Sunday, February 08, 2004

Suicide group in the news... 

alt.suicide.holiday, or A.S.H., the newsgroup for those who are willing to think of suicide as an option, is in the news again. Most wouldn't realise it ever had been, because the hysteria which surrounds it seems to leave people unwilling to speak its name for fear of influencing others. But even tabloid reporting gives away enough details to those in the know. The Sunday Mercury, one of Birmingham's typically rabid tabloids, has published an article about the death of 20 year-old Phillip Cranmer, who entered into a suicide pact with another man after 'being brainwashed by deadly pro-suicide chatrooms'. The talk of chatrooms is tabloid error - perhaps the editors thought the word 'chatroom' would make us all think of paedophiles, a thought fuelled by the use of words like 'sinister' and 'cult'.

But what it does say makes it clear that it's A.S.H. Cranmer's parents are reported as saying: "The way he and the people he was e-mailing talked about death was frightening, it was almost trivialised. They referred to it as 'catching the bus.' 'Catching the bus' is the instant tip-off that it's A.S.H. No one but an asher uses this phrase. But it's not trivialising the nature of suicide. Far from it. Like a great many other movements which face constant attack criticism from the outside world, A.S.H. has developed its own slang.

The major reason behind this is for the safety of those who take suicide so seriously that they wish to discuss it at length, often philosophically, talking about their lives and their reasons, and they wish to find the methods by which they could succeed at it. An asher knows that there is nothing more painful for those close to her than repeated failed suicide attempts. For each attempt leaves all the painful questions of a successful attempt, but there is also someone to whom those questions can be asked, someone who as likely as not will be unwilling to talk about these things to people who can never understand. A successful suicide is taking the bandage off in one go; it prevents the inevitable wounds from festering more than they might do otherwise.

So the special lingo helps to disguise the nature of the discussion, preventing those taking part from being discovered in their research by those who don't always respect privacy. 'Catching the bus' is about as innocuous a phrase as could be found, but it has a deeper meaning in itself, because for a large number of people in that group, life is really nothing more than an endless waiting for death. Like waiting for a bus, it is tedious, frustrating and leaves you surrounded by strangers, isolated. 'Catching the bus' is the relief at the end.

The phrase also acquired an extra meaning for me when I read C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, in which those who are in hell often never reach the end of the queue for the bus to heaven, preferring the world in which they admit even to themselves that they are miserable, to the uncertain promise of what lies at the end of the trip. I'm not saying it takes courage to commit suicide, but it takes a certain amount of determination in the face of great uncertainty. No one knows what lies beyond this world, but those who kill themselves are willing to take the risk that it could be better than what they experience now. No one could do that trivially, and certainly no one who'd spent any time at all on A.S.H. would be unaware of the problems involved. Many of them simply feel that it is

Better to die and sleep,
The never-ending sleep, than to live on,
And dare to live when life's soul is gone.

And if it's not an endless sleep that lies beyond, but something much worse, then all that has been sacrificed is a few more years in a world which has lost its appeal. Sometimes people can just be sure of that. You can't miss what you've never experienced.

A.S.H., then, is characterised by its willingness to question the presumption in favour of life. It is not 'pro-suicide', just as pro-choice groups aren't 'pro-abortion'. But many who are willing to consider the case for abortion still baulk at the idea that suicide might be rational and acceptable. This is likely to remain the case for many years to come. I believe in a right to suicide, but when there remains so much controversy over abortion, the killing of a life that is arguably not even human yet, it's hard to see when the debate could ever be opened on this issue.

Indeed, things are likely to get much worse before they get better. Cranmer's parents have written to the Home Office, calling for an enquiry into suicide websites and chat rooms (A.S.H. saved by a mis-characterisation perhaps?). I doubt much could come from it. The parents and the tabloid both seem to be fundamentally ignorant as to the nature of usenet newsgroups, which, unless they are moderated (A.S.H. is not - leaving it open to endless trolling by shiny-happies (yes, more slang)) do not have owners or people in charge. Everyone there is on an equal footing, hierarchies only arising by dint of some people having been there longer than others.

Part of the nature of a group like A.S.H. is that people don't stay for very long - they either kill themselves or, if less mature, they find that when their interest in suicide is taken seriously, and not immediately treated as shocking and unacceptable, it loses its appeal. There are a lot of teenagers in the group, and there are many others who are older but who have not necessarily given the thought to the subject which is really necessary. There's no one person 'responsible' and it's certainly not a cult. Its dynamics change with every passing week, and any attempt to shut it down will simply find something similar re-materialise in a different place. That part of A.S.H. which can be shut down has been shut down, many times. The website no longer exists on any of its old servers, and in the place where it has been preserved it is no longer updated. It has always had to place itself alongside porn and gore sites; that is, in the traditional realm of the unacceptable. But it will never be destroyed, not while there is a need for it. And there is very much a need for it.

There's a need for it because suicide is taboo. The most effective way to save lives is to change this fact. I've already said that many people on A.S.H. are young and haven;t given the necessary thought to suicide. That doesn't mean they won't do it. Many people don't even find a place like A.S.H. to vent their feelings and air their thoughts; they're all the more likely to kill themselves for this reason alone, because it seems all the more that no one else in the world could understand how you feel.

Cranmer's parents, like the families of most people who kill themselves, were shocked. And, like most people again, they thought that their son had been completely happy and had seen no signs at all that he might feel suicidal. But why would they? As long as suicide is taboo, those who think about it will be retiscent about discussing it in public, particularly with those they know it will affect. In many places in the world doing so will see you committed to a mental hospital, but even where reactions are not so extreme, it is a rare loved one indeed who will talk calmly about the prospect of you leaving them for ever. So people will continue to keep it quiet and suicide will continue to be a shock.

This is particularly so when people have been suicidal for a long time, because after a while misery simply becomes mundane, and a hundred failed attempts at bringing it up in conversation leave a person quietly resigned to privacy. A typical discussion of all these sorts of secrecy considerations - prompted by the Cranmer article - can be found here.

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