| Cynthia McCabe |
*Continuation of feature published on Page 38 of the January 31 edition of the Weekend Bulletin
WHEN I woke the next morning, I asked myself the question again, “Who does this?”
But this time I arrived at an answer.
Someone who needs help. I chided myself for going to sleep without having done anything.
If Williams had been standing in front of my house threatening to take his own life, I would have called police. If a family member or friend reached out to strangers, I would want someone to help him.
The threat of suicide, just because it came from a screen, didn’t afford me the privilege of staying removed.
Through Facebook, I privately messaged a woman who shared Williams’s last name and who had interacted with him on a few of his Facebook posts. She had seemed kind in her comments, cheerily responding to updates, including photos of him alone at scenic spots in Japan.
I explained the situation, apologised for the content of my message to her, and closed my laptop.
It had snowed overnight, shutting down Washington. My four-year-old daughter and I headed outside into the gray, snowy morning to play, making snow angels. I looked up from the ground, thinking about Williams. I closed my eyes and hoped for the best.
Days passed before I learned that the best hadn’t happened.
It was Williams’ niece whom I had reached out to on Facebook.
In a message eight days later, she thanked me for letting her know about the e-mail Williams sent. Her uncle, she said, had in fact killed himself by jumping off a building in the hours after e-mailing us.
A few months later I would break this news to Post book editor Ron Charles, as I had broken it to every other recipient of Williams’ e-mail I contacted for this story.
Charles had opened the message in the morning, puttering around his house in his bathrobe and eventually checking his e-mail.
Among the usual inbox clutter, Williams’s e-mail was a chilling attention-getter. Charles recognised in it a type of desperation, albeit an extreme form, that he sees with regularity as one of the gatekeepers for those angling to become the next big thing in publishing.
When we met to discuss the e-mail months later, he confessed that that desperation is one reason he doesn’t even answer his phone anymore.
“There are more people writing than ever who are desperate for attention, and we just don’t have that much attention to give,” Charles said. “No matter how rich or educated we become, we only have the 24 hours for each of us. And with everybody promoting themselves on every possible social network, all of us so desperate for eyeballs, myself included, with all of us living and dying by our click history, it is kind of an extreme and terrible example of everybody’s feeling of ‘Why aren’t you looking at me?’”
It’s an unprecedented oddity that in our current culture just about anyone can get a book published.
In decades past, self-publishing meant scraping together the money to pay a vanity press. Cheap copies arrived in a box and sat unpurchased in the author’s living room for years.
Today, the Web makes self-publishing almost immediate with a few clicks.
There are the exceptional cases when fame follows these clicks, E L James and “Fifty Shades of Grey” being the most notable, selling more than 100 million copies worldwide.
But for most authors, there is simply no response. Williams himself, in a post, recalled feeling slighted years ago after small publisher Branden Books produced one of his books, “The Water Book”, and it received no attention. Work colleagues and friends probably demurred because of the price, he said. At a time when books were selling for about US$10, his was priced at US$29.95. He ultimately sold or gave away 60 copies before leaving his remaining boxes on a bookstore doorstep one night.
“Unrealistic expectations are being flamed by people who make money off of self-published books,” Charles said. “And it’s flamed by us, the media, too, because we write stories about the few rock-star writers who self-publish their books and they become bestsellers.”
Like most others who received Williams’ e-mail, Charles had wondered if it was a twisted joke. “Even as a hoax, it’s such a painful cry for help,” Charles said.
Not knowing that it was already too late, he forwarded it to the woman named in the message.
On the other end of Charles’ e-mail, that woman, Keiko Sato, knew that it was likely anything but a hoax. Sato was Williams’ ex-wife. For decades, she had heard Williams’ talk of suicide intertwined with a desire for acknowledgement of his writing.
“I knew sooner or later he would do it,” Sato said, speaking to me one afternoon by phone from her home outside San Francisco.
A Japanese teacher, Sato met Williams in the 1970s when he was a student in her class and both were in their mid-30s. They married and remained together for several decades before slowly, amicably unwinding from one another until Williams asked for a divorce.
She remembers her ex-husband as a philosopher, a thinker, a writer of not only words but also music.
A popular English teacher whose students loved him. Her relatives in Japan remained friendly even when they could have shut him out for divorcing her. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer about a year before his death, but he had no intention of seeking treatment.
On his blog a little more than eight months before he died, Williams announced that he had cancer and referenced a conversation with a friend 25 years earlier.
In his online book, “Love Letter to Japan”, he says that conversation occurred with a cousin, whom he told: “I said, ‘When I think my work is finished, that will be a good time to die.’ And now, today, I think my work is finished, so it is time to die.”
Although Sato read his novels — one began as soon as the previous was finished, she recalled — she was not always a fan.
There were excruciating, intimate details of their own life in one, written after their divorce.
“It’s kind of a matter of privacy,” Sato said.
She witnessed the decades of frustration when his writing was not acknowledged. She recalls him saying as far back as 1983 that if he wasn’t successful he might take his own life. There was an especially acute period of depression from 1988 to 1992, when the couple lived in Seattle. But in his final messages to her in late 2013, Sato was surprised by a change.
“I don’t think he was depressed in the end,” she said. “He wanted to finish his work. He felt like he had accomplished what he really wanted to do in his life even though his writing wasn’t acknowledged. He finished.”
A friend of Williams’ on Facebook echoed Sato in a comment on his page the day he died. “Yesterday he posted from Japan that this was going to be his last day on earth,” the friend wrote, referring to Williams by his adopted name. “From a lot of people this might have been an emotional outburst, but anyone who knew Katry would realise this was something he had thought of for a long time.”
He eulogised Williams as an excellent and highly respected teacher, a considerate colleague, a man of skill and calmness with an ability to connect to others, and in what would likely have mattered most to Williams, a writer.
Although Sato and Williams remained in contact via e-mail two or three times a year, she hadn’t seen Williams in at least 10 years.
When she received what she believed was a final suicidal e-mail, she called his extended-stay hotel in Japan and asked an employee to check on him. She didn’t mention suicide, saying only that she was worried about Williams. That check indicated Williams was fine, Sato said.
The next day, she received a sudden influx of e-mails from strangers around the world, the reporters who had received what was in fact his final e-mail. That is how I learned about the other reporters Williams had e-mailed.
Included in the batch was an e-mail from the US Consulate indicating that Williams was dead, Sato said.
She confirmed that Williams had jumped from the roof of his hotel.
Sato contacted his brother, Albert, in California. The family didn’t retrieve Williams’ ashes, Sato said, because he had left a note saying he wanted to remain in Japan. (Albert Williams declined to comment for this article.)
His brother mailed her a few of her ex-husband’s belongings that Albert thought she might like to have.
What if any guilt does Sato carry on Williams’s final chapter?
“I couldn’t stop him from dying,” she said. “He is the type of person who is very independent, and when he decides to do something, there’s almost no way that I can stop it.”
In this assertion, from the woman who likely knew Williams better than anyone, I find a measure of comfort. What bound Ron Charles, Dara Horn, Paul Farhi and me was the belief that there was something we might have done. In Sato, we had someone saying it wouldn’t have mattered.
Given the time difference and distance, and his audacious step to e-mail reporters on the other side of the globe who had no hope of meaningfully intervening, it seems plausible that Williams never intended his message to be a cry for help. That he held out no hope that it would touch off some international rescue mission. It is possible that what he really wanted — what mattered more to him than life itself — was to have his writing finally talked about.
Throughout his life as a writer, “he tried almost everything,” Sato had told me. “So maybe this is the last hope. That somebody recognised that person who was a writer was in this world and tried to get what he really wanted to say.”
But Moutier, of the American Foundation for Suicide Preve-ntion, offered less relief.
“The myth is that people tend to think if someone is bent on doing it, there’s just no stopping them,” Moutier said. “But it’s incorrect on a number of fronts. You wouldn’t say that about another health condition that has a deadly consequence. And number two, it totally discounts the evidence that if people can live through the strongest urge (to die), they often times feel very different on the other side of it.”
Our modern tendency to overshare and, ironically, to isolate ourselves with technology came up as Moutier and I discussed Williams’s final outreach to strangers. I grew confessional, admitting that I was reluctant to engage Williams when he e-mailed, for fear of risk or looking foolish.
“As Americans we err too much on the side of not intervening, because we worry about things like intruding, or offending, let alone our own liability,” Moutier said. “Our culture has not helped us by saying that we’re all islands responsible for ourselves. That is a weird phenomenon, I think, because of our electronic environments. The human condition is that we’re social creatures, and reaching out this way was his way of connecting.”
It doesn’t go unnoticed that by writing about Williams’ suicide, I am giving him what he wanted desperately. This story will now become part of his digital narrative. By virtue of its venue, it will probably be read more than any piece he wrote in his 66 years. It will be dissected, “liked” and shared, or trashed.
Regardless, this piece will receive something Williams craved when he hit send on an e-mail to utter strangers the morning before killing himself: response. Acknowledgment.
“All that I’ve written in my life, I’ve written for you,” Williams wrote in the last year of his life in a blog entry called “The End of the Road”.
“If it turns out that it’s like that unwanted gift at Christmas, forgive me for that. I tried to give you what I believed you needed, not what you wanted.”