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Tyler Clementi: Shadows and Fog


[Editor's note: Nearly seven months after the suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, a grand jury has indicted his roommate, Dharun Ravi, on 15 counts including hate-crime charges. Earlier this year Ilya Marritz traveled to New Jersey in attempt to find out more about what took place last September. Here is what he learned.]

It was a cool, wet morning in New Brunswick, N.J., but the crowd on College Avenue was ebullient. They chanted the Rutgers fight song, and above their umbrellas bobbed glamour shots of beautiful women kissing and signs that proclaimed GOD LOVES FAGS and COEXIST. They were there to shout down a planned protest by the homophobic, anti-Semitic Westboro Baptist Church. And the forces of tolerance whupped the forces of hate. Westboro mustered six people, against more than 600 counterprotesters.

Somewhere in this dizzy carnival of acceptance was a high school senior named Tyler Clementi. It was October 28, 2009, 11 months before Clementi ended his life by jumping off a bridge.

'I recognized him, like, oh, that's the kid I just spoke to on Facebook,' recalls Paul Zilber, who took part in Rutgers United Against Hate.

Zilber, who was also a high school senior at the time and openly gay, had created an event page for teens interested in countering Westboro's demo. Clementi had sent Zilber a Facebook message.

'It was brief. Maybe a sentence or two,' Zilber says. 'From what I remember, he cursed a little, like 'They're fucking retarded,' or something like that.'

Clementi didn't join Zilber's two-car convoy to Rutgers, and Zilber didn't expect to run into him. But when their paths crossed, the two young men stopped to chat. 'It was just basic, 'Hey, how are you? Nice to see you.''

Zilber says it didn't cross his mind that Clementi might be gay. 'This group isn't just antigay -- they're antieverything,' Zilber says.

It wasn't until a few days after Clementi's death, almost a year later, that Zilber realized he had met the geeky, red-haired young man whose face was all over the newspapers. 'One day, I was going through my messages, cleaning out my inbox, and I realized'Oh, my god! Tyler Clementi!'

In an e-mail, Clementi's parents' attorney responded, 'I sincerely doubt he attended this event.' (The Clementis have turned down all requests for interviews.) Zilber's online exchange with Clementi has disappeared from Facebook, as has Clementi's profile.

As minor as this episode is, it suggests something we didn't know about Clementi: He had a political consciousness. What's more, he got an eyeful and an earful of Rutgers's out-and-proud side before enrolling there. Whatever his reason for killing himself, it wasn't because he couldn't find local gay support groups.

I had called Zilber expecting to hear the impressions of a young gay activist (he spoke at a candlelight vigil after Clementi's death). But at the memorial Zilber never mentioned meeting Clementi, and no one in the press seems to have thought to ask him.

Of all news outlets, the most impious one, Gawker, has contributed the most to our understanding of Clementi's state of mind prior to his death. The gossip blog posted comments from a gay online message board that appear to be from Clementi: 'he was SPYING ON ME'.do they see nothing wrong with this?' and 'revenge never ends well for me, as much as I would love to pour pink paint all over his stuff.....that would just let him win.' He sounds shaken, but not hopeless or frantic.
So why did Tyler Clementi declare, 'Jumping off the gw bridge sorry,' hours later? If more media covered the suicide as an investigation and not an extended obituary (he was introverted, he was a talented violinist), we might be closer to an answer.

No one can fault Clementi's parents for grieving privately -- and Clementi's friends and family may have their own reasons for keeping their remarks safe and unspecific. But if no one who knew Clementi well steps forward to tell us more about him, we'll miss an opportunity to understand teen suicide and how to prevent it.
Just ask the guy who launched the It Gets Better Project, Dan Savage. IGB's first antisuicide message went live on YouTube September 21 -- the day before Clementi ended his life. That event, Savage says, was like 'steroids injected into it.' Suddenly, new videos were being added every day -- from President Obama, from British prime minister David Cameron, from Kim Kardashian, as well as from thousands of ordinary people.

Savage has had less success in calling attention to what he calls 'a cover-up' around Clementi's life. He believes being exposed on the Internet, however degrading, is not an action that would prompt a well-adjusted person to kill himself. There had to be something else in Clementi's past that left him psychologically vulnerable.
'I think we need to know if Tyler was bullied at home. Was he bullied in the faith in which he was raised? Was he bullied in school?' Savage says. On December 22, Clementi's parents announced plans to sue Rutgers, saying the university policies failed to prevent their son from being spied on online. (The university says its code of conduct already forbids this kind of behavior.) Regardless of who wins the suit, however, Clementi was clearly vulnerable. 'You just can't look at this rationally and not see it as the last straw, as opposed to the only abuse this kid had ever suffered,' Savage says.

What makes him so sure of this? Clementi's sex partner, also humiliated in a live webstream, didn't kill himself.

The identity of Clementi's hookup is the second-biggest mystery in this case.

After Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi, and his hallmate Molly Wei were charged with invading Clementi's privacy, anonymous 'friends' told The Star-Ledger that, according to Wei, the man was 'kind of sketchy,' with a beard and shabby clothes. But the rumor mill quickly died after that.

Was he a townie? A high school sweetheart? An older guy? An anonymous Internet conquest? It's impossible to say. 'I would imagine prosecutors are making every effort to find out who the other person is,' says Ronald Chen, a dean at Rutgers School of Law. 'He might tell them, how was the laptop aligned? What could they see? It just helps them develop a factual case.'

So it is possible that this guy will surface and speak. If prosecutors can find him and persuade him to give testimony. And if the case even goes to trial.

Ravi's and Wei's lawyers claim the web video shows nothing beyond hugging and kissing. This would probably not be enough to convict their clients, since the law they're charged with breaking concerns the nonconsensual recording of 'sexual penetration or sexual contact.'

New Jersey actually updated its privacy statute not long before Clementi's death, with the Internet in mind. There's now a stiffer penalty for privacy invasion (up to five years in prison). But Chen says, because 'sexting' has become so common among young people, lawmakers did not expand the range of content covered by the law to include stuff that's sexual-but-not-exactly-sex. That would have created too many opportunities for lawsuits.

Davidson D, the dorm where Clementi decided to end it all, is on a forlorn patch of ground at the outer edge of Rutgers. I took the campus bus there last December, as finals season was approaching.

Inside the hall, each student's door was decorated with a piece of blue construction paper, with cotton-ball clouds and red kites. On each kite, the name of a person living there was written in glitter glue (mostly the hall is made up of doubles). I knew I'd found Clementi's, Ravi's, and Wei's rooms when I found two locked doors, each with blue sky but no kites and no names.

As I lingered outside, a young woman in sweatpants approached. 'Um, I think you're not supposed to be here,' she said.

I asked whether she would talk to me about what happened last September. 'I have nothing to say,' she said. 'They don't want us talking to you. And I didn't know him anyway.'

Chances are, she told the truth: Clementi only lived three weeks of his short life on that hall. But now that the shock of his death has subsided, it's time for those who knew Clementi well to speak up.

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Ilya Marritz