When something really bad happens to someone we barely know, like unexpected death for instance, engaging in a conversation with the men I occasionally socialize with starts at the bottom of the social-correctness register and rarely rises above gallows humor which is the only thing we can hide behind in public without looking like frightened and curious little boys straining to see a hanged man over the shoulders of adults in the Old West. We joke to keep the bite of reality at a safe distance when the cold fingers of death brush our daily lives and remind us of our mortality.
A man named Charlie, who we as a group only knew well enough to smile at and say hello to, passed away unexpectedly. Here Friday, gone Monday. That’s not unheard of. Death happens. But he was only thirty years old. At that age a man can usually get away with being out of shape or smoking and drinking too much for quite a few more years. The unusual thing in this instance was that nobody knew how Charlie died. There was no mention of the cause or manner of death in his obituary and if anyone knew how he died, they weren’t talking. That is as it should be I suppose, but the fact that none of us knew him well did not nullify our need for closure and a sense of safety from a similar end—whatever it was.
When a man that young dies suddenly and no cause of death can be added to the collective necrology of still-living men who at least knew of him, the gravity of the implications of the event must be side-stepped in favor of the false comfort of speculation. The last time someone we all barely knew died, when the cause was left out of the obituary, we found out through the rumor mill that he committed suicide. Unsettling as it was, suicide gave us some sense of the event which made it still-tragic, but less scary because, we agreed, the guy had some control over the situation. That made it seem less like sudden death–like getting fired from your job–and more of a choice–like quitting your job. Quitting is better than getting fired, though you are unemployed either way. But we didn’t know which analogy applied to Charlie; the rumor mill was mute as a brick.
Our discussion about the cause and manner of Charlie’s death went almost straight to the idea that he may have had a heart attack at the acme of sexual congress, the agreed upon fantasy-death for most of us. That would have been Aggravated Death by Heart Attack or maybe Aggravated Natural Causes. Aggravated because the death occurred in such a way that the details of it would compound the loss for the family if they were made public. But, we reasoned, if that was what happened to Charlie, the cause of death would have been reported simply enough as heart failure or natural causes. Still, the obituary, if any of us wrote it, would most likely have said he died of a heart attack for the sake of public peace of mind.
Generally, we in this group, care and feel compassion for others as much as anybody else we know. But by the time our compassion reached our social surfaces in Charlie’s case, it had passed through our layers of unconscious fears and our thoughts were filtered through our internal emotional survival mechanisms. As a by-product of that process, we dealt with the tragedy by talking it out. The conclusion we came to is that Charlie’s must have been death by Autoerotic Asphyxiation–AEA, Paraphilia, scarfing. There was no information that indicated Charlie left the world of the living in a less embarrassing (therefore more frightening) way. In the AEA scenario, there was room for us to assume it was an accident caused by risky behavior. That put the matter in a completely different arena for us. It was and still is sad, but it wasn’t his choice or a random event. It was an accidental strangulation suffered in pursuit of pleasure which we thought to be a thing we could reasonably assume the rest of us could still avoid.
We all knew of one famous person who allegedly died in the throes of AEA, David Carradine, whose death was the only reason we knew AEA is a thing. He was found in a Thai hotel with a cord around his neck in a closet amid evidence of ejaculation. David Carradine’s ex-wives claim that self-bondage was one of his sexual interests. They must have felt left out. Other fatal erotic asphyxiation practitioners, or choke-and-strokers, listed in the Wikipedia article we read, are people we had never heard of. The circumstances of their deaths are similarly embarrassing, though and mildly interesting.
Reports of death by erotic asphyxiation go back to the eighteenth century. In 1791 a Czech composer and violinist, tied a rope to a doorknob then used the other end as a ligature around his neck and proceeded to have sex with a prostitute who had, moments before the fatal event, refused to cut off his testicles. When the sex was finished, the article said, the violinist was dead. Reading about that incident prompted a discussion among us about what the advantages of having our testicles cut off just before orgasmic bliss could possibly be. We couldn’t think of any and nobody wanted to look that up.
In 1936 a geisha and prostitute in Japan erotically asphyxiated her lover to death, then cut off his penisu to teesticles, as they call them in Okinawa, and carried them around in her kimono for several days. There is a photograph of her surrounded by men in suits, all of them smiling like she had just won the lottery. She was being arrested for murder and mutilation of a corpse. We guessed that the men were smiling because they were relieved it happened to someone else. She was sentenced to six years in prison, served five of them, then wrote a book.
A few Paraphilia-ists submitted to scientific scrutiny. Scientists found that people can become addicted to the very final moment of the AEA experience because chemicals are released in the brain during asphyxiation that cause hallucinations and intense sexual arousal. That explains why some men who have been hanged for their crimes were witnessed to have sprouted erections as they struggled at the end of the rope. In some cases, the hanged men had orgasmic experiences right there in front of everybody. So, all that jerking may not have been struggling after all.
AEA related deaths in the US involve men at a rate of fifty to one versus women. I’m not sure if that means women are less likely to engage in AEA or less likely to perish in the act. I think women are generally more patient and careful than men, so it could be either, or both. Most AEA practitioners are left-handed men who tend to have more older brothers than average and long fingers. For the record, I am totally right-handed and an eldest child. I don’t think that bit about the long fingers really means anything.
I don’t know Charlie’s birth order or if he was left or right handed. I don’t remember noticing whether his fingers were long, but I do remember that he seemed friendly and smiled warmly when he said good morning, like he meant it. That makes me hope that, if our speculation is true, Charlie had a happy ending.