Elisa Lam – The Paradox of Discussion without Exploitation

By now, most people are aware of the tragic death of Elisa Lam. There’s a new docuseries about it, plus news stories, reports, and a near infinite number of conspiracy theories – surely she was murdered, the hotel staff were involved, LAPD covered it up, there’s a curse on the hotel, a man who wasn’t even in the country at the time but looked “different” must have done it, she was drugged, or otherwise compromised. (I will not link to the video.)

Ms Lam died in February 2013, the video came out soon after. While so many people were looking for a reason, trying to make a horrible event even worse, ruining an innocent man’s life because he was an artist they didn’t understand, while they watched the video and couldn’t make sense of it at all, my heart ached. I watched the screen, her behavior, the inexplicable movements and seeming paranoia, and said “She’s probably bipolar, and she’s having a psychotic break.” And it turns out, that’s exactly what happened. I knew this before I knew she was bipolar-1. I knew this before I learned she had a history of these breaks. I knew this because I am also bipolar-1 and I also had a psychotic break years ago. My heart broke for her and what she went through. This young lady so full of promise, taken so soon. My heart broke because I knew instantly what was happening, I’m certain others like me did too.

When it was revealed that she was suffering with mental illness late in the documentary, the keyboard warriors conspiracy theory community said, “Oh no, that doesn’t happen, she was carried to the water tower or killed elsewhere or sacrificed or…but that’s not what mental illness does!”

These bloggers had no idea about the illness, so I want to be clear; this is, in fact, what bipolar disorder can do to a person. If you want to know what bipolar-1 can do, ask someone with bipolar-1!

I’m not going to rehash the entire documentary, you can watch it if you want. But while you get sucked into the ridiculous, breathless theories up to and including Satanic involvement, just remember that she was not that video, those last images that people poured over frame by frame, achingly hopeful to find something that wasn’t there. So wrapped up in their own glory that they turned this young lady’s tragedy into a tool for internet fame. And in so doing, caused harm to the understanding of mental illness, potentially hurting people with bipolar-1, minimizing what this disease can do to a person.

Elisa Lam was a 21 year old woman, a human with a family, hopes, dreams, fears, and doubt. She was a thoughtful writer who may have gone on to great things, or may have gone into a different field, we’ll never know. Her life was cut short and what she may have been is unknowable.

That is the tragedy. That is the headline. This woman’s life meant infinitely more than a two-minute video and wide-eyed gossip. It is disrespectful to her and to her family to focus on this, especially now that the “mystery” is solved.

But here’s the thing; there was no mystery. There was no whodunit. The lynch mob never should have gotten where they did. People should not have worked up to such a froth that they found their enemy in an artist who expresses his vision in a way that they have never seen in their worlds. Even after being presented with empirical evidence of his innocence, they still made him a scapegoat. He nearly killed himself because of the harassment, the death threats, the attacks on his art. He does not look sinister to me. I’ve known artists like him. I don’t know this man, I don’t know what kind of things he’s done in his life, but this is not one of them. I feel for him. These people nearly destroyed him, and not one person in that group of accusers has apologized. Pablo Vergara, I doubt you’ll read this, but if you do, I hope you are doing better. I hope you are making music again. I’m so sorry the lynch mob did this to you.

This is what happens, isn’t it? Are you old enough to remember the “Satanic Panic” bullshit in the ‘80s? I was in high school, I remember it well. People’s lives were torn apart, innocent people were sent to prison. Based upon what? Recovered memories, hearsay, rumors, and gossip. Targeting people that looked “weird,” people who said something “suspicious.” It was Salem without the hangings, or pressing in one case. It was another witch hunt by “adults” who wanted some drama in their lives, and let fear turn them into the monsters they claimed to chase. I learned the power of a mindless mob.

And here we are again.

This promising young lady’s life was distilled down to her death and the titillating fun these people could have with it. It makes me sick, it makes me angry, but most of all it makes me sad.

She deserves better.

I just learned she kept a blog. She told us who she was in her own voice. She was reflected in her family, in her friends, in the people she touched. She was a fully-rounded person with a mental illness and she did what she could, as we all do. I related to her with all my heart. I saw what was happening from the first viewing. I’ve been there, as have so many of us. I wish someone could have intervened. I wish her life was the focus, not the details of her death. I wish this could bring a discussion about what bipolar disorder is and what it can do to a person. I wish we would stop shouting “bipolar!” whenever there is a shooting, feeding the flames of stigma.

I won’t exploit her death but this conversation is important. I want to talk about those issues and raise awareness of mental illness. I also need to rant for a moment because issues around conspiracy theories and the damage they cause are important. Yes, I’m pissed. I took this personally, watching this young woman be the subject of gossip and wide-eyed “OMG!” conversations. Elisa Lam was a person doing the best she could. Please let this woman rest. What happened is clear and heartbreaking.

Finally to anyone reading who has a mental illness, please take care of yourself, be kind to yourself, and find the help you need to learn to live with your illness. You are not broken, you are not defective, you have a medical illness no different than any other.

If you need help, or know someone who does, please use one of the numbers below. There is no shame in needing help, no shame in having a mental illness. You can learn about your disease and how to manage it.

National Helpline

SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline

National Suicide Prevention Hotline

We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.

1-800-273-8255

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