How would you fake your own death? For years I’ve pondered this question …

For years as a teenager I would think about how I’d fake my death. I’d been smitten by the news spot I’d seen on John Darwin, the British man who in the early 2000s fabricated his own disappearance with the help of his wife, Anne.

A canoe pushed to sea, a hidden room in the family home in which to lie, silent and unmoving, for a few months until people stopped asking questions. Then, once the air had cleared and the insurance money had come through, a move to Central America, an entirely new world in which to suddenly be born.

An act of the deepest kind of deception, followed by a wholly unmarked life.

I’ve never had any desire to actually attempt faking my death, other than maybe to experience the arcane escape room into which my life would immediately be transformed. I know for a fact I wouldn’t make it a week before someone spotted me getting arrested via a supermarket security camera after trying to use the self-checkout screen to check my emails.

I lack true resourcefulness, I lack guts, I’ll only take a drink from the kitchen tap (dinner water) and never the bathroom tap (medical water). Most crucially, though, no matter how completely I severed my connection to life, I know I’d get bored enough to want to drop back in as though it never happened, which must be a top-five thing you’re not supposed to do when you fake your death.

This has come back because of the story of Susan Meachen, the US indie romance author whose 2020 death by suicide turns out to have been greatly exaggerated – by her. The news of her apparent death in 2020 shocked her tight-knit writing community and led to an outpouring of charity – money raised for funeral costs, the publication of a posthumous novel and an anthology dedicated to her memory – all of which left a sour taste after Meachen reappeared this month, posting on her writing group’s Facebook page that she was back and seeming ready to sort of forget the whole thing had happened.

If you can ignore the obvious hurt it will have caused those around her and the apparent exploitation of self-harm and depression, you can admit it’s a deeply bizarre kind of grift: high in melodrama, low in stakes other than the emotional, seemingly unnecessary in both its aims (deceiving your niche literary community that you’ve died) and in its eventual turn (revealing to your niche literary community that you’re alive and well and would like to start posting again).

While the purpose of the con is still unclear (some internet sleuths have suggested financial tensions) something striking in the way Meachen handled her resurrection and its aftermath is how much it seemed to be a personal project: deeply private, concerned with self-satisfaction and considering nobody else. All instances of a fake death must be. There are few things more self-satisfying than the fantasy of creating a new version of yourself, a promise to forget everything that’s come before and forsake everyone who has loved you.

It also speaks to how we handle our lives in new digital spaces that many of us are still unready for. The internet has made it easier than ever to fake your death – as long as you’re careful about which version of yourself you’re killing off. Internet forums are heavy with lore about longtime members whose untimely deaths rocked their communities, only to later reveal that it was all made up and the user is still alive. Who knows why: for attention, for escape, because they had a long train commute and got in over their heads.

At the same time it’s become easier than ever to discover a deceit. When Darwin was foiled because a basic Google search revealed a photo of him and Anne shopping for real estate in Panama, sweating and alive, it showed that it’s no longer enough to put on a fake beard and move somewhere with bad reception: now you have to have a fake beard and a basic understanding of how a search engine works.

And that was before Reddit and TikTok created a generation of digital miracle workers, spiritually adrift and starved of mystery, willing to dedicate their waking hours to solving the puzzle of someone else’s life. If Mossad had these resources in the 1960s then all those Nazi-hunting movies would barely clear 40 minutes.

The impulse to fake your death under these conditions is fascinating. The speed at which we have adopted digital spaces and filled them to capacity with new versions of ourselves – many of those versions dishonest, of course – means it can be messy to imagine removing yourself from them. If a digital space has been your life for years, what is your life without it? What happens once you leave, and can you just sort of … come back if you want to?

As it stands, the space Meachen left was felt deeply. It wasn’t a fantasy. She didn’t need to be smoked out of her hiding spot. If there were any threads to pull after her death then nobody seemed interested in pulling them.

Darwin lay in the dark for months, silent, only moving at night, as he listened to Anne speaking to the authorities through the wall. Meachen, on the other hand, was allegedly posting on TikTok the entire time she was meant to be dead. The people whose lives she’d touched seemed intent on moving on with them. Her fake death was finally personal – hers, alone, to sit with.

And then boom, she’s back, baby! Get bored in your self-imposed afterlife? No worries, just hop back into the land of the living with a quick explanation on Facebook and get back to the business of publishing romance.

That’s the most relatable part of the whole debacle: we can recreate ourselves wholly but eventually we will desire to return to what we had. How long that takes is anyone’s guess, though if Meachen’s story is any indication it’s around the two-year mark, maybe less if you don’t have a TikTok account.

Jack Vening is a writer living in Melbourne


This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.