January 11, 2011

The Suicide Of Bill Zeller

with respect: he was wrong


I'm writing this for the other Bill Zellers.


Bill Zeller, Princeton grad student and Metafilter regular, committed suicide last week, leaving behind a long suicide note that explained: "My first memories as a child are of being raped, repeatedly."  The note describes growing up in a cold fundamentalist Christian household; being repeatedly molested by someone; and the parents, or at least the father, either not caring or not stopping or the molester.  It's possible that the father did not condemn the molester because he had already been identified as "saved."  I don't know how any mortal would know that about another mortal but I'll admit I don't fully understand "saved."  I guess it means the rape charge doesn't stick.

I'll also admit that my first, reflexive, thought was that he hadn't been raped.  That he made it up.  The story seemed too vague, especially for a note that whose supposed purpose was to make things clearer.  The language reminded me of other similar fabrications, e.g. "my first memories as a child are of being raped."  First?  There were no specifics mentioned; and while there was plenty of rage, there was no trace of the guilt that accompanies so many admissions of childhood abuse. 

In traditional therapy these suspicions are initially irrelevant because the point is present feelings, and whether their origins are real or invented doesn't change the veracity of those feelings.  But ultimately it does matter; a fabrication of molestation may signify that this is the only way they know how to verbal language storyboard the kind of pain they are feeling-- "unless I invent a trauma backstory, no one would appreciate how desperately sad I am."  Or, the fabrication could signal not a pain but an undeservingness of love; the only way they think they can merit love is to be pitied, damaged.  "The only time they held me lovingly is when I fell down and hurt myself."  Different people will connect with either of those; you know who you are, and so I may as well say: this process is not unusual, and you are not Alone.

But looking at the comments on Metafilter, Gizmodo and other places, I was stunned at how many people I "knew"-- regulars on those sites-- admitted to being molested themselves.  That guy??  That girl????  Him, too?  All these people??  I began to wonder if true binary of the world wasn't  men/women or rich/poor but people who had been molested and no one cared or stopped it/ people who had never been molested or someone cared and had stopped it.  Even Freud's idea of the oedipal fantasy was a backpedaling: it couldn't be that all these people were actually molested, right?

But it's hard to argue with the numbers, and the numbers were overwhelming.  Then came my inbox, and it was the same.   I had, as a personal prejudice, not appreciated its prevalence.   Ok.  But when even the news reports blindly accepted the abuse story, I had to ask: how come no one wondered if Bill hadn't made the whole thing up?


If rape was the clear motivation for his suicide, Christian Fundamentalism was the clear motivation for the rape.  George Zeller, his father, is about as hard core fundamentalist as you can get, dissecting the atomic structure of something called Christian Sonship in droning recordings and labyrinthine essays, and if this man is only the assistant to the Pastor then there exists a man on this planet that I am frightened of.   I don't know anything about fundamentalism, but if you pause and look at George's writings not as a religion but as an activity, what you see is George reworking and reworking the ideas over and over and repeating and repeating, nuance after nuance after microscopic nuance, until he gets them "right."  But there is no right; there is only the identification of wrong.  It is an obsessiveness with sterility and removing dirt that doesn't have room for outsiders-- hence his minuscule disagreements with other thinkers blown into theological catastrophes.  He must always be in conflict with another's thoughts not because they're wrong but because their very presence contaminates the lattice he uses to lock down the Anxiety, yes, in the same way watching someone disturb one piece of your hoard means you have to redo the whole pile.  He's hoarding religious minutiae.

George was an easy target, and if the fact of Bill's growing up in a fundamentalist home was brought up by a commenter, it was always brought up as evidence that Bill was raised by an insane man, maybe even evil.

But again, almost no one doubted he was raped.  More than that: many people automatically assumed he was truthful because his parents were Christian fundamentalists, i.e. "I'm not saying all fundamentalists are child molesters but it's damn sure pretty near all of them."  

And then I could see that my doubt of the rape was actually a reaction to their assumption it was true.   I was reacting to their reaction. They had their prejudices, I had mine, and Bill Zeller was the excuse for an ideological battle we had already chosen sides about long before he killed himself.  Ugh.


Suicide notes are unreliable; they don't convey information, they convey mood.  And if you have ever been on the other wrong end of a suicide note you've probably lost part of your soul trying to decide if they were right, so let me help you: as a rule, they weren't.  What they said isn't the point, it's how they said it.  "I am so angry at _____."   The direct object is a red herring, the subject-verb is the whole truth.

You might say it doesn't matter, ultimately, if the causes of his pain were true, only that he was in pain, and I agree; but the counter is that Bill is dead and his parents are not and now they have to live not only with the death of their son but the popular belief that they caused it. My son is dead, and he thinks I hated him.

I don't know what being molested is like; but the empty, wretched, backwardsness of your child's death, and the subsequent relentless reminder of the wrongness of reality and the impossibility of ever fixing it; the incessant scrutiny of memories, was I nice enough to him?  Did I tell him I loved him?  When he wanted that balloon and we were in a hurry, shouldn't I just have--

-- all that is not something anyone should have to experience.  And yet that unique, infinite, unfathomable limbo is being experienced by thousands of parents a year, forever.  George Zeller didn't believe in purgatory, and now he's in it, waiting for the end to come.  There isn't anything else to wait for.

And I'll say something I almost dread saying:  what if it is true?  What if George himself raped his son repeatedly, when he was 6?  Does that mean that George has lost the right to be devastated by this loss?

zellers.jpgnow what 

It doesn't much matter whether he has the right or not, whether he should or not.  If he did rape his son, there's a Calvinist hell awaiting him no matter how saved he thinks he is.  But if he didn't, and we blame him anyway because it matches our prejudices, then that hell is waiting for us.


I'd also like to address my family, if you can call them that. I despise everything they stand for and I truly hate them, in a non-emotional, dispassionate and what I believe is a healthy way. The world will be a better place when they're dead--one with less hatred and intolerance.

Maybe that's the key to the whole note, maybe he made up the rape to bring shame to his parents for abandoning him.  To punish them.

Maybe.  It's obvious he was sad in an unfixable way, not unfixable because there's no fix but because his depression had fiendishly protected itself from fixing, like a bacteria developing antibiotic resistance.   He says he stopped drinking to make this decision with a clear head; but that drinking was a kind of solace, and stopping it was a punishment, you can't even enjoy that.  It was the Depression tricking Bill into thinking that since he wasn't drinking therefore he had a clear mind.

And though he had gone to several doctors, he told no one of his pain-- I don't even mean the molestation, but the emptiness.  And he had devised a workable rationalization: if you tell the doctor, then they will betray your secrets.   But that, as a Metafilter poster named pastabagel observed, is the secret protecting itself; it prefers pain to the unknown.  But what are you afraid of?  That they'll learn your secret, or learn you don't have any secrets that would explain so much misery? 

It's different for everyone.

He could have been helped; I don't know how, I just know yes.  Maybe he needed to be told that nothing in the past defines you.  "Ever since, I haven't been able to ___."  The horrible truth is that you probably still can.  You won't-- this isn't a criticism and I don't blame you-- but you can. 

Or maybe you are helped to figure out the concrete steps that would lessen the rage, from punishing the molester to punishing the ones who turned a blind eye to not punishing yourself.  Or maybe you take it all in and make it part of you, reaction formation that pain into something better.  There are a million possibilities, but he didn't try them.  The Depression doesn't want them to work; it doesn't even want you to think you and it are separable.  It convinced Bill.


People say suicide is selfish. I think it's selfish to ask people to continue living painful and miserable lives, just so you possibly won't feel sad for a week or two. Suicide may be a permanent solution to a temporary problem, but it's also a permanent solution to a ~23 year-old problem that grows more intense and overwhelming every day.

He's wrong, it's a mind trick, but I can see the seductiveness of this thinking. Only heroes and suicides get to choose the time, and the manner, of their death, a power none of the rest of us will ever possess, of and for that reason they deserve a silent respect.  Rest in peace.