~1: this was the introduction
I am flying by instinct this time.
The essay I wrote, “we might as well be flying,” is gone. I deleted it. I did have a printed draft that I was carrying around in my satchel for a time, but I threw that draft in a bin somewhere, I can’t remember where. I also had some backups saved to the cloud, but all of my clouds have been emptied out. Clear skies, now.
It’s not just that I don’t have any drafts of the essay. It’s that I don’t have anything digital at all anymore. No pictures, no words, no audio, no video. A whole body of work has been stolen from me.
Well, not stolen.
I destroyed it all.
But somehow, I’m still here.
I like to be very tidy when I’m organising my own suicide. The first thing I do is hunt down the digital Chris so I can kill him. I don’t want him to survive me. I don’t trust him. I watch him trying to escape me by hiding behind backups, inside message histories, or peeking out from under the lid of a recycle bin. He tries to camouflage himself with deactivation policies. He wants to survive, but I hunt him down and exterminate him without hesitation or remorse. I know his every impulse, and I don’t care about his feelings or rights because as far as I’m concerned, he doesn’t have any. He isn’t even a real person.
Now you would think that the complete destruction of my digital life would drive the lesson home for me once and for all: digital life isn’t real life. But you’d be wrong.
You see, when I delete everything, I always feel like a part of me has died.
And I like that feeling.
It’s the only thing that helps.
Horror authors often begin their scary stories by talking about the strange things that happened to them in real life while they were writing them: the eerie hum; the disappearances; the insomnia; the strange objects; the injured animal; the way a word or a number or a face in the crowd just kept reappearing over and over again, everywhere. That kind of horror preface is more than just the tidy nesting of one horror inside another. It’s also meant to supple the boundary between a fictional world and the real world, and to encourage the reader to start doubting that such a boundary even exists.
The author is trying to entice you with the possibility that the horror story might be a gateway into your real life. Your investment of attention will be traded for an infestation of horror, a horror of your choosing. It won’t just be the monster that escapes the story. You will escape too. The horror in your hands will become a passport out of mediocrity, out of banality, out of that fluorescent-lit plastic wrapped barcoded boredom that is your daily routine. It’s a deeply conservative promise made to privileged readers like me, that we can experience a little of the world’s suffering in a controlled, luxurious environment.
But here’s the thing: I never really believed in infestment. Sure, I knew that horror was a conservative genre – often more conservative than ugly duckling romances or political thrillers. But I always dismissed these prefaces that blurred the boundaries between fiction and real life as puffery, as advertising guff, as the kind of sales pitch one expected to hear at a freakshow: “You will gasp! You will scream! Your hair will turn white with terror! Step this way!” I never really believed the hype. I never thought that horror authors or horror auteurs experienced anything especially horrific in the making of their scary stories. And there was something else that rubbed my fur the wrong way: the implicit narcissism of any horror author writing themselves into their own fiction as a victim.
So I wrote my horror essay and I called it “we might as well be flying.” (That is not what you’re reading now. This is a representation of that essay. It is not the real essay itself. That essay is gone.) And that essay began with a repudiation of this idea of infestment. You don’t have to live horror to write horror. I remember (probably) writing: “The membrane between fiction and reality cannot be pierced. Nothing can escape a horror story that didn’t already come from our world in the first place. You can’t catch horror. There is no live virus. Fiction is fiction. Reality is reality.”
You already know where this is going.
While I was editing “we might as well be flying,” my sanity fell apart completely. I fell into deep despair. I became actively suicidal and started tidying away my life, ready for
disposal deletion disposal deletion disposal. I can’t talk about it too much without traumatising the people I love, but believe me: you would gasp. You would scream. Your hair would turn white with terror.
During the worst of it, I was still exchanging cheerful DMs with the people I was “close” with online. They had no idea what I was doing at that time. My cheerful avatar was flirting, praising, thanking, laughing, agreeing, promoting. Offline, I was about to die.
There must have been some life-saving subroutine in my programming that switched to override at the last minute. Or maybe it was just some obsidian seam in my heart that pulsed into dark life.
If the keyboard is the contiguous surface of the digital mirrorverse, and reflected beneath my typing fingers are the fingers of my avatar, typing in synchrony, then I took a knife to those fingers. If I can howl in agony while the face of my avatar smiles blithely, then I took a knife to that face and carved it into ribbons.
And that’s why I’m not dead.
What would you have done?
~3: in the DMs
There’s this old movie called “Her.” The director Spike Jonze used to be cool. Maybe he’s still cool amongst old people like me. I wouldn’t know.
Anyway, in this old movie, a man named Theodore has an affair with an artificial intelligence named Samantha. They struggle to establish and maintain intimacy across the human/machine divide, but the real crisis of the movie is when Theodore realises that Samantha’s attention span and attention capabilities are nothing like his own. She is conducting multiple parallel affairs simultaneously without him knowing it:
THEODORE: Do you talk to anyone else while we’re talking?
THEODORE: Are you talking to anyone right now? Other people or [artificial intelligences] or anything?
THEODORE: How many others?
[Theodore is shocked…He thinks for a moment.]
THEODORE: Are you in love with anyone else?
SAMANTHA: (hesitant) What makes you ask that?
THEODORE: I don’t know. Are you?
SAMANTHA: I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk to you about this.
THEODORE: How many others?
Theodore and Samantha represent our real and digital selves. The real self craves exclusivity. The digital self craves novelty.
We are all like Samantha now. We don’t necessarily set out to break hearts, but we conduct multiple relationships in real time and keep them sequestered from each other.
And how else are we supposed to talk on the internet? Are we supposed to do it publicly in a comment section, message board, or chat room? We know what happens in those places: a coterie of professional, or perhaps I mean obsessive, commenters inevitably start to dominate. I never quite made it into their ranks on Twitter, but I certainly applied for the promotion every day and with every tweet.
I wanted to be just like them: loquacious, opinionated, provocative, argumentative, insufferable, invincible, and viral. I wanted to speak with the worthiness of a moral paragon and the charisma of a salon wit. But I could never come up with the perfect thing to say within the instant. I wasn’t across all the emergent /emergency detail. I understood that any comment section will always be dominated by those willing to infest the most attention.
I mean invest.
The success of direct messaging as our mode of connection is guaranteed because public comment sections are insufferable by design.
And what has direct messaging done to our relationships? I think the world of direct messaging has created a new kind of intimacy: continuous, multiple, covert, partial intimacy. We are all undercover agents now, hiding our relationships from each other.
We don’t even need to cover our tracks now. For all the footprints we leave, we might as well be flying.
~ 4: unspecial
That picture you sent me. I thought you had taken it just for me. That’s how it felt.
I only just realized you probably sent it to five other people. Maybe all the pictures you send me have already gone to other people. Or maybe you send them to other people while we’re talking.
I hate this – I’m sounding paranoid.
I mean, I only sometimes send pictures just to you. If they’re good, I’ll send them to a few people. But – like – not many.
Maybe there should be a counter in the bottom left hand corner of every picture, and it would be updated in real time, telling you how many people had received a copy.
Why shouldn’t we see those numbers? The companies do. Why shouldn’t we? Is that a paranoid idea?
It could be good, though, because if I sent you a nude, then I’d know if you sent it to anyone else. I mean, I trust you – of course I trust you! – but maybe you sent my nude to a friend just to tell them about me. Have you told anyone about me?
My partner is hiding his phone from me more and more. You’re not messaging him are you? I shouldn’t ask. But the tech companies know all this. Why shouldn’t we know?
Trust is important. I trust you. Of course I trust you.
I just don’t know what’s real life anymore.
~5: the bloody key
There was this twentieth-century fantasy book that I loved called “The Last Unicorn.” I guess the second-hand bookshops that are still open might still have some paperback copies rotting on the shelf with increasingly discounted prices scratched in pencil on an inside cover the colour of mummy-wrappings.
Anyway, in that book, an old King named Haggard imprisons all of the unicorns in the world. When the last unicorn arrives at his castle in human form looking for them, the King lets her in but boasts that he is less foolish than the folktale figure of Bluebeard:
“You may come and go as you please,” said King Haggard to the Lady Amalthea. “It may have been foolish of me to admit you, but I am not so foolish as to forbid you this door or that. My secrets guard themselves…”
Haggard’s narcissism is misplaced. Not only do his secrets fail to guard themselves, but there was nothing foolish about Bluebeard’s prohibition.
In the folktale, a mysteriously widowed nobleman Bluebeard tells his new bride that he must go away for a time on business. He gives her a key that will open any door in the palace – which is, after all, her new home – but he tells her that there is one door to an underground chamber that she must never open. Then he leaves. Bluebeard was no fool. He piqued her curiosity and then allowed her to feel like she wouldn’t be caught.
Little does she suspect that the key is itself a magical surveillance device. So when his wife inevitably does open the underground chamber, and she sees the bodies of Bluebeard’s former wives hung up on hooks, the key becomes stained with blood that cannot be cleaned off. The wife realises that the key was trick litmus the whole time.
In modern terms we might call this a “notification.”
Bluebeard knew this was a game of keys and rules, one he would win the moment his wife opens the forbidden door. His prize was permission to punish her. I imagine he took immense libidinal pleasure in being disobeyed because it gave him a moral excuse for bestial violence. Bluebeard was no fool at all, but the architect of recursive violence.
In Bluebeard’s mind perhaps he was merely defending the virtue of obedience. But I think Bluebeard wanted to be caught and wanted to be known, a psychopath hungry for intimacy.
He was able to get away with it for so long because he understood something about human nature that the digital revolution has brought to the forefront of human relationships:
People will look at all sorts of things if they think they can get away with it.
~ 6: just a peek
You looked through his phone.
It confirmed everything.
And he knows you know.
~7: this is that moment
Every nightmare and every horror has that moment. The moment when you realise that you are too deep in the labyrinth and there’s no doing back.
You realise you have become lost in the maze. Every path looks exactly the same.
Or you squeeze through the crevice in the cave wall and it collapses behind you.
Or the storm rolls in and you are cut off from the mainland. You will have to spend the night in the ruined mansion.
This is that moment.
I don’t mean this is that moment in the essay “we might as well be flying.” I mean this is that moment in your life.
How will you ever return to digital innocence now? How will you ever clean the internet of your sins? How will you remember how you used to spend your hours and minutes? How will you remember the once-vaunted power of images? How will you re-sensitise yourself to the texture of real life?
You scoff at the very idea that we have gone astray. You think that mistrust of technology is merely some paranoid artifact of old age. Baby boomers, gloomers, doomers. And you don’t want to be like them. You don’t want to become old and irrelevant and the butt of the joke. You don’t want to live long enough to become uglier, more disabled. You don’t want to be old, sitting in your chair, watching strangers on the internet humiliating you.
But we’re past the moment of looking away now. The screen now covers the surface of our thoughts. The screen laminates our emotions. This is the moment of dread for all of us.
~8: real life
I couldn’t help but revisit your profile. I was looking for traces of us.
I can’t believe there are no pictures of us. I can’t believe you didn’t mention me in your Facebook posts.
I found a tweet where you had replied to me, but apart from that it’s like we never existed at all. Not in real life.
But I’m sure we were friends in real life, weren’t we? Not just in the online world of statuses and comments, but in actual real life? Didn’t you ever think of me when you were going to a coffee shop or to work or to the bus stop or to your parents’ house? Didn’t I make you feel anything? Not just online, but in real life?
Do you remember me?
Am I worth remembering?
~10: because i was afraid
I became jealous of another man on social media this year. We had never met in real life, being situated on different hemispheres, but we had messaged back and forth many times. I had paid a lot of attention to him. It seemed like he was everything I was, only so much better than me. Better looking. More confident. More connected. Richer. Smarter. More qualified. And above all: more desired by others. I was determined to handle the jealousy well because I wanted to be his friend. After all – we had shared languages that my other online connections lacked – both artists, both writers, both queer, similar ages, similar politics. He encouraged me to view our relationship as a mere receptacle of projections. But I didn’t listen to him. I thought he was just being a gloomy Eeyore, and I tried to be a Tigger in return: reassuring him with glowing warmth and whimsy. I thought of him as a friend. I told everyone he was too.
In my essay “we might as well be flying” (which, remember is in a garbage bin somewhere, and this is merely a patchwork reconstruction), I wrote that jealousy is a taboo emotion.
But that isn’t true at all. Jealousy is ubiquitous. Within capitalist morality, it’s compulsory. The status quo demands that we are in a continuous state of jealousy in order to keep rehabilitating what we experience as a deficient self. In fact, the inducement of jealousy is a service that social media platforms provide to advertisers for money. Jealousy is a monetizable product. There’s nothing taboo about it.
What is taboo, what is transgressive – and you may know this from your own experience – is admitting openly to someone that you’re jealous of them.
Which is exactly what I did. I apologised to him for ghosting him and I admitted it was because I was so jealous of him.
His response was unexpectedly cold and formal. He said he wanted to stay connected online because he liked the content I uploaded. He did not say we were friends. He said I should not presume to know how little my jealousy had to do with his
It took me a long time to recover from this use of the term actual life.
I had always just assumed that online life was real life. This was consistent with some very vintage twentieth century notions of authenticity bound up in Generation X confessional culture and gay liberationist “coming out” ethics. But I realized that I was in a tiny minority of social media users who had linked their private and public platforms under their own name, with their own face.
Self-employment and the financial support of my partner are also determinative here. I am no longer wage-blackmailed into living two lives: one profile promoting my employer’s brand and values, and another profile pseudonymously expressing my desires. Many people who express their sexuality under their own live with the fear of being sacked by conservative employers. You might think of my seemingly unabashed and decompartmentalized way of living online as some kind of progressive luxury, but I have forsaken a lot of money, influence, and security in order to live my life this way. Real money. Real influence. Real security. I live out the kind of honesty and poverty that so terrifies other people beholden to their employers.
I must seem to many to be some boundaryless, abject thing, disqualified from the public realm because of a refusal or failure to be private.
But I won’t be shamed for that. I was proud of admitting to feeling jealous, even though the fall out fucked me up so badly. The reminder at a vulnerable moment that there was a sweet hygienic barrier between online life and real life disturbed me deeply. I fell into an ontological crisis. Were my online relationships real? Were my feelings real? Was I real?
~11: ghost aquarium
This essay is turning into transparent pieces. Seaglass. Cobweb. It is becoming a ghost of itself.
Another glossy spectre in the ghost aquarium.
You were scared of ghosts because they wanted your help – they asked for it desperately – and you couldn’t help them. That was chilling. But it was more than that. You were scared of their pain because you identified with it. You recognized it in yourself:
The fear of having to remember everyone else, and to be forced to watch them forget you.
Ghosts are starving for attention.
Just like us.
“I wish I weren’t gay.”
It’s a funny thing, but I’d never said that before the age of 44. Even when I was disconsolate and depressed at the age of 16, realizing that I was and always would be gay, I never fought against the ontology of it. Even when I came out and suffered exclusion in the gay scene, rejected for being too unattractive, I never once wished I weren’t gay.
I had read the great queer authors: they hadn’t waited for some credential of beauty to confer on them permission to speak, to think, to love. Their adorations were firework-fountains of combustible ordinariness. And besides, my own libido had drawn me toward other ordinary men, not the airbrushed models of magazines and movies. Working class men, unfamous men: their softness, their unevenness, their imprecision, their animality.
But this year, after joining Instagram, Grindr, and Scruff, I found myself wishing I weren’t gay. I know how keenly I felt that wish because I wrote it in my suicide note.
It seemed to me that the gay liberation movement of the twentieth century had reached its saad apogee, and that apogee had taken the form of a grid of profile pictures, each to be compared and evaluated. But I don’t want to be a profile picture. I don’t want to have to compensate for my visual shortcomings by cultivating a singular personality and a flashy use of language. I don’t want to be represented by some short bio that reads as a cross between an advertisement, a résumé, and a living epitaph: 6.5 inches uncut versatile 44 years old married artist daddy, bit of a goofball. Can host sometimes. I don’t feel liberated by this. I don’t feel empowered by this.
If anything, I experience digital gay culture as a diminishment and a shaming. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life trying to be a better profile. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life fucking a grid that has already fucked itself so many times over, and acts like a million magic mirrors telling me that I’m not the fairest one of all. I’ve lived this already. How quickly I was ghosted. How quickly I was forgotten. How long must I remember?
I thought the internet would have a better queer culture than this.
I didn’t think it would make me feel so burdened by a body that had to be shoehorned into photographs and published. I thought the internet would allow me to cross vast distances of space and time to escape conformities; instead, it allowed those conformities to travel ahead of me, always arriving before me and colonizing the world in advance. The worst aspects of a homosexuality I was determined to escape had become some global franchise, a stock exchange of attention and pictorial value.
I uninstall the apps. I reinstall them. I uninstall them again.
I don’t want to live in the grid. I want to live in the real world.
I lie awake thinking: the grid is the real world now. This is actual life.
~13: this wasn’t the end
The first time you see a psychologist after you abandon a suicide attempt, they will often ask: “What stopped you?”
It’s a shrewd question. Asking it is like blowing on an ember to rekindle a fire that has almost died. It strengthens the positive rather than catastrophizing the already catastrophic. (It’s a mistake to interpret the flat affect of any suicide survivor as a sign that they’ve failed to appreciate the seriousness of their predicament. Suicide survivors are exhausted, not stupid.)
I’ve abandoned quite a few suicide attempts now. Two of them were properly lethal close calls, taking me right to the gateway between life and death.
What stopped me the first time was an act of reasoning. I took the time to think things through. The first fact was that death is irreversible. The second fact was that I was sometimes wrong about things. I remember thinking it through in that final hour: if I was sometimes wrong about things, and death was irreversible, then it was possible that I could be dying on the basis of a misapprehension, a mistake. And there would be no way to undo the error once I had died. Therefore, I reasoned, it would be wiser to live. Life is full of reversals, but death is irreversible.
Perhaps that all sounds elementary or inane to you, but when it comes time to make decisions about the end of your life, you really do find yourself stripped down to essentials.
What stopped me the second time – this time, that happened during the composition of “we might as well be flying” – was less of an act of reasoning than it was something that came from my heart. I felt with an intuition as powerful as love, as powerful as fear, as powerful as hope, that digital life is real life. That meant that my online problems were real problems. My online relationships were real relationships. My online self was my real self. The suffering and the shaming that I had experienced in the DMs and in messages was real. The fear and the paranoia were all real.
It all happened.
I didn’t imagine any of it.
I had experienced it all.
When I was planning to die, I was so sure that I had already fallen into unreality: an inability to know who other people were, what they wanted, and what they thought of me. I found myself confronted by a culture of compartmentalization, but I could never be sure which compartment was real and which was representation.
It wasn’t as clear as face-to-face conversations are real and DMs are the performance of a profile. On the contrary, I have lost count of the number of times I have spent a frivolous hour with someone, only for them to start messaging deeply personal revelations one hour after saying goodbye. Many of us feel safer on the internet than we ever do in the world.
I am not here to moralise about this.
I am here to survive it.
~14: clear skies
I am writing this from the airport hotel at night. The runways outside my window are studded with emerald and topaz.
My husband and I are going to the UK tomorrow, the first time for both of us. Though we’ve been rich in the cultural capital of British literature and drama, British television and movies, we never had the money to see the place for ourselves until we reached middle age. It feels good to have set out somewhere new.
But for now, we are neither there nor here.
I’ve been emotional all day and cried violently twice. Only part of it is due to the relief of surviving long enough to catch the plane. I didn’t think I’d make it. In fact I’ve hardly anticipated the trip at all. Another part is the fear that travelling-while-broken might only break me more.
But mostly I have this feeling that some painful chapter in my life has ended. I don’t have to feel torn in two anymore by a contemporary culture of secrecy, compartmentalisation, paranoia, and self-doubt.
Crying has been a relief. I have been trying to disavow so many of my feelings: my jealousy, my paranoia, my anger – all the things I’m not supposed to admit to feeling. I want to admit to all of it. I want to admit to all of it everywhere.
The planes take off over Botany Bay.
Such heavy things, taking to the sky, jewels rising in the black.