In late 2020, fans of indie romance writer Susan Meachen got shocking news: she had recently died. Even worse, she had taken her own life, and it was intimated that online bullying had driven her to do so.
Meachen had been an active member of a number of online communities of indie romance authors. Any number of online author communities exist for different genres, and I can attest that they can get ugly. Just like any other part of the Internet – and especially social media – some people participate in such groups seemingly for the sole purpose of dumping on others.
Not surprisingly, the indie/romance world is especially drama-ridden. Meachen had earlier intimated about her struggles with mental health issues to her 700+ followers on her Facebook page – known as “the Ward,” a reference to a psych ward. Regardless, they were shocked when a post on Meachen’s account by her daughter in September 2020 announced that Meachen had taken her own life, and strongly intimated that online “book world” bullying had been a contributing factor.
Naturally, Meachen’s online fans and friends were devastated. Some pitched in to edit Meachen’s final manuscript for publication. A short story anthology called Bully King Anthology, which was dedicated to Meachen, with the tag “Let’s keep bullying where it belongs – In fiction.” There was also on online auction to help cover the expenses of Meachen’s funeral.
As the months after Meachen’s death rolled on there would be posts on Meachen’s FB page from her daughter, many calling attention to mental health issues. Eventually, a new admin called T.N. Steele began moderating and posting to the Ward. Strangely enough, Steele shared the same birthday and anniversary as did Meachen.
The mystery was solved on January 3 of this year, when the following post hit Meachen’s FB page:
Indeed, the fun did begin. Many people were outraged that Meachen had falsely reported her own suicide, then seemed to try to profit from it as well. One former friend contacted FBI’s cybercrimes unit. There was much recrimination about the anguish caused by the fake death announcement, and similar concerns related to mental health issues.
The media had a fun time with it, although mostly in a superficial, frothy “ha-ha-look-at-the-lengths-these-indie-authors-will-go-to” sort of way, perhaps with a soupcon of concern about mental health issues.
The mainstream “traditional” publishing industry weighed in with an unsurprising level of condescension. “Mainstream” book reviewer Laura Miller wrote the following in Slate:
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.
Snotty, yes – but the “book world” for indie writers is just as real – and drama-filled – for indie writers as the traditional publishing industry is for folks like Ms. Miller. The New York Times pointed out in an op-ed that the traditional publishing scene is not without its own scandals and drama. The point being that even if your glass house is a 29-story building on Broadway, you should be careful about chucking stones.
Then the NYT came up with a more nuanced take on the story that cast Meachen in a more sympathetic light. A resident of rural Tennessee, Susan Meachen found herself at loose ends as her husband Troy was away from home for long stretches as a long-haul truck driver. Meachen discovered her “book world” by immersing herself in romance novels, often going through them in less than a day.
Then she began writing them, and entered the singular purgatory of indie authorship. It can be a difficult world, one with a constant need for attention and validation. These, unfortunately, can be achieved for some by slagging other authors in online forums, on Goodreads, on Amazon reviews and elsewhere.
Add genuine mental health issues into this environment, and things can quickly deteriorate. Meachen had been diagnosed and treated for bipolar disorder. The feedback of the indie/romance “book world” was a double-acting whipsaw, elevating the manic highs and depressing the dismal lows. Meachen’s family began to express major concerns about her well-being and possibility of self-harm.
In September 2020, while Troy was on the road, Meachen’s daughter checked in on her and discovered her semi-conscious, after having taken a large quantity of Xanax. Obviously terrified by the effects that “book world” were having on his wife’s mental health, Troy instructed his daughter to post the announcement of Susan Meachen’s death, hoping to sever the connection between his wife and an online community that was harming her.
This was the first of a series of questionable choices made by the Meachen family. Besides the (admittedly small-scale) donations solicited in Meachen’s name, there was also the issue of her apparently lurking amongst her mourners for two years as “TN Steele.” Meachen herself seems surprised at the controversy and attention that her resurrection has garnered. Apparently, the fuss has died an ignoble death, and Susan Meachen has been effectively canceled and cast into the outer darkness of social media nothinghood.
So what’s the point of this? I was actually hoping that something would come to me as I wrote this, but other than being a moderately-interesting but slightly-slimy tale of the intersection of social media and grimier parts of human nature. If anything, it’s an illustration of the uglier part of indie writing and publishing. There’s a lot of dog-eat-dog competition out there, especially in popular genres such as romance. A microcosm of social media in general, there’s a constant need for attention and validation that can be poisonous to even those who beam down to “book world” with relatively good mental health. It can be tough out there. As a wise guy once said, “Life sucks; get a helmet.”1
1 Note that this is not to diminish the problems of those struggling with depression or any other form of mental illness. “Helmet” is meant metaphorically to mean any mechanism to help mitigate from external harm, like turning off your computer and going for a walk.