Fat Books & Thin Women

#Longreads: Ian Parker’s “The Story of a Suicide”
February 1, 2012, 2:47 pm
Filed under: Favorite Longreads | Tags: , , , , , ,

Check back every on occasional Wednesdays for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

Tyler Clementi’s suicide is one of those news stories that may never quite die, for the ways it brings these elements of bullying, technology, sexual orientation, to the fore. The timing of it, too, was pretty stunning, coming just after the It Gets Better project began. I was, early on, interested in the story because I attended Clementi’s school, Rutgers; but it’s been so long since it’s been at the top of the news that it’s easy to forget it.

Enter Ian Parker’s New Yorker piece “The Story of a Suicide: Two college roommates, a webcam, and a tragedy.” Parker corrects many of the early misconceptions about the case (namely, that Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, broadcast webcam footage of Clementi, and that Clementi’s suicide was a direct result of this and being outed by Ravi) in this remarkably even-handed piece. Going through the web histories and exchanges of both Ravi and Clementi, Parker shows just how many of their exchanges and problems were the result of little more than teenage stupidity and self-absorption. Ravi has long been painted as the bad guy in the situation, the freshman who outed his roommate in the cruelest manner possible; and while Ravi comes across as childish, thoughtless, and self-centered, Parker is explicit in his detailings of how Ravi’s actions fall short of the early news stories.

Parker raises some interesting questions, as well, about just what Ravi is on trial for. Essentially, Ravi’s actions (of viewing webcam footage, for about five seconds, of Clementi with another man; of posting horrifyingly thoughtless tweets; of advertising a “viewing party” of another encounter, which never happened because Clementi unplugged Ravi’s computer) are those of, as Parker puts it, “shiftiness and bad faith.”

If prosecutors had been able to charge Ravi with shiftiness and bad faith—if the criminal law exactly reflected common moral judgments about kindness and reliability—then to convict him would be easy. The long indictment against Ravi can be seen as a kind of regretful commentary about the absence of such statutes. Similarly, the enduring false belief that Ravi was responsible for outing Tyler Clementi, and for putting a sex tape on the Internet, can be seen as a collective effort to balance a terrible event with a terrible cause.

Parker’s piece is a must-read. Ravi by no means comes out of the piece looking good, but the story as a whole benefits from Parker’s well-reasoned and non-judgmental style.

Read Ian Parker’s “The Story of a Suicide”


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I completely agree with your assessment of Parker’s story. I just read it and was looking to to see what others were saying about it on the web.

Comment by Edgar Alverson

Thanks for highlighting this article on your blog. As I have been realizing more and more, I really need to search out these types of nuanced follow-ups to the news stories I read. There’s just so much more gray than in what you hear at first.This article among other things emphasizes to me how you may never know that someone might be having suicidal thoughts. There’s a tragic mystery about Clementi’s death because he seemed relatively calm, considering the circumstances, to those he talked with at that time. As someone said in the article, he really could have used a ‘sidekick’, a good friend there at Rutgers to be physically present and supporting him.

Comment by Christy

I always think that I’m well-versed in news, but sometimes I come across an article like this that helps me realize, like you say, that I often lack a nuanced view of the stories. It’s startling to realize how much of the breaking news we read may not be exactly true, as in this case; also that so many of these news stories can’t be explained as simply as we’d like.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

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