Brian Knappenberger's documentary about Aaron Swartz, "The Internet's Own Boy" will be released in select cities this summer. You can see the trailer here. Follow @InternetsOwnBoy for updates and screenings.
The following is an essay by my wife. She has been struggling with completing this since his death, and finally finished after we saw the documentary at the Boston Independent Film Festival. His story is important not only to the tech and activist communities, but to everyone who cares about justice and the future of society. His death broke our hearts.
You would think a year on I would stop crying about it. You would think a year and five months would be long enough to get over the death of someone whose name and face you didn't even recognize in the first headlines. I glanced over at my husband's screen and saw a photo of a kid in his mid-20s with shaggy black hair and an awkward close-lipped smile next to a headline declaring the internet had lost someone important, and my first thought was only "crap, now I have to carry him through another friend's death."
I didn't remember Aaron's face because my brain is wired for depression, and even when I'm beating it I have serious memory problems that aren't bad enough to prevent my living day-to-day, but make networking and "he said she said" arguments a nightmare. We met once. It was a bar in downtown Boston and we didn't realize they were going to be setting up for some damn trivia night thing so we had to rush through our meeting. There were maybe 20 of us, Aaron was just one of the new people. Our ideas were too small for him. We wanted to do flyering and marches and public outreach, do our little pieces to change the world that we knew we were capable of. He didn't show up again.
I didn't know about his case, not even in the most general outlines. We were too worried about Barrett and Weev - cases that were sure to set abysmal precedents if the prosecution went through. We were worried about the PayPal 14 and Julian Assange and Private Manning. Aaron never reached out to us. From what I've heard, he barely let his closest friends and family help, and even then only to a point.
I didn't know how much he had done to build the internet that I knew and loved. How many of us really know the men and women behind the tools we use every day? It seems terrible and ungrateful not to even know the name of the man who released html into the world, not to know the founders of the sites we use, the non-profits we support.
Maybe this guilt is what keeps me here: all the things I should have known but didn't until he was already gone. I should have known his name. I should have known his face.
That morning I was still in that strange space between the death of someone close to you and the time that grieving begins in earnest. My mother passed away early in November. I spent the night of the election alone in the hospital with her, trying to manage her pain medication schedule so that she wasn't suffering, but would be awake enough when my brother managed to show up the next day. I brushed and braided her hair and read to her, but she didn't seem to recognize me. The cancer took her that Friday, less than a week from when she'd finally been carried to the hospital over her objections. She was 49.
My brother and I both do publicity of a sort, and together with his wife we took over the post-death rituals that my father and sister were in no condition to handle. We wrote her obituary and built a program for her memorial service - clumsily attempting to weave the random events of her life and stupid, preventable death into something coherent, some myth of our mother. She was a normal person. I mean, she was strange, don't get me wrong. She had strong opinions and bizarre hobbies and wonderful friends. She accumulated obscure skillsets from basket weaving to scrunchie making, blackwork needlepoint to knitting. She collected such a ridiculous quantity of craft supplies that we were still struggling to find homes for it all a full year and one dumpster later. But try as we might we could find no overriding narrative of her life. She was a person who lived in the world and was shaped by it, someone who did her best with what she had. She was kind in small but meaningful ways, concerned with the world but perpetually acting on local scales. She was so absorbed in raising the three of us that her activist leanings were abandoned, even as she disagreed with the problems we all see. She never really ended up wherever it was she wanted to be, except to be a mother and wife.
So this is how I went into Aaron's death. With a history of depression and a suicide attempt in my past, and having just worked with wildly uninspiring mythmaking material in the wake of my mother's stupid fucking death. I started looking at the pieces of Aaron's life to design flyers for protests and online calls to action, and everywhere the story was at once satisfying and infuriating. He was a genius who got crushed by the world, violently and transparently. He was a huge character, forcing himself onto the world stage as a literal child and taking his dramatic exit barely an adult. He changed everything. He was my people, and they nailed him to the fucking wall.
When I was 18 I had been struggling with undiagnosed depression for at least two years. There was nothing particularly wrong with my life, but brain chemistry is a bitch sometimes and it will eat you alive if you don't do something about it. Like most people who attempt or succeed at killing themselves, things looked up just before the event. I had new friends that I really liked, started drawing again, I still had a job and was taking a web design course. Sometimes that little uptick is what it takes to get you past "I hate this and there's no way out" and into "I hate this and I know exactly how to get out." I sat there with a bottle of pain killers and deliberately chose not to deal with this shit anymore. I didn't intend to be saved. I don't know how it felt for Aaron to fall so far, can't pretend that I know what the pressures of his prolonged battle with the courts must have been like. But the bottom of that pit is the same for all of us. You can't hear about someone else being there without wishing with every inch of yourself that you could help them get out. You can't hear about someone succeeding in killing themselves without it tearing your heart out. It's something you carry forever.
The idea of sainting Aaron came from all sides almost immediately. I jumped on board, reaching out to my friends who were connected to the Church of Kopimism and researching the histories of Catholic saints for precedent on suicides being allowed through. I made pictures. It was easier then, because I was still coming to know his story, and the horror of my mother's final days was still glossed over by the blessed early stage of numbness. I made posters and flyers, read the open access manifesto and then plastered it around town. He kept looking back at me through the photos I was editing, unafraid of making eye contact with the camera lens. And how could I not fall in love with him? Not really him, but the idea, the shadow, this pale remnant of a shining star still glowing for eons after death. I spelunked through his old blog posts and read his ex-girlfriend's gut wrenching essays and I caught glimpses at the beautiful, complicated person that he was. I saw how much like my husband he was, and in the grieving of the women who loved him I saw my own worst fears.
Of course my husband has gotten death threats. Of course his sites have been attacked from all angles and he's been taken in for questioning repeatedly in the years we've been together. Of course I have to live in fear that an overzealous prosecutor will decide that he's a trouble maker and manufacture some shit to keep him in court for years. That's the world we live in now, the world we allowed them to build around us when we were too scared of terrorism to think straight. This is the world of indefinite detention and mass surveillance, free speech zones and three felonies a day. This is the world where they throw dozens of charges at suspects to scare a plea bargain out of them. We care about internet issues and live online, and they can't even make laws that make sense in the space we inhabit. We live precariously. When he holds me, I hear a heartbeat I know has stopped before.
We had been together five years - the entire length of Quinn Norton's romantic relationship with Aaron - when he died. Like that doomed couple, he carried me through my divorce. We moved in together too soon and he embraced my kids with his whole heart. He has terrible eating habits. Seeing her grieve was like looking through a funhouse mirror, a possible future I fear every day. Not just that I would lose him, but that somehow something I did would be used to destroy him.
Quinn mourned her loss, and the fact that the person she loved now belonged to the mythmakers. Here I am, one of those jerks from the internet, Aaron sitting in my lap and waiting for me to use his story to stir others to action. But now it's too hard. The numbness and ignorance have faded and it's all too vivid. I see his face and start crying, see Carmen Ortiz and can't hear or read the words she says because all I can think is what a fucking cunt. I start writing and break down. All I want is to be able to give him back to the people who loved him. Not this sad shadow that I know, and not the version of him that we will carry forward as martyr and saint. I want to give back their friend, their brother, their son. But we can't. He took that away from us.
Watching Brian Knappenberger's documentary, I learned Aaron had been fighting these charges for two years. Maybe I had read it elsewhere, but this was the first time it hit the right chords and the connections fell into place. My mother was suffering from cancer of the practically everything by the time she died, and in our attempts to piece together the story we've come to the conclusion that she must have had it for at least two years. Despite the fact that she'd lost a friend to breast cancer and had stupid goddamn pink ribbon jewelry in her dresser, she never got a mammogram. For two years the cancer festered and spread from breast to bone to liver. For two years my brain was stewing in its own rotten juices, and I did not seek out therapy. For two years Aaron suffered under the heavy-handed tactics of Carmen Ortiz and Stephen Heymann, and he did not let people help. The stories echo but do not repeat. These aren't real patterns, they're faces in clouds.
These patterns are self-imposed torture. Too many sources of grief piled on too thick and too close together.
I am torturing myself because I squandered a chance to know this person. Because I was too small. Because none of us could save him and now we are all the poorer for it. And that self-indulgence is no fitting memorial for such a person. I can't keep crying. Not for him, not for the scared girl with the bottle, not for the woman who wouldn't see her doctor. I cannot allow myself to be consumed from the inside like they did. I cannot even cry for the fear that the next headline could be my friend, could be my husband. There is too much to be done, and being afraid of everything will eat me alive.
If you are suffering from depression or contemplating suicide, please call 800-273-8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org and reach out to your friends and family. If you are an activist suffering burn out, please take care of yourself and seek counselling if necessary. If you are a woman over 40, please visit your doctor on a regular schedule. All of this shit is preventable.