The Kansas sportswriter who blogged his own suicide
OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Martin Manley hated waking up early, but on his 60th birthday he did — or more likely, never went to sleep the night before.
At 5 a.m. he entered a police station parking lot in a suburb of Kansas City, Kansas, walked to a spot beneath a tree on its far south end and pulled out his phone.
He dialed 911.
He said this:
“I want to report a suicide at the south end of the parking lot of the Overland Park Police Station at 123rd and Metcalf.”
Then, the blogger and former sports reporter for the Kansas City Star pulled out his Saturday Night Special, a .380 pistol, and shot himself in the head.
The statistics — Manley loved statistics; his “efficiency index” is still used by the NBA to rate players — tell us that about 150 other Americans committed suicide that day, that somewhere around 38,000 of them will do so this year.
But chances are none of those people provided the world such a detailed picture of the event, the when, where, why and how of it. Because for more than a year, Manley had been secretly building a sweeping, intricate website that meticulously explained just that. He set it to publish later on the day he died.
Call it death in the time of Facebook. Never before in the history of human communication have suicide notes been such a public affair, easily accessible to the masses and potentially lasting forever.
“Let me ask you a question,” Manley wrote on his website, which he divided into 34 categories and 44 subcategories. “After you die, you can be remembered by a few-line obituary for one day in a newspaper when you’re too old to matter to anyone anyway … OR you can be remembered for years by a site such as this. That was my choice and I chose the obvious.”
‘A natural way to communicate’
Manley’s site may be unique in its scope and tone, which could be described, in parts, as upbeat. But sharing death on the Web is not new.
In the early days of the Internet, reports sprung up of “Internet suicide clubs,” built around websites and chat rooms where young people would discuss taking their own lives and, in some cases, make plans to meet and perform the act together.
It’s unclear how prevalent the groups have ever been, although Manley wrote that he studied the pros and cons of various methods of suicide online.
In 2010, a Japanese man live-streamed his own suicide, hanging himself as users of an online chat forum alternately urged him to seek help or egged him on. A morbid image of the 24-year-old man apparently hanging from a horizontal rod made the rounds online afterward.
Two years earlier, a Florida teen similarly trained a webcam on himself as he died in bed, after posting a suicide note on his blog in which he wrote that he had taken a drug overdose.
Lawrence Calhoun, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, said the reasons people want to share their deaths on the Web appear to be, in some ways, common sense.
“First, young people have grown up using social media, so for them that is just a natural way of communicating with other people,” he told CNN. “Second, posting one’s thoughts on social media is likely to reach a lot more people than simply leaving one hard copy note; so, perhaps one reason to leave a ‘suicide note’ on social media is to reach as many people as possible.”
At 60, Manley was no digital native. But the Web seems to have been perfectly tailored for someone like him. He reveled in spending long hours alone at the computer, poring over data and sharing his findings with folks in far-flung places who were similarly interested in the esoteric minutia of crunching sports numbers.
“I have communicated with hundreds of readers over the years and I’ve made a lot of internet friends,” Manley wrote in his final blog post. “I’m impressed that there really are intelligent people still left out there considering the decline in our educational standards.”
‘I didn’t want to die’
At least according to his site, Manley’s death was also a numbers game.
He claimed to be in good health and happy. He was financially sound, with an investment in gold worth $200,000.
He said he wasn’t depressed — “anyone who says I was is either ignorant or a liar” — and sang in his church choir, enjoyed hobbies like his monthly poker game and claimed to not be lonely.
He said he just decided 60 was old enough. His most productive years were behind him, he feared the infirmity of old age and simply wanted to go out at a time and in a manner of his own choosing.
“I didn’t want to die,” he wrote. “If I could have waved a magic wand and lived for 200 years, I would have. Unfortunately, that’s not an option.
“Therefore, since death is inevitable, the better question is… do I want to live as long as humanly possible OR do I want to control the time and manner and circumstances of my death? That was my choice (and yours). I chose what was most appealing to me.”
In the days afterward, some observers saw other factors, though.
Manley was twice divorced. He had no children, no nieces or nephews. His parents had both died: his mother in 2002, then his father in 2007. He had one sister and one brother and neither lived nearby or visited much.
Almost all of the recent photographs of him on his website appeared to be “selfies.”
Those closest to Manley, though, backed his version.
“Well maybe he needed help, but he would never have admitted it or accepted it,” his sister, Barbie Flick, wrote on a memorial site set up for him by a friend. “As far as lonely — I believe that everyone who knew Martin, very much enjoyed his company.”
When Yahoo, which Manley prepaid to host the site for five years, took it down, Flick fought to have it restored, saying her brother’s final wish should be honored. Numerous “mirror” versions of the site, including one by people identifying as members of the “hacktivist” group Anonymous, popped up soon after, preserving access to Manley’s final thoughts for those who are interested.
“I believe that he knew he could be around friends as much as he liked,” Flick said. “I know I never got to see him as much as I would have like(d) to. He just really enjoyed being alone and working on his blog or researching this or that.”
‘Something I’m thinking about doing’
Todd Weller, who created the memorial site, wrote that in recent months, Manley leaned on his technology skills.
“He was asking me very specifically how to do certain things like, how to post an mp3 file or how to use FTP, etc.,” he wrote. “I told him that on some (of) these things I could do it for him way faster than I could tell him how to do it. To which he would offer a lame excuse like, it’s just something I’m thinking about doing.”
Efforts to reach Weller and Flick for this story, through the memorial site and other online messages, were unsuccessful.
They and others remembered a unique and quirky man, facts Manley readily acknowledged.
He ate one meal a day, sometimes nothing at all, and had “consistently inconsistent” sleep habits. At one point, he experimented with staying awake 36 hours at a time, then sleeping for 12.
He had a collection of 25 fedora hats, boasted about wearing the same pair of $12 Wal-Mart shoes for 12 years and played a monthly game of dollar poker that welcomed obscure variations of the game with names like “Three Turds” and “No Peak.”
He had a collection of more than 1,000 movies on VHS tape, along with a computer database that would sort them by title, rating, year and genre. (He had his own rating system for them, too. He only handed out 21 perfect “10” scores over the years and his absolute favorite film was the 1986 adaptation of “Little Shop of Horrors.”
And it appears Manley may have even played a practical joke to tweak the greedy in his long farewell. In the section of his site detailing his collection of gold and silver coins, a random set of GPS coordinates appears, along with a tiny thumbnail image of Overland Park Arboretum & Botanical Gardens.
Police say about 20 people, some with GPS units, metal detectors and shovels, showed up at the gardens and started digging. But the joke was on them — Manley’s family told police he had given the gold away.
‘I am broken-hearted but I do not begrudge what he did,” Flick, his sister, wrote on the memorial site. “He always had a difficult time conforming to this world. He was truly like a square peg in a round hole.”
‘Thrilled to death’
Hours before his death, Manley scheduled a final post to his blog, Sports in Review, to publish and sent e-mails and overnight letters via FedEx to Flick, Weller and others telling them what he’d done. With him was a detailed message for police, apologizing for subjecting them to the suicide and explaining that his family and friends would be contacting them in a few hours. He’d left them the number to the police station.
So, did Manley, as he predicted, spend his final moments “thrilled” that he’d been able to leave this world having created a digital legacy for himself? Calhoun wonders.
“In the immediate time period preceding the final act, people tend, perhaps somewhat irrationally, to see escaping from the pain and distress as only possible by ending their lives,” he said. “It is not uncommon, however, for people who attempt and ‘fail’ to be grateful that they did not succeed, perhaps in part because they have come to see alternatives to the only path they could see at the time.”
Manley would have argued, according to friends — would have argued passionately.
“I guarantee you from having imagined my way through it a hundred times, the only thing going through my head was asking forgiveness, remembering those whom I love, being glad I was able to end it the way I wanted and thrilled to death that I left this website,” he wrote. “Don’t weep for me dying alone. We ALL die alone.”
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