BY JENNINGS BROWN
This article includes statements from people who have committed suicide or are considering ending their life. If you are feeling suicidal, you can speak with someone confidentially at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or one of the international suicide hotlines listed on suicide.org. SuicideForum.com is a pro-life peer-to-peer alternative to the forums mentioned below.
In its primordial form, the internet was an anarchist utopia where anonymous users could discuss the most taboo of topics. And one of the most enduring legacies of the proto-web, which continues to this day, is the birth of a community where people discuss exactly how they plan to kill themselves.
The internet wasn’t supposed to be a dark haven for forbidden ideas. Originally, the Usenet, which predated the World Wide Web, had seven hierarchies: comp.*, misc.*, news.*, rec.*, sci.*, soc.*, and talk.*. Known as the Big 7, these were spaces where anyone with a modem could have civil discourse about software, quantum physics, or The Simpsons. But it didn’t take long for some radical activists and computer pioneers to create alt.* where users talked about alternative topics that didn’t fit cleanly into the original structure. Alt.* newsgroups hosted open discussions about subjects like sex, drugs, hacking, and porn. And often, these conversations revolved around death. That is, the darker side of death—assassination, necrophilia, and suicide.
Alt.* quickly became the most popular corner of the Usenet, adopted the acronym “Anarchists, Lunatics, and Terrorists,” and birthed the unique brand of nihilistic free-speech-championing troll-Libertarianism that still influences internet culture today. And one of the only communities established in the early days of the internet that still thrives is its most controversial and morally ambiguous.
When Steven (whose name has been changed) created that first suicide discussion page, he wasn’t suicidal. He was just interested in death and spending a lot of time on his Sun Microstations SPARCstation SLC computer. Five months earlier, in June of 1990, Jack Kevorkian had begun using intravenous chemical cocktails to assist in the suicides of 130 patients. Derek Humphry’s controversial and bestselling book on the topic, Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying, was months away from publication. And so, on Nov. 21, 1990, just as the right-to-die movement was starting to gain momentum, Steven created the group “alt.suicide.holiday.”
“This is a place where you can say what you’re feeling without being judged. That’s a rare gift.”
“With the holidays coming up, this newsgroup will be a good resource for discussing methods and reasons [for suicide],” he wrote in the original charter. “Please note that this is NOT alt.angst,” mockingly referring to a group where users complained about their emotional turmoil. “Alt.angst is for weenies who just can’t get around to doing it. As you can see, this is an unmoderated group and if past experience hold true, there should be a moderate amount of traffic around Thanksgiving, peaking around Christmas, and a drop-off after New Year’s.”
The notion that suicides peak during the holidays is false. Of course, the notion that only cowards don’t follow through with suicide is also false.
Steven didn’t know at the time that it was a felony in his home state of California to encourage or advise someone to commit suicide. “Had I known, I wouldn’t have said anything about methods,” he told Vocativ.
That’s his only regret with creating the newsgroup and, inadvertently, an online community associated with the deaths of countless people. He believes that talking about depression and suicide without fear of judgment or intervention leads to more benefit than harm. This is one of the driving beliefs of the sanctioned-suicide community today; they fear speaking about suicide to a counselor or psychiatrist can get them involuntarily committed. (According to Yeates Conwell, professor of psychiatry at University of Rochester Medical Center and co-director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Suicide, mental health professionals only put people on suicide watch if it seems that the suicidal person plans on ending their life immediately. Suicidal people can have discussions about suicide on pro-life peer-to-peer forums and hotlines without fear of judgment or intervention.)
The first suicide related to this newsgroup occurred late September 1992. David Conibear, a computer software engineer in his late 20s, posted a note to the site, explaining in detail the method he used to kill himself. The message showed just how thoroughly it had been planned: “The computer is programmed to wait 36 hours and then phone 911, to prevent any of my friends discovering the body. This news message is also on a delay timer, just in case there are any closet interventionists lurking.”
Knowing that the note would probably be read by authorities, he added, “let it be known that [alt.suicide.holiday] was not a promoting cause in my suicide. Had it not been for this group, my best plan to date was to get pissed drunk and dive off the roof of my apartment building.”
According to “The Dark Net” by Jamie Bartlett, this was the first documented online suicide note and members of alt.suicide.holiday soon began referring to Conibear as their “patron saint.”
Carla Sofka, a professor at Siena College who has been studying grief and death in online communities since the late 1980s, believes the internet has always been one of the best tools for helping people process death. “Suicidal ideation has been around forever. I can only imagine how important it was when people realized that there was a place that they could openly express those feelings,” Sofka said. “This is a place where you can say what you’re feeling without being judged. That’s a rare gift. I think it’s important to have a place where your feelings can be validated and I think that’s why [these forums] have been available for as long as they have. And I don’t see them going away because people value and need that space.”
Because the topic is especially stigmatized, suicidal thoughts can make someone feel even more isolated, Sofka said. “How awful to feel alone when you’re already feeling alone.”
Loneliness is such a common theme on anonymous internet forums like 4chan and Reddit that the Forever Alone meme has become a steadfast mascot. And so it stands to reason that the people who feel the most alone have fostered a distinct subculture that has lasted 26 years.
Alt.suicide.holiday (a.s.h.) quickly evolved into a community where “ashers” discussed their emotional struggles, shared methods for suicide, and provided support for each other. Ashers developed their own lingo—“catching the bus” means ending your life and “shiny-happies” are the unwelcome optimists—and an official greeting: “Welcome to a.s.h. Sorry you’re here.”
A.s.h FAQs explain that the group is not pro-suicide, but rather “pro-choice” and “pro-legalizing suicide.” Ashers don’t encourage suicide, but they also generally don’t share “life-affirming” advice unless it seems like someone has not put a lot of thought into their suicide or if there is a new treatment for a terminal disease of which a person considering suicide might not be aware.
The original newsgroup spawned several pro-choice chatrooms, sites, and mailing lists. The forums stirred national outrage in 2003, after Suzy Gonzales, a 19-year-old Florida State University student, took her life after seeking guidance from an a.s.h. forum. News reports of the incident claimed that it was the 14th confirmed suicide related to a.s.h. groups.
Many of those forums still exist. Some have moved to the dark net, but the most active community of its kind lives on Reddit, as r/SanctionedSuicide. The group has about 5,500 subscribers, but most people post from anonymous burner accounts that they only use in this specific subreddit.
One of the moderators of the subreddit, Buster Fraum, sought the group out because he knew he wanted to end his life some day. Fraum is 22 and intends to live until he’s about 30. His mother is a psychiatrist and, unsurprisingly, doesn’t support his philosophy. “She’s been in mental health long enough that it’s really difficult for her to understand rational suicides, but I think she’s getting there.”
“It’s check out time for me now Adios amigos, Goodbye and Good Luck.”
Fraum clarified he does not speak on behalf of r/SanctionedSuicide, but he believes that many posters share his view. He compares his perspective to taking a course that you know you can drop. “Maybe you’ll wait it out and see if you like the kids, the assignments, the vibe,” he told Vocativ. “But if it’s not your thing, it’s not your thing.”
Like Steven, the a.s.h. creator, Fraum said that people are often afraid to mention suicidal thoughts to counselors or psychiatrist because then the suicidal person could lose control of the situation and end up receiving treatment.
Another mod, blanktextbox, agreed. “We see the conversation come up very often: how do I avoid getting locked up when talking to professional help?” said blanktextbox. “The honest answer is: Don’t bring up being suicidal except in the vaguest terms. Society needs to trust our psychologists to make the judgment about their clients as to whether it’s beneficial or not to put them on an involuntary holds—which means we also need to accept that sometimes they’ll let someone leave their office who then goes on to commit suicide.”
Dr. Conwell, co-director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Suicide, believes the mods’ concern is reasonable but overblown. “That’s not the way the system works,” Conwell said. “Locking somebody up is not the alternative solution that anybody would take unless there was imminent risk of somebody taking their own life in hours or days.”
Redditors posting on r/SanctionedSuicide can’t share their personal information or post amateur media showing suicidal acts (documentaries and news videos are allowed). Recent rule changes allow users to mention suicide methods and link to off-site instructions. Users typically post about how they are going to kill themselves and what their death date is, or ask for advice and encouragement in their decision to end their life. People discuss getting psychiatric help, failed attempts, methods, depression, and choosing their death day. Often they just post about how nice it is to finally have a place where they feel accepted. Sometimes they use a.s.h. lingo that was created before many of the subscribers were even born.
Many r/SanctionedSuicide make their final post shortly before they plan on taking their life, stating how many hours they have. Recently someone posted “2 hours left” and thanked the creators of the site. “It’s check out time for me now Adios amigos, Goodbye and Good Luck,” the redditor concluded. Almost all of the 16 responses wished the person good night and good luck.
Recently, one self-described 19-year-old woman wrote a post titled: “How do you get the courage to pull the trigger.” She began the emotional message: “Been crying, laying in bed since 6 AM. It’s now 6 PM. I have my revolver here with me, and I’m all alone. But every single time I bring it up to my head, there is no way in hell my finger would press down….” She went on to explain how she got to this point, how much bullying she had experienced throughout her life, how ugly she believes she is, and how alone she has always felt. “I’ve never had anyone celebrate my birthday. I’m always alone on special occasions, like today.”
The thread that follows contains all the ingredients of the first a.s.h. forums—anarchy, gallows humor, and a community of people in utter isolation. Some sympathize and encourage her to tell more about herself and her struggles. They even share messages of grim hope. No one says it will get better—in fact, they tell her that it won’t. But they encourage her to focus on the things she does enjoy in life and tell her she is strong for standing up to so much bullying. Another active member infamous within the community for nihilistic views, u/NoPointToLife, chastises someone for telling her to “keep her chin up.”
Throughout it all—as they openly discuss how a woman could kill herself—they all seem to agree on one thing: that she has a choice and they support her in that choice.
She was posting anonymously, so there’s no way to know how her story ended.