Everyday philosophy: Death in the age of Facebook

Life, death, dream  written in Chinese calligraphy. In my opinion, this is Chinese A, B, C. — Julie O’yang

And nope, both Molli Bernstein and Jack Weinstein are complete strangers to me, just like Gypsy Rose Lee and Socrates are. They are not personal friends, but that’s exactly the point. JO’y

Death in the age of Facebook                 

 By Jack Russell Weinstein

Molli Bernstein died of a drug overdose this weekend; I didn’t really know her. She was one of the hundreds of Facebook friends I have acquired because of my radio show and blog. I was first connected to her via a mutual acquaintance—a young photographer—when they both started complaining about Facebook censoring their pictures.

Molli was a fashion model and she had posed for some test nudes, helping an inexperienced photographer-friend as they both learned their trade. She posted them on a blog, shared them on Facebook, someone complained about the nudity, Facebook took the link down, and eventually, I wrote a post exploring the tension between the idea of “art” and the pragmatic practice of labelling images. It was a totally unnecessary chain of events.

We only chatted a few times, via private messages, although occasionally I would PM her to ask if she were okay. She would respond about five percent of the time. She was struggling, very publicly, with a drug addiction, and you could see the effects on her face as she lost and gained weight, as she felt better, then worse, then better about herself. She would share these excruciatingly-long videos of herself detailing her struggle and laying bare her emotions. Once she recorded a monologue from her bathtub. I couldn’t watch more than a minutes or two of any of them. They were too painful. It is awful to watch someone commit suicide ever-so-slowly.

There was nothing I could do to help her, of course. I had no real relationship with her, and short of the butterfly effect, my intervention would have had no consequences. She had family where she lived—a whole community who knew what she was going through—and if those who were important to her couldn’t do anything, what could I do?

I periodically thought about inviting her to hang-out together when I visited Fargo, but I never acted on it. First off, I can’t remember the last time I hung-out anywhere, and second, I couldn’t manage what it might have seemed like for a 47-year old married man to invite a mid-twenties woman whom he’s never met and whom he only knows from often-provocative pictures, out for a drink or coffee.

This is the nature of relationships in the Facebook age: friends without contacts, intimate glimpses of people’s lives without true interactions, balancing what it means for someone to be a real person but only actually knowing her as an object on your screen.

Two of my dearest friends died in the last six months, Julius died of a heart attack a little more than a week ago and Brooke died from cancer in June. We were all so far away from each other that all of our interactions with each other were also on Facebook. Since I often thought of visiting them as well and couldn’t, since I didn’t even have the time to get to Julius and Brooke, how would I have had time for Molli?

The thing that I learned from Molli above and beyond everything else is that modelling is a creative activity. We are encouraged to think of models as blank canvasses for photographers to pose, for designers to dress, and for make-up artists to alter. But Molli was quite explicit about how she expressed herself through her modeling, how she communicated her own look through the shoots, and how working satisfied her creative needs. Molli articulated well how models are not passive but integral to art and was the first to make me really understand why some models are good and some are bad, independent of whether or not they are “pretty.” I am including much more photography on this blog entry than I usual do because only then can you really see her the way I think she wanted herself to be seen. Undamaged. Theatrical. Brave. A force to be reckoned with.

Molli was born Molly. She changed the spelling of her name, although I don’t know why. I don’t know if she liked to read, or what movies she enjoyed, or what her favorite food was. I knew she had a boyfriend whom she loved but I also knew their relationship was complicated. I know another person overdosed with her, someone named Patrick with whom I never interacted. But, that’s all I know about Molly with a y, even though I spent two and a half-years responding to pictures, sharing one liners, having brief chats, and looking at images shared by Molli with an i. Both are dead now.

Did I have a responsibility to try to help either of them even if I couldn’t? I guess I tried a little by asking how she was and having a few brief encouraging chats with her, but I don’t know if I was morally obligated to do so. Her death doesn’t make me feel guilty; it just makes me really really sad.

I firmly believe that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, but the internet keeps so many people at such a distance that it is hard to know when it is proper to try to make that divide smaller. I was just one of Molli’s many appreciative audience members. I thought she was a great, interesting, and challenging model. But her sharing her pictures was not an invitation for any and every person to get involved in her life. Many men don’t seem to understand this about women. Just because they perform for an audience doesn’t mean they want to talk to you. If Molli wanted to be my friend she would have told me so. If she wanted my help, she knew she could ask. In fact, the last thing she wrote to me was that she always appreciated me asking how she was. She was rarely on Facebook chat even when it said she was (her phone was wonky), she told me, but she always got my message.

Others will mourn Molly with a y. I know all too well the pain of loss by addiction, a pain that never goes away. I lost many dear friends to its darkness. So, to those who survive her, my heart goes out to all of of you. I am truly sorry your loss.

But I am who I am and our relationship was what it was, and I only knew the tiniest speck of her existence. So, with all of that said, and for the sake of symmetry, I shall end my friendship with Molli the same way I started it, by writing about her.

Molli Bernstein died this weekend. I just wanted you all to know.

 

This article is re-blogged from PQED. Jack Russell Weinstein is the Director of the Institute for Philosophy in Public Life, the host of Why? Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life, and a Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Dakota.

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