Science & Technology

My father, Aaron Swartz, and assigning blame for suicide

Michael Eisen

Twenty-six years ago, on February 7th, 1987, my father killed himself, and this day is always a complicated one for me.

It is something I have never talked or written about in public. But I am moved to say something this year because of the suicide of Aaron Swartz. My brother had the same reaction, and wrote eloquently about it (although, being a family that never talks about “things”, we didn’t talk about this with each other).

author as a child, with his dad

Me and my dad

In the years since my father died, I have had friends, colleagues and mentors kill themselves. But none evoked memories of my father like Swartz, a person I knew only as a public figure. There was just something so hauntingly similar about their deaths.

My father was a scientist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda – one of the “yellow berets” who had joined the Public Health Service to fulfill his national service obligations during the Vietnam War. He worked there for my entire childhood, and always seemed to love his work. In the summer of 1986, the year after my freshman year in college, I worked in an NIH lab, and saw my dad during lunch breaks, and everything seemed fine.

When I came home for Thanksgiving, he was preoccupied – doing a lot of scribbling on yellow legal pads. At one point I asked him what he was doing, and he told me someone in his lab had been committing fraud, and he had finally “caught him.” I was too naive to realize just how big a deal this was, and I didn’t think much more about it. Christmas came and went, and I went back to school.

In the meantime, my father had reported the fraud, and a hearing was held on January 28th at which the scientist in question was supposed to, but did not appear. I don’t know what happened at this meeting, but somehow my father left feeling that he was under suspicion – something everyone involved knew he was not. But whatever happened, it set something off.

On February 3rd, I called home and my father answered, but didn’t seem interested in talking to me (which was very unusual) and handed the phone off to my sister. Then, on the morning of February 7th, I went out for a bike ride on a cold Boston winter day – which for me was the last thing I did as a child. When I got back my uncle was waiting in my dorm room to tell me.

The second I read about what had happened with Aaron Swartz, the parallels made me lurch. They both snapped under accusatory pressure. They both hung themselves when they were left alone. But it was more than that. They just seemed like such similar people to me. It’s hard for me to put my finger on exactly why I felt this way – one person I knew only as a child, the other I did not know at all. But they both seemed to possess a “too good for this world” innocence. Everyone describes Swartz exactly the way I remember my father – as a sweet person who was nice to everyone around him and just seemed to want to do good in the world.

And their deaths are also connected by anger. My father’s death broke me, and it took me a long time to recover. But when I did, I was angry. Angry at what the people at the NIH had done to him. Exactly the same way people are angry now at the prosecutors who hounded Swartz. I felt, for a long time, that the faceless people on that NIH committee had literally killed my father, just like so many people seem to think Carmen Ortiz killed Swartz.

But, you know, it just isn’t true. My father and Swartz’s were wonderful people. They just turned out to be too fragile. Most people have ways of dealing with adversity – not all are healthy, not all are smooth, but we make it through. And for some reason, these two did not. I will never stop trying to figure out why my father responded to this particular stress in the way he did – and I know I will never actually understand it. But the NIH did not kill him, and the prosecutors did not kill Swartz. They killed themselves.

I don’t say this to let anyone off the hook – precisely the opposite. There was no excuse for the way the NIH treated my father – they treat any hint of fraud like a virus, and assume that anyone who came in contact with the person involved must be contaminated. And the way Swartz was prosecuted was nothing short of malignant.

But so many people writing about Swartz’s death imply that the actions of MIT and Carmen Ortiz were bad because Swartz killed himself – that somehow they crossed a line defined by the point at which they drive someone to suicide. But this is madness. What the NIH and the prosecutors did was wrong, and we have to learn how to correct these abuses even when their victims can take it. Nothing will ever change if we measure other people’s actions in units of suicides.

Cross-posted from Michael Eisen’s blog it is NOT junk  (tag line: a blog about genomes, DNA, evolution, open science, baseball and other important things).

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Comments to "My father, Aaron Swartz, and assigning blame for suicide":
    • Nils Ohlson

      Thank you for writing this; I know it must have been very painful.

      I’m afraid I must differ with you on part of your conclusion. Although I can see why you say that Carmen Ortiz “did nothing wrong,” I think you have confused the issue of whether she “drove him to suicide” (which is quite debatable) with whether she and the other prosecutors “did wrong by malicious prosecution” (for which a very good case can be made).

      Holding decades of prison over the head of a small-time “hacktivist”, while letting go the “banksters” who have literally cost us trillions of dollars, is wrong and is malicious prosecution. Aaron Swartz crumpled under the pressure, which may have been a complete surprise to the prosecutors.

      But the pressure itself was enormously disproportionate to the magnitude of the offense of which he was accused. That is the real problem and will continue to be so as long as the very wealthy get to write the laws.

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    • Kristina

      I cannot begin to understand your pain but I can feel compassion for your loss. Your last paragraph is very profound and struck a deep resonance with me. Bullying is alive and well at all levels of our our society and it is so frustrating to me that people do not recognize it. It angers me that it takes a death or a violent outburst before people sit up and take notice. You are so correct when you say that wrong is wrong regardless of how others are effected or impacted. Each time this wrong is named we can make a small step toward change. Thank you for your strong words. God bless.

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    • Francesca

      I think that you have pinned it best when you say… “But they both seemed to possess a “too good for this world” innocence. Everyone describes Swartz exactly the way I remember my father – as a sweet person who was nice to everyone around him and just seemed to want to do good in the world.” – The world we live in is not one built on good or the appreciation of good… People just think for themselves, so the few who don’t will always suffer and will always be the odd ones out! I don’t think that a court of law would have judged Swartz on his innocence, no one is interested in that anymore! This is the sad reality

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    • gail

      whatever your dad’s reasons…which you may never know or understand – i just feel such compassion for your pain and loss. no child – at any age – i would imagine – could ever understand their parent ‘leaving them’ in this way.
      what an incredibly sad story that appears to haunt you and can hear you are trying to ‘puzzle it all out’ and hope you find some peace in that.

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    • Yasmin Anwar

      Thank you for your brave and timely post. My brother took his life last May and was also a frail and brilliant man with a strong sense of justice. He, too, was often targeted for his efforts to right perceived wrongs. I don’t accuse his persecutors, but I don’t excuse them either.

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    • Barry Kort

      Lamentations and Remorse

      I’ve read and reviewed pretty much all the news reports, commentaries, analyses, profiles, tributes, and lamentations that have been published online since Aaron Swartz hanged himself on January 11th.

      A lot of people — including those close to Aaron who knew him well — were variously shocked, surprised, angered, grieved, and perplexed by his decision to take his own life.

      By his own admission, Aaron Swartz was on a “crazy roller coaster” in the wake of his indictment by the US Attorney.

      One of the features of being on a “crazy roller coaster” is that one’s emotions rapidly oscillate between both familiar and unfamiliar extremes.
      At times, one has high hopes. The next moment, one has high anxiety that plunges into despair.

      Aaron was known for his mood swings. He could be enthused one day and lethargic the next.

      His life story reads like his own idiosyncratic version of a passion play. He could be passionate about a cause and then undertake a systematic campaign that calls for sustained effort and dispassionate problem-solving.

      If I had to guess what Aaron Swartz was thinking and feeling the day he took his life, my best guess is that he was feeling scapegoated, and perhaps thinking that he was hopelessly ensnared in a long-term, nightmare, no-win, dispiriting drama with the US Attorney.

      When one is ensnared in a lunatic scapegoat drama, there is likely to be a crucial phase where the protagonist feels forsaken. That’s the phase that is most likely to immediately precede a fatal moment of irreversible despair.

      Justice is supposed to be a dispassionate process. But in Aaron’s case it clearly was not. The prosecution has been characterized as over-zealous and vindictive. To an idealistic person on the receiving end of such relentless persecution, the whole system comes off as being arbitrary, capricious, and beyond redemption.

      There are reports that Carmen Ortiz has been shaken by the turn of events associated with Aaron’s suicide and its aftermath. Perhaps now she is also feeling scapegoated, too. That’s the odd thing about passion plays. The extreme emotions of the protagonist become unexpectedly transferred to the antagonist.

      In the end, all that’s left to feel is remorse.

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