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I think I need a new heart

October 12, 2010

I wrote this last week, but never posted it. I was struck by a line in the Times coverage of Tyler Clementi’s death and was wondering if others had a similar reaction. and then it kind of evolved. Or devolved. Or dissolved. But there’s still some stuff in here I want to think about, so I’m posting it. Feel free to chime in.

* * * * *

By now we’ve all heard and read about Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate broadcast a surreptitiously filmed video of him on youtube. It’s a terrible, tragic thing for a promising young man to feel so humiliated that he can see no other option but to end his own life.

But the way the story is being told is interesting to me.

When the story first broke, the news reported simply that the young man was a Rutgers student and that he had jumped after his roommate had posted a video of a “sexual encounter” on the internet. But by day two, the young man had become a “promising violinist” (or, in the case of the erroneous New York Times, a “promising violist”), and the video subject a “homosexual encounter.” The story in yesterday’s New York Times reported that the young man’s “roommate’s Twitter message makes plain that Mr. Ravi believed that Mr. Clementi was gay.” Here is what the Twitter message said, as reported in the same article:

“Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”

I don’t see this as an implication that Ravi believed Clementi was gay. It simply says that he saw Clementi kissing a guy. Does this automatically mean Clementi was gay or even that Ravi thought he was?

Sexuality is a fluid concept. Read my friend Lisa’s book if you have any questions about this. Without knowledge of Clementi’s self conception or the way he presents himself to others, how can you tell whether he falls into the category gay? The Times leaped to a conclusion. Not the first time. And certainly not the last. But it’s an assumption worth noting. And we all know what they say about assumptions.

The twitter message in no way implies any further knowledge of Clementi’s life or interests that might lead the Times to arrive at the conclusion that Clementi was gay – was Clementi experimenting? Did he identify himself as bisexual or gay? Those questions were not asked, at least not as presented in the article. It now does appear that Clementi considered himself gay, although he had not told his parents. But that is not actually an issue that matters to me. What does matter is that the interpretation of Clementi’s roommate’s Twitter message by the Times serves to put Clementi in a narrow box. He is no longer a person of many qualities and experiences with the ability and right to change himself. He is a gay violinist. A dead gay violinist. And this sells him short in so many ways.

And yet the boxing isn’t an inherently evil rhetorical device. Essentialization is what media does most of the time. It distills the basics and the universals so that someone with no direct knowledge can understand and react to the events. True, removing the complexity of the whole person makes it easy to approach the story with an us-vs.-them attitude. But it also genericizes the incident in a way that it can be used to help others, as in the video currently in wide circulation of Ellen DeGeneres talking about Clementi as one example of the crisis of teens bullying gay teens. Maybe some good will come from it. But small comfort to Clementi’s family, I’m sure.

The initial report I read of Clementi’s suicide didn’t mention that the sexual encounter broadcast included two young men, so when I first heard the story, I wrongly assumed that his partner was female. My assumption is probably based on heterosexist prejudice on my part, but also on the expectation I have acquired through years of news consumption that when the press reports on sexual encounters, the default setting is heterosexual. When it’s not, they tell you, as they eventually did in this case. My assumptions are another issue for another day. But my point is that I was just as horrified by the story when I thought it involved a heterosexual couple as I was when I found out the participants were of the same sex. It’s just as illegal and immoral to secretly film and broadcast a homosexual couple as a heterosexual couple.

Was it a hate crime? Maybe. And then it is, indeed, important to determine whether Clementi’s was gay, or at least whether his antagonists thought he was. The prosecution will depend on it; punishment is much more severe for hate crimes. But one of the things that makes this event so sad is that it’s easy to see how it arose out of a boneheaded decision, maybe even accidental at first (although certainly not in the end), by kids who weren’t thinking. The decision to record and broadcast was immoral and illegal. But it does not necessarily constitute a hate crime. Would they have done the same thing if the couple had been heterosexual? I think it is conceivable that they could. Or at least that someone would.

But back to the issue of assumptions. I have to wonder, too, if Tyler Clementi was making some assumptions of his own when he made the decision to take his own life. How does the brain get from “this is a horrible thing happening to me” to “this is a horrible thing happening to me from which I can not possibly recover”? Did he assume the action was a hate crime? Or was he just wrestling with inner conflict or shame or some other self-torture about his sexuality? Why did he assume his situation could not improve?

It is that assumption that worries me the most, especially as a parent. I don’t ever want my child to think that something is so terrible that it cannot get better. Because in reality, very few things are like that. Terminal illness or injury. But for most things, there is truth in the old adage “time heals all wounds.” Which is why I printed out a copy of this blog post by Vicky Bell, which has gone viral. Parts of the message have already been communicated.

My mommy job requires that I remind you of two essential things:
Nothing ruins your life forever. NOTHING.
Nothing ruins your life forever. NOTHING.

AJ’s not ready to read the whole thing yet, but he will someday. Assumptions are dangerous things. Even assumptions that seem inconsequential can have import you don’t even know about. But there’s hope. Talking to people fixes many things. It’s much harder to hurt the person you know than the person you don’t.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 12, 2010 3:12 pm

    I guess I should print out her blog post, altho I’ll never be able to find it when I’m ready for it.

    The articles were clear by the time I read them, including the text from roomie’s Twitter- which he’d tried to delete after the suicide. What struck me most was that there were four days between the filmed “encounter” and the suicide. During that time the roommates had some communication- but all of it via Twitter or Facebook. At no time did they actually TALK about the problem face to face. Is that skill- the ability to discuss a serious problem- too mature for college kids or too reality based for kids who live online? That worries me.

  2. crankygirl permalink
    October 13, 2010 11:37 am

    The story is heart-breaking and a bit mystifying to me in its chronology. I’m not satisfied with what I’ve read, probably because, as you say, the newspaper has simplified matters.

    I hadn’t seen that Vicky Bell post–it’s good to remember.

  3. crankygirl permalink
    October 13, 2010 11:41 am

    Read it, and weep.

  4. October 13, 2010 12:27 pm

    That is exactly what I’m trying to say. Thanks for the link, Cranky.

  5. Ron permalink
    October 13, 2010 7:08 pm

    “My assumption is probably based on heterosexist prejudice on my part…” I doubt it. Remember what Dorothy Parker said: “Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common”. Reading about a swan and thinking it’s feathers were white or reading about a garnet and thinking it was red are just reasonable assumptions based on very limited data. But there are black swans and green garnets and perhaps they are the most beautiful because they are not so common.

  6. October 15, 2010 10:24 am

    You had me at “heterosexist prejudice.” It’s so incredibly rare to hear heterosexism owned by heterosexual people, that when I encounter it, I feel as though the clouds should part and the sun should come shining through, like in The Sword in the Stone. Thank you for that.

    Speaking as a middle-aged queer adult who briefly contemplated suicide as a teenager, to solve the problem of being queer, I seriously doubt that Clementi’s suicide was a reaction solely to his roommate’s abhorrent behavior. If Clementi was gay, or even wondered if he might be, I’m inclined to assume that he probably had contemplated suicide, at least on and off, for several years. Of course, we’ll never know all the complex feelings of shame, inadequacy, fear, or whatever that were swirling around in him.

    There is much work still to be done. Thanks for your post.

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