Words fail


Last night I dreamt I was home. We were back in Medford — had just gotten back because we were still unpacking — and I commented on how strange it was to settle right back in as if we hadn’t been gone for so long, how the house didn’t feel too big even though we’d gotten used to living in a tiny apartment. I had just been offered a job at a museum in their special collections to talk to classes of English students about the significance of various old manuscripts. I don’t remember what Andrew was doing, but it was new and familiar all at once. We weren’t in our actual house but a dream mix of past homes, a room from my childhood home in Pittsburgh, pocket doors from an apartment in Watertown, a banister from the house in Medford. I needed to be home, so my subconscious sent me there.

I don’t usually dream anymore, or if I do, I don’t remember, but Friday night was full of nightmares. On Saturday I woke up to Cory Doctorow’s post, R.I.P. Aaron Swartz. For a moment I thought R.I.P. didn’t mean Rest in Peace, it couldn’t, there had to be something else, he was referring to something else, some other meaning, but I knew, as soon as I read it I knew, and I clicked, and I thought — I have to prepare Andrew somehow — and all I could say was, “Oh no. This is bad. This is really really bad,” because at a certain point, words fail.

I don’t know Aaron well. Didn’t know. I doubt his phone number is in my contacts list or that we exchanged emails beyond group messages coordinating dinner plans and get togethers. He was a close friend of close friends, and when he needed help once, we happened to be there, and that connected us. He was part of our community, part of a particular place and group and time that is home.

Yesterday was so strange — hearing the news, encountering friends hearing the news as they woke up, and then watching it spread. My Twitter feed is split between personal friends and a larger writing community, and the separation was jarring — friends mourning, writers tweeting about reading and writing, until the two intersected toward the end of the day. For many, we were the personal connection to Aaron, so friends called and emailed to comfort us while we emailed and spoke with friends who had known him longer and much better. The entire Internet seemed to be mourning, and we were grieving for our community and for our friends and for Aaron.

Suicide has a terrifyingly simple logic: All of this pain and all of this distress I feel and that the people around me are experiencing because of me can be erased if I remove myself from the equation. Who knows what Aaron was thinking — what caused this — depression, feeling cornered, feeling hounded, financial pressure, fear of jail — probably all of the above and much more. The more variables in the equation, the more linked and overwhelming, the simpler the solution appears. But already, he’s being reduced into a symbol for mental health, for open access, for prosecutorial overreach. He’s being lionized and demonized but the truth is messy and complicated, and public symbolism clashes with private recollections, anger, and grief.

I don’t know how Cory Doctorow, Quinn, or Larry Lessig managed to write about him so eloquently and so quickly — they had to, but they’re so close and they somehow managed to capture how complicated Aaron and his death are through their personal grief and rage. Aaron was good and difficult and funny and gentle (esp. with Quinn’s daughter, a little girl whose middle name is actually and very fittingly “Trouble”) and reckless and naïve and brave and overwhelmed and shy and brilliant and depressed and idealistic. He did brilliant and stupid things, diving headfirst without checking depth and sometimes dragging his friends with him. Whatever he was, he shouldn’t be dead at 26, particularly by his own hand.

The following posts are by a few of the people who were closest to him and show him honestly and unflinchingly:

And then there’s media coverage. Here are a few pieces I think are fairly well-rounded:

And finally, the expert witness for Aaron’s defense posted his thoughts on the case.

At this point, I’m worried about friends and incredibly sad. I’m so sorry for all he was going through and for thinking this was his only way out and angry that he left people feeling guilty for not doing enough when they did everything they could. I still somehow expect that when we go home, I’ll run into him on Mass Ave at some café or at a friend’s house, and I’m heartbroken for the little girl who adored him and who he could reach even when she was at her most difficult just as she could get through his shyness and reserve all the way to silliness. Most of all, I wish we were together, whether in Cambridge or New York or wherever our nomadic group may be gathering now so we can surround the hole that he left and remember.

© 2016 Anindita Basu Sempere. 
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