A Suicide Holiday
Writer's comment: I took English 104C because, like 99% of the classes college students take, it was a requirement. But soon I learned that this was not the ordinary class where one wrote essays on something they had no personal experience with. We were given the assignment to write a profile piece on someone we knew, and for myself there was only one person I could think of. I wrote of someone who will never have the chance to tell her story on her own, and while words can’t claim back a life, I hope some justice is served by her story being told. I deeply appreciate Jayne Walker’s giving the class the opportunity to find our own inspiration for topics and write in our own voice.
Instructor's comment: Because I encourage my English 104C (Journalism) students to explore topics that matter to them, their feature articles often bring real news—richly detailed portrayals of social realities that have gone virtually unnoticed in the mainstream press. Melissa Smith's unsentimental portrait of a troubled young woman ensnared by an internet newsgroup is one of the most haunting articles ever produced for my class. The story it tells is compelling, and the questions it raises are as troubling as they are new.
—Jayne Walker, University Writing Program
On March 22, 2003, Julia Parker checks herself into The Red Roof Inn in Tallahassee, Florida. She leaves a small package at the front desk with delivery instructions before proceeding to her room, which is minimal. Inside is a queen-sized bed with a pink and purple patterned comforter, a small built-in desk with lamp and chair, and a bathroom with travel-size soaps and shampoos, which she won’t be using. “Today I feel great. It feels like such a nice day to just lie in the sun. To quote Richie Tenenbaum,” Julia writes in her online journal, referring to her favorite movie, The Royal Tenenbaums, “‘I am going to kill myself tomorrow.’”
Julia is suffering from depression, and she knows it. She says, half in jest and half seriously, “I think that every teenager should have one failed attempt at suicide. People would be much more sane.” Despite her nonchalant approach to the subject, she has done a considerable amount of research and has even gone to counseling to try to treat the “zombie-like state of consciousness” she describes her suffering as. Ther-apy is the hardest step for her. “What would I talk about? How perfect everything is and how there is absolutely no reason for me to be feeling like this?” she writes. She’s not alone. In the past 15 years, the number of people seeking treatment for depression in the U.S. has doubled: it’s now 25 million a year. Depression is often the main clinical symptom that precedes suicide, which ranks as the eighth leading cause of death in America. Statistically speaking, more Americans kill themselves than are killed by others. From Julia’s depression stems guilt. “I am not the kind of person who likes to be sad around other people. A bummed kid is no fun to hang out with, right? So I try and make it as easy as possible for everyone else, but I feel like an apathetic loser. I am not really passionate about anything,” she writes.
“Lately I have been scared. Just an overall kind of frigh-tened. Of what? Beats me. I’m not paranoid and I don’t do drugs. But I feel like my body is deteriorating faster than eve-ryone around me,” she says. She is finally compelled to seek help. She sees a doctor and explains that she has attempted suicide multiple times, details what methods she has used, and how they didn’t work. “The doctor asked me if I had any plans to try again, I was smart, I said no,” Julia writes after her first visit. Her doctor prescribed Lexapro, an antidepressant used to treat depression and generalized anxiety disorder. Lexapro works by increasing the supply of serotonin to the brain. Studies have shown it improves depression, with full an-tidepressant effect after four to six weeks. Julia stayed on it for three.
“The drugs just physically make me feel awful while not improving my mental state at all,” Julia writes after being on Lexapro for nine days. She is wondering if there is a cure at all. “Do suicidal thoughts ever go away completely and leave you to live in peace? My experience so far has been no. Even in the best of moods, they’re still lurking back there. They’ve been there for so long and I don’t know how to make them go away now. Nor do I know if I want to or not. It’s always been the inevitable.”
Julia decides to search for answers again, but this time through a different medium, the Internet. A search for “depres-sion” or “suicide” mainly brings up hits ranging from help hot-lines and crisis centers to informative and statistical links. However, when Julia made her search she found something else, the alt.suicide.holiday newsgroup, or a.s.h.
A.s.h. originally began as an unmoderated newsgroup, which was set up in late 1989 to discuss why suicide increases during the holiday seasons. However, when this topic ran thin, they began to include issues ranging from philosophy, to rela-tionships, to depression, and to suicide. The site’s fact page explains that “the a.s.h. subculture has different values than the rest of society. Society attributes the highest value to human life. In contrast, [a.s.h.] think[s] that the value of individual freedom is superior to the value of life when it does not physi-cally interfere with another’s freedom.” Members of the site are referred to as “ashers” and they believe that one’s individual freedom includes the right to take one’s own life if desired. They call themselves “pro-choice.”
Of the more than 40,000 newsgroups at the time of this writing, a.s.h. is the only one devoted completely to pro-choice-suicide, and Julia found it. “I never really claimed to belong to any group. It just never felt right . . . until now. This is the first group of people that I would willingly categorize myself in . . . I am an asher,” Julia writes on one of her posts to the a.s.h. web board.
Some of the discussions on a.s.h. are about different reasons to support suicide. Julia once engaged in a discussion about organ donations. “You see, if suicide was legal, we could definitely save more lives with the organs donated. But no, we’ve got to be sneaky about it and pretty much fuck up our whole bodies,” she argued. Another asher adds, “Voluntary euthanasia for the purpose of donating organs. I’ll bet the people most in need of healthy organs would support that idea.”
Other ashers give advice on how to commit certain kinds of suicide. Sometimes this advice is gained from their own personal failed attempts. One asher lists her top method of choice, “Drink 1–2 bottles of premium Vodka, mixed with Kerns Nectar or any other juice, and go for a nice long swim in Lake Tahoe. The alcohol shouldn’t hit you for 10–15 minutes, and if that doesn’t make you pass out, the cold water should. If all else fails, dive under, and breathe in.”
The frankness and the honesty that pervade the conver-sations between most ashers gives the site a dedicated and genuine sense of being. It’s the blunt and shocking subject matter that causes most visitors to question the appropriate-ness of the site. Julia, however, didn’t. In a.s.h. she finds the acceptance and understanding that she fails to find elsewhere, although fear often keeps her from revealing her feelings to those she knows. “Sometimes I think maybe I should just drive back to California tomorrow. I should tell my parents what’s going on. They should know. It seems like a plausible idea, but I can never act on it,” she admits.
So with a.s.h. Julia stays, and after two months with the site she is convinced that suicide is the choice for her. The details following the suicide are the easiest for her to decide. “I want my funeral to be as un-religious as possible and I want them to play ‘Fire and Rain’ by James Taylor. But then again I won’t be alive so it won’t matter one bit,” she writes.
After having several failed attempts of suicide, Julia de-cides that she wants to plan this try thoroughly. At only nine-teen she has a fairly notable understanding of chemistry. She finally decides. “My chosen method is Potassium Cyanide. I’ve purchased a pH meter so I can be sure that the KCN+H2O concoction isn’t too basic or acidic for my throat,” she writes. She posts her decision at a.s.h. and nowhere else. Another asher, who has chosen the same method, asks her, “what happens if I drink alcohol before drinking my cyanide solution?” Julia answers, “There seems to be some continuity errors when discussing potassium cyanide. Whether mixing it with water will hasten its effects or will swallowing it in gel caps be the quickest and most painless way. Chasing it with OJ, Lemonade, or Grapefruit juice sounds good.”
It’s finally the day she will begin to enact her plan, March 22, 2003. “My boyfriend is going out of town, so he won’t in-terrupt, but I am thinking of going somewhere else just to be on the safe side. I’ve stopped eating so my tummy will be nice and acidic and I’ve stopped taking my meds so I’m not happy and decide that life is worth living. I will just get down again someday . . . I am preventing that. Now I’m just left with writing a note. It will be tough and I am not looking forward to it. To my parents, I don’t know what to write.”
After Julia announces her official date and plans, one asher responds, “It’s a good feeling, when you finally decide to die, isn’t it? The tough part is the follow through, the actual suicide. I’ve not managed it yet, but hopefully one day. Any-way, I’m glad you’re so happy. Good luck.”
Another asher, referred to as River, who is one of the leaders of the group, tells the other ashers later that night, “I have been talking to Julia all afternoon and night tonight. She needs to die, and I don’t completely understand why, but she is one of the good guys. As Rod Stewart sings, ‘Tonight’s the night, gonna be alright.’ I’ll let you guys know what happens. I’ll post the obituary to a.s.h.”
One other response differs from the rest. Ashers refer to this kind of person as a “troll” because they willfully disregard a.s.h.’s advocacy of pro-choice-suicide. The troll writes, “Julia should have lived to see her own children playing. The worst day of her life was probably the day she found this group.”
The rest of the details for her suicide Julia has already worked out. She found her supply of potassium cyanide from an online store that delivered it directly to her house. “And from the least likely source, too!” she exclaims. For the place she decides to check into the Red Roof Inn in her town of Tal-lahassee to prevent her roommates from finding her. She has written an email to the police department (time delayed, of course) with the technical details. “I would hate to be the one who finds a body,” she says sympathetically. At the front desk of the inn she leaves a package, postage paid, to her parents. Inside is her letter to her family and the various prescription anti-depressants she has been on with all the receipts. A note saying they should get a refund is attached.
Julia Parker died that night on March 22, 2003, alone in a hotel room. The only ones who knew of her planned death were the members of a.s.h. The last time I saw Julia was two weeks before her death; she was visiting her friends and family in California—one last time, as she wrote on the a.s.h. website. Julia’s quotes in this story were collected from the online jour-nal Julia kept and the posts on the a.s.h. website, which were discovered on her computer by her father shortly after her death. After being questioned by Julia’s friends and family, ashers still claim that suicide is not encouraged in the group.
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