Kansas Sportswriter's "Suicide Website" Is a Troubling Template for 21st-Century Suicide Notes

Future Tense
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Aug. 16 2013 7:16 PM

Kansas Sportswriter's "Suicide Website" Is a Troubling Template for 21st-Century Suicide Notes

Martin Manley photo
Martin Manley set up a website explaining every detail of his decision to kill himself. Then he killed himself.

Image via martinmanleylifeanddeath.com

Suicide is, generally speaking, a tragic and hideously hurtful act. Martin Manley, a 60-year-old former sports writer and statistician for the Kansas City Star, seems to have been at least vaguely aware of that. But he did it anyway—and left behind a meticulously detailed website explaining virtually every aspect of his decision.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

The case is noteworthy not so much because Manley was a semi-public figure—though he was credited with popularizing the NBA’s standard efficiency rating—but because he used technology to intentionally blow open the wall of privacy that typically surrounds suicides. More than 100 people die by suicide on an average day in the United States, and a significant portion of them leave notes for their stricken friends and relatives. Some are vengeful, some apologetic, some maddeningly cryptic. Regardless, most are read only by a small circle of authorities and loved ones. For Manley, confronting friends and family with his death wasn’t enough. He wanted to confront the public at large. He wanted desperately to justify his own life and death—to the world, but perhaps above all to himself.

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So, according to his website, Manley prepaid Yahoo for five years’ worth of Web hosting, built a sprawling suicide website, and put up one final post on his sports blog Thursday morning linking to it. Then, according to the Kansas City Star, he killed himself in front of an Overland Park police station. It was his 60th birthday.

On the website, which quickly began to circulate widely via social media, Manley wrote that he intended to create “the most detailed example of a suicide letter in history.” He explained:

After you die, you can be remembered by a few-line obituary for one day in a newspaper when you're too old to matter to anyone anyway... OR you can be remembered for years by a site such as this. That was my choice and I chose the obvious.

Next he began to explain the reasons for his suicide, seeking—at least initially—to portray it as the highly rational decision of a man who lived his life “content up to the last minute” and simply wanted to leave the world in his own way. “The major reasons adults commit suicide—health, legal, financial, loss of loved ones, loneliness or depression… none of those issues are relevant to me and, for the most part of my life, have never been,” he wrote. His No. 1 reason for killing himself: He was terrified to face old age.

In dozens of separate essays on the site, Manley went on to reflect on everything from religion to gun control to his romantic history to his affinity for fedoras.  Some of his thoughts are profound, others mundane. I haven’t read them all. It would take hours. But I read enough to see that he was lonelier and less secure in his decision than he wanted to let on. His parents were dead, he had no children, and he didn’t want to “die alone.” A bizarre passage in which he posted what looked like GPS coordinates to a stash of gold and silver coins—setting off a macabre and ultimately fruitless treasure hunt on Thursday—reinforces the impression of a man starving for importance. Many of the pictures on his website appear to be selfies.

I won’t pass judgment on Manley’s decision to kill himself, except to say that no one should romanticize it. An evidently thoughtful and intelligent man is dead, those who knew him are almost certainly stricken with grief, and the fact that he published a website rationalizing it isn’t going to change either of those things. But I will say that his elaborate self-memorial raises a disturbing specter in the social-media age: the transformation of the suicide note from a private document into a public sensation. Without Twitter, Facebook, and a Web full of page-view-driven blogs, Manley’s writings might well have remained obscure.

Manley’s desire to say all that he wanted to say to the world before he died is understandable. But it seems clear that his ability to do so—the chance to go out with a splash and to make himself known far and wide—eased his decision to end his own life. The risk is that it will do the same for others, including many people who are not as sound of mind as Manley claimed to be. Manley notwithstanding, suicide is rarely a rational act. In a 2003 New Yorker article about people who commit suicide by jumping off of the Golden Gate Bridge, writer Tad Friend interviewed several people who had survived the leap and found a heartbreaking commonality: Jumpers tend to regret their decision in midair.

One of Manley’s goals in publishing a suicide website was to assure everyone that he didn’t regret his decision. Whether that changed at the moment he pulled the trigger, we’ll never know. But it’s safe to assume that at least one of his final wishes will go unfulfilled: “What I hope will happen in the long run is that my life is remembered and the suicide is just an asterisk, a footnote,” Manley wrote. Sadly, the reverse is far more likely.

UPDATE, Saturday, Aug. 17, 11:55 a.m.: On Friday night, Yahoo took down Martin Manley's website. A spokesperson told me: "After careful review, our team determined that this site violated our Terms of Service and we took it down."

Manley's site lives on, for the time being, on various mirror websites not hosted by Yahoo.

UPDATE, Sunday, Aug. 18, 12:29 p.m.: Manley's sister is calling for Yahoo to restore the website.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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