Tag Archives: suicide

mourning and public-ness

When I ranted about how the media’s incessant desire to get the story was not allowing the people of Newtown to mourn, I did not expect that I’d be mourning the death of a friend a month later. As I’ve tried to come to terms with Aaron’s death, I’ve found myself slipping between personal grief and meta reflection, my primary coping mechanism for dealing. I’ve decided to craft this deeply personal, reflective blog post because I think that it makes sense to think about and discuss what mourning and vulnerability mean in a culture of public-ness.

Last week, I read the story of a Newtown woman who was photographed grieving at a vigil. She voiced her struggle in becoming an icon of the tragedy, understanding the importance of the story but also wanting to be respected as an individual going through her own struggles. This story resonated with me.

Aaron Swartz was a friend of mine. When I woke up three Saturdays ago to learn about his death, I went into complete shock. I spent the day talking with mutual friends, reading heartfelt stories on the internet, and crying. I woke up the next day and while lying in bed, penned my own memorial for my blog. I always struggle with what my blog is, wanting it to be a way of communicating with people who know me while also recognizing that it’s read by many strangers. Still, it’s the best vessel to share with a community of geeks that I love. So I posted my reflections there.

I should’ve known that my blog post would attract the attention of the press. But I wasn’t really processing reality and I hadn’t yet begun to realize that the story would become a mainstream one. On one hand, I was glad. People should know who Aaron was and why what he did was important. On the other hand, I watched as the story took on a life of its own, not just a rallying cry for geeks, but a portrait that I could barely recognize.

I started getting questions from journalists and I panicked. I wrote as politely as I could that I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t be their source. But I also struggled with the very fact of their asking. Yes, I blogged about him, but what right do I have to speak for Aaron? To tell Aaron’s story? I was Aaron’s friend, but like many friends in my world, we ebbed and flowed in terms of closeness over the last 9 years. I was not his lover, I was not his professional collaborator. I had only met his father once and only met his current partner briefly. I knew only a small subset of his social circle. I knew – and adored – a facet of Aaron. But who was I to tell his story? I found myself fretting over how my blog post had created a signal that I didn’t want to to convey. I wanted to express my grief and my fear over how parts of my community were reacting, not claim proximity or define Aaron.

As the funeral rolled around, I scratched my head as to whether or not to go. I hate funerals, but I also knew that many people I cared deeply about were struggling even more than me. And none of us live in the same city. And part of me wanted to support them and show respect. But then I heard people who didn’t know Aaron talking about going because it was “the right thing to do” which was basically code for the notion that everyone who was everyone was going to be there. It also became clear that it was going to be a media event with the possibility of protestors and counter-protesters. And I balked. I couldn’t stomach the idea of simultaneously trying to mourn and trying to deal with a collective performance of mourning. So I stayed put, in a daze.

And then the memorials started up and I was asked to speak. And I realized that I was so not there yet. I was still at the stage of cry and hug. And I was struck by how some of those who he spent his last days with were able to channel their own emotional struggle into a far more productive output than I could possibly muster. I was in awe of their strength, of their commitment. Because I relished the activist in Aaron and I was completely intellectually with them in their efforts to use this moment to make a difference, to speak out against the structural inequities and abuses of power that Aaron was fighting for. But I wasn’t able to be there; I was still in a dark place that wasn’t productive. So I pushed my own escape valve, a privileged valve I’ve learned to use whenever things got dark. I spent my frequent traveler points and went to Miami to hug the sun and the beach and get a grip on my mental state.

I’ve spent a lot of years struggling with my own demons and one of the best parts of growing old for me is that I’ve developed coping mechanisms to identify and deal with my emotional state before I put myself or anyone else at risk. I’m good at getting control over me before running full-speed with my activist goals. This is something that I’m very proud of. But I also look back with a lot of uncertainty because I don’t know how I would’ve gotten here without the internet as it was when I was coming of age.

As I’ve said many times, the internet has been my saving grace. I usually publicly point to the ways in which I have learned about new opportunities and been challenged to think about a world that was bigger than the one that I was inhabiting on a daily basis. But embedded in those positive-minded narratives is the fact that the internet allowed me to be vulnerable and safe in a productive way. I spent countless hours anonymously talking to strangers about my demons without being tracked or identified or outed. I used LiveJournal to be deeply vulnerable among friends in an environment where we all understood that it was a site where you shared your struggles and everyone respected that. I lashed out in ways that helped create friendships as a byproduct of getting help. And I started blogging in a context where putting yourself out there enabled a small community of caring folks to listen and be supportive in all sorts of unique ways.

Today, I don’t have that luxury. My internet is painfully public. My interactions online are heavily constrained by pressures I get from others. When I post something controversial or incomplete, I am consistently publicly attacked and I’m regularly told that this is what I get for choosing to speak in public. I am told that as a public figure, I deserve whatever I get. So when I choose to make myself vulnerable in public, I have to brace myself for attacks. Even my attempt to mourn Aaron generated messages by strangers attacking me for clearly having not been a real friend or else he wouldn’t have died. I’ve learned to roll with these attacks, but they still sting. And I don’t know that my younger self could’ve handled them well. But what I know is that I no longer have an internet where I feel safe to deal with my demons. There are still places where people can carve out that space, but somehow, it never feels safe enough to me anymore.

I realize that this nostalgia for the past is interwoven with a whole set of different issues that make this a self-absorbed lament. But Aaron’s death threw it in my face. Because, on the day that Aaron died, the geeks that I grew up being vulnerable with all let down their guards and wailed through the media that they knew best. And then his death went from creating a weekend of collective sadness and storytelling to an event that took on a life of its own. And I’m left with a discomforting question: where are geeks allowed to be vulnerable today?

With each new geek death by suicide, folks ask what we should do about the depression in our community. I can’t help but think that we’re paying the costs of the public-ness that we’ve helped create. We’ve made geek culture something to watch, an economic engine, a dependency. And in doing so, we haven’t enabled safe spaces to grow. We’ve created communities connected around ideas and actions, relishing individualistic productivity for collective good. But we haven’t created openings for people to be weak and voice their struggles and demons. In short, we don’t know how to support vulnerabilities and rather than debugging the problem, we just hope that if we don’t pay too much attention to them, they’ll go away.

But the pressures of public-ness are forcing us to pay an ugly price. In NYC alone, we’ve lost two geeks in two years because their worlds spun out of control in ways that didn’t leave them with enough strength to grapple with their demons while also trying to make the world a better place. Throughout this country, there are geeks and hackers facing serious pressures by structural power as a byproduct of the public-ness we’ve created. And many of them are also facing serious demons. I’m definitely among those who want to hold political entities accountable for capitalizing on vulnerabilities in their pursuit of the status quo, but I am also hoping that the geek community can figure out a way to make sure that those who are struggling have enough support to fight both their demons and their oppressors. Before we lose another one. The problem is that I genuinely don’t know how.

Stop the Cycle of Bullying

[John Palfrey and I originally wrote this as an op-ed for the Huffington Post. See HuffPo for more comments.]

On 22 September 2010, the wallet of Tyler Clementi – a gay freshman at Rutgers University – was found on the George Washington Bridge; his body was found in the Hudson River the following week. His roommate, Dharun Ravi, was charged with 15 criminal counts, including invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, and tampering with witnesses and evidence tampering. Ravi pleaded not guilty.

Ravi’s trial officially begins this week, but in the court of public opinion, he has already been convicted. This is a terrible irony, since the case itself is about bullying.

Wading through the news reports, it’s hard to tell exactly what happened in the hours leading up to Clementi’s suicide. Some facts are unknown. What seems apparent is that Clementi asked Ravi to have his dormroom to himself on two occasions – September 19 and 21 – so that he could have alone time with an older gay man. On the first occasion, Ravi appears to have jiggered his computer so that he could watch the encounter from a remote computer. Ravi announced that he did so on Twitter. When Clementi asked Ravi for a second night in the room, Ravi invited others to watch via Twitter. It appears as though Clementi read this and unplugged Ravi’s computer, thereby preventing Ravi from watching. What happened after this incident on September 21 is unclear. A day later, Clementi’s body was discovered.

The media-driven narrative quickly blamed Ravi and his friend Molly Wei, from whose room Ravi watched Clementi. Amidst a series of other highly publicized LGBT suicides, Clementi’s suicide was labeled as a tragic product of homophobic bullying. Ravi has been portrayed as a malicious young man, hellbent on making his roommate miserable. Technology was blamed for providing a new mechanism by which Ravi could spy on and torment his roommate. The overwhelming presumption: Ravi’s guilty for causing Clementi’s death. Ravi may well be guilty of these crimes, but we have trials for a reason.

As information has emerged from the legal discovery process, the story became more complicated. It appears as though Clementi turned to online forums and friends to get advice; his messages conveyed a desire for getting support, but they didn’t suggest a pending suicide attempt. In one document submitted to the court, Clementi appears to have written to a friend that he was not particularly upset by Ravi’s invasion. Older digital traces left by Clementi – specifically those produced after he came out to and was rejected by those close to him – exhibited terrible emotional pain. At Rutgers, Clementi appears to have been handling his frustrations with his roommate reasonably well. After the events of September 20 and 21, Clementi appears to have notified both his resident assistant and university officials and asked for a new room; the school appears to have responded properly and Clementi appeared pleased.

The process of discovery in a lawsuit is an essential fact-finding exercise. The presumption of innocence is an essential American legal principle. Unfortunately, in highly publicized cases, this doesn’t stop people from jumping to conclusions based on snippets of information. Media speculation and hype surrounding Clementi’s suicide has been damning for Ravi, but the incident has also prompted all sorts of other outcomes. Public policy wheels have turned, prompting calls for new state and federal cyberbullying prevention laws. Well-meaning advocates have called for bullying to be declared a hate crime.

As researchers, we know that bullying is a serious, urgent issue. We favor aggressive and meaningful intervention programs to address it and to prevent young people from taking their lives. These programs should especially support LGBT youth, themselves more likely to be the targets of bullying. Yet, it’s also critical that we pay attention to the messages that researchers have been trying to communicate for years. “Bullies” are often themselves victims of other forms of cruelty and pressure. Zero-tolerance approaches to bullying don’t work; they often increase bullying. Focusing on punishment alone does little to address the underlying issues. Addressing bullying requires a serious social, economic, and time-based commitment to educating both young people and adults. Research shows that curricula and outreach programs can work. We are badly underfunding youth empowerment programs that could help enormously. Legislative moves that focus on punishment instead of education only make the situation worse.

Not only are most young people often ill-equipped to recognize how their meanness, cruelty, and pranking might cause pain, but most adults are themselves are ill-equipped to help young people in a productive way. Worse, many adults are themselves perpetuating the idea that being cruel is socially acceptable. Not only has cruelty and deception become status quo on TV talk shows; it plays a central role in televised entertainment and political debates. In contemporary culture, it has become acceptable to be outright cruel to any public figure, whether they’re a celebrity, reality TV contestant, or teenager awaiting trial.

Tyler Clementi’s suicide is a tragedy. We should all be horrified that a teenager felt the need to take his life in our society. But in our frustration, we must not prosecute Dharun Ravi before he has had his day in court. We must not be bullies ourselves. Ravi’s life has already been destroyed by what he may or may not have done. The way we, the public, have treated him, even before his trial, has only made things worse.

To combat bullying, we need to stop the cycle of violence. We need to take the high road; we must refrain from acting like a mob, in Clementi’s name or otherwise. Every day, there are young people who are being tormented by their peers and by adults in their lives. If we want to make this stop, we need to get to the root of the problem. We should start by looking to ourselves.

danah boyd is a senior researcher at Microsoft Research and a research assistant professor at New York University. John Palfrey is a professor of law at Harvard Law School.

Four Difficult Questions Regarding Bullying and Youth Suicide

Over the last couple of years, I’ve laid awake at night asking myself uncomfortable questions about bullying and teen suicide. I don’t have answers to most of the questions that I have, but I’m choosing to voice my questions, fears, and doubts because I’m not confident that our war on bullying is taking us down the right path. I’m worried about the unintended consequences of our public discourse and I’m worried about the implications that our decisions have on youth, particularly in this high-stakes arena. So I’m asking these four tough questions in the hopes that we can collectively step back and think critically about how we’re addressing bullying as a public issue.

1. What if the stranger danger / sexual predator moral panic increased LGBT suicide?

When I was growing up online, talking to strangers allowed me to getting different perspectives on the world. As a queer teen, the internet allowed me to connect with people who helped me grapple with hard questions around sexuality. I very much thank the internet for playing a crucial role in helping me survive high school. In 2001/2, I visited the online forums that I grew up in, only to find that they were filled with hateful messages directed at LGBT youth by religious ideologues who, quite simply, told these kids they were going to hell. I learned that LGBT networks had gone underground.

As the sexual predator moral panic kicked in in 2005, youth started telling me about how all internet strangers were dangerous. They swallowed the message they’d been told, hook, line, and sinker. What really startled me were all of the LGBT youth I met who told me that they had no one to talk with… I’d ask them if they connected with other LGBT folks online and they’d look at me with horror before talking about how scary/sketchy/bad strangers were.

By many accounts, the early internet seems to be correlated with a decline in suicide among LGBT youth, perhaps because of its ability to connect LGBT to information and support structures. What if the stranger danger rhetoric undermines that? Who do LGBT youth turn to when they’re feeling isolated? Is it possible that the culture of fear we’ve created has increased suicide rates? If so, who’s responsible?

2. What if “It Gets Better” increases emotional devastation for some LGBT youth?

Most LGBT-identified teens who have committed suicide since the “It Gets Better” campaign have been involved in the campaign in some way. Jamey Rodemeyer notoriously made a video before he killed himself. Countless adults (and youth) have celebrated “It Gets Better” as a powerful message filled with hope. But “It Gets Better” isn’t the same as “I can make it better.” Abstraction and patience don’t help when you’re in pain Right Now.

When you’re 14 and coming to terms with your sexuality, six months feels like a decade and 4 years feels like eternity. Along comes a message of hope and it’s really exciting and you get pumped up, like the way you feel when a new song comes on the radio that you feel really speaks to you. You dive in, you create your story, you make your own video. And then what? The humdrums at school continue on and you continue to get teased, only worse this time because you publicly pronounced your story. You felt like you were part of a movement but no one reached out to you, no one helped you make it better. No community was made, no support group was developed. You’re still alone. No one seems to care. You crash and burn.

Getting “high” on a movement can be devastating for youth if there’s no support structure there when they fall. The Trevor Project did a great job of providing some of the needed support infrastructure, but communities themselves often aren’t prepared to support youth. Social services are underfunded. Schools are strapped for cash and getting rid of guidance structures. Parents are stressed out. Community groups are not always tolerant of questioning youth. Is it possible that hopeful messages like “It Gets Better” result in more devastating crashes, particularly for youth in not-so-supportive communities? Does the positive narrative outweigh the possible existential break that can come with being disappointed that things don’t get better?

3. What if the media spotlight around bullying causes harm to youth?

In January 2010, a Massachusetts-based girl named Phoebe Prince killed herself. The highly publicized story suggested that she was an innocent victim who was cruelly tormented by her peers. The story was told in such a cut-and-dry manner that it should’ve raised suspicions in anyone’s mind, but people glommed onto the narrative. Shortly later, the local District Attorney charged six students with various crimes in the case. But did they do what they were accused of doing or was this a witchhunt cloaked as justice? Those kids’ lives have been wrecked by the investigation, publicity, and charges. If they are the devils incarnate that the press want them to be, arguable they deserve it. But what if they didn’t? (If you want to read phenomenal coverage of this, check out Emily Bazelon’s 2010 feature series.)

In the summer of 1999, I was at a rave in a field in Colorado. I was in my tent, writing in my journal, when a group of kids asked me if they could come in. We got to talking and I learned that they had all been students at Columbine on that fateful day when the sanctity of their school was destroyed. I asked them about what it was like to be there and they said that it sucked, but nothing sucked more than the aftermath. They started telling me about how the press hounded them, how they couldn’t hang out with friends, how they had no place to go anymore because the press would sit on their lawns and beg them for more details. Paparazzi at its worst. The kids in my tent had all dropped out of school because of the press. WTF?

On one hand, it’s great that there’s public attention being given to bullying, suicide, and the hardships that youth face. On the other, I can’t help but wonder if the spotlight does additional damage. Does the spotlight help us find effective interventions or just force people to create bandaids? Does it increase justice or result in more kids’ lives being destroyed? Does it showcase the challenges that youth face or obscure them in caricatured forms that lose their nuance? In an effort to tell the story, do we create angels and demons that destroy any hope of creating change?

4. What if us adults are part of the problem?

I spend countless hours talking to youth, thinking about youth, and speaking out on behalf of youth. Nothing makes my heart ache more than seeing youth suffer. I can also still vividly remember my own experiences as a “weird” teen growing up in Pennsylvania who was regularly ostracized and teased. I remember what it was like to feel powerless and to reach that precarious state of anomie. I don’t want anyone to have to go through that which is why I’m so deeply committed to this struggle.

That said, I think that it’s outright dangerous to get so lost in our mission to combat bullying that we stop looking into the mirror. What are the norms that we set for young people when we talk poorly about our friends, family, neighbors, or colleagues at the dinner table? When we engage in road rage while driving? Why is it that we accept – if not encourage – meanness in our political sparring? Or on our TV talk shows? Why do marketers put their money behind reality TV shows that propagate the value of relationship drama as entertainment? Look around at the society we’ve created and it’s filled with harshness. To top it off, look at how much we pressure our youth, particularly middle class youth. Hyper-competition starts early and is non-stop. And look at how increased economic pressure in this country creates new tensions, particularly for working class youth. Then add in the fact that puberty is where all sorts of mental health issues start to appear. Where are the support structures for youth that go beyond the family? We’ve defunded social services left right and center.

In short, we’re creating a societal recipe for disaster even while we publicly pronounce our crusades to end bullying. We don’t need more pundits and journalists and politicians telling us we need to end bullying. We know that. We need to start building out the infrastructure to make it happen. And to realize that it’s a systems-level problem that is not easy to solve. There’s no silver bullet, no magical solution. It can’t be instantly stopped at the school door. It requires collective action, with an eye towards making the world a better place. It requires all-hands-on and a commitment from everyone – and I do mean everyone – to take responsibility for their own actions, values, and attitudes within society. Bullying doesn’t stop by blaming others. It doesn’t stop by creating new regulations. Or inventing new demons. Or scaring people shitless. It stops by collectively agreeing to engage in acts of tolerance, love, bravery, and respect. And that’s far harder to do than passing laws, prosecuting teens, or writing fear-mongering stories.

Image Credit: Ashley Rose