Shadow Boxing

A blog that probes the mind's dark secrets

Public Suicide

When 'Can you see me now?' is taken to extremes.

People seek attention in many forms, but those who want others to watch them die violently are among the most shocking.

Public suicide has many facets. It’s often a political or social statement, especially when coercing others to die, too. Suicidal mass murder comes to mind. Sometimes, public suicide is the result of mental derangement or depression. The public nature of the act can also be the ultimate way to refuse anonymity.

On the other hand, by making it public, these people might hope that someone helps. The father of suicidology, Edwin Shneidman, found from studying survivors that they weren't sure. “I believe," he said, "that people who are actually committing suicide are ambivalent about life and death at the very moment they are committing it. They wish to die and they simultaneously wish to be rescued.”

Even if these people leave a note about why they want to die, they often don’t say why they made it public, so it’s difficult to study this phenomenon. I’ve seen people die by jumping from buildings or throwing themselves under trains, which is public (and awful) enough, but the cases below are more perplexing as “in-your-face” gestures. And some don’t seem ambivalent at all.

Back in 1974, the host of a talk show, Christine Chubbuck, did a news story on suicide. Around this time, she’d told her family she was lonely and depressed. On her show, an officer had shown her how to commit suicide with wadcutter target bullets, which gave her an idea. On the morning of her fatal act, Chubbuck read some news stories on the air. Then she said, “In keeping with Channel 40′s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first – attempted suicide.” She shot herself behind her right ear, fell forward and hit her head before the camera went to black. Just 29, she died at the hospital.

Pennsylvania politician Robert Dwyer, facing sentencing for a conviction for taking kickbacks, called a news conference in Harrisburg in 1987. In front of reporters, he pulled out a .357 Magnum and shot himself. Apparently, he was going for shock effect.

One man took his obsession with the assassination of John F. Kennedy into the public arena. Richard E. Clem, who’d just turned 50 in 2003, the year of the 40th anniversary of the assassination, dressed in a camouflage jacket and went to Dealey Plaza in Dallas. He stood on the X on the street that marks where Kennedy was hit with the fatal bullet. Just before daylight, he shot himself.

A 19-year-old named Kipp Rusty Walker was performing on his electric keyboard on stage at a coffee shop in Oregon when he wrapped up a song, “Sorry for All the Mess” and pulled out a 6-inch knife. In front of the audience of 15, he stabbed himself in the chest several times and fell to the stage. At first, the audience clapped, believing it to be part of the act, macabre though it was. When Walker lay still, bleeding, they realized he’d committed suicide.

Several people have set up their suicide on a live webcam. Alexander Biggs, a young man in Florida with a history of mental illness, initially posted his intentions online, apparently trying to drum up an audience. He inserted a link into a blog, along with his suicide note. Those who hit the link saw him lying on a bed. Over a period of 12 hours, viewers debated via instant messages over whether to notify the authorities before someone finally did. By this time, the young man was dead from drug toxicity.

A 20-year-old in Canada known as “Stephen” attempted suicide in his dorm room while live-streaming. According to reports, Stephen had posted that he was “an oldfag who… would finally give back to the community. I am willing to an hero on cam for you all.” Another user volunteered to set up a group chat room, and it reached the maximum capacity of 200. Then Stephen took pills, drank vodka, and lit a fire in the corner of his dorm room before crawling under his bed. Viewers watched the room fill with smoke as Stephen typed a message to the effect that he was dead. Within 20 minutes, firefighters broke in and pulled him from the room. He suffered serious injuries but survived.

On March 21, 2007, Kevin Whitrick, a 42-year-old electrical engineer, was in a chat with about 60 people who were reportedly there to give and receive insults. As the other participants watched, Whitrick slung a rope over a joist in his home, stood on a chair and hanged himself. Some viewers believed it was fake and even encouraged him, but someone contacted police. They arrived too late.

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., an expert on murder and other shadow themes, teaches forensic psychology and has published 46 books.

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