For Alec, Thoughts on Transformative Justice

CW: discussions of suicide, mental health, abuse

For those of you who may have histories with suicidal thoughts, I have tried to make this as non-triggering as I can, but it does touch briefly on my brother’s mindset in his last few days. Feel free to skip over this post if you need and please never hesitate to reach out to others for support. I’ve seen so many people pull through to the other side of depression and go on to live beautiful, complex lives. I’m so sorry for anyone who feels alone right now. My heart goes out to you with love and care, always.

Let me start by making something very clear: I do not support the harassment of anyone, ever. I imagine this post will be used and butchered and repeated as a means to harass people and make politically motivated statements. I ask that anyone inclined to do so carefully consider whether this story is actually yours to take up. What do your words offer the people left mourning and surviving?

This is a question that has been spinning in my mind since the day that Alec died. Which parts of this nightmare are my story to tell and which aren’t? Which parts of Alec’s story is it ethical for me to reveal? If I had a preference, I would have these conversations in private, with loved ones, and far, far away from the dizzying polarities of Twitter. But this conversation is already public and so here I am. My hope is that I can use what I know to change this conversation into something productive and transformative.

To be completely frank, I am terrified to post this. I’m scared that people will decide that my years of social media research, game dev work, feminist activism, and support of marginalized individuals will no longer matter. I am scared that I will lose even more than what I’ve already lost. I’m scared of how this article will be used against my best intentions. But I am also uncomfortable not saying anything, especially after hearing from others who feel like they’ve lost their voices over the last month. And so I offer up this statement as a plea towards transformative justice and care, going forward.

For those who don’t know the context, my brother, best friend, and collaborator Alec Holowka committed suicide on the morning of August 31st, 2019, following public accusations of abuse.

I have known Alec since the day I was born. We were best friends, through all the worst and best times, and we confided everything to one another. I was always the person he would call to talk to when he was suicidal and, in the last few days of his life, we were phoning and texting constantly. We always understood each other in ways no one else quite got. When I told him about my idea for #ProjectPotato (The Last Winter, as it was going to be called) he understood it instantly. It’s hard to imagine another person who would run with those dreams so willingly. One part of me hopes that someday we can finish this project in his honour. Another feels like it would be unfair for it to live on without him.

I don’t know the details of every moment of Alec’s relationships and I am not going to pretend to. I do, however, know much more than might be expected. Alec and I talked about our relationships constantly and, in the days before he died, I was one of the few people helping him write a public statement. Despite the fact that I know some of the more intimate details of these specific relationships and his planned response, I don’t think it will do anyone any good to dwell on these specifics publicly. I’m torn between wanting to stay quiet to prevent causing further harm and also wanting to represent Alec’s missing voice.

What I will say is this: Alec was a victim of abuse that he could not talk about publicly. I believed him when he told me about his experiences and I still do. I also knew Alec to be emotionally abusive. Later in life, he acknowledged this toxic behaviour in his relationships and worked to amend it, as well as to take responsibility for the harm he’d caused. That was all part of the intensive therapy he went through during the production of Night in the Woods, where he was also coping with his own PTSD.

If we want to believe survivors, it means that we need to also believe Alec. In trying to formulate a statement in the last few days of his life, Alec was being told that he shouldn’t say his perspective publicly, that no one would believe him. He wanted to publicly apologize and take responsibility for the things that he had done, but not for the things he hadn’t. There were a number of stories posted over the last month detailing different abusive relationships with Alec. I know that there are likely even more that were not posted. These stories are all true in their own ways, even if they don’t always correspond with what was true for Alec. I am not interested in hashing out those details here. This is not a trial, even if punishment follows in the trails of these words, against our best wishes.

What seems much more important to me in this moment is what we mean when we say “I believe survivors” and what we choose to do when we are confronted with a narrative of abuse. These narratives deserve care and attention and love, but not immediate action. We can acknowledge, support, and believe survivors without needing to try and ‘solve’ a situation immediately. In fact, it is likely that more productive solutions will come out of taking consideration, time, and care.

Let me be clear: I understand all too well why victims of abuse take to public platforms. I know firsthand how broken the legal system can be. It has failed us in so many ways and we’re scrambling to find an alternative. That said, this current system is also deeply broken, because it is not a system at all. There are no rules here, no guidelines, and no accountability. There are no processes for rehabilitation. Although public statements can be very important for empowering those who would otherwise not have had a voice, there are also so many who go missing in these outcries and even more who cannot speak publicly because they will face punishments of further abuse. I would suggest that we begin talking and thinking about how we want to react and respond to public statements as a community and what we aim to achieve through our own shared responses.

I was grateful to find this article by Kai Cheng Thom on transformative justice where she describes how we can hold people accountable without also creating more harm. As she writes, “[w]ithout integrity, ethics, good boundaries and a clear plan of action, an accountability process runs the risk of becoming abusive.” Although Thom is speaking more about smaller, private communities than public ones, the arguments in this article are still significant to our current situation. Thom is not suggesting that people who speak out about their abuse need to have a plan or solution along with their statement — they deserve to take the space they need — but it does mean that, as a community, we need to make room for actual change to take place in the wake of these accusations.

The thing that will continue to break my heart is that Alec was already working on becoming a better person. The last few years with him were very different. He had not been at risk of suicide for years. He had been fighting, extremely hard, to heal both himself and others. He had a new relationship and it was blossoming. (She stayed with him until the very end because the person she saw in front of her was good, kind, and deserving of support.) He made mindful efforts to apologize to the people he had hurt over the years. Some accepted and some didn’t (and he respected those boundaries). He apologized to me for times he’d caused me harm, and I accepted. He apologized again, to make sure, and from then on I never worried about being hurt by him again. To say he took no steps to get better is to write over a lifetime of change and hard work. It is also doing a great disservice to anyone suffering from mental health disorders.

I think of Mae in Night in the Woods and how much players support her, understand her, and empathize with her, while also acknowledging that she can be pretty shitty. I want the complexities we afford Mae to follow us into real life. I want us to be able to be hurt and to mourn and to take care all at the same time, even if these feelings don’t always line up.

I was surprised not to see any of that nuance and care coming from many of the game devs I once admired, not even the ones who have made games about mental health. The whole response to Alec’s death was a shock to me. The day he died, I had to write a post announcing it. I didn’t have a choice, I needed to get it out before the grief hit. Since then, I have been continually harassed. I have been criticized for being both not supportive enough of Alec and also not critical enough. I should have tossed him aside and also done more to save him. One or the other but nothing in-between. These responses, however, were mostly easy to ignore. I expected the trolls.

It was the responses from people I felt close to and looked up to that hurt the most. The ones who pretended nothing had happened, who wrote long articles days later, who tried to wrap bows around the narrative to fit it into a specific box, who I thought were socially aware but realized were just very good at storytelling. Those hurt the most, even when they had very worthy goals, because I saw how they were perpetuating more harm and silencing even more survivors. We all have a right to our feelings, but when those feelings become public narratives, they gain a kind of power. They become the Truth and, in this case, that Truth wrote over an entire lifetime of work and nuance. To quote Alice Woolley, “when we have the power to judge, and our judgements have consequences, what do we owe one another?”

We need to be careful about how we use our narratives, especially when we have large followings and a lot of influence. Over these last few weeks, I’ve talked to numerous people, particularly women, people with mental health issues, and other marginalized folks, who no longer feel comfortable working in games after seeing the kinds of posts being made in response to Alec’s death. I want us to use this moment to move towards a space of mutual understanding, healing, care, and change. To do that, we need to write more nuanced, caring stories.

Alec was a beautiful, complex, queer, and wonderfully neurodivergent person. He didn’t always understand other people and sometimes the things he did out of confusion could come across as critical or rude. He often needed to be told things very directly and I know not everyone had the capacity to do that. I didn’t for years. Sometimes he actively hurt people. But Alec also cared about people in ways I’ve rarely seen with anyone else and he was able to funnel that care into pure, emotional wonder: like the songs he wrote for his friends’ weddings and our Baba’s funeral; his attention to the pain of others and his ability to represent and care for it in his work; or how he could stay up all night having deep empathetic conversations with people in distress and never experience empathy fatigue.

Games were everything to Alec. Since he was a kid, he was always making things. He didn’t know how to do anything else. Games were how he communicated. He committed so deeply to this dream that he lived off cereal and odd contract jobs for years while making Aquaria. At the end, he didn’t think he would make things ever again and that was the worst nightmare imaginable for him. He didn’t know what else he could do. I don’t say this because I think it is necessarily the right way to go about living or a healthy mentality to have. Only to say that this is where he was at. He couldn’t see any other ending.

Here’s what I know: Alec’s suicide was not an attack against anyone. It was not done to prove a point. I wish I didn’t know this, but I do, and it will haunt me forever.

People have told me recently that they are angry at Alec, but it is impossible for me to be angry, having been in such close contact with him in his last few days. He was so concerned about everyone around him, how they would be hurt by this, and how he could fix it all. Despite what we tried to tell him, he didn’t see a way.

Alec’s suicide was his decision entirely. It is not helpful to point fingers, we’ve seen the harm that that can cause. But it would also be a mistake not to use this moment as a chance to reconsider how we want to deal with situations like these in the future. I say this as someone who identifies as both a survivor of abuse and a person with mental health conditions, as well as someone who would have likely also been critical of this kind of statement before experiencing all of these nuances firsthand.

The days before Alec died, he was doing nothing except trying to find a way to live. We were working on a statement, something that was true for him, but that would also be believed and accepted. That seemed an impossible line to tow. It still is. People felt pressured to respond on Twitter, so they did. They didn’t hear responses from Alec and they took that personally. Those things were not personal, he just wasn’t even there yet. We knew a rash statement wouldn’t help anyone, but it turned out that not saying anything immediately only made people react faster.

I am so glad I got those healthy years with my brother. It was like being a kid again, where anything was possible, as though we were still sitting on my bedroom floor making up stories and TV shows about my stuffed toys. We were collaborating on a game; he was spoiling my parents, apologizing over and over for the years they had spent worrying about him; he was promoting marginalized games creators and publicly discussing LGBTQ+ rights and mental health issues; he was sober, calm, and loving.

I know it wasn’t always this happy and I understand how hard it can be to support people who have been abusive or who have mental health issues. Sometimes you need to set boundaries. Sometimes you need to cut ties. I don’t want to claim otherwise and I don’t blame anyone who needed that space from Alec. But, when we have the capacity, we need to begin having conversations about how we can make space to care about both victims of abuse and people with mental health issues who have been abusive, especially when these categories so often cross over. We need to learn to inhabit these complexities if we hope to survive in such a complex world.

After years of researching and writing about social media, chronic illnesses, and trauma narratives, I’m suddenly overwhelmed by how little I know and how wrong it would be to pretend to know more than I do. Everything happened faster than it needed to. That’s how Twitter works. I wish I could slow down that time or reverse it, but I can’t.

My brother, my best friend, is dead. He worked so hard to survive and improve on himself and then he was gone, written over. I woke up and texted him an hour too late for him to see. And now all that I have left to do is to write. How terribly insufficient that feels.

phd student, writer, feminist, game dev. lives with a gecko, cat, & endometriosis. researching online chronic pain life writing.