We Don't Know Why Tyler Clementi Killed Himself

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Sept. 30 2010 2:04 PM

We Don't Know Why Tyler Clementi Killed Himself

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Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

My heart goes out to the friends and family of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who killed himself on Sept. 22. And if his roommate and another student taped Tyler kissing a guy on a webcam without his permission and streamed it on iChat, as it looks like , then I’m all for going after the two 18-year-olds for invasion of privacy. It's vile and indecent to videotape another person in an intimate moment without his or her permission. And the roommate, Dharun Ravi, sounds loathsomely giddy with homophobia and juvenile idiocy in this tweet : "Anyone with iChat, I dare you to join me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it's happening again."

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But can we stop for a moment before we blame Dharun and Molly Wei, the other student who allegedly participated in the taping, for Tyler's suicide? Yes, I know, I've said this before, in the cases of Phoebe Prince (the 15-year-old South Hadley student who hanged herself last January) and Kevin Morrissey (the 52-year-old managing editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review who shot himself in July). I'm a broken record. And the conduct of the other students here is appalling and indefensible. But. Read these posts by cit2mo on justusboys.com, which Gawker found and, for good reason, thinks Tyler wrote, because the timing of the posts is exactly right and the content fits perfectly too: The subject line for the thread is "college roommate spying..."

As my colleague William Saletan points out, there is a huge gap between the relatively unemotional tone of these posts and the act of suicide. On Sept. 19, the day that Dharun taped Tyler for the first of two times, cit2mo described such an incident and wrote of his roommate: "I'm kinda pissed at him (rightfully so I think, no?)" cit2mo isn't confident that the school will rush to his aid (though since he just arrived as a freshman, it's hard to imagine he has reason to know that): "I feel like the only thing the school might do is find me another roommate, probably with me moving out." But then cit2mo/Tyler, says of roommate/Dharun: "I mean aside from being an asshole from time to time, he's a pretty decent roommate." Two hours later, cit2mo wrote again to say he'd filled out the roommate change form. "I feel like it was 'look at what a fag my roommate is,' " he said. He talks about the homophobia of other students, who asked on the roommate's profile whether he was ok, not Tyler. It's starting to sink in how gross this all is: "unsettling to say the least," cit2mo writes.

Then when cit2mo wants to invite the guy he likes over again, he posted in the wee hours of Sept. 22 (the day Tyler died) to say that he asked his roommate for permission to use the room-and then saw that the roommate had turned the webcam on and pointed it toward his bed; cit2mo writes that he went to to tell his resident adviser. Also, "meanwhile I turned off an unplugged his computer, went crazy looking for other hidden cams... and then had a great time." His last post, from 6:17 a.m. on the Sept. 22 says of the R.A.: "he seemed to take it seriously... he asked me to email him a written paragraph about exactly what happened. I emailed it to him, and to two people above him..."

That's it. It appears that Tyler jumped off the George Washington Bridge at about 9 p.m. that night. Maybe the aftermath of the taping took a turn for the more horrible during the day that connects it to his unraveling. Or maybe something entirely unrelated prompted Tyler to choose this moment to make his awful jump. We don't know. And until we do, however tempting it is to blame his jerky homophobe roommate, the matter-of-fact voice of cit2mo should make us hesitate to think we have any but the shallowest understanding of what happened here.

Photograph of laptop by Gflores for Wikimedia Commons.

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