Late last month, Abraham Biggs Jr., a seemingly confident 19-year-old college student, took an overdose of anti-depressants, lay down on his bed in Pembroke Pines, Fla., and died. But before he did, he turned on his webcam and channeled the feed through Justin.tv, a website for streaming live video, so that others could watch. A reported 181 viewers witnessed the act, some pleading with him to stop, others egging him on.
Abraham was not the first person to broadcast his own death. Kevin Whitrick, a British 42-year-old father of two, hanged himself last year while on webcam. He was watched by about 50 viewers, some of whom also encouraged him to go through with it even as he tightened the noose.
Suicide is an inherently aggressive act. Doing away with one's life on the Internet enables a person to shock even those people who can’t be there to watch in person.
What would compel someone to broadcast their suicide, especially before such cruel and unsympathetic audiences? Some mental health experts believe it’s a way of implicating those viewers in the act.
“Suicide is an inherently aggressive act, targeting not just the victim, but also the people who are left behind,” says Dr. Paul Appelbaum, director of the division of psychiatry, law, and ethics at Columbia University Medical School. “Doing away with one's life on the Internet enables a person to shock even those people who can’t be there to watch in person.”
This theory seems to explain a live-broadcast suicide that took place in 1974, when a Sarasota anchorwoman named Christine Chubbuck killed herself during her morning talk show, Suncoast Digest. According to The Washington Post’s account of her final moments, Christine sat in front of the cameras, reading from a script she had prepared herself: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, we bring you another first: an attempted suicide.” At that point she took out a .38 caliber revolver that she had hidden under the anchor desk, aimed it at the back of her head, and pulled the trigger.
In lieu of a suicide note, Christine wrote a news story describing her own suicide. Her horrified co-workers found it on the desk, drenched in blood. It described the act in full detail, even mentioning that she was taken to Sarasota Memorial Hospital “in critical condition.” Christine’s mother attributed her suicide to depression. She loved her job but felt lonely. She had “no close friends,” said her mother, “no romantic attachments or prospects of any. She was a spinster at 29 and it bothered her.”
A decade later, a similar incident occurred. On the morning of January 22, 1987, Pennsylvania State Treasurer Budd Dwyer appeared before a room full of journalists, whom he had invited for a press conference. Dwyer had been accused of receiving a payoff of $300,000 in a highly publicized corruption scandal, and faced up to 55 years in prison. After speaking for half an hour, he pulled a pistol out of a manila envelope, placed the barrel in his mouth, and fired. His audience screamed, “Budd, don’t do this!” and “Budd, listen to me!” His last words were “Don’t, don’t, don’t, this will hurt someone.” Newsreel of the grisly spectacle can be found online.
Dwyer believed the justice system had failed him and wanted to clear his family name. Toward the end of the press conference, he urged those who believed his innocence, “Press on with the efforts to vindicate me, so that my family and their future families are not tainted by this injustice that has been perpetrated on me.” The opportunity to make this public plea in dramatic and memorable fashion could explain why he chose to end his life in front of TV crews and photographers. According to Dr. Appelbaum, “People who are suicidal frequently have the sense that those around them have failed to recognize their importance and value.” For someone like Dwyer, a public suicide “offers a mechanism to go out in a blaze of glory.”
Still others, like Biggs, might announce their intentions publicly in the hope that someone will stop them. “Even while planning to die, they simultaneously want to live,” says Dr. Appelbaum, “especially if someone else cares enough to save them.” No doubt some of the people who egged Abraham on thought he was joking.
“I think he wanted someone to stop him, save him from himself,” guessed one commenter on an online message board. “If he thought he wasn’t good enough, he wanted someone to tell him that he was.”
Constantino Diaz-Duran is a writer living in Manhattan. He has written for The New York Post, The Washington Blade, El Diario NY, and the Orange County Register.