Monday, August 24, 2015

Revisiting the Tyler Clementi tragedy of 2010

I wanted to make a few notes about the tragic Tyler Clementi suicide in September 2010, and surrounding circumstances. 

There are a couple of ways in which his narrative seems to relate to my own experience.  One is that I had a “roommate issue” at the College of William and Mary in the fall of 1961, which would lead to my “expulsion” for admitting homosexuality to the Dean right after Thanksgiving weekend.  I’ve covered the details before many times in the blogs (and especially in the first of my three DADT books).  The circumstances for my experience were different because the historical time period was different.  This was the height of the Cold War (almost), and there was a feeling that “non-conforming” people had to be brought into line for the good of everyone.  I don’t consider my roommate’s boorish behavior malicious, because it was common for the times.  But the incident actually had culminated with the Dean calling my parents away from a weekend trip, and then “telling” them when they returned to campus and had to “take me out of school”.  Family attitude definitely mattered. (And I am an only child.)

In fact, had Clementi been born three or four years later, the same kind of incident probably couldn’t have happened at Rutgers. 

I do remember September 2010 well, as my mother was entering her final decline and would soon pass away (in December).  I made a couple of major Sunday day trips, including one to Penn State Sept. 19 (over an unrelated issue, not even concerned with the football team’s scandal) and then to the Spruce Knob area of West Virginia Sept. 26.

I definitely can relate to the bullying issue, and to a component of my own personality that has no tolerance for the idea of promoting victimhood.  To me, it seems shameful.  I also don’t relate to being forced to go along with someone else’s “agenda” in life and living a life other than my own. 

 The rule of law and social stability is necessary to prevent these things, and social instability (partly related to inequality) can undermine that, leading to coercion and the pressure from “enemies”.  I can relate to the idea that it could be shameful to live under those circumstances. I have reached the age 72 without this actually happening, but it has certainly been “threatened”.  I am considered not to “see people as people” and “like people” well enough to have “real relationships”, other than fantasy, with them.  A victim, I believe, helps pay for the sins of the attacker.  Enemies and “terrorists” know this, as do political movements that take over territory by force (by bullying).  So, I can imagine being in the position of a “Job”, with everything taken away by force, and thrown at the mercy of “God”.  It hasn’t happened to me, but it happens to others.  I can understand the view that only Grace (or its equivalent in any religious faith, including Islam) can save someone.  Otherwise, there is only death, sometimes.  Even so, suicide itself is shameful.  There are times when one has to deal with the hand one is dealt, no matter how harsh.  Everyone faces different challenges.  So it is not morally appropriate to name an organization after someone who took his own life.
News reports indicated some private letters from Clementi which were never made public, and probably never will be.  I had thought that his death might have been a way of showing contempt for what had happened, to see that others were punished (which would make it cowardly).  Again, I don’t think Mr. Ravi acted with malice.  I think he misjudged how seriously his actions would be taken.  I think the prosecution in New Jersey was overblown and a lighter sentence was appropriate.
But going back over the literature, it does seem that Clementi’s motives really had to deal with acceptance (or fear of rejection) by his own family members (after “finding out”), and not over contempt for Ravi or for “life” or for “society”.  Wikipedia even indicates that here.  Two important accounts in the New Yorker by Ian Parker and New York Times by Kate Zernike bear this out, if read closely.

This is a horrible tragedy, where impulsive events got out of control and led to consequences far worse than normally could have been foreseen.  Dr. Phil often talks about teens “not seeing around corners”.  But the same was true, relative to a different set of values, with my own expulsion in 1961.  Later a therapist said “You don’t see the consequences of the things you say and do”, but that was in part due to the circular reasoning in the minds of others.

I can remember that in the earlier days of the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for the military, Charles Moskos had sometimes talked about similar “privacy” issues in college dorms (at his own Northwestern University in Chicago).  Moskos’s own views on this aspect of the issue changed quickly after 9/11, however.  Times are changing, and this is no longer perceived as an issue for most college students today as it had been.
I know at least one other gay mid-20s grad student (I think in med school now), whom I will not identify, with music (violin) talents similar to Clementi’s.  Thankfully, his whole college experience went well (with multiple talents) as far as I know.  We lost a real talent with Clementi, whether he had stayed with music or not.  It was an improbable tragedy, but this happens. 
Picture: Rutgers campus, 2011, my visit.  I had lived in Piscataway during much of 1974. 

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