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.

 

 

3 Responses to The Blame Game, Take 2: Mom & Dharun Ravi

  1. Laura says:

    I am also a suicide survivor and was blamed by my own children in the death of my husband last year. He brutally took his own life with three bullets, two to the chest and one to the head. Since we were filing for divorce and I had moved out at his request, of course I was blamed for his deep depression. But it’s like you said, he had been depressed for a long time and refused to seek counseling or any other kind of help for years. I had always thought him to be depressed. He’d had a hard upbringing, had never really thought much of himself and then suffered a painful divorce a year before we started dating. I, on the other hand, who’d also had a hard upbringing, had been to all kinds of counselors. I knew I had problems but I wanted to get myself fixed. I did not want to spread my depression and insecurities onto other people. Especially my husband. I recognized depression him. He was angry a lot. He drank too much. He used other drugs. He depended solely on me for all his happiness and when I failed him in that area, he blamed me for his misery. Then he cheated on me. I was mad for a long time but I did forgive him. He never thought I did though and was always waiting for the other shoe to drop, always accusing me of cheating on him. Finally I guess I’d had enough. The marriage was over. He told me he would not move out, that I had to. So I did. I was miserable though. I really didn’t want the marriage to be over. I tried to come home but he told me “no”. At that same time he was feeling his business was failing. He was a successful real estate broker in our town and well known and respected by many in the community. When he decided his business was failing and I was leaving I guess it was too much. His first suicide attempt with pills was unsuccessful and he begged me to kill him. I put him in the hospital. He was there for one week, convinced the psychiatrist that he was fine and was sent home. After I moved out he became more depressed so his son, who is a doctor, put him in another pschy facility in the hospital where he worked. He was there a week and sent home. He was placed on all kinds of med. He was supposed to go for counseling but I think he only went once or twice. He kept telling me the only way to fix all the problems was just to take himself out. He told me he was going to hire someone to shoot him. He kept changing his story. I begged him not to do anything stupid. Everyone in the family was calling him daily to check on him. He’d go to work but would just sit at the desk and push papers around. For a while, I thought he was getting better but then suddenly he was gone. Drove himself to one of our rentals, actually one that he and I had lived in when we were first married, and went into the bathtub and shot himself. One of our good friends who was helping me look for him found him. This last year has been a nightmare for me. I am depressed myself. I have had to move out of my beloved home, into a rental and now into another house. I developed health problems the end of last year and have just had major surgery. My son is getting ready to graduate high school and is very upset that his dad won’t be here. My daughter had her first child last year and is very upset that he is not around and my husbands son from his first marriage is trying to finish up medical school and I know he is depressed. I can hear it in his voice. The worst part of all of this was that I was blamed. It was my fault and noone would listen to me. No matter how hard I tried to explain to my kids what had been going on no one wanted to listen. I was and still am, treated horribly by so called “friends” and acquaintances. My kids seem to be better with me now that the shock has worn off but I don’t know in my heart of hearts whether I’ve really been forgiven or not. My parents, brother and sisters have been extremely supportive and that’s been great. I enjoy reading what you have to say on your blog and will continue to read it. Thanks for letting me vent.
    Laura

  2. Barbara Freshley, M.D. says:

    Your comments are very thoughtful and helpful to all those left in the wake of anyone’s suicide. I couldn’t agree with you more. As a physician, I have often found myself in the position of trying to convince colleagues (and myself) that they/I are not to blame for senseless suicides, when they have made their best efforts to help the person prior to that unexpected outcome. I also tell depressed patients that if they decide to end their life, they have the power to follow through on that, but that I hope they won’t choose that route and allow those caring about them to help; their suicide would deprive those people of the chance to affect the outcome positively. It’s so difficult to understand the kind of pain someone must be in to make that final choice, but I hope that acknowledging that pain and trying to help can make a difference at least sometimes.

  3. Amy says:

    10/18/11 – about 5:30 p.m. CST, I had just got to my hotel room in Chicago on a business trip when I received a call from my husband that our youngest son, 17, committed suicide – shot himself in the head in our bedroom. Apparently this happened approximately 10 minutes after I spoke with my son before school earlier that morning before school. What? The funny, happy kid with lots of friends, decent grades, a future. I thought my husband was telling me an awful joke. Apparently, it is call “impulse suicide”. This about all I can type without inducing a breakdown, but do you know that there are still people that question me whether or not someone murdered him because the shock to the entire community and large extended family was just so unbelievable. I have two beautiful surviving children who are just as devestated as my husband and I. My thoughts go out to everyone. My only comment to anyone who needs it: Blame only deepens the pain, let go, seek medical and spiritual help immediately and continue for as long as you need. Find humor in life. Celebrate every moment you can. Cry loud and hard when you need to.

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