There is a fine piece by Ian Parker (requires subscription) in this week’s New Yorker which examines the case of Tyler Clementi, the freshman at Rutger’s university in New Jersey who threw himself off the George Washington bridge after his roommate supposedly posted a tape of him in a homosexual tryst on the internet.
In fact there was no tape and no posting and, contrary to reports, Clementi was not a closeted gay fearful of exposure. The piece raises a number of interesting questions about what constitutes homophobia and bigoted intimidation, the nature of privacy in an era of social networking, politically correct vindictiveness, and the vagaries of American criminal justice. But what haunts the careful analysis of the facts is the mystery of suicide.
Up until just before he killed himself, Clementi displayed no sign of self-annihilation, even though he was aware that his roommate had been spying on him – indeed Clementi was able to joke about it with a friend, before undramatically arranging to move rooms and then journeying out to George Washington bridge.
Nor, of course, did Gary Speed appear in the least suicidal when he discussed football on television only hours before hanging himself. No doubt there will be much speculation as to the real “cause” of his suicide – allowing for the possibility, as acknowledged by the coroner at the inquest into Speed’s death, that it was accidental.
Yet whether or not there was a single clear reason, what is apparent is that there was not a single clear sign of suicidal intention. What, in fact, would constitute such a sign, other than an attempted suicide? For we’ve surely all encountered the deeply depressed who have never sought to take their own lives, and not a few of us will have known people who have spoken of suicide without going through with it.
I’ve also known the opposite – the seemingly happy person who, out of nowhere, killed herself. That happened when both she – her name was Charlotte – and I were 19 (around the age of Clementi). I spoke to her the night before she hanged herself. It was a laugh-filled conversation full of plans for when we’d next meet, and I simply could not accept that, within 24 hours, she had taken her life in such a bleak and painful way.
Our instinct is to absorb shock by rationalising, and we rationalise by creating an explanatory narrative where a suitable one does not immediately appear to exist. So we look for clues in past behaviour, string together comments, moods, incidents and try to assemble a picture of someone for whom death seems the only compelling option.
But the picture seldom holds. Suicide remains a mystery on which we impose unsatisfactory answers. In the example of Clementi, his roommate may receive ten years imprisonment if he’s found guilty of invasion of privacy and “bias intimidation”. With Speed, people will ask what caused his wife to sleep in the car on the night he killed himself.
But in neither case will any explanation, much less retribution, do the job. Because there is none that can. The only person who knows is dead, and before he died, if he knew what he was doing and why, his mind was in an unknowable place.