If you know me, you know someone very close to me committed suicide. If you don’t know me, all you have to do is Google “Christine Flowers” near “suicide” and you’ll have a concise history of my writings on the topic. Lately, I’ve tried to distance myself from the past, not because I’m ashamed of it or because I regret talking about it to perfect strangers, but because it’s not entirely my story to tell. The aftermath — the mourning and the regret — is something I have a right to express.
But the personal story of what drives someone to render their wracked and wrought soul unto whatever God they imagine (or disbelieve) is not my property. That narrative ends with the departed life. I cannot stand the type of journalist who uses the death of friends or family to make a political point about how we need more mental health centers, better addiction treatments and “stop the bullying” classes. Of course we need these things, because no one should die by their own hands, but using someone’s sad life to advocate for them seems voyeurish. Then again, that’s what we’re all about in the age of social media.
Which brings me to the subject of this column, which is only tangentially related to my personal loss. This past week, a Massachusetts court found a young woman guilty of involuntary manslaughter. The case is sui generis, one of a kind, and chilling. Carter’s boyfriend was clinically depressed and, during the course of their relationship, had often threatened to commit suicide. At the beginning, the then-17-year-old tried to help him.
But like most people who have to deal with suicidal and desperate loved ones, she got frustrated, tired and, because she was only a teenager, impatient. That’s completely understandable.
What is not understandable is what she did next. On July 12, 2014, Carter’s boyfriend, Conrad Roy, texted to tell her that he was going to commit suicide that night, and that he was going to do it by filling his truck with carbon monoxide. Instead of calling his parents, 911 or even just pleading with him to reconsider, she actively encouraged him to kill himself.
But that’s not even the reason she will spend up to 20 years in jail. After his truck started to fill up with carbon monoxide, the boy actually jumped out and said he didn’t think he could go through with it.
And Carter, who was now speaking to her boyfriend on the phone, told him to “get back in.” Roy got back in. And never got out again.
The only evidence that she told him to finish the job of killing himself comes in her own words, by way of a text that she sent to a friend, which included this incriminating phrase: “I was on the phone with him and he got out of the car because it was working and he got scared….[and I told him] to get back in.”
That was enough for the judge to find Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter, which, under Massachusetts law, requires an unintentional death caused by the “reckless conduct” of the defendant. In this case, Carter’s “reckless conduct” was knowingly urging her troubled boyfriend to kill himself after he had already indicated to her that he couldn’t go through with it. The judge found that her words “get back in” were the proximate cause of his death.
I talked about this case on my radio show Sunday, and there were people who strongly disagreed with the verdict. They were in good company. The American Civil Liberties Union and a number of conservative and libertarian commentators have warned about that ubiquitous “slippery slope” that everyone drags out when people start getting nervous that the common-sense decision in one case might be applied to future cases.
The critics argue that if we start making words into weapons, we will endanger free speech. It was suggested, disingenuously, I think, that finding Carter guilty in this case would make it more likely that family members could be criminally charged for counseling their loved ones about end-of-life decisions.
That, my friends, is absolute nonsense. This isn’t a case about someone who rendered heartfelt advice about hospice treatment. This is about a young woman who knew that her boyfriend was standing on a ledge, and she used her words and her confidential relationship with him to coax him off it, into the abyss.
And here is where I come full circle, back to my experience. I was not there when my brother died. I was miles away, in presence and in thought. But if I had been given the privilege to send him a message in those final moments before irrevocable decisions were made, I would have coaxed him toward the light.
That is why we must make Carter pay for her dark act, to remind us of what happens when our humanity is eclipsed.