The Sunken Place

Quinn Norton
11 min readDec 23, 2022

and Aaron

(This is a story about suicide, please be warned and don’t do forward if that’s not right for you right now. If you are in that place, please know life can get better. If you’re in crisis, please dial 112 in Europe or 988 in the USA. Your brain is lying to you, don’t fall for it.)

This is not the story people wanted to know about Aaron Swartz, now known to many as the Internet’s Own Boy, and a martyr for digital freedom, so I didn’t tell it. It’s not the story he wanted anyone to know, so I didn’t tell it. But I was always the flaw in the plan. I knew this story, and as long as I live, it exists inside me.

But I’m tired of carrying this story alone. It’s someone else’s turn, perhaps yours. Perhaps you can do some good with it. Here, though, is my offer: if you don’t want to carry this story, stop reading. If you want Aaron to stay who he is in your mind now, just close this. No shame in walking away, especially if you need Aaron to be exactly what he is today, a mythic genius who died protecting the internet and free access to information at the hands of a cruel and shortsighted cop. That’s a true story. But it’s not the real story.

Aaron first told me he would die by suicide in 2007, a few months after I’d fallen in love with him and while I was still going through a divorce. I got out of bed in the middle of the night, got a pen and post-it notes. I began writing little things on the post-it notes: thoughts, affirmations, fears, quotes, and so on, and pushing them against all the walls of our apartment.

The words on the little pieces of paper repeated in my mind as I was putting them all over, trying to drown out Aaron’s statement of death.

He was annoyed and uncomfortable. He chased me around, telling me I was being overemotional. But I knew exactly what I was doing, I’d done it before. I was preserving myself as my world was falling apart. He snapped at me that I was overreacting and being dramatic. I yelled that I wasn’t the one threatening suicide, and he told me it was no big deal.

I need you to understand something key here: the “no big deal” didn’t refer to telling me he would kill himself. Rather that he saw the idea that he’d commit suicide one day as “no big deal.” It was just how he thought it was, even should be. This idea, about the value of his life, was a fight we’d be in for years, a tension in our relationship that never went away.

In the end I was right, and he was wrong. It was a pretty damn big deal.

In that moment though, the beginning of that long fight, I just yelled something and went back to my post-it notes. If I was the crazy one, then fine, I would fight for my sanity.

Over the years to come, we talked about his suicide a lot. I told him many times that if he could just make it to 30, things would get better and it would be easier to live, that he wouldn’t want to anymore. He would look sad and say: “that’s so far away.”

After a year we technically split up, both of us having agreed at the start to a year together and no more, but we were still in love. Our break-up would be a continuous, years-long failure. He dated around, but I remained the main person he came to with his dark thoughts, his wild theories, the jokes that weren’t good enough for the publics or girlfriends he felt he needed to impress. And always, his desire to kill himself.

I don’t want to make it sound all bad. Much of the time we were incredibly happy with each other, dating or not. To just sit in the same room, doing whatever, we just loved each other’s company, cracking jokes and showing each other things and just being present. Sometimes the bond upset someone he was dating, sometimes it upset him. We were best friends, sometimes romantic, sometimes not. We were almost like each other’s imaginary friend, constantly there with something to say about everything.

Aaron had a lot of status anxiety and I think that made him annoyed at being so tightly bonded with a person as low status as I am. He was always a troubled mix of proud and ashamed of me, and both of us were always uncomfortable with how much we needed each other. He loved other people, but he depended on me.

I asked him countless times to get professional help, but he was always resistant, like I was asking him to do a shameful and embarrassing thing.

Aaron was always self-conscious, and fascinated by the fact that I was not. I told him about the gift of desperation — the idea that what’s you’re desperate enough to try anything, you can really let down your guard and start healing — but he never had it. He never wanted that gift.

Aaron was always intensely worried about how he was seen. Death so often seemed an inviting and comforting idea to him, like it was a way he could finally relax, even while it was scary and sad. Suicidality is a terribly complicated state of mind.

Another close friend of his and I started working together to get him into therapy in 2009.

He went a few times to a couple therapists. But Aaron was never honest with any of them. One day he came home and announced the new therapist had said he didn’t need therapy. I begged him to try another, but he just looked at me and said “Why should I see a therapist? I have you.” I felt crushed at that moment, trapped and helpless in a hostage situation I couldn’t get out of without losing my best friend.

At that moment he was also hiding our relationship from a girlfriend who really didn’t like me. We weren’t technically involved then, but Aaron and I were never capable of being “just friends.” Far too much had happened. He was still suffering, and I was still his outlet. He would call me regularly, sometimes to read to me, sometimes to chat, sometimes to be talked out of killing himself.

I knew that this was an abusive relationship, but like so many people in abusive relationships, I felt trapped. I loved him totally, and he knew that I would always try to help him, always answer his calls. He was so sick that I knew he would try to kill my best friend if I ever tried to put distance between us. By 2010 we were completely enmeshed. He viewed me as part of his own brain. We could finish each other sentences, anticipate each other’s thoughts.

The beginning of 2010 was the worst, the darkest period of his depression. I kept trying to get him to go into a hospital where he could get intensive mental healthcare, he kept telling me if I took him he would just talk his way out of it.

I should have anyway.

Later in 2010 a few friends he trusted were pitching in to try and create some kind of safety for him, it wasn’t just me anymore. Over the course of that year he started to improve from what I could see, though I was trying to stay more in California, hoping 3000 miles distance would be good for both of us. We were dating other people. We still visited, we still talked every day. He was more willing to get help, but when I asked him if he was ever willing to take medication, he always said no. That was too far, he’d rather die first.

Then, on January 6th 2011, he called me from a jail in Cambridge. I called friends until I located someone who could bail him out at once. Later, the prosecution told me they believed he knew the arrest was coming based on how fast he was bailed. “No,” I told them, “That was me.” They pressed the point, like I hadn’t just told them it was me. I tried to find the politest way possible to tell the prosecutor he was an idiot. But listening was not that man’s strong suit.

I went back to Cambridge whenever I could. The case destroyed much of the progress he’d made. 2011 threw us back into all the emotional chaos. He was less immediately suicidal than I’d expected him to be, the case had become the locus of his attention. Suicide came up, but it wasn’t a constant presence. The paradox was basic, almost mammalian. Threatened, he was trying to survive what was happening to him, but under the huge pressure of the case, life was losing meaning for him.

When you’re struggling to live, sometimes that short circuits the immediate desire to die, but it doesn’t fix anything, and it’s not safe. I told his lawyer over the phone at one point that Aaron was suicidal. Aaron cut the call and told me his lawyer didn’t care, and that it didn’t matter, then walked out angrily. But after his death I found out his lawyer did care, that he’d tried to intercede with the prosecutor based on what I’d said. The prosecutor only offered to jail him in response. It helps to know other people cared, too. Being with a suicidal partner can be terribly lonely.

When suicide did come up, the danger seemed more immediate than ever. I often sat with him, talking him out of it however I could, making one argument after another for why he should live.

We talked about how dysfunctional the relationship was, and he’d apologize, and hold me. But the shame of seeking help always remained too much and he refused. And then he would simply come back to just using me as the thin membrane holding him back from killing himself. He spent years wrecking me before the case, and then the case wrecked us both.

I have written about the case, and I won’t reprise that here, this isn’t about that most public of moments. He broke up with me again after my grand jury testimony, and I told him I needed to get away from him for a while. I believed we both needed it, and I knew I did. I’d been through hell, and he’d dragged me through it. He’d been there for me when I’d gone through my divorce, and that meant a lot, but I needed to go away and heal from these years too. He was angry with me, but I pointed out he had a truly wonderful new girlfriend, who I respect and adore to this day, and a best friend who had the wherewithal and resources to support him. And now he was surrounded by the kind of emotionally open and willing community of political activists who could understand the kind of issues he had and help him get better. I knew they could have helped him.

But he never told any of them about his long history of suicidality, depression, and anxiety. It was there in his writings for years, but he just never talked honestly to his people about his mental health.

Maybe he thought if he never told anyone it would go away. Maybe he thought it was no big deal. Maybe he no longer wanted anyone to watch over him or stop him, like I had for all those years.

I had been part of his dark side, and I think maybe we both hoped he could leave it behind him with me. But I didn’t start it, and I couldn’t have ever ended it. We chatted a few times in late 2012, and I could see the new life wasn’t working. I told a few mutual friends that he would attempt to kill himself. I couldn’t bring myself to say he’d succeed. No one knew what to do with that information, and I didn’t tell the two people closest to him, because I knew he’d be furious at me for talking to them.

I should have anyway.

We had talked for years about how he’d do it, it was a regular topic we’d cover when I was talking him out of it, I don’t know how many times. In the end, he emulated one of his literary heros, David Foster Wallace. He used his belt to hang himself.

A week later I was standing on a platform in New York in a fugue state, thinking how easy it would be to just step off the platform as the train pulled into the station. I remembered Aaron, and a conversation we’d had about this very thing. “You can’t do that to the driver,” I told him. He grudgingly agreed. It would be too cruel to do to another human being.

I did not step out.

But he did it to me. He did it to all of us. He was pushed by the circumstances, we all are. But he did it to us, he did it to his partner, and to my daughter, and to everyone who loved him, because of shame and social pressure and depression, and terror. He did it because he never knew who to trust even when he surrounded himself with amazing and caring people. He did it out of spite and selfishness, as well as despair and shame.

And then he didn’t just belong to us anymore, he belonged to the whole world.

There was global mourning. Blame and anger wrapped around the planet in hours, as well as celebration of his far-too-short life.

But it was all uncomfortable to me. He had defined his life by how he’d ended it, and had even managed to take to his grave the mental illness that had defined his internal world for so long.

He would argue with me in my dreams, saying “See? Everyone cares now-” like it was his last political campaign. In the months after his death we argued more than we had in years, while I slept, or sat alone, hugging myself and sobbing. He told me then, as he’d told me when he was alive, that no one wanted to know the truth about his lifelong struggle with mental illness. “No one cares about that.” he explained, just as he had back in Boston and before that in our apartment in San Francisco. “I cared,” I told him. “You hardly ever let anyone else care.” I still feel him somedays, like a part of me haunting the rest. Still trying to justify it all, still sometimes whispering sorry to me. My partner holds me during these times, picking up the pieces and helping me put myself back together. I still carry this every day, carry Aaron’s sickness with me, like the worst of inheritances.

Did the case drive him to suicide? Yes, of course it did. Should the U.S. prosecutor Steve Heymann bear some responsibility for hounding defendants (not just Aaron) to death? Definitely. But because he didn’t care, because was picking on a sick man, picking on easy prey, not because Aaron was somehow fine before he attracted legal interest.

I think Aaron had a chance to make it through to his 30s, when, I promised, things would get easier. He had the chance to really be the hero so many people wanted him to be. But the odds were against him long before the case because he would not, seemingly could not, seek the medical care he needed for severe mental illness.

Everyone wanted someone to blame in this story, but in the end it was a suicide. Aaron killed himself. Maybe he might have made it without the case, but only if one day he had found the willingness to seek help, to do whatever it took to get better.

He never did.



Quinn Norton

A journalist, essayist, and sometimes photographer of Technology, Science, Hackers, Internets, and Civil Unrest.