A Suicide at Princeton Is a Warning Bell for All of Society

Marci A. HamiltonBill Zeller left this earth a tormented soul. Sadly, he could find no comfort here, and he said as much in an articulate and forceful letter that he emailed to many shortly before he killed himself. You can read the news report and his letter here.

His letter should be read by every minister, priest, rabbi, and imam, not to mention every parent and legislator, as it lays out in painful detail the "darkness" that followed him throughout his life.

Zeller was a highly regarded, innovative computer scientist in graduate school at Princeton University, and his letter reveals his intelligence and analytical abilities. It also focuses a laser on what all too often happens to someone who is sexually abused as a child. With one in four girls and one in five boys sexually abused, we have a society-wide problem that is likely to land on the doorstep of many a clergyperson, parent, and lawmaker. According to the letter, he was raped repeatedly at a young age.

Zeller slices through our cultural temptation to push this topic away to bring to light how the abuse can cast a shadow on every day, get in the way of healthy relationships, and make life as a whole unbearable. He walks his reader through his careful, cost-benefit analysis, and reaches the conclusion that death is the better choice.

I did not know Zeller, but, tragically, his devastation is not unusual among sex abuse survivors, who have a significantly higher rate of addiction, chaotic lives, and suicide than the general population. He says he tried alcohol to avoid the pain, but the darkness never departed permanently. He also talks about his journey through troubled relationships, which led him to declare he was homosexual at one point, even though he was not.

One of the saddest sections is when he declines to name his attacker, because he thinks no one will believe him after he is deceased, he has no concrete evidence to offer (other than the alcoholism, gender confusion, inability to maintain close relationships, and suicide choice). He tosses out that he was abused twenty years ago as though time inevitably closes the door to justice and fairness.

This is the paradigmatic story of the sexually abused in this society: the crime occurs without witnesses, the victim is incapable of coming forward until well into adulthood, and the delay plays to the advantage of the perpetrator. The victim is left feeling permanently helpless and ineffectual while the perpetrator is empowered, as he or she benefits from the decades of silence from a victim. That lag time gives the perpetrator ample time within which to abuse yet more children.

This is how our society has structured the phenomenon of child sex abuse, and, while there are many suicides, very few leave us with this articulate, eloquent, if sometimes vulgar, description of the tortured soul of the child abuse victim. The question is what to do with this apocryphal letter.

I would suggest that we use Zeller's missive to prevent others from reaching his fatal moment of complete desolation. We must find the means to offer hope to victims; we need to shift the balance from a system that favors the predators to one that protects the victims. This letter needs to be distributed far and wide, digested, and discussed.

It is yet another signal that parents and clergy need to treat children's cries, or murmurs, of help with respect and extreme care. Who knows who abused Zeller? According to statistics, it could have been anyone: his family, the mailman, the neighborhood policeman, a teacher, a coach, or even his minister. It is virtually certain it was someone his family trusted enough to spend time alone with him.

It is also the best statement I have read in support of legislative elimination of the statutes of limitations for child sex abuse. As the law stands now in most states, too few cases are ever brought and too little justice delivered to victims, because the system literally shuts them out. Zeller intuits the way the legal system forecloses most claims when he thinks no one will believe him if he comes forward when the abuse happened twenty years before. That is not necessarily true at all, and since he never spoke to a professional about the abuse, he did not know what might have proved to a jury the heinous crime and tort he suffered.

Other good might have come from naming the one who ruined his life. Since most abusers attack more than one victim during their lives, just coming forward might have brought the abuser's other victims forward. He might have learned he was not the only one abused, which would have reinforced that this was never his fault. Finally, abusers don't quit abusing just because they get older, so it might also have given parents and communities warning about unknown predators among them.

These are all lessons a decent society needs to learn. Though he could not face the future, he will live through his last act of extraordinary teaching. Please read Bill Zeller's suicide letter.

1/12/2011 5:00:00 AM
  • God vs Gavel
  • Children
  • Law
  • politics
  • Sexual Abuse
  • Suicide
  • Marci Hamilton
    About Marci Hamilton
    Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University and author of Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge, 2008) and God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge, 2005, 2007).