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Seyward Darby
Editor in Chief, The Atavist Magazine

How Should We Talk About Suicide Online?

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After her son, Junior, killed himself in April 2020, Kelli Wilson discovered that he’d been active on a “pro-choice” website — the choice in question being to kill oneself. In her deep dive into the intersection of suicide and the internet, Vice writer Shayla Love describes how Wilson is now advocating for legislation that would “increase the liability website servers have for the content on the sites they host.” Love doesn’t name the website Junior frequented “due to the concerns of experts who believe that naming it explicitly could lead to self-harm by distressed people.” She refers to it instead as “Suicide Solution.” It wasn’t an easy choice to make, Love explains, because there’s nothing easy when it comes to suicide — including assigning blame:

I wrestled with how to write about a site like Suicide Solution. Even publishing an article at this length, that includes details of what makes the site dangerous, is a controversial choice. Suicide survivors and researchers alike cautioned against publishing the site’s real name. At least one expert I spoke to was hesitant to be interviewed at all because of the fear that they would contribute to driving more people to the site. And, in fact, it might. In one thread I read on Suicide Solution about how people found the website, several users referenced a past VICE article from 2015. Our choice to not to use Suicide Solution’s real name is a reflection of the uncertainty that plagues this arena— about how the internet confers risk, how the ease of finding the site contributes to that risk, and the variability in how people will use the forum.

Still, [April] Foreman [ a psychologist on the executive board of the American Association of Suicidology], said that it makes sense to think that if we just control all the information online about suicide, then people won’t die by suicide anymore. But Suicide Solution’s many incarnations throughout the decades are enough proof that a community like this one may never fully disappear. Trying too hard to stifle it could only drive it back to the Dark Web, out of sight.

“Suicide was a leading cause of death for youth before the internet and before social media, before bulletin boards,” Foreman said. “It has gone up some, but it was a leading cause of death before all of those things because something else is going on. At the end of the day, you could get rid of that website. And I don’t think that you would see an appreciable change at all in in suicide deaths.”

Instead, she thinks the more critical question to ask is: What need is Suicide Solution meeting—even dangerously so—and how do we create systems and supports around the person so that they don’t have to turn only to the internet to feel supported?

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The Secret Group Trying to Topple North Korea’s Regime

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When writer Suki Kim heard on the news that there had been a break-in at North Korea’s embassy in Madrid, led by a young man named Adrian Hong, she “sat upright.” She had known Adrian for several years. They had crossed paths at a Korean Students Conference in 2003, after which Kim went on to write the book Without You, There Is No Us, about her time as an English teacher in Pyongyang, and Adrian became an activist who spread awareness about human rights abuses in the Hermit Kingdom. Now he was being hunted by two governments. When Kim texted Adrian, he agreed to meet with her at a barbecue restaurant in Times Square. He told her that, yes, he’d led the break-in, but for good cause: He was now a leader of Free Joseon, a secretive international network of activists seeking regime change in Pyongyang:

“Regimes like this don’t collapse slowly. It happens instantly. Every revolution is that way, and this will be the same,” Adrian told me. “I don’t mean a revolution in a figurative sense. I don’t mean the revolution of the mind. Or some kind of fantasy where five hundred thousand people protest in Pyongyang and the regime just packs their bags and leaves and some transitional government comes in place. This is not like any other country, where offering them enough money will mean they will liberalize—any opening or reform will result in their insecurity. The only way to make them change is to force them to change.”

Adrian had no formal protection for his actions, not even from the U.S. government: If he was apprehended in New York for what happened in Madrid, he could be extradited and face up to 28 years in prison. In her New Yorker feature “Follow the Leader,” Kim recounts how Adrian went from working at NGOs to risking his life in the name of freedom alongside likeminded activists. One of them is Chris Ahn, who Kim called on to help with a high-profile defection. Ahn was traveling at the time:

“Holy shit, it’s perfect,” Adrian said, when Chris told him that he was in Manila. “You know what’s happened with Kim Jong Nam, right?” Chris did. The day before Adrian’s call, the eldest son of Kim Jong Il had been assassinated at the Kuala Lumpur airport, by two women who smeared a nerve agent on his face. The killing was assumed to have been ordered by Kim Jong Un, his half brother, in the interest of eliminating a potential rival. Adrian told Chris that he had just received a call from Kim Han Sol, who is believed to be Kim Jong Nam’s eldest son. According to Adrian, they were introduced in Paris, around 2013, by a mutual contact. Han Sol, who was wearing a pair of Gucci shoes, told Adrian that he was aware of his work with North Korea. The two men kept in touch. Adrian told me, “Never met a kid with so much money. Kim Jong Nam had stashed away a lot of cash during his life.” Immediately after his father’s death, Han Sol noticed that the Macau police who typically guarded his house had disappeared. He called the mutual contact to tell Adrian that he, along with his mother and his sister, needed to get out of Macau as soon as possible. It was easy to see why Han Sol would be of interest to various countries and their intelligence services. Considered by some to be the rightful heir of the former Great Leader, Han Sol represented valuable leverage to whoever captured him, dead or alive—Adrian called this a “zero-sum game.”

Adrian, who was in the U.S., asked Chris, “Can you go meet them at the airport in Taiwan tonight, and make sure that no one is following them?” Chris threw some clothes in his backpack and headed to the airport. It was after midnight when he arrived in Taipei. He had Han Sol’s flight number, and he found a small noodle stand by the gate, where Han Sol and his family could sit while he scanned the crowd for threats.

The family arrived early that morning, wearing sanitary masks to cover their faces, which wasn’t unusual in Asia even then. Han Sol was about five feet ten inches tall, wearing a long-sleeved shirt and a coat, and rolling a suitcase. His mother was a pretty middle-aged woman, who reminded Chris of his own mother. Han Sol’s sister, who was wearing jeans, looked to be in her late teens. Adrian had told the family that Chris would be wearing a black T-shirt and a Dodgers cap and would answer to the name Steve. Han Sol spotted Chris and said, “Steve?” Chris nodded and said, “Let’s go.”

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There She Goes: How to ‘Feminize’ a Face

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When most people think of the medicine of gender reassignment, hormone therapy and genital surgery likely come to mind. In a thoughtfully written feature in The Guardian, journalist Jenny Kleeman describes a new frontier: facial feminization surgery, or FFS. Kleeman introduces readers to trans women who, unsatisfied with — or traumatized by — the way they are perceived physically, visit surgeons who shave jawlines, plump cheeks, lift brow lines, and perform other procedures that can make faces read as more feminine. “I’m not trying to make myself beautiful,” says Sophia Drake, the main subject of the story. “I see testosterone as a poison in my body, a poison that I had to deal with for 20 years. I want to put my face to the way it would have been if testosterone had never been [there].” Her surgeon, Dr. Keith Altman, operated on Drake in October 2019:

There was no more easy chatter between the doctors when Altman returned to the theater to operate on Drake’s brow and forehead. This was the most difficult part of the surgery. It would remove the parts of Drake’s face she thought were most male, the features she hated so much. Altman brushed sterile aqueous iodine over her face and hair, rendering her first rusty red and then yellow. He made an incision into her hairline with a swift, steady hand.

He drew back her skin in either direction from her hairline until it gathered in folds on one side at the tip of her nose, and draped back across her crown on the other. With a tiny steel mallet and a chisel, Altman set to work carefully chipping away her brow bone, before filing it with a tiny drill bit. Then he stopped, and everyone in theatre craned in to see the difference.

When he was satisfied with the result, Altman changed his gloves and turned his attention to her forehead. The MRI on the lightbox showed Drake had a large sinus cavity with a thin wall; the challenge was to saw the bone down without perforating the sinus, and the best way to do this was to remove part of her forehead entirely. Altman drew a 5cm by 3cm rectangle on to her skull with marker pen. He sliced into it with another fine tool, then prized out the section of bone. He held it in his hand as he filed it back, turning a flat plane into a gentle curve. When he put it back in place, he pulled the skin over it, tilting his head to the side to check his work. Finally, the piece of forehead was fixed back in the skull with two 4mm titanium plates, which his trainee, Maini, secured using a tiny screwdriver. Drake’s skin was smoothed back for a last time. “Good,” Altman nodded.

As Kleeman details, FFS raises challenging questions about privilege and beauty standards. The surgery is expensive and not covered by the National Health Service in most of the United Kingdom. According to Juno Roche, author of Trans Power, FFS contributes “a kind of two-tier system where, on the whole, the most successful trans people are beautiful people that pass. People who are proud to be trans, and those people who can’t afford the surgery, fall into a separate category. That’s most people. And we have to create safety for everyone.” Then again, Roche adds, “Trans people deserve an easy life. This is a tough gig.”

For Drake, the results of FFS were life-changing. Kleeman interviewed her two months into post-surgery:

The change was almost imperceptible to me, at first. But I could soon detect a new poise: her face seemed narrower, and strangely her shoulders did, too. Her dimples were more prominent, her eyes looked brighter and more expressive. There was a faint, pale pink sliver of a scar along her hairline, mostly covered by the dark roots of her fringe.

“It was just enough, without being too much,” she told me. “The hairline frames my face better. I find that my eyes aren’t sunken, they’re further out. I feel that I’ve got a lot more expression in my eyebrows now. Other people spot this”—she cupped her hands around her jaw—”more than I do. But when I go back and look at old pictures, I see a massive difference.”

The biggest change was in Drake’s demeanor. She no longer sat with her arms across her chest or played with her jewelry. She was open, at ease, comfortable.

“It’s made me so much happier. Calmer. I can sit and relax in ways I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to,” she said. “I don’t walk around any more worrying that people are looking at me.”

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