WRITING AARON SWARTZ'S OBITUARY

~ Posted by Simon Willis, January 18th 2013

This week's obituary in The Economist, about the computer programmer and activist Aaron Swartz, is unusual. First, there's his reputation. Most of us hadn't heard of him. Then there's his age. When he died he was just 26. But for Ann Wroe, who writes most of The Economist's obituaries and wrote Swartz's, it was the manner of his death rather than the brevity of his life that made the obituary especially difficult to write. On January 11th, he killed himself in his New York apartment. Some obituaries are technically worrying, she explained—those for musicians, for instance, where you can't quote their music as you would a poet's words. But suicides present a different challenge. "Suicides," she told me, "are morally worrying".

The word "suicide" doesn't appear once in the main text of theobituary. "You have to be very careful," Wroe says. "You don't want to seem to be positing cause and effect." When she was researching Swartz's life, she read his blog. As well as facing prosecution for downloading 4.8m documents from JSTOR in 2010, he suffered from depression. "There's this black undertow all the time," she says, "and it's not something you can make anyone understand, and I don't understand it. So I was looking for any detail that might just illuminate what he'd done and what his feelings were, but not wanting to put too much weight on it at the same time."

So she decided to leave the word "suicide" out, writing it in the rubric instead, the little introductory sentence under the headline. There it's neutral, a statement of fact, rather than an explicable result of circumstances. "The human mind is so complex," she says, "that if you start going into psychoanalysis you're starting to put yourself in that judgment seat where I don't ever want to be. You want to let the facts of the life speak." 

Simon Willis is apps editor at Intelligent Life. His recent posts for the Editors' Blog include The Oscars show their amour and A fragment a day