Thoughts on a Tragedy
Like many people, I have been deeply affected by the Tyler Clementi tragedy. I find I cannot stop thinking about that fateful series of events that led to a college freshman jumping to his death from the George Washington Bridge. I keep dwelling on the sordidness and stupidity of it all, and yet it somehow doesn’t surprise me that it ended as it did. With only the scant details that we know for certain about what actually happened, I imagine with all-too-painful ease how it might have played out for Tyler. I get lost in my own speculations on the twists and turns of thought and emotion that may have driven this tragic tale. More than twenty years after my own coming out, the psychologically intense grappling with my sexuality stills rests uncomfortably near the surface, a vague nausea of panic, fear, shame, and wretchedness that is only just barely kept at bay even now. In spite of everything I now know about myself, about my sexuality, about humans and their natures, I am loath yet compelled to admit that faced with the same ugly situation, I might have done the same thing. I probably would have—or at least come dangerously close.
We don’t have much to go on at the moment in terms of reconstructing the interstices between the major events of September 19 through September 22. We know about the monstrous breach of trust and privacy perpetrated by Tyler’s roommate Dharun Ravi, the horror of what that must have felt like emanating (at least for me) from the uncanny collision of the unimaginable and the all-too-easily imagined. And, of course, we know about Tyler’s final action a few days later, the hour’s drive from campus to bridge and the leap into the Hudson River. I think that what perplexes and preoccupies so many of us is that gap between these two events, what must have filled those hours and days in Tyler’s head. I doubt we’ll ever know, and this is where speculation and imagination play their most abject games in inevitable defiance of our own willfully suspended logic, reason, and restraint.
For those of us who seek to identify with Tyler, who attempt to find commonality and shared experience with a young college freshman trying to figure himself out, that gap presents a perverse stage for us to rehearse once again all those old feelings. One of the things I have learned in being an out gay man for twenty years is how remarkably similar many of our formative queer experiences are. It’s that knowledge that eventually got me through. That and time, the time to sit with myself, be with myself. Tyler, unfortunately, will have, can have neither of these things, and his loss brings us back to all those tentative moments of exhilaration and despair.
I imagine how nervous and excited he must have been for his date that Sunday night. I remember through him that wonderful rightness of another man’s touch. Then there would be the inevitable shame, the second-guessing, the uncertainty, and doubt that always came afterward. I recall through Tyler how these feelings frequently spiraled out of the intimate realm of sexuality into that all-over malaise and dread for my future and all of my relationships—with friends, family, colleagues, and even strangers—beating them to the condemnation. But there was a second date. He had a second date, and I know how, remember how (and even sometimes miss how) the excitement and wonderfulness would win out over all the other feelings. Sure, the spiral of shame and despair would soon return, only to be banished or overpowered again. And again and again. For me and many others, this repetition would eventually work magic, manifesting an OK-ness that fosters courage which builds confidence that leads to comfort which enables a life so worth living. But how delicate it all is at the beginning.
Heteronormativity and homophobia thwart and vex at every opportunity; you’re never wholly immune. But the one aspect of both of these that has always enraged me the most is the laughter, my sexuality played as some kind of comedy for the amusement of others. Smirks and jokes and derisive comments and dismissive laughs somehow always did the most damage to me and my magical, delicate OK-ness. I hate Dharun Ravi’s big, easy grin, his toothy self-possession mocking all my and Tyler’s dissembling. It was just another joke, that impromptu broadcast of Tyler’s big night. Violence, at least, would have suggested passion, something important enough to fight for.
There are reports that Tyler sought help and advice once he found out that he’d been the butt of a practical joke. I know he must have been lucidly rational at times afterward. I would have been. But there would have been creeping doubt and panic and public shame regardless of how small or unconcerned that public might actually have been. Nothing like ridicule, no matter how unintentional, to make you feel ridiculous. How could all those deep, dark secrets be any match for the blinding light of those complacent pearly whites? How could proper channels, administrative recourse, and a sense of fair play restore dignity, self worth, and even privacy? It’d be a split-second decision that they couldn’t. That hour-long car ride to the bridge must have been a frenzied exercise in keeping that decision in focus by tamping down all the magic, punctuated with operatic fantasies of showing them, of really giving them something to laugh about…
I find myself thinking more about Dharun than I do about Tyler. Tyler’s story is all too familiar to me, and it is sadly over. But I wonder what the days since September 22 have been like for Dharun. What must it be like to go from the utter simplicity of straightness to the murky maelstrom in which he now finds himself? I can’t imagine how he faced, faces his parents. What must it be like to see yourself blazoned across television screens and websites, hated and reviled, condemned by nearly everyone? Will he find anything funny ever again? How will he ever be able to make a life for himself now? Who will love him and care about him? What does he think about himself now? Does he dare to think about Tyler, to attempt to delineate some kind of commonality between them? Does he contemplate suicide?
He should be expelled from Rutgers, but he’s learning more now than he ever would or could in four years of college education, not to mention during a laconic lifetime of blithe expectations. Whether he serves time in prison or not, he’s forever changed in ways and to such a degree that I cannot even begin to fathom. That’s what I think about most lately, wondering the whole time if this is what needed to happen and how it will all end.