My Online Community Saved My Life

Ayelet Waldman i i

hide captionAyelet Waldman is an essayist and author. Her new book Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace will be published next year.

Stephanie Rausser
Ayelet Waldman

Ayelet Waldman is an essayist and author. Her new book Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace will be published next year.

Stephanie Rausser

While I certainly have no intention of defending those cretins who watched Abraham Briggs commit suicide over streaming video without taking action other than to cheer him on, for me the tragedy is complicated. The media has been casting the observers' reaction to the 12-hour online drama of Mr. Briggs' death as an updated, more virulent version of the apathy that led 38 New Yorkers to watch and listen as Kitty Genovese was murdered beneath their windows. These cyber-voyeurs didn't just fail to call the cops, goes the narrative, they enjoyed the show.

Like Mr. Briggs, I suffer from bipolar disorder, but while his online "community" failed to act to save his life, my own stepped in to save mine. A few years ago, I kept a blog called "Bad Mother," on which I pontificated about issues as diverse as the inequities in the federal sentencing guidelines and the pink catastrophe of my 4-year-old daughter's bedroom. One night, alone in the house with my children, and in the throes of the worst depression of my life, I wrote on my blog, "It does not help to know that one's mood is a mystery of neurochemistry when one is tallying the contents of the medicine cabinet and evaluating the neurotoxic effects of a Tylenol, Topomax, SRRI and Ambien cocktail."

Within hours of my scary blog post, a woman whom I'd met and become friends with online read it, called me and refused to hang up until I telephoned my psychiatrist. I have no way of knowing whether, without that phone call and without the dozens of supportive comments that soon afterward began to pop up on the blog, I would have followed through on my implied threat, but when my cyberfriend called, I was holding enough pills to kill myself.

There is no doubt that the anonymity of the Internet can allow human behavior to turn toxic, but fundamentally the impulse to LOL as a young boy kills himself on your computer screen is no different from that which leads some people to shout "Jump!" at a man standing on a window ledge. It's true that most people who watched Abraham Briggs die did nothing to stop him. Yet people are more complicated than that, as is their latest creation, the Internet.

Just as we are all implicated in the dark side of the technology that allowed Mr. Briggs to commit suicide in front of so large and callous an audience, so can we take a certain comfort in the way that very technology has given us new opportunities to reach out, to connect. Both of these are true.

Ayelet Waldman's book Bad Mother will be published next spring.

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