In a case of post-posthumous cancellation, the writer’s falsified death opened her up to receive the social judgment she already perceived in life
It’s a well-known trope that artists are often better appreciated after their deaths. But how far would you go to find out if that’s really true?
For Susan Meachen, the answer is “pretty far.” In October 2020, Meachen’s daughter made a statement that the romance author had died tragically by her own hand. But last week, it was revealed that Meachen had, in fact, faked her own death—and now, she wants her life back. “I debated on how to do this a million times and still not sure if it’s right or not,” Meachen wrote in a Facebook, announcing that she was not in fact dead—rather, she just needed a break from social media, where she claims to have been bullied by other writers the literary community.
A self-described “wife, mom, meme, and friend,” Meachen was known for writing supernatural romances and running a 700-person Facebook group for writers called The Ward. Though Meachen herself had amassed a modest following, she was never famous, or even viral—at least, until she “died” and came back to life, a choice so bizarre that it spurred a flurry of articles, Twitter threads, and Reddit posts. As online scandals go, the spectacle has everything: a hyper-specialized niche community, a (supposedly) meddling daughter, fake deaths, and fraudulent charity.
Following her death, Meachen received an outpouring of support from the tight-knit online community she helped cultivate: from multiple fundraisers to help her grieving family, to the help fellow authors offered in editing, publishing, and promoting multiple posthumous books. Since being established as post-posthumous, Meachen has declined to return any of the funds donated, claiming that she never personally asked for such a thing—which is technically true, as she was playing dead at the time.
While an overwhelming majority of death fraud is financially motivated, our collective interest in Meachen’s hoax, and others like it, is overwhelmingly social. Whether it’s a startup founder who fails to deliver or an author who simply fails to disappear, there is a collective catharsis to watching bad people crash and burn, and revel in the lies they told along the way. After all, how often do we get the opportunity to witness the worst sides of human nature without falling victim to it?
“Fraudsters who gratuitously mislead others exempt themselves from the reasonable expectations of privacy, instead offering a rare situation in which judging another person’s behavior is the morally upstanding thing to do.”
Rather than feeling bad for peering at the smoking wreckage of another person’s life, stories like Meachen’s allow us to indulge in scrutiny and gossip, guilt-free. In all their messy glory, fraudsters who gratuitously mislead others exempt themselves from the reasonable expectations of privacy, instead offering a rare situation in which judging another person’s behavior is the morally upstanding thing to do.
While their methods may be objectionable, the aims of a garden-variety fraudster—things like money, influence, and attention—are fundamentally relatable. After all, who hasn’t wanted to escape their life and responsibilities, or wondered how they’d be perceived after death? “I think one of the things that appeals to people about death fraud is the idea of Tom Sawyer showing up at his own funeral,” author Elizabeth Greenwood tells Document, having explored the phenomenon at length in her 2016 book Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud. “There’s this common fantasy of adolescent fantasy of, ‘You’ll miss me when I’m gone.’”
And it’s true. Meachen was missed; at least, until she decided to return, revealing that she’d subjected countless so-called friends to very real grief for no good reason. Her actions, and their real-life impact, are laced with irony: Though Meachen may have felt unsupported by the literary community, the outpouring of financial, emotional, and professional support she received after death is hard to contest. Yet in faking her own death, Meachen opened herself up to receive the social judgment she already perceived in life—and then some.
Meachen always prided herself for writing what she called “perfectly flawed romances”—and after her death, writers in her community even dedicated an anthology of “supernatural bully romance” to Meachen, with a heartfelt tribute to that encouraged people to “keep bullying where it belongs: in fiction.” Yet in light of her unlikely resurrection, it seems that perhaps Meachen’s final contribution was her death and rebirth: proof that the enemy-to-lover pipeline goes both ways.