The story has been catnip to many media outlets (including, now, this one): On Tuesday, an author who supposedly ended her life two years ago suddenly announced in a Facebook group that she isn’t dead after all. This strange tale went viral when a fellow author, who knew Susan Meachen from online interactions, posted about the revelation and include screenshots of direct messages she exchanged with Meachen. Samantha Cole accused Meachen of “not giving a single thought to the people who considered you a friend before you pulled this stunt,” and wrote that the news of Meachen’s deception made her feel “like I was kicked in the gut.”
The real hook here is that both the alleged perp and her victims are book authors. Would a similar scandal among, say, knitting enthusiasts or vegetable gardeners get the same press? No. The Susan Meachen story has been further spiced by the news that persons claiming to be her family members had posted comments on Facebook following her alleged suicide, claiming that “bullying” in “the book world” drove the writer to take her own life.
It’s a double dose of the delicious spectacle of authors behaving badly. There’s the alleged harassers—the literary scene is so nasty!—and what appears to be a shameless bid on Meachen’s part to goose sales of her final novel, Love to Last a Lifetime, purported to be a wedding gift to Meachen’s daughter and unfinished upon her “death.” The book was completed, according to posts made to Meachen’s Facebook page by someone claiming to be her daughter, with the aid of friends in “the book world” as a farewell tribute.
Far be it from me to let the literary world off the hook for its many scandals and authorial shenanigans. But a closer look, and an interview with Cole, the writer whose post went viral, makes it clear that’s not what this story is really about. Rather, it’s a tale as old as the internet: an insular online community turns toxic and claustrophobic, and drama ensues.
While Meachen and the other writers who befriended her virtually refer to their community as “the book world,” what they’re talking about has little to do with what most outsiders would associate with that term: the mainstream publishing industry, the professionals who work in it, and the authors whose books fill your local bookstore. Meachen’s “book world” is the community of self-published romance and erotica writers who sell low-cost e-books and print-on-demand paperbacks, primarily through Amazon. The Kindle edition of Love to Last a Lifetime costs $2.99, although you can read it for free if you subscribe to Kindle Unlimited.
The notion that Meachen could cash in by faking her own death in order to sell a $3 e-book to this tiny audience is ridiculous—although, who knows? Perhaps Meachen’s definition of success is modest enough to be satisfied by a sales bump of a handful of copies. Posts to Meachen’s Facebook page by the “daughter,” and direct messages Meachen recently sent to Cole, indicate that her book sales were “zero” before and after her faked suicide. But even if the gambit had boosted her sales, Meachen wouldn’t have been in a position to capitalize on it much—a “dead” author can’t publish new titles.
Instead of a publicity stunt, Meachen’s exit from the “book world” reads more like an old-school internet flounce. There’s a long history in online communities of members faking terminal illness and death, sometimes to grift donations for medical treatment or memorial services (Meachen has been accused of this), but often just for the drama, the attention, and—maybe most importantly—the chance to shame their enemies. A LiveJournal page dedicated to faked deaths on that platform features many stories, some dating back to the early 2000s, that resemble Meachen’s in certain details, such as complaints by alleged family members about how the community treated the deceased. (Who among us, having lost a loved one, would not log onto their social media accounts to continue prosecuting their online beefs?) Call it Meachen’s Law: The longer a tightly-knit internet community exists, the more the likelihood that someone will fake their death approaches one.
In an interview via Facebook Messenger, Samantha Cole told me that the accusations of book-world bullying once posted to Meachen’s author page, and since deleted, contained no specific allegations. “There were references to ‘months of bullying’ and a list of people and ‘you know who you are’—that sort of thing.” Cole insists that her book world is a largely supportive sphere, but that bad actors amounting to about “5 percent” of the community can cause plenty of strife and hurt feelings. These include a man who, after Meachen’s “suicide,” repeatedly claimed that bullying from Cole was the cause.
Until Meachen herself weighs in (she did not respond to requests for comment), it’s impossible to conclude what motivated her to pretend that she’d ended her life. But if it was the harshness of her book world that led her to depart in such an extreme fashion, she nevertheless could not stay away from it. A few weeks after her alleged suicide was announced in the Ward, a Facebook reading group, Meachen reappeared under another identity, TN Steele, sending friend requests to many of the authors who’d friended her as Susan Meachen. This enabled her, like a virtual Tom Sawyer, to spy on her own funeral, but it also indicates just how hard it is to kick an online community in which you’re deeply enmeshed, even when you think it’s bad for you.
Cole told me that if Meachen had announced that she felt overwhelmed and needed to step away from social media for a while, she would have found plenty of support in their book world. Faking a suicide, then posting messages blaming her online community for driving her to it, was a hostile act that understandably left Cole and many others reeling. But attempting to return to the group two years later, as if the bogus suicide were no big deal, is an even weirder move. If it’s the toxic drama that put Meachen off, why not chill under the TN Steele identity indefinitely? Why invite even more insults and denunciations by revealing your own lie? “I simply want my life back,” Meachen told Cole in a direct message. But at this point there’s nothing left to Susan Meachen’s Facebook life but the drama. And the drama, it turns out, is what’s hardest to quit.