On Friday, March 30, the Star-Ledger in New Jersey published a column I wrote about blame in the aftermath of suicide as it relates to the Tyler Clementi-Dharun Ravi case. You can read the column here (it follows after the jump) or you can click here for a link to the Star-Ledger, where you’ll also find dozens of comments in response to the column.
It feels easy to assign blame in the wake of Tyler Clementi’s suicide. Tyler jumped to his death days after being spied on by his college roommate while kissing another man. His roommate, Dharun Ravi, left an electronic trail of outrageous messages that instantly turned the public against him. Long before the jury announced its decision on charges ranging from invasion of privacy to bias intimidation, the public’s verdict was clear: Dharun was to blame for Tyler’s death. Even I blamed him, and I know better.
Assigning blame in the aftermath of a suicide usually plays out in private—more than 37,000 times a year in the United States. Typically no formal charges are filed, but every surviving parent, spouse, friend, and colleague becomes accuser and accused, judge and jury. At least that’s how it worked after my father’s 1970 suicide. Everyone pointed fingers at everyone, in part to displace whatever misplaced guilt they may have felt about failing to keep Dad alive. Not surprisingly, my mom was the primary target. She was the one who asked Dad to move out. In the months that followed, my dad, who had a history of mental illness, grew increasingly despondent and killed himself. However unfair, connecting Mom’s actions to Dad’s made sense.
Anyone who has lived through the suicide of a loved one knows what I’m talking about. It’s perfectly natural in the wake of such shocking and poorly understood deaths to want to lay blame as we search for answers. We plague ourselves with the “whys” and “what ifs” and look around us—and at ourselves—to make sense of what happened and decide who was responsible.
With Dharun and Tyler, that impulse proved irresistible yet again. We all know that Dharun didn’t physically push Tyler to his death, but it made sense to blame him because we assumed his reckless and callous actions were more than just potential triggers. It looked as though his actions made the events that followed inevitable.
It’s not nearly so simple. We don’t know why Tyler took his life, just as I’ll never really know why my dad ended his. We don’t even know whether Tyler felt bullied, intimidated, or even humiliated. What we do know is that bullying, intimidation, and humiliation don’t automatically lead to suicide. If they did, few of us would have survived adolescence.
At best, we can say that Dharun’s spying and subsequent Twitter messages triggered Tyler’s suicide, which is different from causing his suicide. We know from research that more than 90 percent of people who take their own lives have some kind of underlying mental disorder at the time of their deaths, most commonly depression. But with Tyler we just don’t know what factors came to bear that caused him to end his life.
Of course Dharun Ravi is responsible for what he actually did and what he did, as far as we can tell, inadvertently triggered an extreme response that no one could have imagined. But no matter how reprehensible Dharun’s actions were, he’s not to blame for causing Tyler’s suicide. Dharun didn’t kill Tyler, just as my mom didn’t kill my dad. Dad and Tyler killed themselves.
Absent Tyler’s suicide, Dharun might be facing suspension from school for his obnoxious prank rather than ten years behind bars following a trial that’s been billed as a test case on “bullying over homosexuality in the digital age.” But if we’re honest with ourselves, Dharun’s trial was about assigning blame. More importantly, it was a test of our ability to navigate an exceedingly complex mix of issues about which we’re woefully ignorant, from sexuality and the responsible use of new technologies to bullying and suicide. In our rush to judgment, we’ve failed that test miserably. We’ve turned Tyler Clementi into a two-dimensional symbol of anti-gay bullying and Dharun Ravi into a scapegoat. This is a case that screams out for compassion and understanding. Instead, we’ve laid blame for a tragic act none of us fully understands on the head of a foolish, immature young man.
About This Blog
Welcome to my blog, which grew out of my experience as a suicide survivor and my experience writing Why Suicide? (see below). On occasion I’ll be posting an essay based on something I’ve read, someone I’ve met, an experience I’ve had, or just a memory of someone in my life who took his or her life. If you have a thought on something I’ve written, I hope you won’t hesitate to join the conversation by leaving a comment.
About Eric Marcus
Eric Marcus is the author of several books, including Why Suicide?, Is It A Choice?, and Making Gay History. He is also co-author of Breaking the Surface, the #1 New York Times bestselling autobiography of Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis. And he currently serves on the national board of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. (Photo Credit: Dixie Sheridan.)