At precisely 5 a.m. on Aug. 15, 2013, at the far southeast corner of the Overland Police Station parking lot, Kansas City sportswriter Martin Manley called 911 to report a suicide and then committed one by gunshot. Manley was not depressed, not sick, not lonely; he had not recently suffered the loss of a loved one and was in excellent financial health—the primary reasons people commit suicide. He had no reason to take his life other than what he believed to be a very simple yet important one—he wanted to control the time and conditions of his death before he lost the ability to control either. Manley, who turned 60 the day he died, believed that he’d already lived a good and long-enough life and that soon he would begin to lose control over both his physical and mental faculties. Quoting Max Frisch, Manley wrote, “In view of the fact that the number of people living too long has risen catastrophically and still continues to rise…. Question: Must we live as long as modern medicine enables us to?… We control our entry into life, it is time we began to control our exit.” We know what we do about Manley’s motives and much more because for an entire year before he died he painstakingly created a website detailing not only the reasons behind his suicide, including his decision to use a gun, where and how he would later choose to die and much more, but also pages upon pages detailing his life story. Manley says he left this website for those who knew and loved him—he had no spouse at the time of his death and no children—and for anyone else who might be interested. He guessed correctly that others would be. The former sportswriter and blogger had paid Yahoo five years in advance for the website, pondering whether others might choose to carry it on after its expiration. It did not post until the morning of his death but Yahoo removed the site the next day, stating violation of its terms of services.
Not a Statement Encouraging Suicide for Others
Regarding the removal of the site, Manley’s sister told Will Oremus at Slate.com: “I am very saddened that Yahoo would dishonor my brother’s contract that he made with them. I learned from my brother posthumously that he had worked on this website for over a year. Martin had been a very private person in many ways. It was incredibly important to him that all who cared for him be able to see who he really was. I speak for all of his friends and family when I say that we want to be able to have access to this site. A cursory read will tell the reader that Martin was not advocating suicide for others. There is nothing offensive about his site. While it is painful for me, I believe that he handled the topic very appropriately. Since Martin did have a pre-paid contract with Yahoo for the next five years, I am pleading with Yahoo to either republish the site, or allow the family to have the files so that we can find another way to carry out Martin’s wishes.” According to Slate, activists with the hacker group Anonymous have re-created Manley’s website at martinmaley.org. There, readers can learn for themselves why Manley chose to end his life exactly the way he did, and read all about the man himself. Manley believed he was leaving his life’s story, his legacy, for others to read or not read as they chose, and this was as important to him as being able to choose the moment and method of his death. He wanted to be remembered, and knew because his story was potentially the first of its kind (a man leaving an Internet suicide decision step-by-step along with a life story), that he may just get his wish in bigger ways than even he expected.
Mental Illness and the Stigma of Suicide
Reading over Manley’s lengthy website, it appears that he knew exactly what he was doing and why. Regarding the major reason most people end their lives, Manley wrote quite plainly: “I was not depressed. Anyone who says I was, is either ignorant or a liar.” The entirety of his lengthy site is not only coherent and expertly-written (he jokes of how frequently he edits his writing), but at times, humorous and insightful. He appears to have been an interesting man, someone most people might have liked. What come through, and this is by no means an attempt at diagnosis, is a tendency toward perfectionism, a hyper-need to control even minute details and events as much in his daily life (and the details of his painstaking website) as surrounding the events of his death. Perhaps this holds a clue as to what drove him toward his end. Manley was a religious man and believed that suicide was immoral. Even so, he writes that he never wavered once his decision was made. On the day of his death, he taped a cross to the palm of his right hand and prayed. Manley accepted that suicide comes with incredible stigma, that many people would be aghast at what he had done and that those people would consider him either mentally ill or weak; he simply did not agree with them. He accepted, however, the judgment of those who would consider him a sinner. Nevertheless, it was unfortunate in the mind of Martin Manley that people do not have the liberty to choose their own deaths. He hoped this would change.
Contemplating the Impact
Still, it must have been a shock for Manley’s loved ones. He had planned his death so exactly that on the morning of his demise, his sister and others would receive a letter and a box of trinkets in the mail. The letter notified them in his own hand what he had done just hours before and in a letter to his sister, he instructed her to call the police office in his town where they had further instructions to follow. Even with such careful planning, even with the cremation already paid for and the will already written and signed, no surprise death is ever easy. Did it give his loved ones solace that this is what their brother and friend had wanted? Perhaps. And what is the social impact? Where do we draw the line regarding suicide? When it’s violent, such as by gunshot or knife blade? When it’s committed by someone suffering unaccountable pain due to chronic illness? When a person is simply choosing the time and circumstances of his death the way he did not get to choose his birth? And how do we separate those from the abundance of people who die at their own hands too soon because of the confusion and sense of “lost-ness” due to acute or prolonged mental illness? The answers, of course, aren’t easy, but they are worth thinking about.