Magazine article The New Yorker

The Story of a Suicide

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Story of a Suicide

Article excerpt

Dharun Ravi grew up in Plainsboro, New Jersey, in a large, modern house with wide expanses of wood flooring and a swimming pool out back. Assertive and athletic, he used "DHARUNISAWESOME" as a computer password and played on an Ultimate Frisbee team. At the time of his high-school graduation, in 2010, his parents bought space in the West Windsor and Plainsboro High School North yearbook. "Dear Dharun, It has been a pleasure watching you grow into a caring and responsible person," the announcement said. "You are a wonderful son and brother. . . . Keep up your good work. Hold on to your dreams and always strive to achieve your goals. We know that you will succeed."

One day this fall, Ravi was in a courthouse in New Brunswick, fifteen miles to the north, awaiting a pre-trial hearing. In a windowless room, he sat between two lawyers, wearing a black suit and a gray striped tie. His eyes were red. Although he is only nineteen, he has a peculiarly large-featured, fully adult face, and vaguely resembles Sacha Baron Cohen. When Ravi is seen in high-school photographs with a five-o'clock shadow, he looks like an impostor.

His father, Ravi Pazhani, a slight man with metal-frame glasses, sat behind him. Some way to the right of Pazhani were Joseph and Jane Clementi. Jane Clementi, who has very straight bangs, wore a gold crucifix. She and her husband form a tall, pale, and formidable-looking couple. Their youngest son, Tyler, had died a year earlier, and the family's tragedy was the silent focus of everyone in the room. That September, Tyler Clementi and Ravi were freshman roommates at Rutgers University, in a dormitory three miles from the courtroom. A few weeks into the semester, Ravi and another new student, Molly Wei, used a webcam to secretly watch Clementi in an embrace with a young man. Ravi gossiped about him on Twitter: "I saw him making out with a dude. Yay." Two days later, Ravi tried to set up another viewing. The day after that, Clementi committed suicide by jumping from the George Washington Bridge.

Clementi's death became an international news story, fusing parental anxieties about the hidden worlds of teen-age computing, teen-age sex, and teen-age unkindness. ABC News and others reported that a sex tape had been posted on the Internet. CNN claimed that Clementi's room had "become a prison" to him in the days before his death. Next Media Animation, the Taiwanese company that turns tabloid stories into cartoons, depicted Ravi and Wei reeling from the sight of Clementi having sex under a blanket. Ellen DeGeneres declared that Clementi had been "outed as being gay on the Internet and he killed himself. Something must be done."

Enraged online commentary called for life imprisonment for Ravi and Wei, and Ravi's home address and phone number were published on Twitter. Ravi was called a tormenter and a murderer. Garden State Equality, a New Jersey gay-rights group, released a statement that read, in part, "We are sickened that anyone in our society, such as the students allegedly responsible for making the surreptitious video, might consider destroying others' lives as a sport." Governor Chris Christie, of New Jersey, said, "I don't know how those two folks are going to sleep at night, knowing that they contributed to driving that young man to that alternative." Senator Frank Lautenberg and Representative Rush Holt, both from New Jersey, introduced the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act. Clementi's story also became linked to the It Gets Better project--an online collection of video monologues expressing solidarity with unhappy or harassed gay teens. The site was launched the day before Clementi's death, in response to the suicide, two weeks earlier, of Billy Lucas, a fifteen-year-old from Indiana who, for years, had been called a "fag" and told vicious things, including "You don't deserve to live." That October, President Barack Obama taped an It Gets Better message, referring to "several young people who were bullied and taunted for being gay, and who ultimately took their own lives. …

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