J.” and his family.
Age forty-five, medium height, broad-shouldered (broad-necked, broad-bellied, broad-legged, and broad-everything else), J. once had a lot of the things people exhibit as markers of success. He owned a big house in the best part of town, good clothes, a boat for fishing, and who knows what else. He drove a Porsche. He traveled frequently. He also had his own business, which not only made him his own boss but paid for all the goodies mentioned in the last three sentences. He’d remained married to the same woman for over twenty years. Together, they had two sons, both teenagers at the time (in fact, the elder one was only three years my junior).
Downing shots at a local watering hole, one of those situations conducive to the free flow of personal information, I told J. he was damned lucky. He grimaced, shook his head, and proceeded to give me a lesson on appearances.
His business might have looked solid because of its longevity (he’d run it for over fifteen years), but it was in deep trouble. As a younger man, he had built this moderately extravagant lifestyle thinking his company would always maintain the same rate of income growth (or greater). But the growth stagnated. Then it shrunk. By this time, he only had a handful of his original clients, people too stubborn to conduct their business in a more modern way.
While J.’s income dwindled, his overhead increased because of inflation. Unpaid bills began to pile up. He and his wife had already discussed selling the house and other things. He made the mistake of suggesting that they might dip into the kids’ college fund. His wife was kinda non-plussed about that. But the marriage had begun heading south long before that. Worse, he didn’t really get along with his sons, who as teenagers were exerting more independence.
J. summed it all up by saying, “I have no control over anything, anymore.” I understood. He couldn’t control the market for his business anymore than he could keep it from hemorrhaging money. He couldn’t stop the bills from coming in. He held little influence within his own household.
In the middle of this overwhelming sense of helplessness, J. began to daydream about suicide. He imagined how his family would react. He fantasized about being free from his troubles and his obligations. He even went so far as to write a suicide note to aid the reverie.
The fantasy gave him a strange sense of relief. If he couldn’t take charge of his life, he could damn well take charge of his death. Even though he had no intention of actually committing suicide, the fantasy itself reminded him that he could at least control something.
Trouble was, fantasy can wear thin. While at K-Mart, shopping for something else, J., on a whim, purchased a box of bullets. He didn’t even own a gun. But just having the bullets gave him the same relief he’d once gotten from his suicide fantasies. He took them home, hid them in his attic, and didn’t touch them for two months. He didn’t have to. Just knowing he could get to them seemed comforting enough.
When the bullets lost their security-blanket value, J. bought a revolver that could fire them (most people do this the other way around–they buy the gun first, and then buy matching ammo). `He brought it home, and stashed it in the basement. The relief he’d first experienced with the fantasy returned.
One day, alone in the house, he brought the gun to the attic. He picked a single bullet from the box, laid it next to the gun on a card table, and looked at it for awhile. When the relief came, he put the bullet back into the box, and placed the gun in its hiding place in the basement.
The next step came when he put the bullet in the gun/ He carefully loaded it away from the firing chamber for safety reasons, and laid it on the card table until he felt better. He eventually decided to pick up the gun and point it at his temple.
He scared himself silly once when he put the bullet in what he thought was a non-firing chamber. Because of his inexperience with firearms, he didn’t realize that a revolver’s cylinder rotates one chamber when the hammer pulls. He’d plugged in the bullet right next to the line of fire. So by the time he cocked the gun, it was ready to serve its designed purpose of projectile. Had he pulled the trigger, he would have accidentally shot himself. Figure 1. The spin of a revolver cylinder.
What really scared him was that he actually toyed with the idea of pulling the trigger. But the euphoric freedom from psychological pain came without him having to do that. From then on, he made sure that he loaded the cylinder so that the bullet had no chance of rotating into the kapow! position.
The suicide ritual came to a screeching halt when his wife walked in on it. Try as he might, he couldn’t explain that this was just something he did to feel better. And she wouldn’t buy his insistence that he had no intention of killing himself. After all, she sees him pointing a gun to his head. What else is she going to think?
The confrontation resulted in his voluntary commitment to the psychiatric wing of the local hospital less than sixty minutes later. The thing that really bothered J. the most: his wife had pitched both the gun and the bullets before his return.
J. had just left the hospital a couple of days before he downloaded his drunken sob story onto me, someone whom he only knew from the occasional drink and sports conversation at a bar within mutual staggering distance.
As it would turn out, I’d never talk to him again. Several weeks later, Dr. L. informed me that J. had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Dr. L., who taught abnormal psyche at my undergraduate alma mater, saw suicidal ideation as a mechanism by which a depressed person empowers herself or himself. In his lectures, he gave the following hypothetical example.
Imagine that you suffer from depression. Part of that depression revolves around your feeling of powerlessness. Your friends and family love you, of course, but either they’re not responsive to you, or they misunderstand what you want and need from them. So you gather all of your loved ones in a room, and say, “You will do X, Y and Z for me within twenty-four hours, or I will kill you.”
What do you expect your loved ones to do at this point? Getting and keeping the hell away from you comes to mind. There’s a good chance that at least one of them will call the cops. The threat in and of itself is a crime, but if they know that you’re “going through a rough patch,” or “kinda blue lately,” they might see the behavior as an aberration and try to commit you to a hospital. As for objectives X, Y and Z, your loved ones have little impetus to carry them out, at least immediately.
So change the scenario by a single word. You gather your loved ones in a room, and say, “You will do X, Y and Z for me within twenty-four hours, or I will kill myself.”
Your loved ones are now in a bit more of a predicament than in the first scenario. If they call police, for example, they might worry that you will interpret this as betrayal, and subsequently compel you to commit suicide by cop. And the lingering cultural stigma over mental illness could possibly prevent your family from seeking emergency psychiatric care for you. Of course, your loved ones still might call authorities, and get you to a hospital. But compared to the first scenario, they probably won’t do this as quickly, or with the same conviction that they’re doing the right thing. And, given the choice, the family might very well see simply doing X, Y and Z as a far more appealing option.
Okay. Suicidal people don’t actually sit all their loved ones in a room and bark out demands. But in reality, they often do something close to it on a much subtler scale. Anne Sexton, for example, left her children in the care of her in-laws so that she could pursue poetry and embark upon countless extramarital affairs. Her family tolerated this in large part because her previous suicidal behavior (and hospitalizations for it) made it difficult for them to object, out of fear that confrontation might trigger another attempt. One could speculate that Sexton understood the dynamic, and consciously used the threat of suicide to manipulate her family into giving her the legitimate support she needed as writer, and the illegitimate forbearance she desired as a hypersexual woman. Whatever the case, her husband’s family saw her suicidal ideation as a way of exerting control over them. According to her father-in-law, George Sexton, Anne was playing them all:
…for a bunch of suckers, and that she has no intention of ever assuming her family responsibilities….It appears to me that we all, you [Dr. Martin Orne], her husband and I, should now get tough with her.
In this case, no one explicitly said anything that would amount to a quid pro quo. No one called anyone into a room or stated the demands in a direct way. At the same time, everyone knew both the game and the score. The Sextons sought psychiatric help, obviously. But they also opted to kowtow to Anne’s demands to be free of family responsibilities in order to study poetry (X), and to be sexually available to other men and women despite her marriage to their own flesh-and-blood (Y). Moreover, they didn't relentlessly confront her about their dissatisfaction with the arrangement (Z), although they certainly wanted to.
Whether or not Sexton wittingly or unwittingly used thoughts of suicide to control her in-laws, they consciously saw her actions as manipulative. And as a control, this worked for over two decades. But when her husband, Alfred (Kayo), left her in 1973, she lost that control, and spiraled downward until her death the following year.
Knowing Dr. L. as I did, I’m sure he would point out that suicidal ideation was still a means by which Sexton exerted control over her life even after her husband’s departure. I would bet good money that she cherished that control until she blacked out sipping vodka in her car, parked in its garage, the motor running.
You see, Dr. L. and I knew someone–him as a patient, me as an acquaintance–who put the whole issue of suicide and control into an unforgettable context.
This series features concepts that some might find a bit alien. And instead of distracting from the story, with numerous arcane references that I’d have to explain, I thought I’d introduce some of them in posts that at first glance might seem unrelated to each other.
Some of these issues (e.g., Anne Sexton, The Process Church of the Final Judgment), I’ve written about in previous series. Others are new.
This series focuses on cyberculture, this thing we’ve engaged with for the past few years. The tale’s hardly legend--at least not yet. For reasons that will become clear, that might change. Currently, it has been a subject of gossip, with followers offering sharp, sometimes violently emotional opinions on blogging, social media, depression, paranoia, game play, and conspiracy research itself.
Passions on the subject ran high early on. I expect that emotions have cooled off over the last five years, but you never know.
We’ll see. Fasten your seatbelts. This might be a bumpy ride.
26. (1969; Woody Allen)–Grab the Cash and Go. Take the Money and Run (Janet Margolin Wass). Answered by Ray.
27. (1976; Jodie Foster)–Cab Operator. Taxi Driver (Julia Phillips). First answered by Foam. Independently answered by Ray.
28. (1981; John Lithgow)–Words of Affection. Terms of Endearment (Jack Nicholson). Answered by Ray.
29. (1967; Patty Duke)–Low Point of Barbie and Friends. Valley of the Dolls (Sharon Tate). Answered by Ray.
30. (1939; Ray Bolger)–The Magician from Australia. The Wizard of Oz. Answered by Ray.
31. (1964; James Earl Jones)–Bizarre Sex Physician, or The Manner in which I Researched to Cease Fretting and Have Affection for the Explosive Device.. Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Henry Kissinger). Answered by Ray.
*If you’re wondering what’s up with the names in parentheses, I’ll clue you in on a little secret. I didn’t select these movies at random. Each of them have a connection to the upcoming series. The people in parentheses are the connection point, or in other words the reason I chose the movie. Movies that have no parenthetical remarks are directly tied to the story.
I won’t mention some of these parenthetical connections again because they’re not that central to what we’ll be looking at. During the course of the series, however, I will give you sources to find out exactly where they intersect with the subject matter, if you’re so inclined to look for them.
What’s in a title? Would you see a movie differently if its title were somehow reworded? For example, would Canine Twenty-Four Hour Period Post Meridian look any different than Dog Day Afternoon?
See if you can guess the following pictures based on similarly reworded titles. To help, I’ll also give you the year of the movie’s release, and the name of an actor who performed in it. Watch out for deliberate wordplay and misspellings.
1. (2010; Anne Hathaway)--Mel’s Diner Waitress on Rock Star Stevie’s Property.
Learning of L.’s death devastated me. It’s like backtracking after a disaster to see where everything went wrong. I couldn’t figure out how such good friends could become so estranged.
Over the next twenty-four hours, I couldn’t stop thinking of all my New York friends, and how much they meant to me. I made up my mind to contact them all, just to say, “Thank you for being a part of my life.” I couldn’t let them go knowing that I meant to say it, but never did.
I also made up my mind about the first person whom I would contact. As you can see from the opening quote a couple of posts back, Dr. R. and I didn’t part on the best of terms. I spent the day thinking of what I’d write her. I didn’t want to spook her or anything by dredging up the bad memories. And heaven knows how she would respond to me now that I had spent the last twenty years on her shitlist. But I had to tell her, perhaps more than anyone else, how much our time together meant to me.
I couldn’t think of the perfect words, so I decided to wing it. If she took offense, she took offense.
The real problem came when trying to find a current e-mail address. I found a number of e-mail accounts, most of them from universities where she taught. But it was hard to figure out which one might be the most recent. I then found yet another address on one of those profile sites (not LinkedIn, but similar to it). I clicked on the link thinking I’d include this address too. When I did, the profile had an additional link to something else.
Dr. R.’s obituary.
Here I was running away from one death into the arms of another. Whereas L’s passing left me in tears, Dr. R’s left me totally numb.
I stayed that way for a couple of months.
For the days and weeks that followed, the two women became inextricably linked together in my mind. That's strange because even though I knew them both at the same time, I never introduced them. They inhabited two separate spaces of my life and would thus have been strangers to each other. And they were both quite different. One was tall, the other short; one fair, the other dark; one ploddingly intellectual, the other brimming with free-form creativity.
At the same time, they had some things in common, not the least of which a lifetime of impressive achievements. They also shared a more important quality: they were both good, virtuous women who dedicated their lives to helping their fellow man, each in their own way. While L. might have been the Mother Theresa of the underground, Dr. R. was more Joan of Arc: sword in hand and ever-ready for combat. Their passing was more the world’s loss than my own, really. It’s just that the world doesn’t know as well as I how bleaker a place it is without them.
If there were a heaven, I’d guess that it would have an Internet connection. So maybe they read The X-Spot. If they did, I know what they’d leave in the comments. L. would say, “X, honey, you’re making WAY too big a deal out of this.”
I’d have to politely disagree. L. deserved much more than she ever claimed for herself.
Dr. R. would simply tell me to keep up the battle we once fought side-by-side.
And so I shall...
Update: as I was writing this post, I received word of the passing of yet a third friend, another good woman who went to bat for me in a very concrete way. So the process continues.
I unlocked the door to Dr. R.’s apartment one balmy August day to find her pacing nervously in her kitchen. Before I could ask her the problem, she snatched several thin papers from the counter, shoved them into my hands, and said, “Read this.”
It was a letter from West Germany, written by a woman whose existence was completely unknown to her until forty-five minutes earlier. The woman, A., wrote to say that Dr. R’s ex-boyfriend had immigrated to her hometown sometime during the previous year, and that she was now his current girlfriend. The letter recounted some of their good times together. A. declared her love for the ex, and announced their intentions to marry.
When I read the part about marriage, I assumed that this mystery woman wanted Dr. R.'s permission. Either that, or she wanted Dr. R. to convince the ex that they could never get back together, leaving him free to marry the new love.
Instead, A., out of the blue, asked Dr. R for $30,000 American dollars, and a nude photo.
“What do you make of this?” asked the Aussie.
I honestly didn’t know. Getting a letter from your ex-boyfriend’s fiancée isn’t something that happens everyday. And a request like that was strange beyond words. I didn’t see it as a con, because they asked for the money up front. I could only say that this person wasn’t exactly forthcoming. I also doubted A.'s contention that the ex-boyfriend knew nothing about the letter. At the time, I thought that he put her up to this.
Dr. R. shook her head. “Something’s wrong,” she said. “Something’s very wrong.” She ripped a couple of sheets from a notebook, and penned a tersely worded missive in response, demanding to know what was going on, and demanding to speak to the ex. She included her phone number.
About ten days later, she got a call from A., not the ex. The woman seemed evasive at first, but then confessed that the ex was very ill. When A. told her that the ex’s room didn’t have a telephone, Dr. R’s immediately arranged for the hospital to install a telephone in his room, whereupon she finally got to speak with him. He apologized for his fiancée’s interference, and insisted that he was okay.
Dr. R. would have none of that. She spent the next few days calling his doctors and his nurses trying to assess his actual condition and prognosis. After convincing (ahem!) him to grant permission to the staff to speak frankly about his chances, she found out he was sicker than he let on. At that point, she took an active role in his recovery. She wanted updates on him once a week. More important, she wired the money directly to the hospital to upgrade his care.
For the next few months, Dr. R. relayed the updated information to me as it came in. I guess she needed to share the experience. Even before she received that letter, Dr. R. told me all about this ex. She told me about the good times, of course, but she also told me about more numerous bad times. Because of that, I knew that their breakup was intensely acrimonious. Yet, per usual, she put up a good fight on his behalf.
His condition took its toll on her emotionally. After about a month of this, she came to realize that he was, in fact, dying. The thought often made her morose, yet she did her best to keep a stiff upper lip. Every now and then, however, the facade would crack. She woke me up screaming at the top of her lungs, one night. A nightmare: she dreamt of her ex, in searing pain, furiously pressing a morphine button only to find that he had used up all of his narcotic.
With the holiday season approaching (which included her birthday), we did our best to keep festive. We managed to have a merry Yule, in fact. But the week after New Year’s, the calls from Germany stopped. I pointed out that there could be some sort of technical difficulty, or a dozen other reasons for the weekly call to be delayed. She agreed, still holding out some hope.
During the second week of January, I came back to my apartment, where a three-word message waited on my machine: “I need you.”
She didn’t have to tell me. I knew. I didn’t bother taking off my coat. I just headed for the subway, and hopped on the N-train.
When I opened the door to her apartment, I saw Dr. R. quietly sobbing as she sat cross-legged on the floor in front of her couch, clutching A.’s last letter. I gently pried it from her hand.