Inspection- Why Suicide? The Tyler Clemente Case
The “Early Edition” of this week’s Inspection arrived upon your doorstep last week, in an attempt to keep up with the news cycle. Now, once again, the column arrives about a week ahead of schedule. The author deemed this topic important enough to have another edition published early.
(Oct. 2) — The Rutgers University students charged with streaming a classmate’s gay sexual encounter on the Internet prior to his suicide appear to be in hiding, refusing to defend themselves publicly even as criminal charges pile up and anger builds on their college campus and around the world.
Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, both 18, were charged earlier this week with two counts each of invasion of privacy for allegedly using a camera to view and transmit a live image of fellow 18-year-old Tyler Clementi “making out with a dude,” according to Ravi’s Twitter postings. Clemente was Ravi’s roommate, and he killed himself on Sept. 22 by jumping off New York’s George Washington Bridge after finding out about the Web video.
Nothing can be said to defend the actions of the defendants. They certainly deserve damn near any legal punishment they get. But since Inspection often focuses more on what we don’t pay attention to, that will not be the focus of this edition. Instead I would like to center the magnifying glass in on suicide itself, personal responsibility, how we treat each other, how we react as a society to suicide and, of course, Tyler.
I did not live Tyler Clemente’s brief life. I didn’t attend his college, or his high school, or experience what it was like to grow up gay, live with his family, or in his neighborhood. But I believe I understand suicide more than most. I’ve been there. I’ve spent most of my life reviewing my own decision to kill myself, when I was in college, observed how society reacts to the act itself, and grew up under certain circumstances that could explain why one might choose that difficult path.
“Difficult?” Yes, “difficult.”
We are all rather odd mirrors. Our minds soak in what we eventually reflect, but that reflection is often delayed… holding in the worst of what happens to us, sometimes hold it in until we react with pills, a noose or a gun. Eventually the worst of what we experience sinks in deep: can pollute our minds; soak us to the very soul. One act of cruelty, of hate, that single moment can erase what would have normally been a wonderful day. It’s just how our minds seem to work. And a lot of “the worst” we face is dished out by those who enjoy being cruel and swim deep in irrational hatred.
Hated simply for you being here.
Hated for assumptions about you that may not be “you” at all, or a poorly drawn caricature.
Past that we are no longer considered human, not the complex persons we really are. Instead we are gay, we are Jew, we are black, we are illegal immigrant… even if we’re not. Some hatred is based on our last name: and our relatives are like. Sad to say, of all the suicides I’ve known in life, the nicest, most kind, most normal person in a family filled with vermin is usually the one who will commit suicide.
After 20 years of being bashed, belittled, beaten, abused, considered a joke… one assumes this is what life is. And eventually you come to the conclusion: right or wrong, that if this is what the rest of life is going to be, is all that crazy to decide maybe it might be better for all if you leave? It’s rarely the “rash” decision others paint it as. The conclusion comes slowly, after a hell of a lot of pain and humiliation.
I’m not claiming that decision is necessarily wise, or correct, but it’s also not necessarily the act of coward. It can be an incredible act of bravery when you know you are going to die anyway and be a horrible burden to all around. Those of us who long ago climbed over the half a century mark have probably known more than one person who lingered far too long, in more pain than one should bear. I swear my own father, who could not speak and refused to write, was asking me to pull the plug in his last weeks. Isn’t it rather odd that some in society who are so committed to letting no one end a real life horror movie, are the first to put down a dog or cat for far less significant reasons?
But this was not Tyler’s story.
Since I did not live his life I can only find whatever similarities there may be between us and a decision we both came to. When you reach 20, plus or minus, life there’s, at best, about one fifth of a lifetime behind you. That may seem a small sample from which to judge the quality of life to some of us, but that kind of margin of error would be no more than a wet dream to those who take polls. All you’ve been through, how you assess life itself, reaches a pinnacle at about 20.
At that age major changes are afoot. College, for example, is enough of a change that one might imagine life could finally be going your way. Or, just ending school and entering the work force full time. Or going into the military. And then, if life fall apart again: following similar patterns you seem to have no control over, you wonder, “Why should I have hope that this will ever change despite my best efforts?”
The process seems logical; even if it’s not.
It is claimed that suicide is the act of a coward. Most of the time, I suspect, nothing could be further from the truth. Taking those pills, pulling that trigger, setting up the noose… there is no “easy” method that offers a simply, easy, “good night.” And one can never under estimate the will to live even in the most suicidal amongst us. It takes a determined soul to take the act all way: even when you don’t succeed.
When I was a teen I helped my father clean up after a suicide of a local. He had rapidly advancing, terminal, cancer. His wife was dead. Estranged from his kids, and no one but him on his small, beloved, Adirondack lake, he decided that he had had enough. So he went to the shed behind the cabin with his double barrel 12, but found his arms too short, chair too high. After unloading the shotgun, he sawed the legs off the chair to make it the right height, but the arms still didn’t reach far enough. He went out into the woods with a tape measure and kept testing branches of the right length: testing them to make sure they wouldn’t break. Back to the shed, he reloaded the twelve gauge, put it in his mouth and triggered both barrels.
That’s determination. A true “coward” would cower and slink away at the mere thought of all the required to reach that bloody goal. As Dad told me what had happened, and the door opened, I remember the first sight made me a bit ill: the top of his skull in the middle of the shed floor.
I doubt suicide is ever “easy,” or pulling that literal, or metaphorical, trigger the act of a “coward.”
Society by all means does react to suicide irrationally. Refusing to face the fact we may have contributed to that fateful decision only increases suicides. In Tyler’s case there can be little doubt that those students might as well have pushed him off the George Washington bridge themselves. Friends and family who never bothered to understand what was happening might share a small part of the guilt too. How we treat each other; how much attention is paid, matters far more than we are willing to admit, both as individuals, and as a society.
For those considering suicide, please remember: suicide teaches the wrong lessons; punishes the wrong people. I’m sure, no matter what they say in court, Molly Wei, Dharum Ravi and others who engaged in mocking, insulting and harassing Tyler Clemente, are making excuses… don’t really feel the slightest sense of guilt. Those who do such things are much like those who attended and took photos of lynchings. They’re proud. They have no morals. They have no humanity. Many should be at the end of the rope or the gun. And if some of those old Twilight Zone episodes had any basis in reality that’s exactly what would happen. But, unfortunately, whether it be a piece of skull in the middle of the floor, or a video that hits YouTube that helped a student decide to take his own life, life and its final moments is messy and the ends usually don’t tie up neatly.
We lead such insular lives, especially as we leave our teens. Imagine if Tyler had lived those 20 years with gay and straight willing to stand beside him, willing to become a buffer to all that can sometimes quite literally batter us through life. Tyler Clemente is just one more victim, not only of the social war pushed by religious hate mongers and those who use hate-based sexuality issues as a political weapon, but of a society filled with those unwilling to take a hard look at fault and blame when suicide knocks on our door, saying, “Let me teach you how to be better people.” I would love to have folks get together after a suicide and discuss where they may have fallen short, and how they might do better: use the act as a wake up call to understand more, care more and be more supportive. Otherwise the lynchers win.
Instead we simply use it to cast more blame on those who can’t defend themselves: the dead.
Someone commit suicide?
Well… maybe you should. But, if so, don’t wallow in it.
Do something about it.
Inspection is a column that has been written by Ken Carman for over 30 years. Inspection is dedicated to looking at odd angles, under all the rocks and into the unseen cracks and crevasses that constitute the issues and philosophical constructs of our day: places few think, or even dare, to venture.
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