| Cynthia McCabe |
WASHINGTON (WP-BLOOM) — On December 10, 2013, an American expat in Japan e-mailed a handful of writers, many of them Washington Post reporters, a suicide note.
Under the subject line “Saving a Legacy”, the 66-year-old English teacher and unknown writer named Dennis Williams composed a chilling piece of fan mail.
“This is my last day on this earth. I’m contacting you because of a Washington Post article of yours that left an impression on me. … I am taking my life not out of despair but simply because I’ve said everything I wanted to say and consider my work finished. Since no one at present (nor in the past half-century) is interested, I have no platform upon which to stand and talk about my work. In this regard, I believe I have an immense amount to give, not only from my mind but from my heart, and there are just no takers.”
It was late morning in Minato-ku, Japan, when Williams e-mailed. His message landed in the inboxes of writers in Japan, China, Los Angeles, the DC area and New Jersey simultaneously. Given the 14-hour time difference to the East Coast, most who received it there would open it the next morning. Up late reading e-mail on my laptop in bed, I opened it just before midnight.
“Oh, my goodness,” I said, sitting up sharply. The sudden motion stirred my husband. When I explained what I was reading, he didn’t even roll over, instead making a noise somewhere between sleepy disinterest and annoyance. It was a joke, he said, ignore it. My husband is a crime reporter, and we were both registering two of the possible reactions to such an e-mail: Horror and scepticism.
I started scanning the e-mail for signs it was a hoax. But it wasn’t the stuff of an immature kid or a ranting, incapacitated man. There were no references to aliens or government mind control. It was well-written. It was at turns heartbreaking and maddening in its self-absorption.
The author said his name was Katry Rain, but he explained that was a pseudonym. He was born Dennis Williams. At the time he pressed send, he was living 6,700 miles away in Minato-ku, his final stop on a winding path that had carried him from his birth on July 5, 1947, in Detroit through California, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
Tracking Williams’s digital trail online revealed that the man known as Denny or “Den” to his cousins in Detroit eventually adopted the pseudonym because it conveyed his love of nature. Steeped in Christianity until his teens, he later settled into a custom-built spirituality that borrowed from Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism and Sufism. Physically, Williams describes himself in one post on his blog as having “no natural athletic gifts, never threw a ball til I was nine years old, and was graced with what some called a ‘swimmer’s body’ all my life — six feet tall and around 170 pounds”.
After studying at UCLA and earning a PhD from the University of Oregon, he taught English in Japan, a country he came to embrace so thoroughly he wrote a book, “Love Letter to Japan”, then planned to die there. That this book and at least six others he produced are self-published digitally, largely unread, sits at the heart of this story and his desire to die.
Williams spent years writing the books, while also maintaining a blog and a Facebook page. I learned all of this from my laptop, searching, increasingly frantically, for clues to what kind of person e-mails a stranger a suicide note.
Option 1 – Do nothing
It might just be a cry for attention from someone with a warped, perverse sense of humor. Calling the police wasn’t an option because he was in Japan, I was in Maryland, and I don’t speak Japanese. E-mailing might open me and my family up to a potentially unstable situation, although in retrospect I’m not sure why I thought this.
Williams referenced an article written about himself in The Washington Post in the 1970s. As with everything else in the e-mail, I wanted it to be a lie. It wasn’t. A quick archive search and a US$3.95 fee later, and there it was on-screen.
The black-and-white picture that accompanied the feature, written by Style section reporter Michael Kernan on May 24, 1972, focused on the same Williams smiling out now, older, from his blog. He was in his early 20s, the smile broader, hands confidently resting on his hips, standing at the White House gates. He had come to deliver a message to President Richard Nixon, with a book he had penned.
This caught the attention of Kernan, although with the reporter’s passing in 2005, it’s unclear how. Kernan describes Williams as tanned and lean — a young man who climbed Mount Whitney, hitchhiked over two continents and crossed the Sahara in an Algerian sheep truck.
Here was the archetypal young idealist. A 24-year-old Hollywood high school teacher who spent 106 days marching from the Santa Monica pier to the White House. Williams’ words to Kernan were earnest and endearing, even as he bemoans that more press didn’t show up for his arrival.
“I don’t think (Nixon) understands why there is all this unrest in the country,” Williams told the reporter. “I think the philosophy behind American government and institutions today is wrong and I wanted to explain why we need to change.”
“This is something I have to express,” Williams elaborated. “It may be no one takes an interest, but I have faith in people.”
Four decades later, the earnestness had given way to resignation. Williams concluded his e-mail with this line: “I’m not asking anything of you, but just hoping that by reaching out like this, the ideas will somehow survive. I believe in ideas, and that they really can change human destiny.”
Something of the faith of four decades earlier had survived at least.
As I sat there in bed following this digital trail, I grew angry. The selfishness of someone to dump this psychic mess into the lap of a complete stranger was too much. And for what? Because his writing, his ideas, hadn’t gotten the attention he felt they deserved.
That writing wasn’t particularly noteworthy. Winding tomes about philosophy and nature and his view of the world that were articulate but uninteresting. He aimed for thought-provoking but clunkily landed just short of eyeroll-inducing.
“Who does this?” I asked myself. I snapped my laptop shut. I went to sleep.
Within about 10 hours, a handful of writers faced with the same dilemma were tackling it differently.
In Tokyo, a Post reporter e-mailed a woman Williams had referenced in his message. The reporter also notified the US Embassy and police there.
In China, a Post bureau reporter followed suit, forwarding Williams’ “worrying e-mail” to the woman while apologising for bothering her. “I’m not sure why he contacted me,” the reporter wrote, echoing what was becoming something of a theme as the reluctant fraternity of reporters tried to figure out how to respond to the e-mail.
At his home in the Washington area, Post reporter Paul Farhi had a television on in the background while checking e-mail that morning. He opened Williams’s message. The topic was not foreign to Farhi, who has lost loved ones to suicide. Of all the responses — cringing, apologetic, disbelieving, timid — Farhi’s was the most direct. The veteran reporter had no fear of engaging Williams. He imagined no risk resulting from anything but failing to act, so he immediately e-mailed him.
“I don’t know you or your life and work but I strongly urge you to reconsider your desire to end your life,” Farhi wrote. “You may be finished with this world but it is not finished with you. You may not be in pain but you will surely leave pain in your wake. I say this as one whose life has been deeply affected by those who chose to depart prematurely.”
Call a friend, a relative, a clergyman, a medical professional or “just another caring soul” immediately, Farhi implored before signing off by wishing him peace and “the strength to keep trying”.
What struck Farhi was the calm rationality of Williams’ tone. Williams wrote as if he had “weighed benefits and risks,” Farhi said. He was self-possessed, yet clearly in despair. “The other part of my reaction is obvious: ‘What are you telling me this for? Who am I to you?’”
Farhi never heard back, and it would be months before he would learn what had ever happened to Williams.
In New Jersey, novelist Dara Horn opened the e-mail and was irritated. “It felt like an emotional mugging,” she said.
It occurred to me that “emotional mugging” most closely captured my own mix of anger and anxiety when I’d received Williams’ e-mail.
“I felt that this was very unfair,” Horn said. “ ‘Read this book or I’ll kill myself.’ That may not be what he intended, but that’s how it felt. … Suddenly I’m responsible for whether this person dies.”
Williams’ cry for attention reminded Horn of a book reading she once did with best-selling novelist Michael Chabon. Someone asked Chabon, author of “Wonder Boys” (about a writer struggling to finish his unwieldy novel), what he’d want written on his tombstone.
“I remember thinking that was such a stupid question,” Horn said. “Not because it’s morbid. The assumption behind it. As a writer, it’s what you’re writing that is your legacy to the world.”
But Horn, who is in her 30s, acknowledged that she has been fortunate to have readers interested in her legacy. At 66, Williams did not.
Among recipients of Williams’s e-mail, Horn and I are something of the outliers, not being Post reporters.
But in his e-mail to me, Williams referenced an opinion piece I wrote for The Post in 2013 about the nation’s response to the massacre at the Navy Yard.
When I ask Horn for her theory on how he found his way to her inbox, it wasn’t immediately clear to her. Then she recalled writing a piece for The Post that ran the same day as mine, about our society’s cultural impulse to catalogue every moment of our lives online. She had pondered to what end this all comes, under the headline “When we save every memory, we forget which ones are special.”
Horn wondered if we’re not far off from the Egyptian pharaohs who packed heavily for the afterlife to prove their worth. “What is it about data-dumping that we find so compelling and necessary?” Horn wrote. “Perhaps it is a fear of mortality.”
On March 29, 2013, Williams penned a blog post titled “Thoughts on My Legacy as a Writer” that offers evidence of his own data-dumping, and a glimpse of his tendency to whipsaw between self-awareness and narcissism. He said he loathed self-promotion, then extolled turning to social media to become his own publicist. He professed not to be arrogant, then wrote: “How do I see my work in the overall scheme of things? I suppose this has two sides: what I’ve left behind, and what effect it’ll have on others.”
When she received Williams’ e-mail, Horn decided to contact the US Embassy in Japan after debating whether to “try to talk him down.” Calling the embassy made her feel small and petty, she said.
But it was a simple step that hadn’t even occurred to me.
In fact, it wasn’t until reporting this story that I finally called.
On background, a US Consulate official told me Americans die abroad with regularity.
Suicides happen. There is a process in the aftermath. Order is applied in the hours and days following the moment of disorder and personal chaos. He wasn’t allowed to confirm that Williams had died or that a suicide had occurred.
(To be continued)
Option 2 – Do something