To start with: I didn’t know Dooce, I never exchanged a digital word with her, and I’m confident that she didn’t know I exist. By no stretch of the imagination am I in a position to talk about her life or death as a human person, as Heather. On the other hand, I knew her (one-sidedly) richly, intimately, as Dooce, a literary figure, someone who wrote herself into existence on the web (to appropriate David Weinberger’s lapidary insight). I began reading her blog very early on (I don’t remember whether I started before she was fired, or afterward and then read backward) and continued up to this year, through some pretty bitter periods, through her recovery and [apparent] relapse, right up to her last posts. I don’t let go of people easily once I’ve begun taking them seriously as human beings, and a lot of what turned readers away in her post-megastar interval seemed to be part of her persona all along, albeit played in a dissonant key. I sympathised with her even when I didn’t like her, and then she won me over again, and then…
So when a link to her memorial event popped up in her Instagram feed yesterday, I felt an obligation to watch. (I have a strong conviction that the cultures I inhabit pay too little respect to the dead; I suppose they’re no longer economically productive, no longer consumers.) My heart ached for everyone, real people and not just literary characters now: Ranger, September, GEORGE!, her mum and dad, and especially Leta and Marlo and Jon and Pete. I wept over and over. It’s a measure of Heather’s brilliance as a writer that so many of her readers felt themselves to know her. Its aftereffect, the sense that we could help her, or (now) her family, seems a dangerous but almost inescapable illusion.
I have some theological, and pastoral (and some informally clinical) thoughts, but the world doesn’t need to hear those. More important, I think, to remember how many people at the event said that she saved their lives, and to consider that there must be more who couldn’t attend (or address the gathering) who would say the same. And if I have anything relevant to say about depression and suicide, let it simply be that both are very real, very powerful, and that we can’t just out-think or out-manoeuvre or out-love them, and that’s not our failure but an inbuilt dimension of what being human entails. Some people survive depression, some keep suicidal thoughts at bay, but that’s not testimony to their virtuous strength but to other contingencies. God bless them by all means, and sure, celebrate their resilience I guess, but don’t you dare question the strength or generosity of spirit or moral fibre of people who don’t escape those powers. (The higher the stakes, the greater the attraction of fundamental attribution error.) More people than we can know are dealing with more malign forces than we can know, and those forces are more powerful than most of us can tell — in part because people who see the full power of these malignities very often succumb to them.
Don’t blame people. Don’t beat yourself up for not being strong enough or wise enough to do what no one could have done in the first place. Be kind, not just ‘nice’, and choose compassion. Ask for help. Trust your friends. And God bless us, every one.