NEAL CONAN, host:
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And here are the headlines on some stories we're following here today at NPR News. The head of the United Autoworkers said today General Motors could fail by the end of this month unless Congress acts now to help automakers. He appeared with the CEOs of the Big Three on Capitol Hill to seek a $34 billion bailout, and the Bank of England cut interest rates by one percentage point today bringing the rate down to two percent. That's the lowest interest rates have been there since the 1950s. The move is an attempt to prevent Britain going into a prolonged recession. You can hear details on those stories, and of course, much later today on All things Considered.
Tomorrow, it's Science Friday. Ira Flatow will be here for a look at how happiness spreads in social networks, plus a talk with preeminent biologist, E.O. Wilson on his new book "The Superorganism" and "A Farewell to the Phoenix Mars Lander." That's all coming up tomorrow on Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
Two weeks ago a troubled teenager named Abraham Briggs took a fatal combination of pills and laid down to die. He did it in front of an audience. At least 100 people watching on a webcam, saw him declare his intention to kill himself and then take the lethal overdose. It was 12 hours before police were notified, broke into his room, and by then it was too late. The story raises questions about the intersection between anonymity and responsibility on the web, and while some worry deeply about why those who watched Briggs kill himself failed to act, writer Ayelet Waldman has a very different experience in some of her darkest days. She joins us in just a moment.
And we want to hear from you. If you ever confessed to suicidal thoughts on the web, did you find people supportive or not? Have you ever felt the need to step in after reading about someone you thought was endanger? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website, just got to email@example.com and click on Talk of the Nation. Ayelet Waldman is a writer, blogger and the author of the upcoming book "Bad Mother." She joins us from the studios of UC Berkeley's School of Journalism, and nice to have you on the program today.
Ms. AYELET WALDMAN (Writer, Blogger; Author, "Bad Mother"): Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here.
CONAN: And we should note that, you like Abraham Briggs, suffer from bipolar disorder. And that while his viewers didn't act, your online readers did. Can you tell us what happened?
Ms. WALDMAN: Yes, it was a number of years ago when I was keeping a blog called "Bad Mother," the same title as my book. And, what happened was I posted a long piece about suicide and bipolar disorder. And in the course of the piece I wrote, and I'll just quote this tiny bit of it, "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, SSRI, and Ambien cocktail."
What happened when I made that post was within not - definitely within hours as it might have been less time than that, a woman who I met online with whom I had - I had met her in person afterwards but we began our friendship on the Internet in an email circle that I had in another - not through the blog but through another online community. And she read the blog post, and she called me, and she refused to hang up the phone until I telephoned my psychiatrist. And what had happened was I had simply - there was - I was having a medication adjustment problem.
So, the suicidal impulse was solved by taking a single pill essentially, but if she had not made that call I wouldn't have called my psychiatrist. And when the phone rang I was holding in my lap, you know, basically the contents of you know just what I wrote Tylenol, Topomax, SSRI's and Ambien in a lethal cocktail.
CONAN: And so your friend, your reader, your...
Ms. WALDMAN: Yes.
CONAN: Your audience if you will.
Ms. WALDMAN: Cyber buddy.
CONAN: Yeah. They intervened...
Ms. WALDMAN: Yes, and not just this one woman, others did too - other people. . One other person who had my phone number called me, and people posted on the blog wonderfully supportive emails that over the course of that night and then later on really did bring me out of the darkest place I have ever been in.
CONAN: And that's raises questions about why those people intervened with you. And, why two weeks ago nobody called the police for Abraham Briggs
Ms. WALDMAN: Well, you know, there are lot of reasons. I imagine that one of them is simply a question of he was a young man. And my - the people in my online community were primarily adults, and they were primarily women. And you know, when one is searching for compassion may be adolescent boys are not necessarily the place most likely to find it.
But I think it's also just a function of the diversity we find in any community on Internet or otherwise. So, if someone climbs out on a window ledge, there are going to be people shouting at the bottom, jump, jump, jump. And there are also going to be people risking their lives to come to save them. So, I think the - it's not so much a function of the Internet so much as the way the Internet heightens our natural impulses.
CONAN: That's interesting. The friction that a lot of people have talked about when writing email, we seem to - it's so easy to do and so quick to do that we don't necessarily realize that we've added a lot of heat to it by not editing ourselves.
Ms. WALDMAN: And that's even more intense. Over email, there's sort of a moment between you get the message when you sit down, and when you're on a message board or when you're in - making posts on these websites, on the comment pages, there isn't even that break. So, you see, things get very, very heated and they can get very heated about all sorts of ridiculous - I mean, I have watched people and even participated myself in this flame wars, over things like breastfeeding versus bottle-feeding or you know, which kind of diaper is you use, and I mean it is very emotional and intensified, because it's on the Internet. And I think that there are a lot of reasons for that.
There's - the anonymity is surely a large part of it. But there's also this way that I think we're just beginning to understand how we can participate in something that is so widespread and in such a community, while at the same time being ourselves in a very intimate place. I mean, you're home or at the office, you're in your pajamas as often as not, and you feel alone. You feel like you have privacy. But you're also - you are participating in a community that in many cases is much larger than your regular live-action community.
CONAN: In a way you're broadcasting.
Ms. WALDMAN: Exactly. Absolutely.
CONAN: Now, let's see if we'd get some listeners in on this conversation. We're talking with Ayelet Waldman, the author of the forthcoming book, "Bad Mother." If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Josh is on the line. Josh calling us from Indianapolis.
JOSH (Caller): Hi there. Just want to make a couple of statements about Abraham Brigg's case. First of all, it's absolutely horrific what happened. But I was actually online and witnessed it as it was unfolding. I was at work that day, and I jumped on to the forum that I've been a member for years that Abraham was also member of. Sometime around - it was around noon, and I came in to that thread and in the prefaces, the section that he had posted a massive, massive website, it was the joke section. And over the course of years, I mean, people have gotten involved in a series of one-up-manships coming out with more outlandish, more made-up stories. And Abraham was also - he had partaken in that as well. I mean, he did come up with all kinds of outlandish situations. So, at first, people thought it was a joke.
CONAN: And so - but just to clarify. You're saying it was a place where people frequently posted jokes and tried to be more and more outrageous and including him.
JOSH: That's right. Including him. Oh, definitely him. And that was - I mean, out of this massive website that had thousands of sections, that's all this section was devoted to. It was nothing but a section just devoted for this. And Abraham did like - just a couple of months before, he had posted that he was running away. Actually, about a year ago, he said he was running away, and he needed a place to stay across, you know, America, on his travels. Then, you know, find out later he posted, oh, it was just a joke, et cetera, and - I mean, that's just once instance but...
Ms. WALDMAN: Now, is this the Just in TV where he actually did the live streaming video or this is the body-building website?
JOSH: This was on a body-building website. And what eventually happened - and one of the worst things that's been misreported is, I mean, people didn't sit there and watch him for this just maliciously not calling in. The problem was, is nobody knew his name, his phone number, his state. We didn't know any personal information about him. And then, there was actually a 17-year-old kid from India had remembered where Abraham had posted his cell phone number about a year in the past, and the 17 year old happened to find his number, and he frantically was trying to call it. He couldn't make an out of country call. He was trying to get his dad's cell phone - he posted his cell phone number within minutes.
I was actually the first one that had called in the Miami police department, and they did then transfer me to Broward, and I was able to, you know, call the paramedics, and they were there 20 minutes later. But I mean, most of us were frantically trying to figure out where - you know, how we - where was this anonymous person on the Internet that most people thought was a joke, and a horribly, you know, miscalculated politically incorrect joke, but albeit, it's still a joke. I mean, all of us would have still taken that five minutes of our time just to, you know, save this kid's life just in case. I mean, I...
CONAN: So, when we read that there were, you know, inappropriate jokes told about this from the people who are watching it, your belief is that those people thought this was a put on?
JOSH: Oh, for sure, for sure. That's what happens there. I mean, if anybody actually went to this forum, it's on a day to day basis, the kind of things that go on. Most of them - I mean, I'll be the first to admit they're politically incorrect. A lot of them can be in bad taste, but it's - I mean, this is a forum that Abraham chose to be a part of. These very same people that make these jokes in any other section, in any other scenario would have been the first one to, you know, jump to it. But, it was such a shame that he chose to reach out in that section.
I mean, it's a horrible shame. And like I said, we would have done something a lot sooner if anybody could have. It was completely anonymous. There was no information. It just took one kid to remember, one of the thousands and millions of people in this forum, he recognized him and remembered, hey, you know, he put his number out there a year ago, and he dug that up from a year in the past. And from a different context, the very fact that Abraham was on that forum - I mean, if we had found - that kid had found that number sooner, the very fact that he was on that forum could have actually saved his life.
CONAN: And his father has written that he thought that his son was making a call for help, and then he was cruelly ignored. I think it's a person's life that we're talking about, he said. And as a human being, you don't just watch someone in trouble and sit back and just watch. You're saying he's not understanding what was going on.
JOSH: And I agree. I agree. I mean, if anybody was sitting there for hours watching Abraham, that could have actually helped and that was what happened. I mean, that's absolutely atrocious. I mean, I couldn't sleep for nights being involved in this. I mean, just for the couple minutes that I was. Like I said, I signed on at noon. I saw what was happening.
In minutes after I - and just, you know, to see what's going on the body-building forum. I wasn't going there to sign up for suicide, for God's sake, but I mean, this thread was getting so much attention. I saw the number posted minutes after I got there and I call - you know, I called the Miami police department to see, you know, if there's anything they could do. But, I mean, before that, in the previous hours, I mean, nobody knew anything about him other than it's an anonymous person on the Internet. If people were, I mean, sitting there maliciously watching this and there was somebody that could help, I mean, that's absolutely inexcusable.
CONAN: Ayelet, you were going to add something?
Ms. WALDMAN: Yeah, I was going to say that I think also we saw there a kind of Internet version of the bystander effect. The bystander effect is something that sociologists have written about particularly in the wake of the Kitty Genovese, the murder of Kitty Genovese. She was the woman who was murdered in front of 38 New Yorkers watching out of their windows. And...
CONAN: Back in the '60s.
Ms. WALDMAN: Back in the '60s - I think '50s actually. But what - the bystander effect is - there's this - the more people watching, the less of a chance there is that an individual will take action, because that individual is comforted by the notion that surely someone else is making the call. Surely, someone else is going to do that. And I wouldn't be surprised if, you know, that an online community this large and this online community was so large that I imagine that there were individuals in that crowd who allowed themselves not to take action, because they felt, well, surely someone else is picking up the phone.
CONAN: Kitty Genovese, 1964 in (unintelligible) in New York.
Ms. WALDMAN: Sixty-four.
CONAN: Josh, certainly glad somebody made the call. Thank you for calling.
JOSH: Thank you. Appreciate it.
CONAN: We're talking with Ayelet Waldman about support and lack of support on the Internet for people in trouble. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's go to Pete. Pete with us from Baton Rouge in Louisiana.
PETE (Caller): Hi. My wife died in January in a car wreck, and she was a member of a lot of online communities. And they all got together and helped me out so much after she died. Like, they put together a fund online, and I got $6,000 plus from it. And they gave me teddy bears for the kids. I have two kids. One of them is two months old and one of them was two years old when she died. And they gave me - you know, they made me scrapbooks and just sent me all of these great things to help me remember my wife and help the kids remember their mother. So, you know, there's a good side to it. And a lot of people are out there in the community is actually fair. They help a lot.
CONAN: Sorry for the loss, Pete.
PETE: Yeah, thank you.
CONAN: All right, thanks very much for that. The numbers of people - the anonymity that you write about and you've talked about, Ayelet Waldman, that has a lot to do with it. If people are anonymous, it is so much easier to be diffident. If people are known, as Pete were saying, his wife was known to these people, as people reading your Bad Mommy blog, your Bad Mom blog, knew you, it's much more difficult.
Ms. WALDMAN: Absolutely. You know, I have gotten a lot of responses to different things that I've written, both, you know, very positive and very negative responses. And I can tell you that without exception, the really truly negatives, scary negative responses only ever come from people who are either anonymous or use a sort of pseudonym, that's obviously a pseudonym. And I think that - but these kinds of online communities, like the one that Pete's wife was involved in, these are real communities. I think people who don't participate in them don't understand the kind of depth of emotional connection that can be reached with someone with whom communicate only through your fingers and online.
And there's a tendency, I think, particularly among older people to say that though - that's not a real relationship. But as we saw with what happened with that tragic story, it is a real relationship, and it can be a tremendous comfort. I mean, I've gone to the Internet to seek advice and comfort on so many different issues. I mean, it's just things from you know the sublime to the ridiculous from online support groups about bipolar disorder where I was looking for help evaluating the side effects of a different medication. And I can say quite confidently that my own psychiatrist has learned things from things that I found out on, you know, one website in particular, Crazy Meds.
But to - you know, how to feed my dog raw chicken bones. I mean, there's such a variety. And it's true that there can be an intense negative sort of flame war atmosphere on occasions and there can be this kind of callousness that we saw on this terrible tragedy with Abraham Briggs, but there's also a true opportunity for connection. And I mean, think how remarkable that must have felt to Pete in this moment of complete devastating solitude to have people he probably never even heard of reach out to him in that way.
CONAN: Ayelet Waldman, thank you very much for your time.
Ms. WALDMAN: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Ayelet Waldman's book, Bad Mother, comes out next spring. To read an essay about her online experience and comment on it, you can go to npr.org. She was with us today from the studios of the UC-Berkeley School of Journalism.
And today, we say goodbye to our intrepid intern, Bethany Chafin(ph). She's had a whirlwind tour with us. She traveled with us to Virginia, to the Newseum from time to time. And of course, that well trod path between our offices and right here into Studio 3A. She will be missed and we thank her for her efforts on our behalf. Tomorrow, it's Science Friday, and Ira Flatow will be here. We'll see you again on Monday. Have a good weekend everybody. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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