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.