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“You’d best make hotel arrangements elsewhere.” Cartoon by Frank Cotham
Beyond such extreme behavior, the crime is much trickier to define. In most states, a therapist has a legal obligation to contact law enforcement if a patient talks credibly about killing herself. But is a friend required to report a suicide risk? And what if someone encourages—even inadvertently—another person to commit the action?
In legal terms, it’s difficult to define what it means to encourage a suicide. Few people would consider it criminal to not actively try to stop a person who threatens to kill herself, even if it feels unseemly. And have you encouraged the deed if you say that you understand the impulse, or that everyone deserves an end to her pain, or that her family and friends will forgive the act in time? Body language and context can be as important as words. To acknowledge to a friend that she has much to be depressed about may mean different things, depending on whether you are sending her a hotline number or a link to a Web site that spells out the lethal doses for various barbiturates.
Will Newman, of Saint Louis University, told me that the lawsuit targeting Grossheim was unusual. He could think of no comparable accusations “of large-scale, face-to-face efforts to facilitate other people’s suicides,” other than lawsuits involving cults. He cited the Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate mass suicides. In some ways, the allegations in Bottorff-Arey’s suit resembled those in the case of Michelle Carter, a Massachusetts teen-ager who, in 2017, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for having urged her boyfriend to asphyxiate himself with the exhaust from his truck. In multiple text-message exchanges in the course of several weeks, she pushed him to make the decision. Most disturbing, when Carter’s boyfriend called in the middle of the act, saying that he was scared, she told him to complete the suicide. The petition filed on behalf of Bottorff-Arey and the Thomases contained no evidence that Grossheim had gone as far: it quoted no texts, conversations, or e-mails between him and the victims. But it characterized the “step-by-step” counsel he had offered to depressed friends as “advice on how to commit suicide.” Bottorff-Arey told me she was certain that Grossheim had psychologically manipulated his friends. As she put it, “Alex would still be here if it wasn’t for Brandon.”