Like many people, I am haunted and heartbroken by the death of Tyler Clementi.
It is so hard to accept the fact that this 18-year-old boy — just a month into his freshman year at Rutgers University, with so much talent and maturity — is gone from the earth.
It is hard to accept that he was so shattered and psychologically undone by his roommate’s callous act of live streaming Tyler’s sexual encounter with another boy that he thought the only way out was to take his own life.
Apparently his last Facebook message, on Sept. 22, the night he died, was “jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”
And with that he walked onto the George Washington Bridge, which spans the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey, and jumped.
His fatal act was prompted, as we all know now, by a decision by his roommate and, allegedly, a friend of his roommate to remotely activate a Web cam in the two boys’ dormitory room and invite others to watch the sexual encounter on the Internet.
This was at least the second case of “bullying” leading to a student’s suicide this year. In January, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, a high school student in Massachusetts, hanged herself after being taunted for four months after she had had a brief romantic relationship with a popular, older boy. Phoebe, whose family had recently moved to the United States from a small town in Ireland, had books knocked out of her hands, was called an “Irish slut,” and received threatening text messages. Several students are charged in connection with that case.
One of the things that hit me hardest about the Clementi case was the dignified and reflective way that Tyler was trying to deal with the situation after learning that his roommate, Dharun Ravi, was spying on him and baring the most private compartments of his life.
Ravi and his friend, Molly Wei, both 18, are now charged with invasion of privacy, a low-level felony that is likely to get them little or no jail time, even if they are convicted.
Ravi pulled the Web-cam stunt on Tuesday, Sept. 19 , and tried again, unsuccessfully, on Thursday, Sept. 21. After Clementi realized what Ravi was up to, he posted on a gay chat site a message that reflected his maturity and purity of heart:
“Revenge never ends well for me, as much as I would love to pour pink paint all over his stuff…that would just let him win.”
At the same time, he made it clear that he wasn’t going to sit still for the indignity being perpetrated on him. “I ran to the nearest R.A. (resident assistant) and set this thing in motion,” he wrote. “We’ll see what happens.”
That was at 4:38 a.m. the day he took his life. But his mind was such a whirl and the inner demons were tormenting him so — undoubtedly the worries about how he would be viewed, the prospect of being a laughingstock — that he couldn’t wait to “see what happens.”
Reading how it unfolded, I only wish — and I’m sure you do, too — that I could have intercepted him before he headed out for the bridge. I would have sat him down, put my arm around his shoulders and tried to convince him that it was not the end of the world; that his sexual orientation did not define him as a person; that he was a thoughtful and good-hearted person; that even though he was understandably humiliated, it wasn’t his fault; that it would pass and that he would be able to continue on, unadulterated, as a student, musician, son and fellow classmate.
And, oh, my, think about his parents, Jane and Joe Clementi — how achingly they must wish that they would have known what was going on, and how quickly they would have been at his side to help him through the crisis.
In a statement issued Friday, the family exhibited the same thoughtful reaction that Tyler had displayed in his last days. “Regardless of legal outcomes,” the statement said, “our hope is that our family’s personal tragedy will serve as a call for compassion, empathy and human dignity.”
Compassion, empathy and human dignity. Those qualities are hard to come by, aren’t they? Haven’t we all failed, many times, to show compassion, to be empathetic and to treat people with the dignity they deserve? I know that I have failed in those departments many times. Fortunately, most of us have not failed to the point that it has pushed someone else to the point of suicide.
An Associated Press story in The Kansas City Star on Friday addressed the troubling issue of the “decreased empathy” and “behavior contagion” that technology has spawned.
“All around you,” the story said, “your friends and acquaintances post information once thought ‘private’: names of boy- or girlfriends, social plans, secrets.”
I’m sure glad I didn’t grow up in the Internet age; I was able to hold my secrets, nurse my insecurities, plow through my adolescent depression without those secrets and insecurities being placed on public display without my knowledge or against my will.
But Tyler — shy boy, budding violinist — wasn’t so lucky. Couldn’t have been unluckier, in fact. Had a crummy roommate, as Holden Caulfield might have put it, who thrust him into a vortex of negative emotions that swallowed him up.
Where to go from here? What can we learn?
Two letters to the editor in Friday’s New York Times contained helpful and hopeful ideas.
“Our society must enforce appropriate legal consequences to deter the use of technology to so humiliate an individual into feeling that life is untenable,” wrote Lorraine DeRienzo-Buchbinder of Suwanee, Ga. “We cannot afford to lose another young, promising life so senselessly.”
“I hope,” wrote Gracy Yan of West Haven, Conn., “that parents and teachers will encourage young people to create healthy identities and be ‘whole’ without the obsessive need to be connected and share everything over the Internet.”
Amen, I say. And long live the memory of Tyler Clementi, a boy who, through no fault of his own, was deprived of the right to advance to adulthood.