I’m standing in the elevator. The elevator isn’t moving. Neither am I. It seems, for the moment, like simply staring at what’s in front of me is the simplest and therefore the best immediate project. Far simpler than the dissertation that’s supposed to start here.
But I can’t avoid it forever.
I’m not sure what I expected, but the place is small. It’s tucked into three floors of a generic office building a few blocks from the Library of Congress. From the outside it doesn’t look like much of anything; they probably wanted it like that. But what I’m specifically staring at is what looks like the floor of a college library, one of those more industrial ones unconcerned with any popularly conceived aesthetic of Libraryness. White walls, recessed lighting, long desks divided into little cubicles, each equipped with a small, slim computer terminal.
I take a breath, and I step out of the elevator and into an archive of three hundred thousand and seventy-six recorded suicides.
• • • •
When it happened it was like a plague.
No one was sure how it was spreading, or why, or who was going to be next. People feared for their loved ones, their friends and family. People feared for themselves. Pundits proclaimed doom with excited solemnity. Religious leaders got gleeful hard-ons for apocalypse. People blamed technology, peer pressure, the alienation of a generation raised in the midst of crushing debt and recession and increasingly extreme weather and constant war and a general sense of hopelessness.
You know, kids today.
But when that nightmare year was over and things finally began to taper off, all we were left with was questions.
Everyone had at least a tenuous connection with someone who died. That’s what happens now—you know people who know people who know people, you follow people without ever actually speaking to them but you communicate in likes and retweets and reblogs. I’ve had entire friendships that were based around reposting the same series of makeup tutorials. The same collections of gifsets. So suddenly you’re watching them die. It scrolls past on your feed, on your dash. It felt like an attack. For a while people thought it was an attack. Yet another one, dudebros against the Social Justice Whatevers.
But that wasn’t what was going on.
So we watched. Some of us looked away. Some of us said they vomited, said they experienced panic attacks that lasted for hours. It’s very hard to explain what it was like for us, because we were there in a way our parents weren’t, and in a way our kids won’t be. You live through a terrorist attack, you live in it, you’re one of the shell-shocked survivors huddled in blankets, you’re brushing ashes and bone-dust out of your hair. Smoke in your eyes.
We survived. We moved on, to the extent you ever can. Those of us academically inclined—who could find places in the decaying zombie corpse of academia—we did what we do. We over-analyze. So we wrote about it. Term papers. Research papers, self-reflective essays. Short stories, poems—for a while there the MFA programs got really morbid. We work out our demons however we can. We splash our trauma all over everything.
But as far as I know, I’m the only one to ever take it this far. Because it means going back. Living it. All over again.
My estimated time to completion for this project is two years.
Two years in the Year of Suicide.
• • • •
It’s a Vine, from back when Vine was still a thing. Dude put his phone down on a stand or propped it up some other way. He’s sitting in a blue beanbag chair. He’s white, dark-haired, maybe about fourteen. The room looks like your standard middle-class teenage boy’s room. If I looked at the dossier file all the pertinent information would be there, at least what could be collected without special permission from the family—which some gave and some didn’t.
I’m not going to look at the file, because that’s not how I saw it. I didn’t even know it was coming. If I had my way I’d be looking at this in the dark at three in the morning with cold pizza and a bong.
But I’m here. Watching this looping six seconds.
The boy is looking straight at the camera. He has no discernable expression. He lifts one hand; he holds a kitchen knife. He holds it to his throat and slashes his carotid artery. Blood jets to the side and gushes down his shirt. He slumps. Hand twitches and falls.
This boy takes six seconds to die. He dies over and over.
As far as anyone has been able to determine, this is Patient Zero.
• • • •
When I was thirteen I read about Jonestown.
I was a morbid kid to begin with. I hated violence, actually—I was disturbed by gory TV and movies until I was almost in my twenties. Covered my eyes for the chest-burster scene in Alien. I was revolted by torture porn horror. I couldn’t handle watching animals in pain.
But I was fascinated by history, and the history of murder on massive scales.
So I read about Auschwitz. I read about Hiroshima. I devoured books on the Rwandan genocide. I was fascinated by the gruesomeness of it all, but even more I think I was fascinated by the extremity. What drives people to do things like this? What drives people to slaughter each other?
What drives people to slaughter themselves?
Jonestown was the worst. Because at least according to my understanding at the time, those people did it to themselves. I read about it and I imagined myself there in the pavilion with the rest of them, waiting in line for poison, watching people going into convulsions. I imagined watching mothers feeding it to their babies with syringes. I imagined what it would have been like after, sitting there and looking at the empty cup of your death, waiting to feel it and knowing there was nothing you could do. All those people—afraid, not afraid, just . . . in those moments of pre-oblivion.
I imagined those moments as either utterly insane or marked by the most profound sanity a human being can experience. Except that’s wrong. Insanity isn’t so clear-cut. It isn’t so simple. Neither is suicide. What suicide means. It’s abhorrent to do that to a complex idea. To a lived fact.
We understand that a lot better than we did.
But that pavilion. Nine hundred and thirteen people. Those aerial photographs. I stared at them. For a long time.
I thought, I am looking at a hole in the world.
Then the Year. Three hundred thousand and seventy-six holes in the world, opening up one after the other after the other, like bullet holes, like mouths, like eyes.
Except that number isn’t reliable. Those are only the ones we know about.
Those are only the ones we saw.
• • • •
The next one is a girl. Mid-teens, Hispanic, very pretty. Standing on a chair, rope around her neck. It appears to be nighttime; the lights in her bedroom are on. Stuffed animals just visible on the bed. Makeup scattered across the dresser like she was in the middle of messing with some eyeshadow when the idea occurred to her. She lifts her phone, stares expressionlessly into it as she adjusts the angle. The phone jerks. It’s clear that she kicked the chair away. The phone swings wildly and falls. You see a shot of her feet swinging. Then it cuts off.
This one went up on YouTube. Within a couple of hours it had over twenty thousand views. You know how they say don’t read the comments? Oh my God, do not read the fucking comments.
Those were archived along with the video. They’re part of the historical record.
I watch it a couple of dozen times through, and halfway into those couple of dozen times I start going frame by frame, making notes. Of everything I can see. Of what I’m feeling. Part of the point of this project is self-reflexivity. I’ll code later. For now I just need to get down everything I can.
• • • •
About a month into the Year people started asking a very obvious question. Not why, and not how, and not how in the hell is this spreading like a virus—and that was pretty hilarious. Whole new meaning to the term viral.
Everyone who documented their own deaths . . . They died. They were dead. Some of them could set things to share automatically and some of them appeared to have done so, but others . . .
Who the fuck was uploading these things?
Like I said. In the end all we had were questions.
• • • •
Older girl, early twenties, black. Blank-faced. Messy college dorm room. Bottle of pills. She empties them into her mouth gulp by gulp and washes them down with vodka. This one goes on for a while. When she drops to the floor, she manages to prop her phone up where we can see at least part of her. Her face.
This one isn’t gory, but it’s one of the uglier ones I watch.
Five times, notes, then I need to quit for the night.
• • • •
I expect to have nightmares. I’m ready for it. I wake up shivering and too hot and I spend a feverish few minutes on my phone, recording my thick, roaring dreams. I manage to fall back asleep. It takes a while. In the morning I save what I wrote for all that coding I intend to do later.
• • • •
The archive was very controversial when it was first proposed, and the controversy hasn’t disappeared. A lot of people would just as soon forget that year.
A lot of those people were parents. Adults. People protested, made petitions. But us . . . Even those of us who carried around all our mental scar tissue, stiff and raw, we didn’t want to let go. Even if we couldn’t look at it, couldn’t watch, couldn’t even think about it without fight-or-flight chemicals flooding into our blood, we wanted to keep it. The record of our Year.
A lot of it is that this is what we do. We document. We display. It was real. It’s ours.
But a lot of it is that, even if we didn’t and still don’t understand why, those people—our people—wanted to be seen. Wanted those final moments to be out there. Maybe they weren’t thinking straight, maybe they were just crazy, maybe something else was going on. Fuck, maybe it was demon possession. But they wanted it.
Pics or it didn’t happen. Didn’t they used to say that? Maybe it was horrifying. Sure.
But it was ours.
• • • •
Ages of the victims range from ten to twenty-five, most of them on the lower end. There was something about puberty, went the theory, but of course no one ever verified that in any way aside from what people observed. People noted—repeatedly—the suspicious roundness of those numbers, but no one ever based any concrete conclusions on that either.
For a while people were talking about a particular kind of parasite that infects the brains of insects and drives them to kill themselves. A specific kind of fungus that affects the behavior of ants in bizarre ways and then sprouts from the head, grows and releases spores. They did autopsies, and they found nothing.
They found no drugs. No unusual substances.
Some of the people who died had been exhibiting signs of depression and/or anxiety, sure. A fair number had difficult home lives. Plenty of them were queer, and a lot of those weren’t out to anyone but their friends online.
Of course they were going through that shit. They were kids. We were kids, and being a kid is hell, and adults forget that.
We didn’t want to forget.
• • • •
I spend most of the next day going through more of it. Gifs, Vines, videos uploaded to various places. Still images, selfies; Instagram. Screenshots of Snapchats. Sometimes there’s sound and sometimes there isn’t, but the common thread running through it all is imagery.
Another couple of clips of people cutting their own throats. I remember hanging being popular. A few people tying plastic bags over their heads. One especially industrious boy douses himself in gasoline in his driveway and lights a match.
I wander outside to eat and get a tasteless hot dog at a lunch truck. I feel dazed. The color seems to be bleeding out of the world.
I have two years of this to go.
• • • •
I spend the rest of the week on a proposal for a dissertation grant I don’t expect to be awarded. This thing is too weird. It’s too disturbing. I don’t think the NSF is going to want to touch it with a thirty-foot pole. But I need the money, and I badly need something else to focus on.
• • • •
I wasn’t going to read the dossiers carefully until I finished preliminary data collection, but a couple of weeks later I start going through them. I expect it to afford me some distance, but it doesn’t. Maybe the information is dry and clinical, but one of the things that makes me good at this is an ability to consume dry, clinical information and translate it into something vital and real and immediate. Something bloody. I sit there in my carrel on the third floor with a pile of printouts—I wanted to work with paper for this, and in here I have to—and I make notes until my eyes hurt, and then I sit back and close them and think about how scared we were and how all we felt like we had was each other, except we didn’t know which one of us was going to be next.
I used to wonder if, when my brain started trying to kill me, I would know what was happening.
When I open my eyes it’s almost midnight and the woman from the front desk is shaking me. They need to close up. I need to go home.
• • • •
I don’t go home. I wander around downtown until dawn. I look at the Capitol dome and I think about how none of those people in there have anything to do with us. About how, after the Year of Suicide, we all gave up. Voting rates for our generation are the lowest of any generation in history. They bemoan this, our apathy. How disappointing it is. How disappointing we all are.
Look: don’t you judge us for opting out of a fucking lie. Don’t you ever do that.
We went to war and a lot of us didn’t come home, and none of you ever noticed.
• • • •
I get the grant.
• • • •
In the end the thing that allowed the archive to exist was the decision that it would have no connection to any outside network. None. Security is unbelievably tight. We can’t bring in phones. We can’t bring in any kind of recording device whatsoever. We can bring in paper and pens and pencils and highlighters, and we can make printouts of text. No images. That’s it.
It’s like the Hot Zone of social media. Because that’s what it is, isn’t it? It’s a giant data quarantine.
They scrubbed the net as clean as they could. They sent in people to confiscate hard drives of all sizes. We’re pretty sure they got it all. Once the archive was established, a lot of us voluntarily turned over what we had and deleted everything else. We organized around it. We surprised people, and we baffled people. They didn’t understand.
Well, whatever. They don’t need to.
The situation is less than ideal, but that was true from the beginning. That was true before the Year. That’s always been true.
• • • •
I go out to dinner with some friends from my program, and as I’m texting them from the restaurant where I’ve arrived early, I realize that it’s my favorite sushi place and I haven’t been here in five months, and these are the only remaining friends I ever see face to face and I haven’t seen any of them in almost as long.
And I realize I’m only now realizing that, and I think Huh.
It’s a vague kind of dinner, and that’s mostly on my end. They talk about work, about the projects they’ve hooked up with, about their own dissertations. Kayla has a gig at a marketing firm which is going well. Mike also got that grant I was awarded and we high five.
All these common things that tied us together since the first year in the program are still there, but as the evening proceeds it becomes apparent that there are new things in which I don’t and can’t share. Mike got that grant; Mike and his husband are also about to adopt a baby. Lissa is getting married in a couple of months and the planning for that is in full swing. With her spot at the firm, Kayla is thinking she might be able to get a down payment on a house in the not-too-distant-future.
And I’m just listening.
So what have you been up to? What you got going on?
Well, after this I’m probably going to go back to my basement apartment and leaf through a binder full of notes I took while I watched fifty-five kids aged thirteen through nineteen erase their faces with shotguns.
So I got that going on.
Sitting there, staring down at my tuna rolls, I feel like darkness is creeping across the table and it’s carving me apart from them. Once we used to go out and drink until we were practically falling down, to ease the pain of endless unendurable lectures. We were united by cheerful misery, and there was something wonderful about that union. It felt full and alive.
They moved on. They moved forward. They have lives. But every time I touch this thing I’m getting dragged backward.
And I’m not so sure about alive anymore.
• • • •
Kayla calls me the next morning. I have an incredible hangover. Not the worst in a while, though, and not from dinner. I came home after, I leafed through the binder, and I drank until I passed out on top of it.
I just want to make sure you’re okay.
Sure, I’m okay. Why wouldn’t I be okay?
You seemed kind of. She doesn’t finish that sentence, and I can’t tell if it’s because she doesn’t want to or she doesn’t know how. I dunno, I just. We hadn’t heard from you in a while, and I just wanted to check in.
Check in. Fuck’s sake, I’m fine. She’s not my mother, I have a mother. I haven’t spoken to her in about three weeks, but I still have one.
Kayla’s voice drops. Look, you know . . . You have this thing, and everyone thinks it’s kind of . . . Just don’t disappear, okay? You remember. You remember what it was like.
Suddenly she sounds so gentle, and my throat closes up, and I remember the one time she and I got so drunk and so comfortable with each other that a week after meeting for the first time we were sitting in a bar yelling to each other about our worst sexual experiences practically at the top of our lungs.
That was a little over six years after the Year. We were healing but we were all still hurting. We needed each other.
Yes, Kayla, I remember.
• • • •
I have stacks of binders and I have stacks of highlighters and I have stacks of pens and I have no idea what to do with any of them anymore. I work all the time, but then I stop working and I stare at it and I think, What exactly is all this? Who left it here? Who would do this?
I have a year left.
• • • •
My grant runs out.
• • • •
It didn’t take us very long to stop looking for answers.
Other people, people outside the trenches—sure, they kept looking. They were desperate. They never stopped looking until things began to taper off and then even after. For a while. Then they did stop. No one officially called off the search. They just . . . stopped.
But we stopped long before that.
Because the why didn’t matter. We didn’t have the luxury of why. We didn’t have the time or the effort to expend on why. I’m not saying we didn’t wonder. Everyone wondered. But after the initial flood of panic, after it became clear that it wasn’t stopping, that it was only getting worse, we turned inward and we did what no one else seemed able to do.
We took care of each other.
We stayed in contact. We formed networks of information-sharing and retooled existing ones, and we pooled our resources. We sent people to homes, to sit with and comfort and be with people who were lonely and scared. We helped people in bad situations get out of them. We raised money. We ran seminars and workshops. We got medication to people who needed it. We did highly organized damage control.
We were doing all that before the Year even happened. All the Year did was kick it into high gear.
There did come a point—and it didn’t take, thank Christ—where they were talking seriously about going to the sources and shutting everything down. Taking it all away from us.
The death toll was already horrifying. Believe me when I tell you: You don’t even want to think about what it might have been.
• • • •
Sitting with my binders and my highlighters and my pencils and my pens in the dark, looking at my phone on the coffee table. Little screen blinks on. Buzz. Blinks off. Green-purple rectangle, floating in the air in front of me like a ghost.
Blinks on. Buzz. Blinks off.
It’s just an alarm. I haven’t actually spoken to anyone, in any sense of the term, in over a week.
All these binders full of the dead. All these binders of me in and among and with them. So what does that make me?
• • • •
Here’s how it was: We were dying. But we weren’t alone.
Suddenly we all knew each other. Suddenly we were all friends. We were all family. Across media and networks and apps and sites and everything you can think of. Sure, some things got seriously ugly, but by the time it became clear what we were dealing with, for the most part people laid down their arms. Truces and ceasefires were declared. We had bigger things to worry about.
We were dying.
I loved those people. I loved every one of them. The people I never met. The people whose names and faces I never knew until I was watching them kill themselves. The people who mourned for them and invited me to mourn with them. We said we loved each other. We all said it. Over and over. Like hands across a chasm, groping in the dark. Knowing that, in the end, we probably couldn’t save anyone. All we could do was be there until they were gone, and be with whoever was left.
I remember how it was. I remember it. I remember it so well. I’m drowning in remembering.
Not very shareable.
I love you. I love you.
I love you.
• • • •
After it was over, I was lonelier than I had ever been in my entire life.
• • • •
My notes are in chaos. My coding is an incoherent mess. None of it makes any sense at all, and I’m not sure it ever did. I have no idea how to organize this into something that could even begin to vaguely resemble something defensible.
I have six months. But that time-to-completion was just an estimate. My advisor is very hands-off. No one is holding me to that deadline but me.
In theory, I suppose, I could just stay here.
• • • •
So there I am.
• • • •
I don’t know how long I stare at it. I know my back starts to hurt and my mouth is dry, and my eyes itch and my head aches, but I’m pretty sure that was all already the case. I sit under those college-library overhead lights and I stare at the screen and it doesn’t matter how long I do that because it doesn’t change and it isn’t going to.
The little clock in the corner of the screen says ten minutes to midnight. I think maybe it’s said that for a while.
There I am.
It’s a grainy selfie. Poorly lit. It’s been put through a filter which has done it no favors. The colors are all fucked and it’s hard to make out anything clearly, but I can see enough.
I’m sitting on the floor in front of the coffee table. I can’t see the coffee table but I know it’s there, just beyond where the phone is. I’m staring into the camera. I have no discernable expression.
I’m not holding the phone.
• • • •
We want to wrap things up neatly. We want to come out the other side and look back and be able to make sense of it all. We want to beat fear and pain and loss into narrative submission; this explains the persistence of war stories, and the persistence of their telling.
We record, we write our histories, we analyze and we theorize, we editorialize, we engage in punditry. We publish. We curate and we archive. We do this because we have to, because we can’t just leave it all there. We can’t just look down at that endless mass of corpses and let that be the last word.
We can’t leave the holes in the world.
I wish I could tell you something. I wish I could give you an answer. But in the end no answer could have made any difference. And the questions we were left with never mattered.
All we ever had was each other.