Negative Space


In high school, every group of friends has a connector or an alpha, either by being the most charismatic or energetic or something. Drew was that guy in my group of drama nerds. When we hung out with him, he was happily setting the agenda, hosting the get-togethers, setting our style and cultural cues, blazing all the trails. He was always building cool things on his ancient (by which I mean, state-of-the-art) Mac, taking photographs, making videos--combining art and technology in a completely unique way.

After high school graduation in 1991, we all went to different universities, fully intending to stay in touch with one another. But back then, staying in touch meant phone calls or letters. We had been in college for barely a month when Drew, now a first-year at Carnegie Mellon, sent all of letters that said,

"I'm never going to write you another letter. You are all going to get email accounts. Whatever you have to do to get one at your school, figure it out."

So I did. In my first year, it meant walking to another building (literally, going to the basement of the Science Center like every nerd stereotype) and logging into a black-and-amber terminal to get a command-line interface to a mail client called, simply, mail (I think?).

It was also there that I learned about rn and nn for subscribing to and reading Usenet newsgroups, gopher for searching through data repositories on interconnected computers (the first use of hyperlinked text I remember seeing, although menu-based), finger for finding other people on the network, and a whole new world, accessible at my fingertips. Social media, but fifteen years before Facebook.

In subsequent college years, the technology improved. Sophomore and junior years, I could use our dorm room phone line to dial into the university network; by senior year, they had even started to wire the dorms with Ethernet connections. (Unfortunately, my old Mac Classic didn't have that capability, so I was stuck with good old dial-up, much to my roommates' chagrin.)

But more importantly, in September of my senior year, I got an email from Drew that said "Point your web browser at," and then some weird string of letters with slashes and colons. I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. What's "point?" What's a "web browser?"

But as you can probably guess, it was Drew who first introduced me to the early world wide web, in 1994. I learned how to use lynx, the text-only web browser. I learned to "view source" on the pages I visited, and thereby taught myself how to code in HTML. In fact, I might have been one of the only political science majors at the entire college with his own website.


(Although I never wrote a senior thesis, my proposed topic is tragicomic in retrospect: "Would it be possible to use the Internet to affect political campaigns?" Hardly an open question anymore.)

After college graduation, I got a job at a magazine, but my web-savvy immediately moved me from being a lowly editorial assistant to being the lead for their internet presence. Eventually I was hired by a hot and popular startup (Firefly, for you internet historians), and very quickly found myself progressing in my career path--entirely due to my early adoption of web technologies and my development skills. All of that is due to the motivation I got from Drew to get involved with these things.

I can't imagine what my life would have been like without Drew pushing me, as he pushed all of his friends, to continually learn new things and embrace the future. I am so indebted to him for what I've achieved, and I thank him all the time.

Or, I'd like to, but I can't. Because Drew took his own life in October of 1994. He was 21 years old.

That was 24 years ago. More than an entire lifetime ago, sad to say. A quarter-century later, and still I rage against his loss. Not a month goes by that I don't think of him for one reason or another.

Drew suffered from depression, I found out later. I don't know the extent of it, or what he was doing (if anything) to treat it. He suffered through some tragic events in his life, but I would never say that one thing caused the other, because that's not how depression works. All I can be sure of is that he reached a moment in time when he couldn't see any more hope, and couldn't face another minute on earth, and concluded that anything would be worse than nothing.


He will always be 21 in my memory--the voice, the face, the mannerisms of a young man on the cusp of adulthood, with the capacity for absurdity and greatness--and to always be 21 in memory is hideous. It's a grotesque perversion, to be given as many gifts as Drew was possessed of, but burdened with a internal chemistry that would inevitably betray him. What is there to accept--HOW could we accept--a world where such Faustian bargains are made, on planes we can't comprehend?

What if, what if, what if? After the shock and anger and grief and sadness, what are we left with but an endless parade of "what ifs." What if we had seen the signs more clearly? What if we had been there in that moment? What if we had stayed in closer contact with him? What if he hadn't been alone? What if he were here today? What would he have become? What would his children have accomplished? How different would things be...not just in my world, or his world, but THE world?

The best I can do in his memory is to try to achieve the sorts of things he would have been able to achieve (with much greater ease, I might add). Intentionally or not, I find myself now in exactly the sort of hybrid career of art and computer science that would have seen Drew thrive. Maybe I wound up here because, in some small sense, I had to.

Honestly, there's no comfort to be had in thinking, "If he had been able to talk to someone, if he could have been treated for depression, he might still be here." Because it didn't happen. It's too late to save Drew. He's simply, awfully, gone. But it's not too late to save thousands, or millions, of others. Which is why I wholeheartedly, if broken-heartedly, endorse any and all suicide awareness and prevention campaigns. Suicide prevention requires us to eradicate the stigma of talking about depression and mental illness. (That includes, in my mind, obituaries that euphemize suicide as "died unexpectedly" or "died suddenly.")

Each individual loss is a private tragedy, of course. Too many of us--in fact, too close to all of us--have personal experience with losing someone close to us due to suicide. In a larger sense, however, suicide is a public health issue. Social change--including awareness and prevention campaigns that remove the stigma of talking about, seeking treatment for, and living with depression and mental illness--is essential to keeping more of our loved ones alive.

Lorna Eden addresses the public health side of suicide in her recent work, shown below. In a recent piece I made, about farewell letters from people facing death, I explored the human stories behind individual data points. It was the combination of both of those perspectives on death, and suicide, that inspired me to share how Drew's life, and death, have affected me.

All of the data in Lorna's visualization represents people like Drew, and people like me, and so many of you, who have lost loved ones. #ItsOKtoTalk



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