GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT, from PRX and NPR, "The Weight Of The World" episode. Today, we're peering into the lives of people who are carrying an unexpected burden. And sometimes the heaviest weight is one we choose for ourselves.
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CYNTHIA MCCABE: I'm in bed, and it's a little bit before midnight. And, as I always do, I've got my laptop with me. It's either my laptop or my cellphone. I sort of refuse to give up the ship digitally each day.
JULIA DEWITT, BYLINE: Cynthia McCabe is a writer in Washington, D.C. She was at home on a weeknight. The house was dark, and her family was asleep.
MCCABE: I decided to make one more pass through my email and see what was in there, if there was anything I needed to pay attention to before I went to bed. And one email popped out at me because the subject line was Saving a Legacy.
So I started reading email, and I physically sat upright in bed. I mean, I always thought it was a cliche to say someone sat bolt upright. I sat bolt upright in bed. And I said, oh, my God.
My husband was next to me. He was just starting to fall asleep, and he sort of stirred and said, what's going on? And so I told him I just got an email from a guy and he said he's going to kill himself. He said it's probably a hoax. It's probably crap. Just ignore it. And I couldn't.
DEWITT: The man who wrote her was named Dennis Williams, but he went by a pseudonym - Katry Rain.
MCCABE: It begins, (reading) dear Cynthia, I'm an American ex-pat writer, and this is my last day on this Earth. In all my years of writing, it's been my lot that only one book of mine was published, one play produced and maybe a half-dozen or more opinion pieces published in newspapers. My major work - three philosophical books and five novels that build on that - have gone unrecognized. And yet because I think they're of particular importance to us and our pivotal time in human history, I'm writing about them here so that with your kindness and my good fortune, they might survive a bit, be passed on and be found valuable and useful to some generation in the future.
DEWITT: He said he was in Japan on the other side of the world from Washington, D.C., where Cynthia sat reading his email. He goes on to give links to his work on his blog and Facebook - eight books and several articles. His writing is a mix of fiction and nonfiction, a lot of it about really broad topics, like life, love and the American dream. The email went on.
MCCABE: (Reading) I am taking my life not out of despair, but simply because I've said everything I wanted to say and consider my work finished. Since no one at present nor in the past half-century is interested, I have no platform upon which to stand and talk about my work. In this regard, I believe I have an immense amount to give, not only from my mind, but from my heart, and there are just no takers. I'm 66 years old now. Yes, I'm disappointed that the books go unnoticed, but I also know that such a thing isn't unusual in the world of ideas. I'm not asking anything of you but just hoping that by reaching out like this, the ideas will somehow survive. I believe in ideas and that they really can change human destiny. Yours in hope and gratitude, Katry Rain.
DEWITT: The reason Katry, or Dennis as we'll call him, wrote to Cynthia specifically is because he read something she wrote for The Washington Post that stuck with him. He seems earnest when he says that he isn't reaching out for attention but his one last effort to get his work seen. But it was the first line, I'm writing because this is my last day on Earth, that rang through Cynthia's head.
MCCABE: At first I thought, well, OK, let me research. As I realized that it was someone who really was potentially going - existed, first of all - and was going to do this, I actually started to get sort of somewhat angry. But I thought, who does this? Who does this to a total stranger? And it sounds callous in retrospect, and I'm not proud that I had that initial reaction. But I got fed up enough or angry enough that night that I thought, there's nothing I can do about this. This person is in Japan. I don't even know really a substantive way to try and reach this person if I wanted to. And I clicked my laptop shut up. And I put it on the floor next to me, and I went to bed.
DEWITT: But Cynthia didn't really sleep that night. And in the morning, she felt terrible for her non-reaction, and she started trying to figure out what to do. The guy was all the way in Japan. And as far as she was concerned, she was the only one to get the email. But about that, she was wrong.
That morning, about a dozen people all across the world got the exact same email - somewhere in Japan, China and various cities across the U.S. Most of them didn't know each other. All they had in common was that they were writers and that, at some point, they wrote something for The Washington Post.
DARA HORN: My name is Dara Horn, and I'm a novelist.
DEWITT: Writer Dara Horn was at home, trying to get her four kids ready for school when she decided to just take a quick look at her inbox.
HORN: When I looked at my messages, I saw the title of the message was Saving a Legacy. So I have people throwing Lego at me and this sort of thing while I'm reading this message (laughter) you know, and fighting about who's going to get in the car first and this kind of thing. And this person is writing to me saying, this is my last day on Earth.
DEWITT: While Dara debated what to do, around the same time in another city entirely, a guy named Ron Charles opened his inbox.
RON CHARLES: I'm the book editor of BookWorld at The Washington Post. We get, you know - you can imagine - hundreds of pieces of mail there every day from people desperate to get reviewed or published. Everybody insists that they know that we get a lot of pitches, but in this case, their book is really special. And if we would just read it, if we would just open it and read that first chapter, you know, we would see. But, you know, if you get 30 of these messages a day for 17 years, it's easy to get, you know, a little skeptical.
DEWITT: Here's Dara again.
HORN: It almost felt like an emotional mugging. It felt a little bit - I don't want to say manipulative because that implies a kind of malice that I don't think this person had. But it felt unfair. I feel guilty even thinking of it that way because I know that's wrong to feel that way.
DEWITT: Dara, Cynthia and Ron never met each other. All they had in common was The Washington Post. And now they all had to figure out what to do about this email.
HORN: I was just looking for clues in the email of how I could find this person. He mentions that he's in Japan. He gives - provides an email address for his ex-wife.
CHARLES: So I wrote a brief note to this woman. I just said, you know, dear madam, you're mentioned at the bottom of this suicide note.
HORN: I forwarded the message. I said, I received this disturbing message. I hope that you may be in a position to help this person.
CHARLES: If there's anything you can do, if there's anything we can do, please let us know, you know, Ron Charles, Washington Post. And then I just moved on with my day.
DEWITT: Cynthia, the one who ignored the email at first, did some extra research to find out who she could contact. She poked around online and found a relative, Dennis's niece, on Facebook and messaged her. In the message, Cynthia apologized for getting in touch this way and then explained that she thought Dennis's niece should know that her uncle might be in serious danger.
MCCABE: I remember that was a snow day in Washington and my daughter was off school. So I just closed my computer, and I took her outside and we played in the snow. And I remember laying in the ground, and we made snow angels. And I just thought, God, I hope this guy is OK.
DEWITT: Cynthia didn't hear back from Dennis, not the next day or the day after that or the day after that. But Cynthia didn't stop thinking about him. And then one day, she heard back from his niece.
MCCABE: And she said, thank you for reaching out to me. I am Dennis Williams's niece, and he did commit suicide.
I was just gutted, is the best way to describe it. It felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. That feeling lasted for days and weeks, and I guess like any grieving process, maybe. It sounds strange to say the grieving process 'cause I didn't know him. I wasn't a family member of his. But it lingered for a while that I had this connection now to this person, that he had very deliberately reached out to establish this connection and that it hadn't worked out the way a better movie version of it would've worked out, where I would've somehow figured out a way to save him.
DEWITT: Cynthia decided to do some research into who Dennis was. In the process, she found out that she wasn't the only one to get email. So she called some of them up to see how they had reacted to it. She was the one that told all of them about Dennis's death. Like Cynthia, Dara hadn't stopped wondering what happened to Dennis.
HORN: As upsetting as it was when she and I were sort of talking about the timing and it became clear that, in fact, when I received this message that morning, with my children all running all over my house, he was already dead.
CHARLES: This is horrible, too, but it does kind of help to know that nothing I could have done that morning would've made any difference. I don't know - I mean, who cares whether it makes any difference to me? But it does make me feel a little less wretched about it. But, you know, our lives are predicated on this kind of coldness, though, right?
DEWITT: Cynthia, unlike the rest of them, may have gotten the email when Dennis was still alive. But what is truly impossible to know is even if she had emailed him right when she got it that night when she was checking her email in the middle the night, would it have made any difference?
When Cynthia talked to his ex-wife, Keiko, she found out that Dennis had always planned on doing this. He always said what he had said in the email - that when his work was done, so was he. However strange, none of this was at all a surprise to Keiko. He had emailed her, too, right before he killed himself. He asked her not to be sad. I'm happy, he said. Then he went up to the roof of his hotel, and he jumped.
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MCCABE: When I've talked to people about this in the past, you know, months and months since it's happened, there are some folks who say well, you know, could you have done more, and were you being cold about it? But he didn't ask for help. In fact, he said he was resigned to doing this, that he had decided - I'm not asking anything of you. He specifically says that in part of the letter. He just wanted his ideas to survive.
DEWITT: He left very few people behind, among them, a daughter, who he didn't raise and who he was estranged from. He popped into the lives of a few strangers in his last few hours, and then he disappeared altogether, but not before asking Keiko, his ex-wife, to be sure to keep his Facebook and blog up just in case someone got curious about his work.
HORN: That was the part that upset me, the idea that he felt that this was what was important in his life and nothing else mattered to the point where he was going to kill himself because there was nothing else in his life that mattered. You know, I've been very fortunate to have had a fair amount of success as a writer. And so perhaps it's not fair for me to say this because perhaps I would feel differently if I weren't as successful as I've been, but it would never occur to me that my writing was the most important thing that I had contributed to this world.
I have another aspect of my career where I'm a scholar of Yiddish and Hebrew literature, and I'll say that when you study Yiddish literature, you know a whole lot about forgotten writers. Most of the books on my shelves were literally saved from the garbage. I am sort of very aware of what it means to be a forgotten artist in that sense. And even with all of that awareness, I just - I was upset at the idea that what would matter most about a person's life would be their work. Every person has a legacy. You may not know what your impact is and it may not be something that you can write on your tombstone, but every person has an impact on this world.
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HORN: So let's say you were a successful writer and you publish your books and people read them. Let's say you were an amazingly successful writer and people even read them after you were dead. Let's say you're really successful and people read them a hundred years later, I mean, you know, it's like well, how far are we going here? Eventually, you know, they're going to find your name on a credit card in a landfill.
DEWITT: Dara, Cynthia and Ron all went back to their lives, back to their kids, to their hobbies, back to their writing. None of them have taken an interest in Dennis's work. So Dennis's work just sits there in the back rooms of the Internet. He does have one book on Amazon, the one that got published, although there isn't a lot of evidence that many people have visited his page. It's pretty bare. No author's bio, no picture. The only clear evidence that anyone has read his book is a single, solitary review. It's positive, five stars. I got curious who wrote it, so I emailed her. The review, it turns out, was written by his daughter.
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WASHINGTON: Big thanks to Cynthia McCabe, Ron Charles, Dara Horn, Keiko Sato and Paul Farhi and to Leon Morimoto, our sound designer for that original score, Snappers. The piece was produced by Julia DeWitt.
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