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Lethal Silences

January 6th, 2011 · 26 Comments

Earlier this week, I learned that the roommate of an old friend of mine—a highly regarded technologist named Bill Zeller—had taken his own life. I didn’t know Bill, but the lengthy and unnervingly lucid and reflective suicide note he posted online may be the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever read. In it, he reveals that he had lived for decades with a crippling depression—a “darkness,” he calls it—born of repeated sexual abuse he suffered as a child. He had never told a soul about this, both because he was convinced that nothing could help and because he couldn’t bear the prospect of being “forced to live in a world where people would know how fucked up I am.” Two things.

First, if there’s anyone reading this who’s living with the kind of pain Bill writes about, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) has an anonymous online hotline that is designed to be absolutely confidential, and staffed by people specifically trained to help people work through the consequences of sexual abuse. It would be too glib to say that reaching out will help but lots of survivors who once felt as hopeless as Bill did have found that it did for them. It’s presumptuous to think one can judge what is too much for another person to endure, but it seems doubly tragic that Bill made his decision without at least trying to talk to someone first. I can’t pretend I’m able to imagine how insanely hard it must be to take that step, but given the alternative, I have to believe it’s worth the gamble even if the odds seems slim.

Second, I couldn’t help but link Bill’s own account of why he didn’t seek help to the more general work I do on privacy—and what we lose when it’s eroded. When we talk about all the ways we’re increasingly exposed in the modern era, we tend to focus on the harms that occur when private information is exposed to employers or neighbors or governments without our consent. Those are the visible harms. But there’s an invisible flip side that’s at least as serious: The harms that occur when people keep things that ought to be shared within an intimate circle bottled up, fearing the ease with which information shared once can spread beyond control. Knowing a few of Bill’s friends, I feel certain that there were people he could’ve reached out to who would have kept his confidence better than he believed. But as a more general point, it’s worth bearing in mind that some of the most acute costs of diminished privacy are the ones we never see—except, as in this case, when it’s too late: Not the harm inflicted by exposure, but by the silences exposure’s specter imposes.

Addendum: While Bill—for reasons of his own—declines to name his rapist, this sentence near the end jumped out at me: “[My parents] don’t understand that good and decent people exist all around us, ‘saved’ or not, and that evil and cruel people occupy a large percentage of their church.” That could mean a thousand things totally unrelated to the abuse he experienced, but I hope local police are at least asking questions. Because there are only so many contexts in which adult males are trusted to regularly spend time alone with very young children, and it’s hard to believe someone capable of raping a child only did it once.

Tags: Privacy and Surveillance



26 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Freddie // Jan 6, 2011 at 9:34 pm

    Bill was a freshman when I was a senior; I knew his name and he knew mine, but little more than that. I am thinking mostly for his brother John, who was friends with my brother John in high school.

    I think your supposition is understandable but irresponsible. His condemnation of those at his former church is broad enough that I don’t think it is possible to take any action; surely, he is condemning as evil some people who didn’t rape him, even if he is also condemning the person who did. I don’t know what good could come from conjecture.

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Jan 6, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    I don’t know what, if anything, he’s implying there… just that “cruel and evil” are awfully strong words. I realize you think anyone with reservations about health care reform is “evil”, but most of us use the term rather more sparingly. Under the circumstances, I think “irresponsible” would be /failing/ to at least ask a few questions.

  • 3 Freddie // Jan 6, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    Number one- if you’re going to alter the language of a post, particularly when the language of that post is subject to discussion, please say that you’ve altered it.

    Second, please understand the context here. This is all anyone from my high school is talking about. I’m hearing all kinds of things; many are saying its “clearly” his father, for example. I just think conjecture, while very understandable, is troubling. I don’t think I’m being unfair, although I may be being wrong.

  • 4 Julian Sanchez // Jan 6, 2011 at 10:53 pm

    Right, fair enough: After mulling Freddie’s comment I qualified the wording of the addendum slightly and removed the name of the church. I don’t mean to level any accusations, just saying: “Wow, this seems like a big red flag, I hope somebody is checking it out to see if there’s anything there.” Unsolved serial rapes of children are also troubling.

  • 5 Freddie // Jan 7, 2011 at 12:49 am

    If there’s any consolation, it’s in the publicity this is and will receive in my hometown; perhaps, if it’s possible, that will spur other victims to speak out. What I have been counseling my friends is that, in my opinion, making accusations now doesn’t help that process along, and I don’t know how the police could act on them absent of evidence. Maybe I’m seeing complication where it doesn’t exist, I don’t know.

  • 6 Julian Sanchez // Jan 7, 2011 at 2:49 am

    Well, the letter seems like it might be a starting point and incentive to gather evidence. I mean, there’s nothing to justify a search warrant in there, but you could conduct a few voluntary interviews.

  • 7 Dr X // Jan 7, 2011 at 9:44 am

    There is a dirty secret associated with mandated reporting for mental health professionals. Patients understand the rules, and we worry that many never reveal what is troubling them most deeply because they know that the moment they do, we become police officers rather than healers–we are compelled by law to throw them into even greater emotional turmoil at the moment they most need a safe space to talk. Some individuals would no doubt choose to expose their abusers after a period of therapy, but the state has decided that patients have no right to privacy when they’ve been victimized in this most awful way.

    I understand that the rationales for the reporting mandate are the protection of victims from further abuse and the protection of others who might become victims. But when the reporting mandate prevents victims from reaching out in the first place, they are further victimized.

    The law doesn’t require us to report patients who reveal to us that they have committed a murder. In fact, the law requires us to maintain their confidentiality. We can only violate confidentiality if we believe that such a person poses an immediate danger to others or if we know that that a specific person is in imminent danger. But victims like Bill Zeller don’t even have the rights of a murderer when they enter the consulting room.

  • 8 nolo // Jan 7, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    Dr. X– what an important, and literally chilling, point you make.

  • 9 RebeccaN // Jan 7, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    I think the reference “‘saved’ or not, and that evil and cruel people occupy a large percentage of their church” can refer to many types of evil and cruel actions. Having grown up in an evangelical household I for one can tell you that the hypocrisy and downright sadism of some members of our church turned me against organized religion at a very early age. I mean, how can followers of Jesus Christ be so absolutely racist and downright cruel? I couldn’t and don’t understand it to this day. I’ve gone to church with youth leaders who take every opportunity to insinuate themselves on girls who come from broken homes and have serious “daddy” issues and are looking for nothing more than acceptance and then they end up doing whatever this “man of god” asks of them, many of them sexual acts that are forbidden outside of marriage for these “believers.”

    So, the mention in the last part of his letter to the members of his parents’ church could mean nothing more than that they are horrible human beings playing like they are good and honorable followers of a man who would have thrown them out of their temple at whip point if he met them in person, but not necessarily rapists.

  • 10 Julian Sanchez // Jan 7, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    Absolutely. It was just because of the use of such a strong term (“evil”) and because people in positions of authority in a church may have regular access to other children over long periods of time that I thought it might be worth investigating to see if there’s anything there. So much the better if not.

  • 11 MarieB // Jan 7, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    The similarities between Bill’s story and mine are chilling: raised in a Fundamentalist community, subjected to abuse at an early age.

    It’s useless now to speculate who Bill’s abuser was. Fundamentalist cults (for that’s what they are) breed abuse like flies breed maggots on raw meat. It could have been anyone.

    Sexual repression, black & white thinking, isolation, and parenting methods that teach absolute obedience to authority figures make the children of these communities so vulnerable to the abuse and the silence that their abusers demand.

    I was told, literally that I would be eternally damned if I ever revealed what had happened and, like Bill, I believed for many years that I had had evil implanted inside me.

  • 12 DAMnation // Jan 7, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    Here is my theory: Bill did not reveal the name of his rapist because he knew that the accused could deny it and say “that kid was insane,” “he had a vendetta.” etc.

    Bill was obviously a smart individual and knew who his letter would cast suspicion upon – that was the punishment he dealt his abuser.

    As the mother of boys the age that Bill was when he was abused, I am VERY cautious of men (and to a certain extent, women) who are allowed regular, unsupervised access to my children. His mother knows what men were in her son’s life during that time and who had unsupervised access to him where such horrendous acts could’ve taken place. She might not have been aware of the abuse at the time, but given this revelation she should have no problem narrowing it down to a very short list of suspects. I hope she does just that…

  • 13 NoName // Jan 7, 2011 at 8:57 pm

    That was an painfully moving letter to read — and it was frightening how much of it I could relate to. I have no memory of abuse, but have long suffered from a constellation of negative emotions and social dysfunctions that I don’t think I’ve every seen so well described as in Bill’s letter. I felt like nodding along, right down to having what in retrospect, were truly strange and disturbing toilet hangups in childhood/adolescence.

    I spent much of my first 30 years suicidal, but in a vague, long term sort of way. I hit a few low points, early in college, again in my late 20s where it became pretty real to me that I was on paths that — in part do to emotional and professional self-sabotage — were going to leave me either actually having killed myself, or more likely and more scary, unable to go through with it and ending up totally alone, unemployed and maybe homeless, just existing in purgatory.

    I gradually pulled out 0f the dive, like a stricken airplane levelling off and limping along on one engine, and in my late 40s now I’m married and have a good career, but even if I’ve regained altitude I’m still not all well. The person I know I was supposed to be could be even more successful professionally and socially, could be happy day to day, and whatever it is that is broken deep in me drove me to not trust enough to have children of my own (even my wife doesn’t know that’s what’s really behind my preference for no kids).

    To this day I’m not really sure what’s so broken about my soul — some patterns fit abuse , but I’ve also tried pretty hard to find that in my memories, even with a therapist. But wow does Bill’s letter ever sound familiar. Who knows.

    Anyway, I mourn that Bill ended up where he did. And as Julian notes, there is hope; it’s not always a steady fall into darkness.

  • 14 DAMnation // Jan 7, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    He also put his father’s name (George Zeller) in the letter itself. He knew the note would (and asked to be) reposted on the internet. His concern was that the family would have it removed.

    He was a talented programmer, he knew that from here forward when people google “George Zeller” the person searching would come across the letter. His father is an associate pastor at a Bible Church and has written numerous articles on theology. I think this was Bill’s brilliant way of descrediting his father. I am not saying that his dad is his rapist, he may or may not be – but there is no doubt that he had a great deal of contempt for his father and he knew exactly what he was doing when he included his name and only his name in the suicide note.

  • 15 bluelaser2 // Jan 7, 2011 at 9:03 pm

    I am struck by the amazing similarites in imagery and mental organization between this poor guy and David Foster Wallace.

    Although he was a rape victim, I sense a great possibility that he also suffered from untreated and unrecognized autism, and the rape became a touchstone of his failure to cope with that condition; as horrifying as sexual abuse is, many do survive it without that kind of obsession.

    His descriptions of his relationships, his choice of vocation, and his (possibly accurate) sense that his mind was utterly unlike those of others he knew are further clues that unrecogized autism could have been a part of this.

    Let it be a warning………

  • 16 E // Jan 7, 2011 at 9:35 pm

    Thank you so much for blog posting, and for making such nuanced points about the erosion of privacy and the paradox it presents. I’m a survivor of 30 years of brutal sexual abuse (and also a graduate of Princeton) — I feel deeply heartbroken by his letter, and I think almost anyone who has experienced sexual abuse would relate to it in eerie, profoundly resonant ways. I have no way to knowing whether Bill Zeller was autistic, and I can understand the impulse to attribute his anguish to other sources (the horror of the abuse is difficult to look right at), but I certainly would not draw that conclusion based on the letter. There’s a long tradition of pathologizing survivors that contributes to the dangerous (in fact, deadly) culture of silence.

    And I feel qualified to say, without being glib, that talking to a highly qualified, gifted therapist is a transformative experience; there is a way to find a much different relationship with the abuse.

  • 17 Smiling Faces Can Hide A Life’s Pain | jad.blog // Jan 8, 2011 at 10:04 am

    […] however, that for anyone in a similarly desperate and seemingly hopeless situation, there is hope and help to be found: if there’s anyone reading this who’s living with the kind of pain Bill writes […]

  • 18 MBH // Jan 8, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    Julian, I read the letter in its entirety, and I think your addendum is better than appropriate.

    I have a very broad and analytic question — probably an emotional reflex to detach from this particular tragedy. I’m new to the public/private spheres debate, but I wonder how you respond to the counter-arguments that if private spheres were nonexistent, child molesters would either not exist or be immediately apprehended. Similarly, the front that Billy’s parents were able to muster in public would be known as a mere front. The evil people that he references within his church (another place police might look) would be known as evil — publicly — and the church that justified Billy being cut off from his family would be known as predatory.

    I don’t mean to say you’re wrong; I just want to know your response to what I anticipate as a legitimate counter-argument. I’ve personally suspended judgment on this subject.

    Thanks for writing about Billy.

  • 19 Freddie // Jan 8, 2011 at 6:13 pm

    The edited addendum, certainly, is more appropriate; that’s the problem, with editing after commentary.

  • 20 The Bill Zeller Story « Chamblee54 // Jan 10, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    […] to report cases of sexual abuse. These laws are a case of unintended consequences. This comment tells the story. There is a dirty secret associated with mandated reporting for mental health […]

  • 21 JCT // Jan 12, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    Re mandated reporting:

    As a mandated reporter, I always choose to stop an individual who is disclosing to me in order to explain to them what a mandated reporter is required to report. I try to let people know that I can only report the details they give me – and that if they want to talk about something without disclosing identifying details, I am there to listen.

    I don’t believe mandated reporting is very helpful. In fact, it often creates a situation where people are forced into the legal system (which generally fails to keep people safe/fails to exact “justice”) without positive result. I’d rather not get all the details and be able to support and walk beside someone as they process their trauma.

    Mandated reporter or not, it is not the job or responsibility of mental health professionals, advocates, counselors, or support people to do the sluething. We can circumvent the terrible position that mandated reporting puts us in as professionals by being transparent with the people we work with.

  • 22 minty // Jan 14, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    I conjecture that the pointed refusal to name his molester was a final act of (justified) revenge.

    Forevermore, Mr. George Zeller will have the suspicion of molestation hanging around him. Certainly that was my first thought on reading the letter.

    Let’s suppose the molester was a member of the Zellers’ congregation. If Bill Zeller had named him, it would have deflected attention and culpability away from his wretched parents.

    In addition, now that Mr. Zeller has passed away, the onus of revealing the molester’s identity has fallen to the parents. Of course they know who had access to their toddler as a child – how could a responsible parent not know? And so their silence on the matter is deafening.

    Apologies for the ghoulish speculation. Sorry for your loss.

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  • 24 Smiling Faces Can Hide A Life’s Pain » jad.Blog // Jan 30, 2012 at 7:26 pm

    […] however, that for anyone in a similarly desperate and seemingly hopeless situation, there is hope and help to be found: if there’s anyone reading this who’s living with the kind of pain Bill writes […]

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  • 26 Kay // Aug 6, 2015 at 2:29 am

    I share your concern that Bill may not have been his abuser’s victim. Has anyone investigated the church leader or tried to identify members close to Bill’s parents?

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