Wednesday, February 08, 2006

A Cry for Help

Last month, Chris McKinstry killed himself. And while I'm inclined to respect his privacy, the circumstances of his death warrant discussion.

Chris was a 39-year-old computer researcher. He created several projects that caught the interest of the artificial intelligence community, including Mindpixel, which was designed to collect millions of human-validated true/false statements into a database that would constitute "intelligence." Chris was born in Canada; but after losing most of his money to several failed dot-com ventures during the late '90s, he moved to Chile to work as a telescope operator.

On Friday, January 20, Chris published two suicide notes on his blog. He also posted a series of messages on a discussion group claiming that he was sitting in an internet cafe and had swallowed a lethal dose of pills. As the forum participants tried to persuade him to call for help, Chris described feeling weak and said he was about to die. The other posters managed to contact Carolyn Turpin, a Foreign Service Officer at the US embassy in Chile, who enlisted the help of local police and turned the matter over to the Canadian embassy.

Three days later, Chris was found dead in his apartment. He had disconnected the gas hose from his stove and asphyxiated himself.

It's difficult to accuse a man of lying in his suicide note when he turns up dead three days later. But obviously, Chris was lying. Call it fishing for attention, or call it a cry for help; but he posted a dozen messages saying things like, "I have to go die...bye" and "It is too late. I will leave this cafe soon and curl up somewhere." One of his last posts read, "I am leaving now. People are strating to notice I canot type and I am about to vomit. Take to go. Last post."

Shortly after that, Chris stopped posting when other participants began calling police. He was spotted leaving his apartment the next day. On Monday, he committed suicide.

I don't doubt that he felt suicidal on Friday. He explained that he'd struggled with depression throughout his life, and that suicide had always felt like an option. But he staged a very public incident on that Friday evening — so public, in fact, that someone pointed out to Chris during the discussion that his Wikipedia entry had been updated to reflect his suicidal intentions. The question is: But for the events of Friday, would Chris still have killed himself on Monday?

Chris lived in a world of computers. He expressed a great deal of concern for his reputation online, and had complained several times when he saw something unflattering on Google or Wikipedia. That was where he lived, where he worked. He certainly knew he couldn't erase what he'd done. He knew word would spread and his entire community would hear the story by Monday morning: how Chris McKinstry had posted a suicide note on his blog, how he told everyone he was dying inside an internet cafe in Chile. If he logged back online Monday morning, he would be forever branded a drama queen and a liar.

The hardest part of suicide is pulling the trigger. No matter how deep your depression, you can't suppress the instinct to survive — an instinct that manifests itself as abject terror when you're holding the gun in your hands. It's an impossible task to overcome that fear; and for many people contemplating suicide, saying goodbye seems like an easy way to trap yourself into a corner where you'll have no other choice.

Chris knew people would never forget what he'd done. So he was left with two choices: Confess that he had been lying and accept the shame of being labeled an attention whore, or follow through and kill himself. He must have agonized all weekend. Finally, Monday morning when he knew his absence would be noticed, he had to make his decision. And he did.

I'm not inclined to pass judgment. Nor am I inclined to assign blame to anyone else; cries for help are usually dishonest, but Chris was 39 years old and responsible for his own actions. Having said that: He locked himself onto a fast track beyond the point of no return, and I sympathize with how he must have felt. I wonder: If he'd made those comments to friends on the telephone — if not for his belief in the permanence of the internet, that his suicidal proclamation would remain on the World Wide Web for posterity — would Chris McKinstry be alive today?


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