My father, Aaron Swartz, and assigning blame for suicide

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

Me and my father

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).

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 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. 

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  1. Buck
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 2:54 am | Permalink

    Mike, this is amazing stuff, both on a personal level and on a more philosophical level. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what bothered me about the coverage of Swartz’s death. You have explained it far more eloquently than I could have hoped to do. Thanks for writing….

  2. Posted February 8, 2013 at 3:36 am | Permalink

    This is a great article and very insightful about the nature of blame in suicide. Five years ago my father killed himself, the story was a lot simpler – being that he was clealy suffering from depression which he had been very good at hiding and not dealing with. After he died everyone in the family handled his death diffrently and sought to give reason to what was (in my mind) the act of an ill man. My sister in particualr latched on to a whole range of things/people that she saw as ‘to blame’ for his death. But, over the years we have talked it through, endlessly, and I think she is starting to see that blaming things that went wrong isn’t the answer. When my father died, his personal problems didn’t kill him, he killed himself.

  3. miranda
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    That was a lovely article and thank you for sharing your experience so clearly. I agree with what you say that the people themselves are the ones who actually do it but I feel you are omitting one further issue…

    People come in all shapes and sizes and there are many who are like your father and Aaron in that they don’t have a very good outer shell of protection. This needs to be allowed for, just like allowance is made for so many other human ‘differences’. At the moment it just seems to be ‘tough luck’ if you are a decent loving person. I know the world works like that but it needs to change when it concerns people who offer so much in the way of goodness.

    I haven’t managed to say what I mean very well but hope you can understand what I’m getting at.

  4. Posted February 8, 2013 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    Michael, I don’t even know where to start. The clarity, courage, charity, and honesty with which you and your brother wrote about your father on this anniversary are just incredibly humbling. Suicide is something that seems to defy graceful response. Yet you’ve both done it here, and in your lives. A beautiful, inspiring, and truly humbling thing. You two amaze me.

    In admiration,


  5. Posted February 8, 2013 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful post.

  6. Catherine
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for your bravery

  7. Scientist
    Posted February 9, 2013 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    Suicide is a topic probably more personal and poignant to some. It is my contention that the phrase ‘too fragile’ doesn’t do the fallen justice, inadvertently. Yes, in some sense, like a traffic ticket saying that the driver who slid on black ice was going ‘too fast for road conditions,’ it is retrospectively correct. But even this apparent weakness is strength. When a shipping box says ‘fragile’ on it, this is not an indictment of the contents, but a warning that the ordinary care in handling is more important than ever.

    The question is: was the fragile character of these men important to some other quality or nature, something valuable and important? Did it perhaps make them better people, better scientists/scholars/activists?

    A fragile balance, a delicate instrument, a beautiful clock – they must be fragile. They cannot be rugged. Some who are more rugged must serve to protect them, even sacrificially and temporarily, like a shipping container.

  8. Posted February 9, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Very moving post, man. So sorry about your father.

  9. Posted February 9, 2013 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    A great and courageous post on a difficult topic.

  10. Posted February 10, 2013 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    #inspiring & #brave
    I had lost my father too last year, not because suicide, but because stroke illness…
    The same thing was the illness caused from pressure dealt to him by his colleagues at work who blame anything that goes wrong to him…

    Temporarily, I’m losing my faith on humanity, but while reading this article I was realizing one thing, that I’m not alone facing this kind of condition…

    Thank you very much for this post…

  11. Carol Anne Meyer
    Posted February 11, 2013 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

    What painful memories. I’m sorry for your loss then, and now. I miss my dad too–he died on Feb 14 2005. It’s good to remember that everybody has pain and sorrow as well as joy and success. Be well.

  12. Kevin
    Posted February 12, 2013 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for sharing.

  13. Posted February 18, 2013 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    Désolée de parler en français. Mon anglais est incorrect… Je voulais juste dire, malgré votre propre malheur et toute la compassion de votre gentille et généreuse lettre pour TarenSK, que le cas de Aaron Swartz est différent de celui de votre père. J’ai beaucoup lu de lui, d’elle, et des autres sur lui (dont sa compagne précédente), depuis plus d’un mois.

    Aaron Swartz à 26 ans n’avait pas eu de véritable adolescence, il gagnait sa vie à 15 ans après avoir dûrement travaillé à ce qui le passionnait depuis 14 ans (et avant)… à 26 ans il n’avait pas encore d’enfant et commençait tout juste sa vie concrète d’adulte avec sa nouvelle compagne, et avec toute l’ampleur à la fois technique et politique de son propre devenir en mouvement. C’est à ce moment là que les deux choix qui lui furent proposés par les juges constituèrent la fin de son avenir.

    Dans un cas, peu importait qu’il fît peu de prison puisque cela supposait qu’il se reconnût coupable d’un crime : alors il perdait sa crédibilité professionnelle et sa crédibilité politique dans les champs légaux pour toujours, cela le rendait paria.

    Dans le second cas c’était l’enfermement pendant 35 ans et au-delà, à cause de l’énorme caution qui lui était demandée et qu’il allait devoir emprunter en partie et donc rembourser après être sorti de prison.

    Si on considère que la vie humaine est une prédiction consciente d’avenir existentiel, alors c’était une vie concrètement, matériellement détruite, de toutes façons.

    Or il était dans des projets, il était projeté dans l’avenir… Je crois que son choix a été simplement de soustraire son corps des mains des juges qui étaient en train de l’exécuter pour le mettre horla, et même allaient probablement le torturer, à cause de ses antécédents dépressifs, en lui infligeant une haute surveillance dont vous savez très bien ce qu’elle signifie et dont il a fallu sortir Bradley Manning que cela avait commencé à détruire. D’accord Manning est entre les mains des militaires, et Aaron S. aurait été dans une prison civile — mais même cela, il n’en savait rien, tellement la procédure était hors de proportion.

    C’était le seul choix libre qu’il lui restait à faire pour le présent comme pour le lendemain. Peut-être même cela lui demanda-t-il du courage de devoir renoncer alors qu’avec sa nouvelle compagne de nouveaux potentiels s’ouvraient. L’hypothèse de sa dépression ou de sa déception ne conviennent pas je pense ; il était concrètement face à des gens qui voulaient le lyncher et personne n’a voulu y croire autour de lui, pas même Lessig !

    Bien sûr quand on a compris qu’on n’avait pas d’autres choix que le suicide, qu’il n’y aurait pas d’autre choix (car il était déjà dans les engrenages de la machine à le broyer et il savait parfaitement ce qui l’attendait), et bien on ne peut pas être gai. Et le fait qu’on s’attriste soudain dans ce cas montre à quel point en fait on aime la vie qu’on va quitter.

    Qu’il ait été autrefois suicidaire et qu’à ce moment là il ait eu l’intuition qu’un jour il devrait peut-être régler sa fin de cette façon, c’est encore une expérience qu’il a pu ressortir de sa période dépressive. C’était un sage, un initié – par sa propre vie.

    Mais je ne crois pas un seul instant qu’il se soit suicidé par dépression ni par déception ni même par idéalisme, mais en toute cohérence de son existence. Il l’a fait car il n’avait plus d’avenir : non parce qu’il ne le voyait pas, mais parce qu’il n’y en avait réellement plus. La voie était fermée par les chefs d’inculpation et par le niveau financier de la caution — vous savez ce genre de dette que certains étudiants pour payer leurs études aux USA traînent toute leur vie… mais là en plus il y avait à porter l’infamie empêchant à jamais l’existence publique honorable.

    Je ne crois pas qu’il soit responsable de son suicide en tant que démission ou révolte contre autrui, il n’est surement pas responsable qu’on lui ait donné à choisir entre la mort sociale, la mort de l’existence, et la mort biologique (la seule dont il pouvait décider). Car c’est le choix qu’on lui a donné.

    D’avoir choisi la seule mort symbolique d’homme libre, oui cela il en est responsable. Et c’est honorable (pardonnez-moi).

    Et je crois que TarenSK l’a compris. Je pense qu’elle vient de subir (comme vous) une violence inouïe, mais en même temps, c’était le seul cadeau qu’il pouvait lui faire pour la rendre libre elle-même face à ce qui l’attendait du désastre de la vie de son compagnon, dans les deux cas qui ui étaient proposés par la la (in)justice. C’était de toutes façons une catastrophe pour Taren. Maintenant elle sera forte du sens de son compagnon disparu et forte de sa propre liberté — même si c’est une liberté tragique (la liberté, et sa force, se fondent toujours sur le tragique et cela vaut sans doute pour vous aussi). C’est la terrible initiation de la vie par la mort.

  14. Posted February 19, 2013 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    Foul play

  15. Posted February 20, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Reopen the case

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