For five years, Jane Clementi has kept her son Tyler’s clothing and possessions intact in his small bedroom in the family’s home in Ridgewood, New Jersey. It is a medium-sized, detached house on a quiet suburban street, its sidewalks lined with trees shedding their brown and amber autumn leaves.
Tyler’s clothes are in his closet, where a sports cap also hangs. His upper-level bunk bed still has his black-and-white comforter on it (although, Jane smiles, it is freshly laundered; a house guest has slept in here). Beneath the bunk is the white chair where Tyler liked to sit and read. The black-and-white print he loved of a forest is still on the wall above his desk.
Later, I realize Tyler stood where I am standing—just in the doorway, his back to the window—to take the selfie he used on his Facebook page, where on Sept. 22, 2010, he posted the status update: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”
Clementi was 18, a freshman at Rutgers University, and committed suicide after his roommate Dharun Ravi set up a webcam to observe him getting intimate with another man—known only later in court as M.B.—on two occasions in the days before Clementi’s death.
Ravi boasted of his actions on social media, with goading comments—which Clementi saw—aimed at encouraging people to watch Clementi. On the second occasion, Clementi disabled Ravi’s surveillance operation.
Clementi, who had only come out to his family three weeks previously, had asked Rutgers to move him from the room, and to punish Ravi. Before he committed suicide Clementi logged on to view Ravi’s social media posts multiple times.
The case became the epicenter of a heated debate around cyber-bullying, and anti-gay crime. To what extent could Ravi be held accountable for Clementi’s suicide itself? Was Ravi homophobic or just boorish, and was the legal case and redress leveled at him too little, or too much?
In the subsequent trial, held in 2012, Ravi was convicted of all 15 charges facing him, the judge criticizing his apparent lack of remorse. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail; he ended up serving 20, with time taken off for good behavior.
Ravi’s defense team said he was being prosecuted for Clementi’s death; the state said it would have prosecuted the case had Clementi lived.
In March of this year, Ravi’s lawyers welcomed the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision to strike down an element of the state’s “bias intimidation” law, basing a conviction on the victim’s state of mind, because it criminalized a “defendant’s failure to apprehend the reaction that his words would have on another.”
The case is now the subject of appeals from both sides—the state, which did not think Ravi’s punishment was severe enough, and Ravi’s defense team, which wants his convictions overturned, and is newly emboldened given the March ruling of the state Supreme Court.
James O’Neill, a spokesman for the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s office, told The Daily Beast it did not comment on pending appeals. Steven Altman, Ravi’s lawyer, did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.
As Jane and I stand in Tyler’s small bedroom, it’s odd to consider it at the center of such a charged legal, cultural, media, and political gyre.
Tyler’s death led Jane and her family to become famous themselves. Jane still has her day job as a public health nurse, and her husband, Joe, is a civil engineer. They are also well-known LGBT advocates, and set up the Tyler Clementi Foundation, which focuses on helping LGBT youth and which is overseen by Tyler’s gay brother, James.
The Clementis have also just helped set up the Tyler Clementi Institute for Internet Safety, with New York Law School, aimed at combatting cyber-bullying, and training lawyers to litigate such cases.
There is also the Tyler Clementi Center at Rutgers itself, the mission of which “is to create and share knowledge about young people making the transition to college and coming of age in the digital era.”
All that, yet this is still a teenager’s bedroom, with Jane’s laptop now on Tyler’s desk, and on the floor the books she has been sent to write blurbs for, and the programs and invitations to various events she attends. She hands me one for the March 2014 performance of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus singing “Tyler’s Suite,” a series of eight songs about Tyler’s life.
“I use it as quiet space,” Jane says of being in Tyler’s room. “For a long time I didn’t go into it. Then I would write my journal and read my devotionals in here. You can see it’s a mess. He kept it neat.”
We have been speaking for nearly three hours—in which Jane has cried, and smiled, and paused, and spoken with passion and then with great care about how much she misses her son, what she really thinks of Ravi and his punishment, her Christian faith and the obstacle it presented when Tyler came out, the guilt and shame she herself has felt, the effects on her marriage and family that Tyler’s suicide had, and—shockingly—how she, too, planned to kill herself after Tyler’s death.
The most telling silences in our conversation come at the ends of thoughts and sentences where the immutable awfulness of Tyler’s death stands, stark and never-changing.
Whatever happens in the appeals court, whatever is written here—and Jane Clementi cannot bear to read or watch much of anything that has been written or broadcast about her and her family—her much-loved son will still be dead. The horror of that is in those many sentences that just peter out to nothing.
These silences at the end of her sentences are like the moments that crystallize all kinds of grief: Nothing can bring that loved one back.
Does she like Tyler’s bed being made, I ask. “I don’t know. I guess it’s all still waiting for him,” Jane says with a weak smile. There is a picture of him playing the violin, which he loved and which he practiced as a young boy on a unicycle, and which he later played in orchestras. Having played in the Ridgewood Symphony Orchestra, Tyler had already, before he died, been accepted into Rutgers’s own orchestra—even though it typically only accepted graduate students.
One window of Tyler’s bedroom faces the primary school he and his two brothers (Brian 27, and James, 30) attended. On the white chair is a cushion inscribed “Love You More,” given to Jane by one of the “Tyler’s Suite” song composers. “When Tyler was little, I would say to him, ‘I love you,’ and he would say, ‘I love you more,’ and I would say, ‘I love you from here to the moon’ and so on. Then later, it was just, ‘I love you,’ and then, ‘I love you more.’”
Tyler would have turned 24 on Dec. 19, she says, showing me the sash around one picture of him she received from a Methodist church. Next to it is a beautiful, stark gray block, with the words “Tyler J. Clementi, 1991-2010” on it. I assume it is another award or commemorative symbol.
“Those are Tyler’s ashes,” Jane says quietly. “I’m not sure we’re going to scatter them. It’s something I don’t think about. We couldn’t put Tyler in the ground. It didn’t seem right. The other option was to cremate him. So Joe and I decided to cremate him.
“Some people put their loved ones in a mausoleum, or bury their ashes, or scatter their ashes. Interestingly, we had a pet dog, and we cremated him, too, and didn’t scatter his ashes. I don’t know if we will scatter Tyler until we’re old and ready to.”
Is she keeping hold of him in some way, I ask, keeping him safe? “I suppose there is,” Jane replies, as we both stare at the urn. “At first we weren’t going to buy an urn,” she says quietly. “I didn’t know what we were going to do. Just one decision was hard enough. We agreed to go look at urns. We both were drawn to this for its simplicity and thought it would be something Tyler would like.”
How is it sitting with Tyler every day? “So close and so far,” Jane says, sighing. “I know its presence. I guess sometimes it doesn’t speak as loudly as others, but I know it’s there.” You like having him at home? “I suppose, yeah,” she says, brightening. “Then in other ways, it’s just a body, it’s just your tent, it’s not him… so…” Silence.
As she sat watching the trial of Dharun Ravi unfold, Jane Clementi, too, was contemplating taking her own life.
“I was in a very dark, very dark, and also a confused, place too,” she says. “It was my physical safety as well as psychological safety. I was thinking about self-harm and self-hurting myself. I hadn’t done either, but I was thinking along those lines. I was thinking about ending my pain. I didn’t think I could continue on in such great pain, and so I was thinking about escaping constantly—whether that escape was temporary or permanent, I was considering those ideas.
“And what made me hold on, one of the many things that made me hold on, was the thought that I needed to be there for Tyler, for the trial, because if he were alive he would have been there and I needed to be there for him.
“Just as a mother is there for their child I needed to be there for him, and I knew if he were still alive he would have been there. He would have been a key witness of the prosecutor, and the case would have been for him. And he wasn’t able to be there, so I needed to be there for him.”
The suicidal impulses persisted for 3½ years after Tyler’s death. They were not continuous. Like grief, “they came in waves, and ebbed and flowed,” says Jane.
“Sometimes they’d come for a long time, sometimes they would come often. Around two years ago I realized, ‘I’m not going to be able to harm myself.’
“I had the plans and ability. I came very close—but no, nothing. What I wanted to do was to escape. I just wanted to go to sleep and not wake up again.
“The way I thought that could be attained would be to take something and go to sleep—although, interestingly, part of my early time in my dreams I’d be waking up, and I would be with Tyler and we’d be together, we’d be on the bridge together, and then sometimes I’d be on the bridge by myself and I’d be looking for Tyler. That [jumping] would never have been my method, but those were dreams I did have early on.”
Jane says she has had “many encounters” with Tyler in dreams and visions, some verbal, others more visual, some that she knew he was with her as a presence.
When it came to her overdosing plans, how calculated was it, I ask—was it that, “I will die and be with Tyler”?
“Yes and no. It was that I’d be with God, and being with God means that everything, your pain, stops. It’s a perfect place. I prayed for God to take me, and I prayed to die. That’s a strange prayer request.”
“Initially people, trying to be comforting, would say, ‘Well, his pain is finished, he’s in a better place,’ and I wouldn’t let them continue in that conversation. I wanted to know Tyler was in a good place, but that was not helpful to me. Some people gave me a book about heaven. I was like, ‘I know it’s a great place and I know it’s good because God is there, and there is no pain and there are no tears,’ and I know all those things, but I can’t stay in that conversation.”
Another pause. “When I realized I couldn’t be courageous enough to…” She stops. “It’s a very twisted thought—it’s not a good thing to take your own life and I’m in a good place where I know that now, and my head knew that before—but my heart was so broken I didn’t know if I could exist in this pain.” Joe was watchful; so were Jane’s sons—“but they couldn’t be all eyes and ears all the time,” she says.
The mornings were better than the nights; in the former she would journal, and read her devotionals, then at night her mood would darken. “I’m an indecisive person,” Jane says, “so I thought, ‘If I still feel this way in the morning, maybe I’ll take my plan into action’—and I didn’t.”
She thinks, gradually, God comforted her, and brought her “to a better place of strength, when I realized I needed to turn my whole life over to God. I needed to give him every minute, every breath. That’s what a person of faith does. Now I’ve come full circle, and I’m good now.”
Jane recalls that when she and Joe first heard something was wrong, “it wasn’t just a moment: it unfolded.” First, they received a phone call from the Port Authority police in Fort Lee. It came at a time of night—around 9 p.m. on Sept. 22, 2010—she would ordinarily let a call go through to voicemail.
Joe picked it up, and told her she needed to listen; the police had some information about Tyler. Jane’s mind immediately thought: what possible information could the police have, her son was at Rutgers. “They told us they had found his wallet, but it didn’t make sense—he was in New Brunswick.”
She knew it was serious though, and recalled she had the number of the resident assistant (RA) at Rutgers that was given to her to call in the event she couldn’t contact her child.
She smiles that her other two children were so bad at responding to messages at college it would have been nice to have one for them, too. She called the RA to go to Tyler’s room.
Part of her still didn’t think the Port Authority call was relevant, “though something inside was telling me, ‘This is bigger than you think it is.’ As a person of faith, I belonged to a church which did ‘prayer chains’ for people on request. I’m not a bold or outgoing person, but that night I called my then-pastor requesting one.”
At the police station, officers told Joe and Jane further snippets: that Tyler had been seen on the George Washington Bridge, then had disappeared. She kept asking the police, “Well, what are you saying?”
At one point Joe became very upset and started crying. Jane said, “I asked them...” then her voice breaks, “I can’t even say it now. I just asked specifically. And they said, ‘No, we are not saying that.’
“I was very befuddled and confused and dazed. We didn’t know for days what had happened. There was talk he had run away, that there had been foul play. Maybe he had been taken and they left his cellphone.
“I suppose in my head I was trying to go for the best-case scenario, and although I don’t know why he would have run away I was kind of hoping for something like that.”
James, who is sitting with us, recalls coming home that night to find his parents not there. “It was unusual for them not to be at home, I had a feeling something strange and bad was happening.”
His parents returned from the police station.
“Then I heard screaming and crying. I could hear my mom wailing. I knew someone must have passed away just from those sounds at that point. Both my parents looked completely distraught, they were struggling to get the words out.
“Dad told me to sit down. I thought my grandmother had passed away. The idea Tyler had ended his life at that point was completely unthinkable. He had started college a few weeks before. He was a healthy 18-year-old.”
A person on the bridge said they had seen another person standing there looking like they were going to jump. The police found Tyler’s wallet and cellphone there, and his body in the water eight days later.
Even though Tyler had changed his Facebook status to “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry,” making clear his intention, “there was a lot of denial early on, especially from my parents,” James recalls.
“The police told them he was dead. I think my mom did have some hope. I think I knew. I was completely shocked by it. I didn’t accept it exactly. It was weird, like processing and understanding at different times.”
Jane had spoken to Tyler on Sept. 22 in the afternoon, just before he went to the bridge, and made plans for the following weekend when she and Joe were planning to visit him for parents’ weekend.
“I had a list of things he wanted. I’d gone out to get cases of water, snacks. This was going to be the first time we had seen him in three weeks. It was a long three weeks,” her voice goes quieter, “not long enough, I suppose.”
He liked Oreos, Ramen noodles, and Drake’s apple pies, she says, “though he had a lot of food allergies so a lot of things he couldn’t eat.”
It was a 15-minute conversation, longer than any of the conversations mother and son had had since he was at school.
“He was not a phone person, it was mostly texts, or emails, or face-to-face with him,” Jane says, smiling. She laughs that when he did his grandmother’s grocery shopping for her, he would ask, did he have to call her, couldn’t she email it? No, Jane would tell him, she didn’t have email, or come to that, a computer.
He was a big talker one-on-one, but didn’t like to be center of attention unless he had his violin, Jane says.
Though they’d spoken on the phone before the Sept. 22 call, he was always rushing somewhere, and their calls were always abbreviated.
He sounded fine, Jane says, there was no talk of the webcam incidents that had unfolded and about which she knew nothing.
Instead, mother and son talked about a road bike he had just saved up to buy. Tyler had already ridden it from Ridgewood to Harriman State Park a couple of times. Worried it might be stolen, Tyler had chosen not to take it to Rutgers.
Jane asked him if he wanted them to bring it to him.
“At that point he got sentimental, whimsical, teary a little bit. He paused. ‘Oh, my bicycle, yeah,’ he said. His final decision was a no.”
She thinks back to this last call a lot. “If there was a pause, did I leave it long enough for him to feel able to tell me something? Maybe I started another topic. Silences in conversations are uncomfortable for me: if there is one I feel I should fill it in, keep the conversation going. In that pause about the bike, was he contemplating telling me about the webcam?
“There are a lot of unknowns, and I do go back and circle and that’s when I go into a very bad place, and you try and outthink the questions, and those questions never come back with a good answer. You just downward spiral into a bad place of what-ifs and how-comes.”
Although one of the people investigating Tyler’s death thought his suicide wasn’t a spontaneous impulse, Jane says, “I don’t know if that’s true or not. I was thinking it must have been.” That detective told her that sometimes people make up their mind what they are going to do, make that decision, and live their lives out until they fulfill that decision.
“I had a hard time with that, but it made sense,” she says. “I must say I was in a really sad, desperate place for many months and years after Tyler’s passing. And yet there were moments of living and making plans, then the very next moment feeling so broken and empty and such nothingness. There was that back and forth, so I could relate to that.”
Jane and James say Tyler did not, as some reports suggest, leave a suicide note—just the Facebook status update.
Jane’s voice breaks when describing the moment Tyler’s death was confirmed. Seven days later—“time sort of blurred,” said James—Jane and Joe were living day to day, surrounded by many people at home. She found that helpful, she says, Joe less so. If she was with people one-on-one she would just cry, if there was a group, the collective presence was a balm to her.
The police called, and wanted to identify items found on a body.
“They said, ‘he’s got jeans on,’ and I said, ‘No, he doesn’t wear jeans,’ but I guess after being in the water so long cargo pants can look like jeans even if they are tan. Then it was something else, and I said, ‘No, that can’t be him,’ although it was a little more likely. Then the third item, I was like ‘OK, that was probably him.’” She declines to say what the item was. Tyler’s body was identified by his dental records.
Word soon got back to the Clementis about Ravi’s webcamming of their son. Rutgers suggested they might want privacy to pick up the rest of Tyler’s belongings, before they issued a press release.
The questions didn’t begin immediately, Jane says—she was in such shock. “But when they did, they have never ended. I struggled with these questions for years, because they always took me down a very terrible path: the what ifs, the why nots, and ‘if he had told me this’ or ‘told someone that because none of this would have happened.’”
She goes quiet.
Jane and Joe had met Ravi and his family the day Tyler had moved into their Rutgers room. Ravi had to be prompted to greet the Clementis. At the time, Jane attributed his aloofness to him being shy, and also he had gotten there late and was struggling to set up his computer tower with his dad. “He seemed pressed for time. I thought, ‘He’s busy, shy, all is OK.’
“Then the prosecution enlightened me to the reality. He had learned earlier that Tyler was gay, and with that in mind and following events I would say he didn’t want to get to know Tyler and he really didn’t want to be Tyler’s roommate. He had dismissed Tyler as a possible friend to talk with and be in the same room with. It’s sad he couldn’t have just spoken up and said that and ended the arrangement, instead of carrying out what he did.”
Knowing that Ravi was mocking and dwelling on Clementi’s homosexuality even before the webcamming makes Jane feel terrible.
Tyler told her Ravi wasn’t in the room much, that he went home a lot because he only had classes two or three days a week. Now, she says, if only they had talked about Ravi more, “maybe Tyler would have told me what had happened.”
She isn’t sure if it was the webcamming, or the humiliation of reading the posts by Ravi and others on social media afterwards, that hurt Tyler more.
He logged in to read it all many times, Jane says. “We know the last thing he looked at on his computer before he went to the George Washington Bridge was the Twitter feed and Facebook posts.”
He was living in a new place, she adds, without the friends and family members who knew him. He had just come out to her two days before leaving for school. “He seemed very confident with who he was and what he was going to do. Both Joe and I told him to be safe and careful.”
She says she knows Rutgers has changed in the last five years—for one, Jane says, the university now asks its students if they are LGBT-friendly before they get there—but young people still don’t know how they will be perceived by their peers.
That summer of 2010, Jane and Tyler had walked past the memorial—made by her friends—for a rising senior in Ridgewood who had committed suicide.
“We did talk about suicide,” Jane says. “And we did talk about caring for yourself. When Tyler did come out, it did cross my mind to tell him to be careful and take care of himself, yet I don’t think any of it was heard ’cause I think we were on two different conversations.”
What Jane is referring to is Tyler’s message to a friend in the wake of his coming out: “Mom has basically completely rejected me.”
“I did not feel the same emotion toward him,” she says now. “That was very difficult and confusing at the time to work through. I was surprised he was gay. I was really surprised because we talked about James a lot and he never said anything in all those conversations.”
She laughs: A gay friend of hers “said all the signs were there.” Tyler liked to play the violin and loved Broadway musicals, and design. “But that doesn’t make someone gay,” Jane says. Both she and James laugh.
Yet Tyler felt the way he did after he had told Jane he was gay. Was her faith in the way of accepting Tyler’s coming out?
“Maybe it was. I suppose it could be. I was waiting for James to come out and he didn’t, so why was I then so surprised when Tyler came out?” She is thinking out loud. “Was I thinking, ‘Two out of three sons?’ Did I do something wrong or not something right? What was the commonality, the reason, the cause?
“And I knew then and I know now there wasn’t. Now I see it as a blessing. But things bounced around my head, and I was surprised, and, yes, upset too. But I was also upset he was going away to school. It was the normal progression of life, but mothers are sad when their children go away to school.”
Both Joe and Jane were from Catholic families, James had told me earlier. When he was a year old, they stopped going to church, resuming again when he was 7, this time as Presbyterians.
When he was 13, they switched to an evangelical church, which was anti-gay. “There was the spoken message of that, but more often it was subtle messages not being welcome to gay people. At some point in middle school I felt like the only person who had those feelings. I never saw gay people around me. The lack of representation and role models made me feel I was something weird or different. The church definitely made it clear that they saw it as a sin.”
Did Jane have a problem with homosexuality, or being gay?
“I don’t think I did. But I also thought I had stuff to work through. I knew I couldn’t tell any of my Christian friends Tyler was gay so I guess on some level [I] did. I was definitely thinking in those three weeks [between Tyler’s coming out and his suicide], ‘What does that mean? Am I going to have to turn away from my faith—because I can’t turn away from my son.’”
“I was upset at first, I was sad. I was quiet,” Jane admits of the coming out conversation. “My husband said, ‘I don’t think you need to go there with God and faith,’ and I said, ‘You’re right.’ We thought we shouldn’t discuss these things any more on the phone because they could get misunderstood. We would wait till we saw him. I had said to Tyler, ‘I need some time to think about this.’ What was there to say, it wasn’t like you’re not going to change your orientation.”
Did you want him to?
Jane pauses. “No. I didn’t want him to, but did I want him to be gay? No. Does that make sense? Certainly it would’ve caused him much less harm in life—right?—for him, for his situation and what ended up happening to him at school. You never want your child to be in harm’s way. But maybe had he come out sooner that would have been helpful too, right, so we could have had things in place?”
Some would say it wasn’t Tyler’s homosexuality that put him in harm’s way, it was Ravi and whatever it was that was motivating him, I say.
“Homophobia?” Jane says softly, a question, which also sounds like a statement.
It wasn’t Tyler’s fault Ravi trained his webcam on him, I say.
“That’s true, that’s true,” Jane says softly.
According to Tyler, Joe was less exercised about his homosexuality than Jane. “That’s the perception Tyler had,” is all Jane will say to that.
Since beginning the Foundation, Jane had heard many coming-out stories. “I have horror-horror stories and great ones. Tyler’s was a 5 [i.e., medium]. The sad part with Tyler is that some of the worst ones can make it to a 10 [i.e., excellent] in time.” Would Tyler’s have done so, does she think? “I hope so, yes, I would hope so. I don’t know, did we make a 10?” she says to James, referring to his coming out, and their relationship since. “Yes,” he says softly.
“I suppose I didn’t say the right, the perfect things to Tyler,” says Jane, but she says she has heard so many stories from people of faith. “They need to figure out their own inner angst and own inner turmoil with what that means to their faith, and what that means to moving on with their relationship to their child.” And not having had that chance to get to a 10, as Jane puts it, “was part of my grieving issue. It was all part of it, wrapped in it. It was hard.”
Tyler, Jane says, was very clear when he came out: “He was thinking he couldn’t be Christian and gay. And I didn’t have anything good to say to him. I had no theological comments. I do now. The only thing I could say to him was I knew I loved him and I knew God loved him. He probably took that as condemning.”
How does Jane cope with knowing that Tyler felt rejected by her?
“That is still… so much to deal with,” Jane says quietly. “And I know on some level he sent that text and did write that. Yet other people tried to rationalize it for me—friends—saying young people, children, say lots of things, especially in a quick text, that they don’t really mean.
“A friend said their child can say ‘I hate my parents,’ and not mean it, but my response was that Tyler felt rejected by me in the moment and wanted to express that to a friend. And [that] moment is a moment too long.”
But mother and son had continued communicating after the coming-out conversation, and even had that final conversation on the final day of Tyler’s too-brief life—the “rejection” text may stand out but it is not the defining end-point of their communication.
Jane accepts that, but tells me she regrets that she was still grieving for Tyler so heavily that when her own mother died 10 months after him she couldn’t grieve her properly.
“In that moment after Tyler died, I felt nothing. I felt so empty and broken. You can accept an older person’s death, we don’t live forever. But somebody at 18 should be here with us, and a parent should pass before their child does.”
In her fugue-like state where her intention to kill herself poisonously germinated, Jane “wasn’t really thinking” about the rest of her family after Tyler’s death. Life and its value were rendered null and void for her. “I was in a really dark, depressed place.”
One person told James that she was so upset about Tyler because he had been her favorite. Not only was that not true, but Tyler was 18, she says. He hadn’t flown the nest. He was still at that age where she had input into his decisions, where she was still an active parent.
Did she blame herself in any way for his suicide?
“I think when it comes to suicide, when you’re a mother of a child who dies by suicide, I can’t imagine not having some blame in that. You had to know what your child was going through, what they were experiencing. You’re supposed to be able to help them. They’re supposed to be able to reach out to you, tell you what’s happening, share those things.
“I thought we had good relationship, yet there were all these things I didn’t know. And aren’t you, as a parent, supposed to teach resilience, and to teach your child how to deal with issues and problems, and look for support and seek resources available? So the answer is yes, I did feel much guilt and shame.”
And now? “I guess my head has been able to answer some of those questions, and it depends on the day and the moment of the day, but it should never be…” Her voice goes to a whisper. “It should never be.”
After Tyler died, Jane went through Tyler’s Bible and saw that one of the sheets he had picked up, she presumes at Sunday school, “was that homosexuality was a sin. He was hearing messages and I was the one bringing him to the place where he was hearing those messages.” Her voice drops again, “So there was a lot to work through.”
For Jane, the only question in the three weeks between Tyler coming out and then killing himself was whether she would have to turn away from her faith. “I couldn’t not think of having my son in her life.”
Then Tyler died, and Jane—as she puts it—“turned to God. God was very present in my grieving period. I never turned away, God was always running after me, comforting. That was when I could bring them all together: the LGBT issue and the faith issue. I didn’t realize you could have them both until after Tyler passed.”
I wonder if knowing her son felt rejected by religion complicated her own relationship with it.
“I knew I had to come to terms with it quickly because I couldn’t lose another son. I knew James was gay. I knew you can’t change sexual orientation.”
In a later email, Jane reveals that she is not a member of any church at the present. “I visit many. I refer to it affectionately as ‘church surfing.’ I mostly view Marble Collegiate Church (a New York church which emphasizes its diversity and inclusiveness), via live web stream when I don’t go some place physically.
“I left my last church mostly because of their stance on marriage. They maintain a stance of ‘love but,’ and I no longer felt I could attend. It was a silent message from the pulpit, except for marriage. They were clear and loud about that.”
Jane Clementi insists Dharun Ravi “was not at the top of my list of things to think about, interestingly so. I was angry at a lot of people and a lot of things: he was one of many—meaning God, Tyler, myself. Certainly, after the numbness and denial of ‘this wasn’t really happening,’ I did go through a long, angry stage. I still get angry at things, irrationally.”
Did she want Ravi to be prosecuted under the law?
“Well, he was and I thought that was the right thing to do. That was the least they could give my son.” The prosecutors were very concerned with having her and the family’s support, but—as it was a sex-related crime—not victimizing them a second time.
“They didn’t encourage us to come to court every day, but I felt I needed to be there every day. It was the least I could do for Tyler. When he was younger and he played the violin, as a parent you go to the recitals. That’s what a parent does. You show up. It was the same for this. I was there every day.”
What was it like seeing Ravi every day?
“It was… really… awful,” she says, with feeling gaps between every one of those words.
Silence. “It was unbearable, actually. I guess by that point I’d already learned how to escape the moment. When things got too painful I had a safe space to go to in my head where I could shut the world out. I could think about things calming to me. I could pray. I could hold on to scripture, verses, that were a comfort to me.”
In her hand? “Actually, yes. It was spring 2012. For almost a year and a half I had been using scripture and devotionals and reading lots of verses, and there were many that spoke to me and comforted me and held me.
“What I meant a minute ago was ‘hold’ them in my mind, but actually at the trial I had a piece of paper with many verses on it, and when things got too unbearable and I couldn’t escape in my head I had something to actually look at.”
Joe and she were together, too, and James was there most days. The family had many supporters, and there was a helpful and practical court-appointed victims’ advocate.
Jane says she doesn’t think she wanted to know anything from Ravi, “and I don’t think I’ll ever know the truth, and I don’t expect he’ll ever tell me the truth. It might be something he has held on to to try and convince himself whatever it is he needs to feel, so I don’t think I’ll ever know the truth. I wasn’t there because of Dharun. I was there because of Tyler, and for Tyler—and that’s what gave me strength and energy because I was at a very dark place. And what helped me hold on was knowing I wanted to be there for Tyler.”
Did the eventual punishment fit the crime?
A diplomacy-searching pause. “I don’t know what the correct punishment should have been or the correct sentence should have been. I did want consequences, because I do believe someone’s actions warrant consequences.
“There were consequences for Tyler, and I don’t want another Tyler in this world, so I thought if there were consequences for the defendant there would be an added awareness for people out there who may not want to have empathy for the target, but maybe they’ll have a little self-awareness to say, ‘Well, I don't want to end up with whatever the sentence is. I don’t want my life ruined in this way.’ Whatever it is to create that change, I’m all for creating that change.”
Was Ravi’s sentence enough for her, I ask again?
“It didn’t seem like it fit the crime,” Jane says, no diplomatic pause this time. “I don’t think in my heart that the sentence was worthy of the crimes that were committed because there were so many crimes—it wasn’t just a simple one or two. He was taken up on 15 counts, so it just didn’t seem logical and I guess I am a logical person who believes ‘If you do a, you get b,’ and I didn’t see that happen.
“I don’t know what the right sentence or punishment would be—not the word ‘punishment’… What the right consequences would be, I guess, but I don’t know what they would be to prevent another child from doing it.”
There had been talk of a 10-year sentence; ultimately Ravi served 20 days.
“Ten years seems too harsh,” says Jane. “I want to change behavior, and I don’t know if that would change behavior or harden somebody, and make them a more negative person than someone already is. That’s not the goal. The goal is to change behavior, create good in them, and create a better society—that’s why we started the Tyler Clementi Foundation.”
Was she angry at the outcome?
“I was surprised, completely surprised, it just blew me away. I was very surprised but in reality it’s not finished. It is in the appeals court, and we may have a new sentence and new verdict any day now.”
One count of bias intimidation has been struck from his conviction, but Jane says two counts remain. What is the ideal outcome of the appeals process for her?
She grimaces. “Good question. That’s when I go to that downward spiral. What I really want, I can’t have. Logical physics don’t allow for what I want to have. I want to go back in time and prevent Tyler from doing what he did, and I can’t have it. That’s what I really want, and if I can’t have that I want to make sure there isn’t another Tyler—which again we can’t judge because if we prevent it, we’ll never know about it, which’ll be good.” She smiles, weakly. “I just need to exert my energy and passion into that.”
At the time, there was heated debate about the level of responsibility Ravi should bear for what Clementi did—some felt he was being unfairly punished, and that he was being directly and wrongly blamed for Clementi’s suicide.
“There are lots of reasons why people would attempt to or die by suicide,” says Jane. She is silent. “But I just can’t imagine being humiliated like that in front of my new dorm-mates and I can’t even imagine what Tyler must have been feeling or thinking. Knowing the Tyler I knew, I do see those actions as bullying actions.
“I do know that with bullying not everyone experiences situations in the same way, but I do think if Tyler didn’t have that experience, the story would have been different and I think we would not ever be meeting because Tyler would be here and we would be having a joyous Thanksgiving celebration, instead of the one that I’m dreading.”
There is more silence.
“In a suicide,” Jane says, “the person who takes their own life is responsible for their life ultimately. What drives them to that place is a sort of like a subset.”
Does she think we would be here today had Tyler not been webcammed?
“No, we would not be here had he not been webcammed. But ultimately Tyler had other resources available to him, he just couldn’t see that. If you are bullied the result should not be suicide, it should not be death.”
Five years on, what do you feel about Ravi, I ask.
Jane pauses. “I know we are all weak. We are all human. We all do terrible things that we wish we didn’t do at times in our life, but I must say I don’t know what will happen if and when we ever meet face-to-face. It’s not something I’m looking forward to.”
This is said with such quiet force, I ask if she hates him.
“I don’t think I hate anyone,” she replies, and I believe her. “I can’t say that. I don’t like what he did obviously. I don’t understand what he did—I can’t even wrap my brain around some of it. I don’t understand how someone can humiliate someone else to raise their own social status.
“That’s what bullying is: it’s a power struggle. It’s someone identifying someone else as different and abusing that. I also can’t wrap my head around people who hate. I can’t do that either.”
So what does she think of him?
“A very misguided young man, and I don’t even know if he realizes the severity of his actions.”
Has he ever made an apology, or attempted to? (The judge in Ravi’s 2012 case criticized the statement Ravi had made apologizing for his actions as inadequate.)
“No, he has not, but with the case in appeals I’m sure if I was his lawyer I would tell him not to, so I’m sure he is just following his legal advice, which he is paying a dear amount of money for, so he should follow it, I suppose.”
There has been no contact with Ravi’s parents, either, “but I know they love their son, too, and they would do anything for him as I will for mine.”
As for the result of the appeals process, Jane says, “I don’t want the verdicts changed, lessened. Or decreased or commuted or whatever the technical term is. I do believe you can’t hold on to your anger. You have to let it go. I do believe you reap what you sow. So if you forgive you shall be forgiven, and I certainly have been forgiven myself for my own sins.
“The interesting thing with evangelicals is ‘sin’ is thrown around very easily because no one is perfect. Only one person is perfect, and that’s Jesus. I also believe forgiveness is something between myself and my God, it’s not something I need to proclaim to my world. It’s something in my heart. It’s not something I can give to someone if they’re not asking for it, there’s no point giving it.”
Would she have liked to have seen more contrition from Ravi?
“I think it might have helped him, but it’s not going to change anything for me right now. I don’t think we think much of him at all. I guess we can’t change the past by talking about his actions. It can’t help us move forward by talking about his actions, so we don’t talk about his actions. We don’t dwell on him. Actually I don’t usually say his name, and I guess I don’t want to occupy my space and time talking about him.”
For James, Ravi “not only cyberbullied my brother but also committed criminal acts against my brother. I really think it’s important that people see the consequences of that behavior. If you break the law there should be accountability and consequences. I also realized that anything that happens legally to any of the people involved doesn’t undo what happened, and nothing brings Tyler back.
“I don’t think one thing causes someone to commit suicide, it’s a combination of things. I’m angry at a lot of people, Tyler most of all because he is the one who took his own life. I never held the roommate responsible for Tyler’s death. I hold him responsible for his behavior—the way he humiliated him, embarrassed him, and violated his privacy. And those actions are against the law, so I don’t see why someone shouldn’t be held legally responsible for what they did.”
I ask Jane if she feels justice has been served in respect of her son. “I don’t know what justice looks like, so I don’t know if it has been served clearly,” Jane says.
The appeals process is strange because it “will help close the door” on her son’s case which, in some ways, Jane is not relishing.
“Not having closure in some ways was good. Part of closing that door is pushing Tyler further away. And that’s part of healing. I don’t know what healing looks like because it’s more like learning to live with that loss every day. I certainly don’t want to lose or leave Tyler behind somewhere. He’s emotionally with me always.”
She says she is ready to hear the ruling, whatever it says.
For Ravi’s punishment, “I don’t want more jail time,” Jane says. “If the courts can be creative with what the consequence could be, I would be more open to that. Consequences can come in many forms.”
Does she mean community service? “Right. But community service has been done already, and fines were paid and there was counseling and classes, group sessions and learning around bullying.” For Jane Clementi, the question is, has Dharun Ravi’s behavior changed, and can it be changed? And how would she, or anyone else, know it had changed, she asks?
In 2012, in Out magazine, James published a set of letters to Tyler. They were loving: In them James recalled them both coming out to each other just before Tyler went to university, and how focused on hooking up, rather than finding love, he seemed at that early coming-out moment.
“It is very bittersweet,” James had told me earlier in the day, in a car driving through lashing rain en route to his parents’ house. “I thought that conversation was the first conversation of many about it in our lives, but it was first and the last.”
James and Tyler had been close growing up, less so when James was away at university, and then more after his graduation as Tyler himself prepared to go away.
Tyler came out to his family before his older brother did. “I was very proud of him. While we had come out to each other, I thought he wouldn’t be ready to do that with [our] parents and friends at school. I was proud that he was able to do it.”
“It’s strange to think of him being in such a dark, depressed place. At the time when he left for school I didn’t think he was depressed at all. I thought maybe he was nervous about going away, and I knew being gay must have been a struggle for him as it had been for me.”
I wonder if James hoped that Tyler had found warmth, sexiness, or whatever he was looking for from M.B.—a moment of intimacy before he died.
“Yes, exactly—whatever intimacy it was,” James says. “I don’t feel the need to make it more in my head than it was, even if it was a casual hooking up, or whatever. For a younger person not experienced, there must be something amazing about having those experiences. I hope he got to live a little bit and experience a little happiness.”
James never spoke to M.B. directly. “He was affected by the ripple effects of Tyler’s suicide, his life was shook up and down. The defense had said he looked homeless, and looked like he didn’t belong there.
“But he was a totally normal person, a good-looking guy. He was a really nice guy, actually—I was very glad to know that, and have that peace of mind.”
Did Tyler think about falling in love? “I really don’t know,” says James. “I remember when we did have out little coming-out conversation, we talked about the fact he was sexually active, and I told him, ‘You know you could have a boyfriend if you wanted one, and that’s OK.’ And he was like, ‘No, I don’t want that. I don’t need it.’ He was very dismissive, not interested. But I also think people, if they have low self-esteem, if they think love is not obtainable, say that to cover themselves.”
As we drove through the rain on Route 17, James smiled that the road went through every suburban town in Bergen County. His parents are both from the town of Fair Lawn—and met because two friends of theirs were getting married. The Clementis married, and raised their children here.
“I liked it here,” says James. “I think it was very peaceful, idyllic in a lot of ways. I had a great upbringing.” He says it’s odd, now living with his husband, Ramon Armenta, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and coming home and feeling a little further away from it each time. “It was a conventional upbringing. When I think of my childhood it feels like a sitcom.”
Naturally, James was worried about telling his parents he was gay, especially given the religious influences of his upbringing. “At some point in high school they just knew, and it became something we didn’t talk about, and I never wanted to bring it up. It’s weird: I went through a lot of internal struggle, and didn’t go through a period of wanting to change.
“In college I found friends and places I could be myself. I liked the church services at holiday times, but I didn’t like way the way people treated each other. It was bigger than the gay issue: the sort of view that ‘Everyone needs to believe what we believe to be saved.’ In my junior year of high school, I stopped going.”
James eventually came out to his family, at their nudging, in November 2011, after Jane was asked about his sexuality by a magazine reporter who had seen James’s testimony, about his coming-out talk with Tyler, in the police investigation.
“Have you got anything you’d like to tell us?” Jane remembers asking him. James said he hadn’t, but in two hours he had come out, and days later was in the magazine. “Coming out big,” Jane laughs. (She and Joe had suspected James might be gay from the time he was a toddler, she says: he had a high-pitched voice, liked dolls, and, when he was a teenager, they found rainbow flags in his room.)
“I had already come out to friends, and professors at college. I think I wasn’t worried because I realized my parents did accept Tyler,” James says. “It was just this was such bad timing in the middle of grieving.”
If James’s coming out was a long time coming—“following the crumbs,” as Jane says—Tyler’s was “How are you telling me this 18 hours before you leave for school?” She was “relieved” when James came out, and that they were able to talk, although she “wasn’t able to talk about much after Tyler’s death,” she says.
Her Clementi Foundation work means she is “able to help people rid themselves of the shame and stigma of either being bullied or LGBT, with no one to look up to. We have all these walls built up we feel we can’t speak of the truths to those around us. I have first-hand experience of being honest and not being afraid of saying who we are and where we’re at in life.”
James says he wrestled with guilt and learning to feel again—and letting himself fall in love with Ramon, who works for Citibank, was a big part of his healing process.
Why does James think Tyler committed suicide? “Unfortunately, I don’t know, and I can’t ask him because he is not here to speak for himself and say what happened. I think Tyler was extremely humiliated over the webcamming incident, and I definitely believe that contributed to it. I think a lot was going on: He had just come out, he was starting in a new environment, feeling lonely and isolated in that new space, and then something traumatic happened to him, and he became the butt of a joke.
“The situation in his mind got bigger and bigger, and spiraled out of control. He felt desperate and was [looking] for a way out of something. He might have been going through a lot of things anyway, but I think if someone hadn’t exploited him in a very vulnerable moment and taken advantage of him that way, I can’t imagine he would have made the same decisions.”
So, without the webcam incident? “I think he would be here, yes, I do think that,” says James.
Today, grief still comes in ebbs and flows, Jane says. She can control its most destructive forces though, which almost killed her. “I just drive down the street, and memories of things that happened on that street come back. My grief was so shocking, so surreal and traumatic, it’s taken me five years to feel at least present in this moment. Everything stood still for four years.”
She still works 20 hours a week as a public health nurse (indeed, she gives James his flu shot after we speak). Joe still works as a civil engineer.
“It’s been a long five years and a quick five years,” Jane says. “The dishwasher needs to be updated. I think it’s new, but it isn’t two years old, it’s seven years old. It feels like it immediately just happened and yet at the same time,” her voice goes to a strangulated whisper, “it feels like it’s been forever since I saw Tyler, held Tyler, or said goodbye to Tyler, or gave him a kiss and held him. So…” She looks down.
You think of him… I begin to say.
“Every moment practically,” she says, forcefully. “Yes, I think of him all the time, every day.”
It meant a lot, she said, to meet someone who knew Tyler in those first few weeks at Rutgers, and who had attended a gay-straight alliance meeting with him, who told her Tyler had attended informal gatherings of students, and been a great talker and communicator—far from the media image of the quiet, withdrawn victim.
Last summer, Jane managed to do some weeding in the garden for the first time, and chores around the house. “It was such an overwhelming task to do anything, and I had no energy to do anything. I couldn’t receive good things, and didn’t want to hear really bad things. I couldn’t celebrate and be joyous. I could do work, I could do day-to-day, but couldn’t go to either extreme—there was no room for that.”
She is struck when she sees images of herself at the time of Tyler’s death, about how sad she looks, and how flat and “drone” her voice is.
“I didn’t like seeing myself as that, yet I didn’t want to see myself in another way either,” she says. “I didn’t necessarily want to be better. I didn’t know how that could possibly be. When you’ve lost someone so close to you, it’s like losing a part of you. How could you ever feel any differently than what you did in those darkest moments?”
When James and Ramon married in February, it was initially difficult for her: It was something happy. Holidays are “excruciating, really difficult, very painful as our family isn’t together any more. Tyler loved Christmas: He loved to decorate the tree. Because of him we put lights outside. He was into presents and wrapping them, and he was so into it I just want to run from it.”
This year—the first year she has had the energy to plan anything, Jane says—she, James, Ramon, and Brian will go away for Christmas. Joe will not. “The decorations are up in the stores,” she says to James, “and it’s the first year I don’t feel nauseous looking at all the holiday events and feel crushed by it all.”
James and Ramon’s wedding turned out to be healing, too. Jane cried “all the time” before their Valentine’s Day ceremony. “Our family wouldn’t be together. Tyler belonged here. This was an event he would have just loved and been so excited about.” She smiles. “But I was able to be present during the day, and joyful, and on the way home I cried for Tyler not being there—but I guess this is all part of the process.”
Did Tyler’s death put pressure on her own marriage?
“We definitely see things very differently,” Jane says. “We always did and that’s definitely added to that. We aren’t always able to comfort the other person. What comforts Joe is not what comforts me, so it’s harder in that respect.” She wants to go away at Christmas, he does not; indeed he is not here because he is in the Philippines.
“We’ve learned to move past our differences and are able to find support and make ourselves happy in this respect,” Jane says. “It’s unfortunate that we can’t do this [Christmas] event together, but knowing that he has something to make him happy is good and knowing that I am doing something to make me happy is good for him, too.”
Joe found the presence of so many people in their house too constricting, she says. Once, she was so lost in grief that she said to Joe how amazing it was to have “a man with a big camera” trained on her through their living-room window. “Look at that, it’s zooming right in on us,” she said. “Joe got real upset and closed the shades.”
It bothered him when the media rang their doorbell, but not Jane, she says: She understood the journalists were doing their bosses’ bidding, just as she would do. In the early period, he would go to work, and she stayed, frozen in grief and upset, inside the house. “We were in a different place emotionally and physically,” she says.
And now, how are they?
“It’s always a work in progress, isn't it?” she says, softly. “It’s nice that my middle son is living at home, which I think is a good thing.”
Jane has become a public figure herself. Didn’t she want to just do something else, rather than have a job and public profile which majors on the tragedy of her loss?
“It wasn’t a spontaneous decision. It wasn’t that everything made perfect sense in the respect about becoming public figure. I was really sad that Tyler’s life came down to one headline sentence—‘After being webcammed in sexual encounter, Rutgers freshman dies by suicide’—and that wasn’t who Tyler was. I didn’t want that one tragic moment in his life to define who he was.”
While she has welcomed the conversations that the reporting of Tyler’s case started, Jane disliked the inaccuracies that were printed—that Tyler had driven to the George Washington Bridge, for example. “They said he was childish and liked playing the violin and riding a unicycle—yeah, when he was 10,” says Jane.
The “good has outweighed the negative” of being a public figure. “Normal life was never a possibility” after Tyler’s death. “There was no escaping the loss. It was always, ever-present. This work is the only good we could see coming from this. At the beginning, to be able to go public with this, to be able to talk about the terrible outcome that Tyler did to himself—I wondered how could that be good for anybody?
“By speaking about it, it felt like it almost made him into a hero—and you never want to make someone who has harmed themselves or other people into a hero. It’s not a good decision. But, with time, I’m able to see his experience was a shared experience and his emotions were shared emotions many people feel, gay and straight.”
It must be a strange, emotionally draining job, but James says he has a script he works to, and only occasionally is it too much—the other day a video of news reports he has played many times to classrooms of children suddenly left him choked up. “At least this job gives me control, and means I can use the pain in a constructive way, and means that he didn’t die for no reason—there is something good that came out of his death.”
Children ask a lot about Ravi and justice, Jane and James both say, and if he has apologized, and whether they forgive him, the consequences he has faced, and whether the Clementis ever hear from him—as well as faith issues and how they intersect with being LGBT.
“Many young people ask me about coming out to parents and family,” says Jane, “and I tell them both sides. I say that it’s best for your own emotional health,” and she tells them that though they think their parents won’t be accepting, she was for her sons. Forty percent of homeless youth are LGBT, she says—it’s vital that young gay and trans people have the financial and physical support of their parents.
“Legally, definitely more needs to be done around cyber-bullying,” she adds; only 26 states have statutes against it, and a federal law would be even more welcome. The Tyler Clementi Law School will not only advocate for laws, but also train lawyers to litigate cyber-bullying cases.
“I don’t think technology is the problem,” Jane says. “Technology is going to be around—it speeds up communication and keeps us in touch. It’s about how people are using technology.”
After Tyler died, Jane took all the family pictures down. Today they are restored to the mantelpiece, and in the living room there are pictures of Tyler playing violin with the Bergen and Ridgewood youth orchestras, and programs they held in his honor. Jane remembers going to commemorative events like these, and trembling through them. Between the pictures is a picture of a flower Tyler took.
The Clementis have donated his violin to the Velvet Foundation, which is amassing exhibits for a planned national LGBT museum.
In Tyler’s bedroom, we look at a typical teenager’s bookshelf: here are his fresh Rutgers textbooks on calculus, biology, and economics. There are music books and, unsurprisingly for a fan of the musical Wicked, some Wizard of Oz-related books, alongside copies of Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke and Fairytales of the Brothers Grimm.
A glass tank is a hangover from the time Tyler kept hermit crabs, and after them, it was an atrium for cactuses, “and then back to hermit crabs,” smiles Jane.
A book about Christmas sent to her, featuring a gay family, reminds her that her Christmas-loving son had his own cherished ornaments and manger, and yet all the commercialism around it obscures Christmas’ religious meaning, which is problematic for Jane.
We both gaze, before going back downstairs, at the urn of ashes again and Tyler’s high school graduation picture, in which he looks both very young and like a young man, on the cusp of a new chapter, the next bit of growing up—an adult life about to begin. It’s heartbreaking.
We go downstairs. The family has lived here for 26 years, and all her neighbors have changed in that time apart from Jane’s next-door neighbor, but even she is selling now, she says. “Joe wants to move away and move someplace warm, and I don’t want to move someplace warm,” Jane says, proud to have come from a family whose generations grew up all around one another until one set of grandparents moved to Florida, “which changed the dynamics for good.”
Perhaps also, because of Tyler’s death, she wants to draw her family, and how they live, as closely as possible—to ward off any specter of change and upheaval.
Jane says a gay friend said to her recently that he never felt depressed, but had moments of feeling desperate, and thoughts about harming himself, over being gay.
She has found entries in journals Tyler kept as a high school sophomore “when he wasn’t real happy, when I imagine he’s wrestling with God about his sexuality, but I wouldn’t say he was depressed. It was like a moment or minute, compared to hours or years or months.”
Jane and James are both silent. How do you either piece together all these clues, or accept you’ll never know why Tyler committed suicide and keep your sanity, I ask.
“That’s assuming I’m sane,” Jane laughs. “I guess it comes to the point where you turn everything over to the higher source and know that you’re just not in control and there are things you’re never meant to know and there are things you might know, or insight may come later, or it may not.”
The Clementis have, like other families whose loved ones have committed suicide, learned to live with not knowing. But they have found their own ways to carry on. For Jane Clementi, there is the portmanteau of her nursing work, educating, the appeal court ruling, that Christmas trip she has planned, more weeding to do this summer, a dishwasher to replace, and at least—in some way, as she sits and types away, overlooking their quiet suburban street—Tyler is beside her, home and safe.