Chainsaws, sticky tape, and matters of life and death

In this post on Ben Goldacre's excellent Bad Science (a site to which I have linked tediously frequently), Ben opines that reporting on a peculiar suicide in such a way that readers would learn enough to be able to duplicate it is "one of the most appalling and foul pieces of reporting I have ever seen".

The report he's talking about is here, about the suicide of one David Phyall. Do feel free to read it, and the Bad Science post, before reading the rest of this.

Goldacre bases his objection on the fact that widely-disseminated reporting on particular types of suicide has been proven to increase not only the popularity of that type of suicide, but the overall suicide rate. In other words, if a popular newspaper puts anybody who throws themselves in front of a train on the front page with a huge headline and a big full-colour picture of the remains, you can expect people who would not, otherwise, have killed themselves to do so, and even to favour trains as the means of their demise.

"Suicidality" is not like genetics, or height, or even religion. Some people are seriously suicidal for a length of time, but most people who intended to kill themselves but did not, are not still suicidal the next day. (Which is a bit of a bugger if they've chosen a suicide technique that takes a while to kill you, like paracetamol overdose.)

Given this, it clearly is irresponsible for the mass media to report on suicides in their usual "hey, wow, check this out dude" tone.


Here's a thought experiment for you, Ben.

How bizarre would a suicide have to be to make it acceptable, in your opinion, for it to be reported in sufficient detail that readers could, had they the determination and resources (two things that suicidal people typically, of course, lack), duplicate it?

Crawling under a pile-driver at a building site and waiting for the working day to begin?

Hurling yourself into the acid tank at an industrial galvanising plant?

Setting up a W. Heath Robinson contraption of string, rolling balls, clockwork robots et cetera that culminates with a trigger being pulled?

(For other options, allow me to recommend the inimitable Bunny Suicides, which you'd better buy in a hurry before they get banned because they're encouraging people to get themselves stung to death by bees or crushed by collapsing masonry.)

Yes, the description of this bizarre suicide told you enough that you could do exactly the same thing yourself. But doing something just a bit similar could leave you just as dead - you've got your chainsaw, you've got your neck, figure it out - and I can think of no way in which the event could have been accurately reported that would not have provided details of the particular way Mr Phyall did it - unless you leave it so vague that a large proportion of readers will want to know what the heck you're on about.

Giving yourself a fatal injury with a chainsaw isn't terribly hard, but actually cutting your head right off (in this case actually only almost right off) is. No half-sober editor would approve a story that didn't give at least an outline of what actually happened in a strange case like this, since the fact that Phyall managed to pretty much sever his whole head is why the death's being given more than 20 words in the first place.

Apparently this story - or very similar versions of the same thing, published in other places - was the subject of several complaints to the UK Press Complaints Commission, which is the usual sort of toothless media watchdog, but never mind that now. The PCC upheld some of the complaints as contravening section 5ii of their Code of Practice ("When reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used."). But they didn't uphold the same complaint about all of the stories.

It would appear that the line was drawn between stories that mentioned Phyall taping the electric saw's trigger down and allowing gravity to pull the blade through his neck, and stories - like the one on this page - which did not.

It does not seem likely to me that someone attracted to the idea of a chainsaw suicide would be greatly impeded by not having those particular pieces of information. But perhaps that's why I've not been asked to adjudicate these sorts of disputes.

I think Ben is drawing the line in the same place as the PCC, because the tape and the positioning of the saw are really all you can subtract from the story while still leaving it in a comprehensible state. OK, you could also not mention the timer-switch, but that wasn't really integral to the act.

All of the versions of the David Phyall story are grotesque to a greater or lesser degree, but that's unimportant, for those of us who are able to learn about a terrible thing without suffering a grave injury to our innocence.

What's more important - immensely important, actually, even if it's routinely ignored by everybody who matters - is that these stories are clearly not in the public interest. Which, famously, is not at all the same thing as "what the public is interested in".

But that's not what Ben's complaining about. He called the Telegraph story "one of the most appalling and foul pieces of reporting I have ever seen", apparently because it included details which could have been figured out by a child charged with solving a (suitably Fisher-Price-ised) similar problem.

Bad Science has, in the past, complained about "journalism" which, if you ask me, really does constitute criminal negligence, at the least.

The bullshit MMR scare, for instance, and its bone-headed determination to make measles, mumps and rubella as deadly as they always used to be. Or, recently, an utterly backward story about prostate cancer screening, which is just another in Bad Science's very long list of miserably incorrect, and actively dangerous, failures of mainstream science journalism in general and medical-science journalism in particular. Or the stupid "balanced reporting" in which no statement is so ridiculous that it cannot be printed after "But critics allege...".

These stories don't encourage people to die in impressive, blood-all-over-the-train-platform ways. But they certainly do encourage people to use worthless "preventative" "nutritional" approaches, or dangerous treatments, or no treatment at all, for dangerous yet conventionally-treatable illnesses. Even if they only take a few weeks, on average, off the life of all of their readers (I include in this time spent doing unpleasant things that you think are therapeutic, but aren't), that adds up to a lot of whole lives down the drain.

And, heck, Ben's even tackled BS stories about suicide.

The funny thing is that all of the dreadful medical-science stories really do encourage people to do what the people in the story did, and they do so more strongly than stories about non-"bizarre" suicides. (I base this evaluation on the assumption that most people will find a "do this and you'll be healthy" story more persuasive than a "do this and you'll be dead" one.)

So I can only presume that Ben's "appalling and foul" archive includes all of the above, and ranks them higher than the story about the chainsaw suicide.

I contend that reports of bizarre suicides, as opposed to the usual solitary, miserable type that excites the prurient interest not at all, do not, in fact, have a significant effect on the overall suicide rate.

I'm also pretty sure they do not encourage people to start trying the same bizarre suicide technique. I base this on the fact that the same places that reported one bizarre suicide would be pretty likely to report copy-cats with larger and larger headlines - but I haven't noticed a sudden plague of reports about autodecapitations after the Telegraph report on the unfortunate Mr Phyall.

There actually were a couple of chainsaw-suicide reports earlier in 2008. This bloke killed himself in March - perhaps a proper big professional chainsaw makes it easier to lop your head off - but that brief report is one of those dodgy ones that sounds as if it was boiled down from a piece in some other, non-English-language newspaper, and in any case says the man had been suicidal for some time, and had just watched one or the other version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. So I doubt he was following any real person's lead.

The Daily Fail Mail said this bloke sawed himself at almost the same time - so it's conceivable that he actually did see the previous report.

But I don't think it's likely.

It is uncontroversial that men prefer splashy, kinetic suicide techniques, which tend by their very nature to be more effective than the more passive techniques - wrist-slashing, pills - preferred by women. Lots of men have killed themselves with one or another kind of power tool (not always on purpose, of course).

And chainsaws are an iconic Dangerous Object. Nobody who doesn't work with them every day can avoid thinking about the sheer destructive power a chainsaw represents, in the real world and in the popular imagination, whenever they pick one up.

I mean, do a Google Images search for "chainsaw" (SafeSearch off...), and as of this writing eight of the 20 images on the first search-result page feature a saw wielded as a weapon, splattered with blood and/or converted into a purpose-built man-slicer.

Reporting of prosaic suicides seems entirely different to me. But it's still confusing.

Informing your audience that an inexpensive unvented charcoal heater in your sealed bedroom is an effective way for people who do not own a car to gas themselves is, I suppose, dangerous and irresponsible.

But what about reporting that people using combustion heaters should be very sure that the room is adequately ventilated, and mentioning that X many people were found dead last winter? That's a perfect example of public-interest reporting, right? Government agencies have pamphlets about it.

Ignoring that little confounder for now, a charcoal-heater carbon-monoxide suicide story does have all of the ingredients to encourage copy-cats. It's easy, it's cheap, and it's passive. As with the classic overdose, you just do something simple, then go to sleep, and you don't wake up. Even if you don't really and truly want to die all that much, passive techniques like this feel like offloading the responsibility onto the universe. It ain't like overcoming the strong instinctive desire to not jump off a tall building.

A person so miserable that they can hardly get out of bed can still take an overdose, or light a heater.

David Phyall, in contrast, set up a simple but ingenious timer contraption to kill himself. I don't know what was going on in his head, but if it was hard-core black-dog clinical depression, he must have been some sort of superman to be able to rig up that saw contraption.

(Just to put another twist in the story, Phyall also apparently did it as an act of protest. Not a very rational act of protest, I grant you - the various reports say he just didn't want to move out of his flat, in a building which was going to be demolished - but a protest nonetheless. Nobody's very likely to kill themselves out of solidarity with Phyall, but if a paper prints a story about a spectacular suicide to protest some real socio-political issue, and more people then kill themselves in the same way to protest the same thing, I don't think it's entirely reasonable to ascribe this entirely to the media coverage.)

If Ben's argument were that the media should abandon their love for cheap sensationalism and report on things that actually matter to people beyond the family and friends of the latest person to die strangely (among the dozens, if not hundreds, who died the same day from non-newsworthy but preventable causes), then I would agree with it. I'd still think that any report that actually told the audience about a real, if prurient, thing that happened would be preferable to the ones that're just trumpeting nonsense from some press release, but that's like enjoying eating grass more than you enjoy eating sand. You'd still prefer food.

The mainstream media really are in a terrible state. It's simply impossible for the remaining staff at the world's newspapers and TV stations to do proper journalism, most of the time. Some of them are plainly incompetent and/or lazy, but lots have their act together and work as hard as anybody ought to have to. There's just too much space to fill, and too little time to fill it. So journalists are reduced to dubbing their own voice over PR-firm Video News Releases, printing press releases as news, and stuffing every stupid gory headline-grabber they can find into their papers, while wars and famines trundle along in the background, out of sight.

This is hardly a new phenomenon, of course, but everybody's doing "tabloid journalism" now, to a greater or lesser extent.

Against this backdrop, I think an accurate account of one poor fellow's unusual demise does not qualify as significantly more "appalling and foul" than any 20 other articles in any modern newspaper you care to name.

At the beginning of Ben's post, he has a preface, not present in the newspaper-published version of the article, which apologetically says that it it his "first unambiguous abuse of my position as a 'columnist'". He says that he's so upset about this because of hideous and unnecessary prurient media interest in the death of someone - not the chainsaw guy - that he knew. He then opines that the media's irresponsible reporting on coroners' inquests means that they should no longer be allowed to do so - that, in other words, the court should be closed and secret.

This is exactly wrong, and Ben well knows it. He has previously made it perfectly clear that he knows that the solution to bad reporting is not no reporting, but more reporting. Ben regularly makes fun of people who insist that they've got data to support their strange assertions, but it's a secret; making secret everything that happens in a court is far worse than that.

The Curse of the Regular Columnist is that you have to come up with something by deadline (or somewhere in the deadline's rough vicinity). This means you may find yourself letting unfinished thoughts out the door, or digging up something that's been in the "not good enough" folder for months. Ben's says he's been stewing over the chainsaw-suicide story for a while; I hope it only made it to print because he'd been staring at that deadly blank word-processor screen for a while, and really couldn't think of anything else to write.

So I think Ben's right: This is an "unambiguous abuse" of his position, and he has unfairly slurred the author of the "appalling and foul" article, with its appalling mention of sticky tape and its foul inclusion of information about the little-known force of gravity.

I can't think of another thing Ben's written with which I do not wholeheartedly agree, but this time he's screwed up.

Next column would be a good time for the apology, I think.

20 Responses to “Chainsaws, sticky tape, and matters of life and death”

  1. mkvf Says:

    Well, he has, since you last read the piece said:


    to be clear, commenters are absolutely right, my suggestion that the press should be banned from coroners courts outright is poorly thought through. the end goal is that they should write about this kind of thing a bit more sensibly. shaming them or regulating them might be another route to make this more likely, and i’d be pleased to hear if people had any other ideas.

    I think you can fairly excuse him rushing to judgment on an issue he clearly feels a personal involvement in. Unlike so much of the media he criticises, he at least encourages open comment on his writing, and acknowledges his mistakes when he makes them.

  2. Daniel Rutter Says:

    Yeah, but Ben didn't "rush" to writing this. The chainsaw story, as he says, is months old, and the nasty media reports about the fellow he knew obviously didn't all happen yesterday, either.

    The only part that Ben hadn't been thinking about for months is the bit in the preface about courts which, as you say, he just apologised for. The central thrust of the article is quite different, and he ain't apologised for that yet :-).

  3. Matt-S Says:

    I recently (only just - more than a month in hospital) survived an overdose attempt. So I speak from some personal experience. I learned of a drug, which I was able to get hold of, that if I took enough of, would effectively just cause your heart to slow down till it stopped. combined with something to make you drowsy or sleep. and pleasant, painless death. I'm not going to tell you the name of that drug because that IS irresponsible. Most people who are depressed / suicidal are in a hell of a lot of pain, and they just want it to stop. Not many people would want to cut their head off with a chainsaw, or say light themselves on fire (it happens but for different reasons). I would never attempt a paracetamol OD because it has to be one of the worst deaths there is. In that vein I don't think the chainsaw story could do much damage, but the charcoal one maybe, if you take someone who is already suicidal and offer them a "painless solution" they'll latch on to it, and they're more likely to kill themselves if they think they can just "drift off"

    That said, reading about suicide at all, can put it in your mind, and for some people the idea is then very hard to shake, if you've been feeling bad and then suicide is mentioned, it's easier to make that connection. But the media has a responsibility to report what's happening, and there is no onus on me to read it.

    I didn't used to believe it but knowledge, access and opportunity really do make a big difference, and the next day is the next day, a person might be feeling a little better, maybe enough to get help.

    The mis-conceptions about suicide (often re-enforced by popular media) are huge, people seem to think that if you want to kill yourself, that's it, you're determined, you want nothing else and nothing could have stopped you. But your analogy of sand and grass is very apt, people who want to kill themselves don't want it like you want a sports car, it just seems like the only option, it is slightly preferable to continuing to suffer, you'd still rather be well. And for many people, convincing yourself to choose life is a daily battle.

  4. Matt-S Says:

    Sorry that was a little preachy

  5. opus7600 Says:

    I've got a little personal experience, and would like to throw in my two cents.

    Certainly from my point of view, you are not correct about suicidality, unless you were speaking specifically about it when unconnected with depression. For me, I know that no matter how many times I manage not to kill myself, I'll probably still have thoughts about it the next day, ranging from fleeting thoughts to strong impulses, depending on how well my brain chemistry is functioning at any point in time.

    Second, I was suicidal long before I had a clue what I could do about it. Luckily, my aversion to pain is stronger than my desire to die. It was only once I had been prescribed a drug that could be fatal in overdose that I made a real attempt at killing myself. I know for sure that no number of articles would ever have persuaded me to set up a chainsaw to cut my head off. At the very least, because that's just plain rude to whomever has to clean me up afterwards. But leaning about a simple, foolproof, painless way to die could easily have persuaded me to take action.

  6. Daniel Rutter Says:

    I'm sorry to hear about your situation, and hope you get better. But, as I said, "Some people are seriously suicidal for a length of time, but most people who intended to kill themselves but did not, are not still suicidal the next day."

    From what you say, I'd put you in the grey area between "people who're suicidal once, don't do it for whatever reason, and after that are fine", and "people who make desperate attempts to kill themselves whenever they're not physically restrained".

  7. Jono4174 Says:

    "grey area"? I assume this metaphor was unintended (grey = unhappy, red = mad)

    [No - I just meant the indistinct area between those two extremes of "suicidality". A more common situation is someone who wants to kill themself, doesn't, then is OK for some time, but later starts suffering from suicidal ideation again. Opus7600 seems to be living in the lousier end of that particular part of the spectrum. -Dan]

    It cheered me up, either way.

  8. dr_w00t Says:

    I thought it was spelled pamphlet?

    [I think you'll find it's actually "pamplemousse". Fixed now :-). -Dan]

    And education is always preferable to Security by Obscurity isn't it? So the gory details of elaborate suicides draw public attention - isn't this a perfect opportunity to use events like this to promote awareness of support services, counselling, etc?

  9. Daniel Rutter Says:

    Yeah, I was thinking about that after I wrote this post. Write up "ordinary" suicide stories sensitively and bizarre suicides however you like, but always put a bit at the end saying "if you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, call Lifeline at 13 11 14..." or whatever.

    I've also found more objectionable versions of the story than the one that set Ben off. Several writeups said David Phyall "carefully planned" his death, a term that gives the story exactly the sort of noble-Samurai feel that really could help push someone over the edge. It's like those stories that say "the gang of loonies with machetes massacred the villagers with military precision, in a meticulously planned blah blah blah".

  10. Daniel Rutter Says:

    And oh, God - how about this one on Digital Journal, tastefully illustrated with two "close-up shots of an old chainsaw blade". Oy.

    (Digital Journal is a "citizen journalism" news site like the previously-mentioned-here NowPublic, by the way. So you shouldn't think there's some editorial board that all signed off on those pics.)

  11. Major Malfunction Says:

    Dan wrote, "How bizarre would a suicide have to be to make it acceptable... [SNIP] ...Setting up a W. Heath Robinson contraption of string, rolling balls, clockwork robots et cetera that culminates with a trigger being pulled?"

    Just put the Lego down and back away. Slowly...

  12. TwoHedWlf Says:

    Haha, Lego suicide box! "Please choose method of death: Disassembly and thrown in a box in the closet..."

  13. fawktastic Says:

    It's obviously all the fault of violent video games, we'd all live forever if it wasn't for those.

  14. corinoco Says:

    "13.It's obviously all the fault of violent video games, we'd all live forever if it wasn't for those."

    Well, they DO improve your eyesight, news that made me very happy indeed, given my poor eyesight! Funny - I was always told when I was young that playing Elite would ruin my eyesight, though the problem I have would actually be cured by it! Righto, where's Crysis?

    But... Oh, no! It's got guns in it! That might give me suicide ideas! (see what I did there?)

    Seriously, I feel very strongly about one side or other of this argument, I just haven't read the article well enough yet to understand which side.

    For the record, I'm another who has seriously contemplated suicide, and done the drug-and-therapy dance to deal with it. My experience is pretty much exactly the same as opus7600, though the drug I was prescribed has some interesting online data (luckily for me) stating how nasty ODing is. Lucky that I too have a strong aversion to pain, a strong desire to not leave a horrid mess or psychologically scar train drivers. In my experience, ideation is the worst thing; it just eats you up, you think of nothing else for days. Adding the Lifeline or BeyondBlue tag (as is currently done in the SMH these days) is a good idea - at least it gives you the knowledge that there might be a way out. As for reading about detailed attempts? Reading about other people's experiences is actually what helped me fight the damn Black Dog (William Styron's 'Darkness Visible' and Winston Churchill were helpful for me, Michael Leunig is OK in small, careful doses).

    Reading about chainsaw-based contraptions certainly doesn't affect me, though I consider such things rather crass. If I lived in, say, Thailand I might not think that way as Bhuddism seems to have a healthy (for them, I guess) disrespect of the body, as they consider it merely a vessel. The front pages of Thai newspapers have to be seen to be beleived! Reports of a 'quiet, painless, easy' method would have got my attention, though I am still fearful of mucking things up and ending up with crippling brain damage. Maybe not exactly a rational fear, but it's done well to actually keep me alive.

  15. Ben K Says:

    Nice to hear some discussion over the responsibility side of things, rather than just hearing rhetoric about our 'rights'.
    Some people wonder why our society is disintegrating into individualistic materialism, while never raising the thoughts about what are my responsibilities to my fellow man.
    I think this discussion on the free speech aspect is a good one - thanks corinoco for sharing about your experiences, I hope people reading it may stop and think how their freedoms affect you, and act responsibly

  16. Daniel Rutter Says:

    I've read Styron's book too, and liked it a lot. Given my sense of humour, after a while I started finding the sheer staggering depth of his depression funny. It was like the ever-more-overwrought descriptions of horribleness in a Lovecraft story - after a while, you sort of peel off from believing it into just staring at it as a spectacle and wondering what fresh horror awaits on the next page.

    This'd be horribly insensitive if someone were sitting there telling you his life story, of course, but Styron isn't even around to take offence any more (pneumonia and old age, not suicide). And there's significant therapeutic value in it, too - it's nice to be able to say "Well, I feel like hand-made shit, but THIS guy used t'DREAM about feeling like hand-made shit. And he survived!"

    You really are pretty royally screwed if you have severe refractory clinical depression. Darkness Visible is about Styron's experience with depression in the 1980s; today, there are more drugs and other treatments to shuffle your way through and see if any help. But it's still eminently possible that your depression will be like nonspecific back pain: It just requires a period of "suffering time", during which you have to stay alive somehow (Styron eventually checked himself into a psychiatric hospital). Then it goes away, no matter what you did.

    And later, it's likely to come back.

  17. corinoco Says:

    Funny thing: I read Lovecraft, and my reaction was "meh, just the first emo. These days he'd write 'Twilight'". Surprisingly, or perhaps NOT surprisingly, there is actually some humour out in depression-land; people like me (chronic severe depression, possibly related to Glandular Fever, or severe bullying at school, or just being 2 weeks premmie, depending on who you ask) get jealous of manic depressives - at least they get the manic bit, which actually looks like a whole lot of fun. Sure, they're manic depressives, but they are usually also rather wealthy writers, actors, artists or musicians. I'm an architect - I would love to do a depressing building (properly depressing and downright scary, sort of Vatican statuary meets DFAT in Canberra, with knives a'la Planescape:Torment) but clients just don't dig buildings that give people palpitations. Oh, I'd have sound too - a high-pitched whine, like a fan bearing on the way out, playing through the whole building. I've got this worked out, really. (Link to Monty Python sketch about architects please)

  18. Stark Says:

    Link as requested - Monty Python Architect Sketch

    Love those rotating knives....

  19. Major Malfunction Says:

    It's difficult to encapsulate the connection between madness and creativity in a single sentence, but the way I see it, the link is undeniable and sanity is relative.

    I recommend a hobby.

  20. Matt Says:

    The original article on the Telegraph is gone. Yesterday there was a message saying that it had been removed, but today it just 404's.

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