TW: This column discusses suicide, ableist harassment, and stigma against mental illness, suicide and particularly personality disorders like BPD.
Fandom’s got its issues; we all know this. It’s about as obvious a statement as “Star Wars has robots” or “The Reagan administration was bigoted”. But there’s an unwillingness in fandom to challenge some of its more deeply held understandings; while discussions in fandom about content go on every day, fandom social dynamics are only recently starting to be unpacked on a broader scale.
Some of this is about just the times we live in; some of it’s also personal perspective. If there was unpacking and social discussion happening in the nineties, I didn’t see it and I don’t know much about it! (And I’d be curious to hear about it, but regardless.) But one thing that I really want to revisit as a taken-for-granted idea in fandom circles is the idea of pseudicide. Pseudicide or pseuicide, chronicled on Fanlore, is very simply the act of faking your own death online. Usually this is through a suicide attempt/note; sometimes it’s through a long and painful death, or a sudden car accident. The name itself is a pun on ‘pseudo’, but it’s also a reference to how it can be used to “retire a persona which has come under unwanted attention and/or wank”.
First of all, this reflects an absolutely garbage understanding of mental health. It’s not that people don’t fake their own deaths. It happens, and you’re not going to see me going to bat for Thanfiction any time soon. But as somebody who has both experienced extreme mental health crises and does major activism around major mental illness, it makes me a little sick to my stomach that this is… the extent of the article on pseudicide. Because I’m sure everybody who’s been in fandom for a while has seen someone accused of this. You fake your own suicide for attention, or to get people off your back, or to make the problems Go Away, and you’re home free! Right?
It literally never works like that.
Please consider it from this angle; the ‘unwanted attention/wank’ as chronicled in the Fanlore article is being called by a lovely, neutral name, but usually, this means harassment. It might be the more direct harassment we’re used to talking about – death threats, spamming mentions, reblogs, anon hate, etc. Or it might be the more subtle kind. Social exclusion. Mysterious dropping from exchanges. No one claiming work on events when they used to, or nobody talking to you on fandom servers. This is a type of harassment and bullying that wreaks havoc on particularly people with existing neurodivergence or mental illness, because you can’t be sure that you’re actually noticing anything. Mistakes happen, right? And sometimes people miss things on Discords. It’s just like that. You just can’t be sure. You never know what people are saying behind your back. And there’s also a presumption that often takes place that people know when they’ve stirred up massive amounts of fandom wank; certainly it’s very common that there’s huge amounts of discussion about a fic or an event or an individual that never reaches them until it’s too late.
So immediately, the framing of pseudicide not just on Fanlore but in fandom communities has a major weak point where it’s seen as an escape button from something of the person’s own devising, rather than a response to harassment or bullying. The moment it’s reframed as the second, suddenly it seems… just as likely that somebody actually attempts suicide. Take a recent incident, for example; a 15 year old targeted for harassment over an NSFW gore/horror RPF fic attempted (and possibly succeeded; there’s been no word since) suicide in response. In this case, nobody accused the kid in question of pseudicide. But what’s the difference? (And while she wasn’t accused of pseudicide, certainly others were accused of using her death for fandom drama, so there isn’t too much faith to be had in humans there.)
Secondly, possibly the most dangerous assumption in this is the idea that when somebody attempts suicide, people immediately stop whatever they’re doing to comfort them. That it’s an immediate off-switch for whatever harassment or Valid Criticism they may be receiving, and they’ll immediately look like the victim. This is such an ingrained idea, in fact, that people will double down and dig in their heels exclusively to “counteract” this supposed idea. This has absolutely no bearing in reality. While I hear about this theoretically happening, I actually don’t think I’ve ever once been witness to a situation where somebody’s suicide, attempted suicide, or even professed suicidal thoughts bent the situation to their favour at all.
“But Elliott,” I can already hear the response- “people only accuse others of pseudicide if there’s a lot of proof.” So, here’s the other problem. Not only is this not true anyway, people have no idea what suicidality looks like. I’ve been blatantly and repeatedly accused of pseudicide, despite being exceedingly honest about my own mental health and suicidality. The main factor largely appears to be that I attempted more than once in a short span of time… because to people who aren’t chronically suicidal, this is a Sign Of A Liar. The second factor is that I was suddenly “normal” and “fine” again in between these attempts. Except… these are both bang-on, by-the-book, stereotypical symptoms of BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder). It’s literally what got me diagnosed. The fact that people on the Internet want to decide whether or not somebody else is faking suicide based on their flimsy and lacking understanding of mental health is abysmal as-is, but when the “signs of faking” are based on one of the disorders that is actually at highest risk for death by suicide, it’s all the worse.
It’s even more notable when there’s very little taken into account for what would actually prompt somebody to fake their own death. Because people do do this. Victoria Bitter/Thanfiction did so in order to avoid legal action and – notably – faked her death to her own parents. This wasn’t a suicide note left on Tumblr; this was a planned-out and executed event both on and offline. It’s also a common issue when abusive partners threaten suicide attempts to keep their victims close, out of fear that their abuser will go through with a suicide and it’ll be “their fault”. But in these cases, there’s a very clear aim at play. Simply escaping an inescapable situation is… well, uh, a common prompt for suicide, period. That’s what motivates a massive number of suicidal people to begin with, so if your reason for suggesting that somebody “faked” a suicide is that they felt trapped, you probably don’t know the first thing about suicide. It’s also a good sign that somebody didn’t fake it if they come back, try to clean up the mess and go about their day; if they’re embarrassed, trying to hide it, or otherwise trying to ignore it, then it wasn’t for attention, because they’re not looking for attention. Mental breakdowns are humiliating. They shouldn’t be; but frequently, they are, and the last thing we want to do is answer everybody’s concerns when we’re stinging both from the fact that we felt horrible enough to try, and the mixed relief and upset that we didn’t succeed. (Being suicidal sucks, is the point.)
Finally, if somebody does fake their own death, and you find them elsewhere on the internet, and you’re fairly sure it’s them…
Ask yourself first if they’re doing anything bad. Because mental illness can also mean we fake something to get away from what’s upsetting us, or to get out of a bad situation without actually trying to kill ourselves, and then go try to reinvent ourselves. If somebody’s up to the same shit or doing something actually wrong, then sure. Call it out. But sometimes, I see the impulse to call people out on just… existing. The worst thing that somebody’s done wrong in those cases is worry a lot of people and upset them, and that’s bad, of course – but it’s not anything that can get fixed by yelling at them months or years after the fact. If you weren’t close to them, leave it alone.
Pseudicide is a word that – ironically – I wish would die. It describes a concept, sure – but people have gotten awfully comfortable describing any instance of suicide or suicidality that doesn’t describe their narrow view of “suitable” mental illness as it, and it’s made life difficult for far too many mentally ill people. It shouldn’t be more dangerous for people to express that they’re suicidal than to keep it to themselves; and if fandom’s so accepting and open for marginalized people (it’s not) then why do we have a word for people who “fake their own suicide” but not ay acknowledgement of people who abuse and harass the mentally ill because they can get away with it?
The least I can ask is that the next time you’re in a situation or a social group where people are starting to raise the idea of a faked suicide, consider being the voice that suggests otherwise. That we don’t know what’s happening in somebody’s life – and that even if you or your group don’t have it in you to be actively compassionate, it costs you nothing to step back, stay out of it, and not make it worse.