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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