You’re going to die a horrible death, remember. It’s all good training, and you’ll enjoy it more if you keep the facts in mind.
—Richard Bach, Illusions
In the turbulent psyches of Jason Perrine, 16, and Dawn Swisher, his 15-year-old sweetheart, the “facts” were very much in mind. The two had been in love for a month, were dropping out of 10th grade and hoped to rent an apartment and work at the local Jack-in-the-Box. But Dawn’s father, who is separated from her mother, vetoed the plan and threatened to move her to his home, 10 miles away. Depressed, Jason and Dawn drove her sister’s Chevy Camaro through the streets of Mercer Island, an affluent suburb of Seattle, Wash., in the early hours of May 12. They “talked about very deep, important thoughts,” Dawn recalls. “You don’t talk about trivial things when you’re getting ready to commit suicide.” Then the time for conversation was over. “If we don’t do this pretty quick, I’m going to go nuts,” Dawn told Jason. He turned up a Lynyrd Skynyrd tune, Freebird, on the tape deck, clutched Dawn’s hand and aimed the car down a street leading to North Mercer Junior High School. Thirteen seconds later the Camaro jumped the curb at 110 mph, flew through an eight-inch cinderblock wall, and grated to a halt 26 feet inside the school. Jason died instantly of multiple injuries. Dawn survived, though critically injured.
For the parents of Mercer Island, the suicide pact was a horrifying shock. The island, which is set in Lake Washington across a bridge from Seattle, has the highest household income and most expensive real estate of any city in the Northwest. As residents are now beginning to realize, it has deep troubles as well. “This is a great place to raise little kids,” says Mercer Island Reporter publisher Peggy Reynolds, “but there’s not much for the teenagers to do. Jocks, cheerleaders and a few budding geniuses get encouragement, but those who aren’t superachievers can fall through the cracks. There’s a terrible feeling of pointlessness—and an awful vandalism rate.” Mercer Island is now discovering that the alienation of some of its teenagers may be tragically deep. Seven high school students, led by Dawn, formed a kind of clique and fantasized about suicide for two months before the tragic crash. Although some of Dawn and Jason’s friends now claim they thought the talk of suicide was “a joke,” one girl admits, “We didn’t try to stop them. They would have thought we had turned against them. It’s not our business what they wanted to do.” (Surprisingly, perhaps, there is no evidence of serious drug abuse by any of the teenagers involved.)
Until the accident, the Perrines and Swishers appeared to be typical upper-middle-class families. Both fathers are pilots for United Airlines, although they did not know each other before the accident. Dawn’s mother is a teacher’s aide, Jason’s a housewife. Even the families’ problems seem characteristic of suburbia. The Swishers have been separated for a year—Dawn lives with her mother and sister, Diane, 20. The Perrines, who have another son, Matthew, 14, admit to difficulties in their marriage in recent years. Those problems, plus Jason’s truancy and bad grades, brought all three to a psychiatrist last winter. At those sessions the teenager showed no suicidal tendencies. His rebelliousness burst into the open this spring after he started going with Dawn, who was in his English class at Mercer Island High School. “He was scared of me at first,” she says. “He’d never loved anybody before.” At Easter Jason slipped out his bedroom window, leaving his parents a note: “I’m going off for a few days to live life on my own without your living it for me.” Actually he stayed in an attic room in the Swisher house off and on until the accident.
Dawn says she discovered that Jason was a very troubled young man. Early on, she claims he wore a strand of wire instead of a belt. “It’s so I can strangle myself,” she recalls him saying. Dawn took it away. “I put him at peace,” she says. But she never reported his threats to his parents—or hers. “The only side I saw of Jason was pleasant, easy to get along with,” says Dawn’s mother, Shirley. “He was a nice kid who just needed a place to sleep and an occasional meal.” Dawn introduced him to Richard Bach’s starkly fatalistic book Illusions, which she pores over constantly but which Jason never actually read. It is a slim volume of pop psychology whose hero is a pilot. In it author Bach compares life to a school where dropping out (i.e., suicide) is no disgrace. “That book was important to my views on life and death,” Dawn says. “It got me thinking, ‘What am I here for?’ ” Her mother says regretfully: “We’re not a very religious family—maybe this was something for her to believe in.”
The last few months of Jason’s life were turmoil. “He was no different from any other kid,” his father, David Perrine, says. “He knew he was causing us pain and felt guilty about it. Jason was also very aware of the hostages in Iran and the possibility of nuclear war. And then this absurdity, this book by Bach. They all came together.” When Jason’s emotions crystalized, he embraced a makeshift philosophy holding that death leads to a new life. “One night we decided that if there was a nuclear war, we didn’t want to die slowly from radiation,” says Dawn. “So we started looking around for a straightaway ending in a brick wall. We finally decided on the junior high.” They made the decision to die on the Friday before Mother’s Day, when John Swisher refused to allow Dawn to move in with Jason. “That night Jason asked if I wanted to go for a spin in Diane’s car,” Dawn says. “I knew what he meant.” She asked him to wait until Monday, her father’s birthday, explaining, “I want to give my dad a present in the car.” She meant her own death. On Sunday, Dawn wrote a note, later burned by her sister, to explain her motives and serve as a will. “I had a lot of fun leaving things to people,” she says now. Jason also wrote a will and put it in his wallet. “I want all my possessions to go to the Goodwill so that they could make someone else as happy as I am right now. P.S. Except for my leather jacket. Please give that to my friend Mike Mead.” One friend who heard of their plan called the Crisis Clinic in Seattle but says he was told the couple would have to be committed to a hospital to get help. A crisis counselor later telephoned back, but reached another friend, who convinced him the suicide talk was not serious. Twelve hours later Jason was dead and Dawn in the intensive care unit.
Jason had told friends he hoped Richard Bach himself would speak at his funeral. “I wish he had checked with me first because I don’t believe in funerals,” protests Bach, now living in rural Oregon. Of the suicide Bach says, “There is no gain in understanding to hurl a car through a brick wall,” but adds, “it is a great cosmic law that life cannot be destroyed. It only appears that way.” Dawn, who is recovering from surgery on her broken hip, shattered heel and cut lip, insists that “it is ridiculous to regret anything. We weren’t angry at anyone; we wanted to be somewhere else.” But she has no desire to repeat her death trip. “It was a miracle I survived. I must be here for a reason,” she now believes. “Jason and I were reaching out to each other. Maybe if we had reached out to our parents, this wouldn’t have happened.”