Last week, I awoke to find Aaron with me. He was sitting next to my bed, grinning his cheekiest grin, holding my hand.
For a few minutes, I savored a sweet uncertainty: Were the last few weeks all a nightmare, and Aaron was still with me? Or was I awaking inside a dream state, and in the real world Aaron was actually dead?
Then Aaron started trying to read a book to me, but he was having trouble deciphering the sentences. He said he was forgetting how to read for lack of practice. It became clear then that he was dream Aaron — real Aaron would never forget how to read. And that meant that everything I remembered about him killing himself must have been true in real life.
So I asked him why. Why did you do it? What was going through your mind when you killed yourself? I would have done anything for you. Anything at all, if you’d just told me what you needed.
"I’m dream Aaron," he replied, after a long pause. "It’s not my job to tell you why. You see, as dream Aaron, I can’t tell you anything you don’t already know."
As sadness enveloped me, I forced myself awake from the dream nightmare, only to confront the real-life nightmare. I will never have all the answers I crave. But I do have answers that no one else has. And that is why I’m writing this blog post.
I believe that Aaron’s death was not caused by depression.
I say this with the understanding that many other people would not have made the same choice that Aaron made, even under the same pressures he faced.
I say this not in any way to understate the pain he was in — nor, for that matter, the pain that clinically depressed people are in.
I say this despite the fact that early on in our relationship, I had read and discussed with him his infamous blog post about suicide written years before — so I was not unaware that he had struggled with mental health in the past.
I say this because over the last 20 months of his life, Aaron spent more time with me than with anyone else in the world. For much of the last 8 months of his life, we lived together, commuted together, and worked in the same office — and I was never worried he was depressed until the last 24 hours of his life.
I say this because, since his suicide, as I’ve tried to grapple with what happened, I’ve been learning. I’ve researched clinical depression and associated disorders. I’ve read their symptoms, and at least until the last 24 hours of his life, Aaron didn’t fit them.
And that makes it hard to read, in so many articles, that “Aaron struggled with depression” — as though the prosecution was just one factor among many, as though, perhaps, he might have committed suicide on January 11 without it.
Depression is characterized by low energy and inactivity, withdrawal and isolation, feelings of low self-worth, trouble concentrating and remembering detail, and an inability to take pleasure in everyday life. Not all depressed people feel all of these things all the time, but those are the recipe. And, indeed, Aaron’s blog post about his own depression years before had alluded to many of these things.
But let me tell you about the Aaron I knew—the Aaron Swartz of 2011, 2012, and the first few days of 2013.
The Aaron I knew was active. He worked out most days until he got the flu two weeks before he died. Just a few weeks before that, when I was out of town for the weekend, he had surprised me by taking himself on a day-long hike outside of New York. He came back glowing that evening, describing how he had scrambled up a steep rocky “shortcut” with some other hikers watching (and in the process lost his Kindle down a crevice).
The Aaron I knew was sociable and excited to spend time with his favorite people, right up to the very end. He had plans and ambitions — huge ones. On January 9, two days before he died, he spent hours deep in conversation with our Australian friend Sam about the new organization Aaron was in the early stages of building. Sam asked him whether he had support, and Aaron replied that everyone who was competent enough to support him was, in fact, supporting him — classic Aaron pessimistic arrogance, but also a reminder that he knew his friends were standing with him. Sam gave Aaron a quick overview of Australian politics; Aaron expressed astonishment at how easy it would be to “take over Australia”, but concluded that a country of only 20 million probably wouldn’t be worth it.
Self-esteem, needless to say, was definitely not Aaron’s problem.
The Aaron I knew had no trouble concentrating or remembering detail. Up through the week before he died, he was devouring all the scientific literature he could find on drug addiction and effective interventions. Not, to be clear, because he had any drug issues himself (he almost never even drank alcohol), but for a consulting project he was working on for Givewell, his favorite charity. He related to me with deep intellectual excitement his conversations with the top experts in the field, the interventions that had shown the most promise at combating alcoholism, his developing theories about what types of policy changes might be most politically feasible. We debated the cultural constructs that allow our society to treat almost indistinguishable chemicals as differently as we treat heroin and morphine.
The Aaron I knew had profound capacity for pleasure in everyday life. He did, of course, have problems with eating — within the range of normal symptoms associated with his ulcerative colitis. But when he found truly great food — or for that matter, truly great anything — he reveled in it. He had a finely honed aesthetic sense. He could get deeper, truer joy out of a perfect corn muffin, a brilliantly constructed narrative arc from Robert Caro’s LBJ biography, a beautiful font, than anyone I’ve ever met.
And maybe most impressively, he sustained all of these qualities for almost two years, in the face of an ongoing ordeal that threatened to ruin his life.
Aaron was human: He wasn’t happy every moment, and I’d be the first to say he could be a real pain to live with sometimes. Aaron could be moody and introverted. Aaron was often in substantial physical pain from his stomach. Aaron was hard on himself (and equally hard on others). And Aaron obviously, at the end, was suicidal.
But I say it again: Aaron’s death was not caused by depression. This is an important point, because many people are arguing that it was, and that the appropriate response to his death is better treatment for depression, better detection of suicidal tendencies. This country absolutely needs these things — Aaron would have been the first to agree — but we need them because they’re the right thing to do, not because of what happened to Aaron.
I don’t know exactly why Aaron killed himself. I don’t know exactly what was going through his mind. If I had known those things on January 11, if I had even known the right questions to ask, maybe I could have stopped him. Since January 11, I think about it every hour of every day.
But as dream Aaron reminded me, I can only know what I already know. And with the knowledge I have — from watching, listening, asking, next to him on the bed, over meals, talking on the subway, from our adjacent desks at the office where we worked on separate projects — from our lives together, I believe that Aaron’s death was not caused by depression.
I believe Aaron’s death was caused by exhaustion, by fear, and by uncertainty. I believe that Aaron’s death was caused by a persecution and a prosecution that had already wound on for 2 years (what happened to our right to a speedy trial?) and had already drained all of his financial resources. I believe that Aaron’s death was caused by a criminal justice system that prioritizes power over mercy, vengeance over justice; a system that punishes innocent people for trying to prove their innocence instead of accepting plea deals that mark them as criminals in perpetuity; a system where incentives and power structures align for prosecutors to destroy the life of an innovator like Aaron in the pursuit of their own ambitions.
Ask yourself this: If on January 10, Steve Heymann and Carmen Ortiz at the Massachusetts US Attorney’s office had called Aaron’s lawyer and said they’d realized their mistake and that they were dropping all charges — or even for that matter that they were ready to offer a reasonable plea deal that wouldn’t have marked Aaron as a felon for the rest of his life — would Aaron have killed himself on January 11?
The answer is unquestionably no.
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