Mourning parents target suicide sites

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Suzanne Gonzales loved wearing red with white polka dots so much that she had her prom dress custom-made in her favorite pattern. Later, as a 19-year-old student at Florida State University, she wore a red-and-white polka dot scarf as she dashed around Tallahassee on the Vespa scooter that her parents gave her.

Five years later, Mary and Mike Gonzales wear red-and-white polka dot ribbons on their lapels in memory of their daughter, who killed herself with the help of a suicide Web site. They are in Washington for the first time, making rounds on Capitol Hill to drum up support for “Suzy’s Law,” a bill that would make it a crime to use the Internet to teach someone how to commit suicide or provide them with the means to do so.

“This group should be allowed to discuss suicidal feelings - it’s their right to have this freedom of speech - but there’s a fine gray line where it is like taking someone who’s up high on a building thinking about jumping and yelling, ‘Jump,’” said Mrs. Gonzales, whose shiny black hair and wide smile mirror the pictures of her late daughter.

The site that Suzy visited, a Google Group called “alt.suicide.holiday” or “ASH,” is one of many suicide sites on the Web offering detailed instructions on how to go about ending one’s life. The sites suggest where to obtain poison and tell how many minutes it takes to die. Users share writings, poetry and even suicide notes.

As long as a visitor claims to be 18 years old, anyone can access alt.suicide.holiday. ASHers, as they call themselves, describe the philosophy as one of “pro-choice” - as opposed to “pro-suicide” - one in which depressed, anonymous users neither encourage nor discourage one another from “catching the bus,” as they call it.

But the Gonzaleses and suicide prevention authorities warn that sites like ASH - which claims that 24 users have killed themselves - are a deadly risk lurking in dark corners of the Internet, unbeknownst to parents.

“Most everybody who is at risk of suicide is vulnerable to suggestion,” said Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. “The one reason people at risk for suicide can be helped therapeutically is that they are very open, for the most part, to influence.”

In the case of Suzy Gonzales, her parents say that influence came from a stranger.

She was a “beautiful, bubbly, wonderful daughter,” the kind of person who bought a purple wig for a teacher who had lost her hair undergoing chemotherapy treatment, her mother recalls. She painted her own shoes and made up different accents to amuse herself during a job as a telemarketer. She was fiercely competitive, winning a full academic scholarship to Florida State and spending her last year of high school taking college courses.

The couple had no idea that their daughter - 3,000 miles away from their small town of Red Bluff, Calif. - was severely depressed, much less contemplating suicide. Sure, she was shaken by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks 18 months earlier and had put her scholarship on hold for two semesters, but she returned the next fall and seemed as happy as ever. The week before she died, she brought her new boyfriend to California to attend a cousin’s wedding.

But on March 23, 2003, Mr. and Mrs. Gonzales got word from Suzy’s best friend that she was missing. Minutes later, a time-delayed e-mail arrived. It was a suicide note.

“That still is the part of the puzzle that never fits in my mind. She was so happy the week she was home and then depressed enough to take her own life,” Mr. Gonzales said, holding his wife’s hand.

Soon, they learned that their daughter had become an active member of ASH, where she befriended a user by the name of “River,” who, her parents said, told her to pose as a jeweler in order to acquire cyanide - an action they consider tantamount to encouragement. He also claims to have edited her suicide note.

“Bye everyone, see you on the other side,” she wrote in her last post at 1:15 a.m.

In an e-mail to The Washington Times, River said he has “never encouraged anyone to die and never will. … There is no way for me to regret that Suzy killed herself. One cannot regret the actions of another.”

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About the Author
Kara Rowland

Kara Rowland

Kara Rowland, White House reporter for The Washington Times, is a D.C.-area native. She graduated from the University of Virginia, where she studied American government and spent nearly all her waking hours working as managing editor of the Cavalier Daily, UVa.’s student newspaper.

Her interest in political reporting was piqued by an internship at Roll Call the summer before her ...

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