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A virtual life; a too-real death

Craig Medred
I never knew Corey Akerelrea, except in the virtual world, and only then after his death. I wish I could bring him back and get to know him better.
Twitter.com/coreyakerelrea

As a reporter, there are stories you stumble upon about which you don't even want to know. Corey Akerelrea was one of those stories.

He was a bright young man, possibly too bright, who committed suicide in Scammon Bay. I never knew Corey, except in the virtual world, and only then after his death. I encountered his story last summer while researching a series of stories on Alaska's failed war on alcohol.

Corey had Tweeted his suicide online. I can't remember how exactly this was discovered, but it chills me still to think about how his death unfolded.

First came this at 5:55 on the morning of June 29, 2010: "Pissed off at the world I see. Perhaps leave the world?"

Two days later, at shortly before 3 a.m., he Tweeted "Round round baby, low low low. As times pass, we're never getting old."

Within hours, Corey was dead.

"I'm gone now," read the last message he typed before he fatally shot himself. "Left this world, because i couldn't handle all the bs i took. I love you all."

The time was 4:23 a.m. The sun, which doesn't rise and set so much as revolve around Scammon Bay in the summer, would have been already lightening the eastern sky. Weather records for the airport in the village of 500 at the edge of the Askinuk Mountains, just up a hill from the south bank of the Kun River about a mile from the Bering Sea, indicate it was a wet morning.

Many summer mornings are like that on the low, lake-pocked swath of far Western Alaska known to those in the North as the Yukon-Kuskowim Delta. When I stumbled on Corey's story, I thought maybe it had something to do with alcohol, which is a blessed curse on rural communities all across the state.

It didn't. As I dug deeper, I found what appeared to be a story about rage. A 17-year-old high school student, Corey was all over the Internet, engaged in helping set up and work vBulletin forums about which I knew nothing then and still know little now. His computer allowed him to interact with people all over the country.

"I do think he was sensitive and hid behind an attitude to hide his hurt at the accusations and flaming thrown at him," observed one who called herself Hari -- just Hari. "Too bad the Internet is so impersonal. People say the meanest things they would never say face to face. Nobody is perfect in life. But no problem is so bad that the only solution is to take away your own life."

I thought for months about writing about Corey. I tracked down people in Western Alaska who knew him and his family. I found some of the people he'd befriended far from Alaska.

"I met him over a video game actually, PSP Fireteam Bravo," said Chris Boylston, a college student a few years older in South Carolina. I'm not a gamer, but I'm smart enough to figure out that was what Boylston was talking about. I had to Google up the rest to find out that "PSP" was an acronym for PlayStation Portable, a version of the Sony entertainment system I'd only ever heard referred to as simply "PlayStation."

Living in Scammon Bay, on the Internet

"We finally really connected over MySpace," Chris said. MySpace, as of course everyone knows, was the predecessor to Facebook, which now seems as if it has been with us forever, although it took to life only a decade ago.

Corey was on Facebook, too. The Internet seemed to some degree where he lived, though he was rooted in a place that lives back in time.

Scammon Bay is what Alaskans call a "subsistence community," a place where people net fish, hunt marine mammals and big game, and gather wild plants and berries for much of their food. It is a place where people gather driftwood to heat their homes because the only alternative, fuel oil, costs more than $6 per gallon.

The village is almost 530 miles west of Anchorage, the state's largest city. In modern terms, it has no real economic reason to exist. Its history traces back to seasonal Yupik Eskimo camps in the area and people coalescing around a post office at the start of the 1950s.

The unemployment rate is around 20 percent, but the figure is sort of meaningless, given that more than half the people who live in Scammon Bay have given up looking for work because there is none. Those who decide to work, especially the men, usually leave the village. There are a few commercial fishing jobs, but the work is seasonal and not very profitable. The average American would consider the community poor -- dirt poor. But the people there do not think of themselves that way.

Of mixed blood, as most in rural Alaska, most residents cling fiercely to their Yupik Eskimo traditions. They are a people living with a foot in worlds ancient and modern. It is not an easy way to live. Money is hard to come by. What there is often comes from various corporate or government entities in some form of handouts that are as corrosive as they are helpful.

Scammon Bay, Chris remembered Corey saying, was "far from anywhere. That's kind of how he described it. Living so far away ... it was kind of an alien culture from mine. For several years, I sensed his frustration. I don't remember exactly how he expressed himself. He just many times expressed this frustration."

For a long time, after talking to Chris, I thought there might a story about the difficulties of growing up isolated in rural Alaska in these times, but the story was never written. This is a sensitive subject in Alaska, and there are so many elements to the story, it is tough to wrap them all up in a neat little box.

"Corey came right after Chan Sundown, another super bright, smart, athletic kid from Scammon Bay," a friend from Bethel messaged me. "There were four or five right in line in Scammon in 2009-2010: Jeremy Hunter, then Christian Simon; Chanar Sundown, and Corey Akerelrea. Here's the thing, it truly is an epidemic, like an infection.

"It's hard to explain, but I remember Chan describing finding Christian and how it had him thinking about death, and me and (a) friend who found Chan have also both felt that way numerous times since."

Depressing problem

Some thought the Internet might save Corey, but it didn't. Maybe it made his life better for a time. I fear it made it worse. I never resolved that matter in my own mind, and there in the fall of last year I didn't want to go down that rabbit hole. It was personal protection as much as anything else. The alcohol series was making me so depressed I thought I might develop a drinking problem.

Once those stories got written, I sort of pushed the seemingly unsolvable problems of rural Alaska away because I didn't want to think about them anymore. I even almost convinced myself that Facebook, which has given rural Alaska a connectivity it never before enjoyed, was a good thing.

It's not.

Some of my own Facebook efforts to engage discussions with nonsensical and illogical people last month reminded me of that. At one point, feeling frustration heading toward some sort of strange Facebook-rage, I turned off the computer and walked away from the website for a time.

When that happened, I couldn't avoid thinking of Corey.

If the cold, callous, name-calling and often senseless interactions of Internet media could frustrate and anger me, someone getting on in years while living a rich life and knowing a few successes, what might it do to someone still young and sorting things out in a place far away?

Despite the iconic status of Alaska villages, they are not always the easiest places to live. I remembered a middle-aged man in Gambell on Saint Lawrence Island far out in the Bering Sea once telling me about the life of which he dreamed. He stopped the conversation to run home and get a copy of a story he'd written about this subject. He'd managed to get it published in a newspaper somewhere.

The copy was already yellowing when I saw it. He wrote about wanting a house in suburbia with a garage and a lawn to mow. It was the American dream, the overpowering American dream. He'd never live it. Not even come close. That sort of thing isn't coming to Gambell, at least not in our lifetimes. Nor to Scammon Bay.

Building frustrations

So there sits Corey, getting angry and frustrated at the boneheads in the tubes, wondering about what he's to do with his life in the modern world, thinking about his life on the edge of North America with his frustration eating at him like battery acid. I grew up in a small town in Minnesota long, long ago. I can identify. Almost everyone in my high school shared one desire; they wanted to get out.

It was pretty easy there. You got some wheels and drove. Or you packed a bag, walked down to Highway 10, put up your thumb and hit the road. And if the road didn't treat you kindly, it wasn't that hard to hitch on home and regroup to try again. It's not that easy when you're in Scammon Bay.

Not that this is meant to diss Facebook or the Internet. Both have probably brought more good than bad to rural Alaska. People there are now connected to their neighbors in ways they could only long for in the days of old. But with the good comes bad.

The Internet is another wave in a tidal wave of changes sweeping over places where little more than a generation ago people were truly living off the land. Few do that today. Today rural Alaska is a crazy, mixed socioeconomic scene where people still fish and hunt for the protein in their diet before coming home to their computer.

And it is at that computer they connect to the world, a world both social and intellectual, friendly and mean, and sometimes just irritating.

"A lot of people online aren't very sensitive," Chris said when I talked to him on the phone way back in the middle of September. "If you're very direct with people, they could be quick to anger. I never thought of Corey as someone prone to angry outbursts."

But obviously others did.

"He had his issues. I have my issues. We kinda clashed a bit at one point," JacquiiDesigns posted on a vBulletin.org forum. There were plenty more like that:

• "He irritated most of the people that he interacted with..."
 "I called him out a few weeks ago because I thought he showed some attitude with me in a post, but he said everything was cool and I left off thinking everything was OK."
 "Never got on with him."
 "I know we used to Troll you on here (Corey), and start shit with you... And I know, I ended it before you died... But it still makes me feel bad, that we didn't help you -- and weren't friendly with you..."

Many, many more, however, clearly recognized the curious intelligence that was a driving force in Corey's life. He was, as that friend in Bethel described to others, "a super-bright kid." He was, in many ways, a whole lot smarter than I am. Most of his online acquaintances appeared shocked to learn he was only 17.

Intelligence is a blessing that can also be a curse. "There are no dangerous thoughts; (but) thinking itself is dangerous," the German philosopher Hannah Arendt once observed.

The danger is only heightened by interacting with the people who don't think, or don't listen, or lack the power to reason, or find their entertainment in goading others.

You can interact with all kinds of them on the Internet. Sitting here in the bright light of day, I can almost see them late at night driving a smart kid like Corey off the edge. They almost did me. Not in a suicidal way, but in a hugely unproductive one. They led me down the path of frustration toward the land of anger over pretty much nothing. And that's a worthless journey that wasted my time and some of the limited brain power I have left.

I, fortunately, had the experience and the sense to turn off the computer and get away. Corey had the sense, but not the experience. How could I not wake up thinking of him?

"I do miss talking to him," was one of the last things Chris said to me about Corey. "He was a great friend of mine."

The Internet has that kind of power for good, and yet there lingers this dark side. I fear the latter more than I need the former, so aside from maybe posting some photos or happy banter on Facebook, I'm out of there for a while. It's a dangerous place to engage a discussion.

Corey hit back the only way he thought he could, by making an Internet spectacle of his death. I wish I could bring him back and get to know him better.

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com

CORRECTION: This story was edited on April 11 to correct the names of two of the victims in the suicide cluster that devastated the village of Scammon Bay and to correct the distance between Anchorage and Scammon Bay.