If someone you didn’t know said he was going to kill himself, how would you react?
Published 10:30 am Friday, January 16, 2015
WASHINGTON – On Dec. 10, 2013, an American expat in Japan emailed 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 emailed. His message landed in the inboxes of writers in Japan, China, Los Angeles, the D.C. 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 email on my laptop in bed, I opened it just before midnight.
“Oh, my God,” 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 email: horror and skepticism.
I started scanning the email 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 emails a stranger a suicide note.
A conversation weeks later with Christine Moutier, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, would confirm that this was far out of the norm. People thinking about committing suicide do not typically reach out to strangers in writing to announce their intention. This was the work of someone quirky, narcissistic and grandiose.
But the night the email arrived, my questions were urgent: Was he serious? And what was I supposed to do about it? Unbeknownst to me, these same questions were being pondered by other writers staring at other laptops in disbelief.
My search brought me to Williams’ lonely online outposts, where I appeared to be the only one who had come to visit. Lengthy pieces about the human heart, literature, American culture juxtaposed with Japanese culture, technology’s role in modern lives – all went uncommented on.
When he reposted these pieces on Facebook, a handful of likes occasionally followed. He was Willy Loman with WiFi, demanding that attention must be paid. Nobody really did.
And this, he said, is what brought him to his email and to his imminent suicide.
“In all my years of writing, it’s been my lot that only one book of mine was published, one play produced, and maybe half a dozen or more opinion pieces published in newspapers,” Williams wrote. “My major work – three philosophical books and five novels that build on that – have gone unrecognized, and yet because I think they’re of particular importance to us in our pivotal time in human history, I’m writing about them here so that with your kindness and my good fortune they might survive a bit, possibly be passed on, and be found valuable and useful to some generation in the future.”
He was finished trying.
For the first time in my adult life that night, I didn’t have even a hint of a clue of what to do in a volatile situation. No gut instinct. No path that I knew would be tough or risky but the right one.
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. Emailing 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 email, I wanted it to be a lie. It wasn’t. A quick archive search and a $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 email 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 emailed a woman Williams had referenced in his message. The reporter also notified the U.S. Embassy and police there.
In China, a Post bureau reporter followed suit, forwarding Williams’ “worrying email” to the woman while apologizing 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 email.
At his home in the Washington area, Post reporter Paul Farhi had a television on in the background while checking email 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 emailed 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 the hell 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 email 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’ email.
“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 email, Horn and I are something of the outliers, not being Post reporters. But in his email 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’ email, Horn decided to contact the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
Option 2: Do something.
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, apologized for the content of my message to her, and closed my laptop.
It had snowed overnight, shutting down Washington. My 4-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 email Williams sent. Her uncle, she said, had in fact killed himself by jumping off a building in the hours after emailing 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’ email I contacted for this story.
Charles had opened the message in the morning, puttering around his house in his bathrobe and eventually checking his email. Among the usual inbox clutter, Williams’s email was a chilling attention-getter. Charles recognized 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 email 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 $10, his was priced at $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’ email, 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’ email, 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 eulogized 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 email 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 email, 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 emails from strangers around the world, the reporters who had received what was in fact his final email. That is how I learned about the other reporters Williams had emailed.
Included in the batch was an email from the U.S. 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 email 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 recognized 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 Prevention, 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 No. 2, 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 emailed, 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 email 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.”