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Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health matters, please call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline to connect with a trained counselor or visit the Lifeline site.

In September 2020, fans and friends of Susan Meachen received devastating news. The romance writer’s Facebook account posted a message saying she had died. A later post claimed she had taken her own life and suggested her actions were the results of online bullying by others in her thriving, close-knit online writing group.

Over the next two years, her fellow writers and loyal followers helped keep her memory alive through her published works. However, her Facebook account made a shocking claim this month: Meachen was still alive, and she wanted to return to writing.

“Let the fun begin,” the post concluded.

The bizarre post plunged Meachen’s fans and fellow writers into confusion and rage. Did the woman they had considered a friend, a colleague and a mentor stage a devastating, years-long ruse? Those who spoke to CNN say the scandal has threatened to upend the trust and collaboration that keeps their independent publishing community going. More than that, their search for answers after years of mourning has only turned up more questions.

Questions surround a tragic tale

In the world of independent publishing, community is everything. It’s not unusual for writers in similar genres to form strong bonds over the course of years, even if they’ve never met each other in person. That’s how Candace Adams, a paranormal and suspense romance writer, met Meachen online in 2019.

“I think the best way to explain it is, we all have to work together. We all have to market together. We swap releases and information, and hold launch parties online,” Adams told CNN. “Some of my best friends in the world are authors I’ve met during my writing journey, and we talk almost every day.”

Adams recalls the shock that struck the indie community when someone posted on Meachen’s personal Facebook account in September 2020 to announce that she had died days earlier. Though the post has either been taken down or hidden since then, screenshots provided to CNN show a brief announcement that ends with an oblique reference to bullying: “Please leave us alone, we have no desire in this messed-u (sic) industry.”

CNN cannot independently verify who is behind social media accounts bearing Meachen’s name.

Meachen has written more than a dozen contemporary romance books, the kind that romance readers devour in droves on Amazon, Kindle Unlimited and audio book platforms. Like many authors, she also had an active fan page on Facebook, called “The Ward.” After her purported death, it was taken over by someone claiming to Meachen’s daughter, operating through Meachen’s personal Facebook account. The fan page offered deals on her books and audio books, which readers purchased to honor Meachen. A group of fellow writers even collaborated on an anthology of stories in her memory with an anti-bullying dedication. Adams says the group also held a fundraising auction to help Meachen’s family with funeral costs.

Occasionally, after her purported death, Meachen’s Facebook account would post links to suicide awareness causes.

Samantha A. Cole, a fellow romance writer, says she was targeted after Meachen’s purported death as one of Meachen’s alleged bullies, even though Cole said the two writers had been friends for years and there was no apparent reason for bad blood.

“I had been so upset because I hadn’t spoken to her in chats for a few months, just in the way friends sometimes fall out of contact. I felt guilt about that,” Cole told CNN. “Then, all of a sudden, people are trying to stir up drama, saying I was one of the people who were bullying her, that I was a part of the reason she was driven to commit suicide.”

On January 3, Cole was contacted by another member of their independent publishing community.

“Do you remember Susan Meachen?” she asked Cole. “Well, you need to see what’s happening.”

A different truth unravels

As far as stunning returns go, the announcement posted under Meachen’s account in The Ward, saying that she was actually alive and ready to resume her career was quite casual.

“I debated on how to do this a million times and still not sure if it’s right or not. There’s going to be tons of questions and a lot of people leaving the group I’d guess,” the post began.

Immediately, fellow writers responded with rage and confusion.

Was her death a hoax? Was Meachen really alive? In responses reviewed by CNN, Meachen’s account did not deny that news of the writer’s death was false.

CNN has tried to contact Meachen and her family multiple times, via phone, email and her social media accounts, and has received no response.

The post from Meachen's account that sent her indie writing community into shock.

Cole says she was floored. She messaged the account of the woman she had once considered a friend, a woman she had mourned and taken undue criticism for.

“What is going on????” she pleaded.

“Nothing,” Meachen’s account responded. “I simply want my life back. My family was in a bad place and did what they thought was best for me.”

The revelations were so overwhelming, Cole didn’t know what to think. If Meachen was alive, she had not only sent members of her community into anguish, she, or the person behind her account, had also crossed an unthinkable line of falsely claiming suicide.

Then, Cole was shown a TikTok account that appears to belong to Meachen, with her real name and face, that had been active during the time she was allegedly dead. (Adams confirmed to CNN that the person in the TikToks appears to be Meachen, since Meachen had shown her face during live readings on social media.)

This was the last straw for Cole. She and other writers in the indie publishing community raised a storm online, posting screenshots of private communications with Meachen’s account, as well as excerpts from the account’s activity over the more than two years since Meachen purportedly died. Together, the writers say they pieced together a shocking picture of lies and confusion.

Old wounds are reopened

According to Meachen’s Facebook account, Meachen did try to take her own life around the time of her alleged death in 2020. Any further details are unclear. But there was no evidence that she was actually dead, and some of her fellow writers suspect she may have been lingering among them online all along.

“No one knows if it was actually her daughter who was posting all this time,” Adams told CNN. Sometime after Meachen’s supposed death, a Facebook account bearing the name TN Steele began interacting in The Ward, and eventually took over moderation from Meachen’s longtime assistant, Connie Ortiz.

Members of the community suspect Steele may have been Meachen operating under another name. Authors noted that the birthday and anniversary dates listed for Steele were the same as Meachen’s. Days before Meachen’s supposed return to social media, the person behind the Steele account announced they wanted to go back to posting under their original name.

“So if all of this is true, she fakes her death, then possibly pretends to be her daughter, and makes another account to watch this whole thing,” Cole says. “She interacted with mourners. She watched as people posted how much they missed Meachen and how sad they were.”

Meachen’s assistant Ortiz was especially affected by the situation. Ortiz works in the indie publishing realm reviewing manuscripts and providing feedback and assistance for authors. She said she considered Meachen a good friend. If Meachen was watching the aftermath of her death from behind assumed identities, she would have seen Ortiz pay tribute to her late friend and help maintain her social media presence. She would have even seen Ortiz defend Meachen when doubts were raised about whether the writer was even bullied in the first place.

Ortiz told CNN she was “devastated” by her friend’s apparent deception.

“I have been accused as a co-conspirator of Susan,” she said. “I am a retired police officer and would never do that. I did not know what Susan was doing, even though we were close.”

Ortiz said, after she learned of Meachen’s death, she asked to attend the funeral. She directed the request to the individual posting on Susan’s personal Facebook account, who claimed to be Meachen’s daughter.

An anthology Meachen's writing colleagues organized after her purported death.

“They said no, and that Susan had been cremated,” Ortiz said. “After that, I didn’t have any more contact.” Ortiz had never met Meachen in person, but had spoken to her on the phone.

When Meachen seemingly made her grand return, writers immediately demanded answers. After Meachen’s purported death, members of her community sought to memorialize her. Her personal Facebook account and her fan page invoked her death to promote codes for her books and audio books, which got emotional responses from fans. At one point, Meachen’s account asked for editing help for two unfinished books.

Adams contributed to a special anthology called the “Bully King Anthology,” which was put together by several authors in Meachen’s memory.

“For Susan Meachen,” the book’s dedication reads.

“The world is a little less bright without her. Words can hurt, but they don’t have to. Words can also heal. Let’s keep bullying where it belongs – in fiction.”

Adams says she doesn’t recall seeing proof that Meachen was indeed the victim of such abuse. But bullying in the independent publishing world is a real problem – why doubt it?

“I don’t think anyone thought they needed proof that this was happening,” Adams said. “Then again, we also shouldn’t need a death certificate to prove someone’s suicide.”

Fact separates from fiction

Beneath the dramatic trappings of this tale, some basic questions beg to be answered: How do we know the real Susan Meachen is behind these latest revelations? Who was posting under her accounts for the past two years? Did anyone in her community really know her at all? These questions become distressingly hard to parse for those who only knew Meachen through online conversations and phone calls.

However, in public and private conversations online, the writer’s accounts have not denied the most crucial allegation: Susan Meachen did not die in 2020. A TikTok account allegedly belonging to Meachen was deleted sometime after word of the scandal started spreading, but general information in the account’s videos, posted as recently as 2023, match known facts about Meachen, including her age and likeness.

Adams says she has been in contact with the Benton City Police Department in Tennessee, where Meachen lives. Chief Rocky King of the BCPD told CNN that, while he could not confirm any legal claims against Meachen, he could confirm the department has record of a resident by the name of Susan Meachen. CNN cannot independently confirm that this Susan Meachen is the same Susan Meachen involved in the author controversy.

When Cole messaged someone she thought to be Meachen after her unexpected return, Cole said she hoped she was getting professional help.

“My books haven’t sold at all,” the reply read. “I stayed silent while I worked with my Psychiatrist and therapist to get in a better place.”

“I think some people are trying to defend her, saying she obviously has some issues and we should be considerate about that,” Cole says. “Which is true. But she also hurt people and lied to people. I don’t think she has any remorse, or any sense of the pain and betrayal she has caused.”

Adams worries about the long-term effects this unfortunate chapter will have on the writers and creators who make the indie publishing world so special.

“That camaraderie is really threatened. We are used to offering support and help whenever someone asks. But now, there is a sense of, ‘What if they are lying?’”

“I have lost a lot of trust in the industry,” Ortiz says. “Friends who I thought were friends, really are not.”