BERGEN COUNTY, N.J. — Jane Clementi packed the belongings from her home in Ridgewood, where she and her husband had lived for 31 years and raised three boys, into dozens of boxes for her move in February.
Into one of those boxes, she placed the writings that her youngest son, Tyler, had scrawled on loose paper and in the back of spiral and marble notebooks. For a decade, she’d been too distraught to read them. But a few weeks ago, she sat down and finally opened the pages.
What she read, nearly 10 years after Tyler killed himself so publicly – sparking a national conversation about suicide, mental health and LGBTQ youth – broke her heart all over again:
There is nothing in this world that I love or at least nothing I allow myself to love. I just want to go home. I just want to be deleted.
On Sept. 22, 2010, just days after starting classes at Rutgers University, Tyler jumped from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate used a webcam to spy on him during a romantic encounter with another man and then invited others on social media to watch. The 18-year-old’s death drew global attention and spurred a series of policy changes, laws and educational efforts to tackle bullying and help at-risk youth.
A decade later, the writings shed new light on his struggles with sexual orientation and the feelings of isolation and despair. For Jane Clementi, the words were devastating, but they also gave power to her purpose – ensuring that others do not endure what Tyler endured.
“We want youth who are struggling in an unsupportive environment, maybe in their faith community or maybe even at home, to know there is a whole loving community out there that loves them just the way they are,” Clementi, 62, said in a recent interview at a Ridgewood park where she used to bike with her sons.
Today, she leads anti-bullying efforts around the nation as founder and CEO of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, focused in part on fostering more acceptance in faith communities including the Evangelical church that Clementi and Tyler called home.
“If it helps just one person, it’s worth it,” she said.
A ‘deep fog,’ then action
Tyler’s death, and the harrowing circumstances around it, drew intense scrutiny. Media camped outside the family’s Ridgewood home, while neighbors and friends visited to offer support. For Clementi, the whole aftermath felt like a “deep fog.”
“I couldn’t even hear people talking to me,” she said. “I could hear maybe every 10th word or so. It was a really difficult time I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”
Her husband, Joe, suggested they use the media attention that Tyler’s case had generated and channel it into good. In 2011, they launched his namesake foundation to fight bullying in classrooms, workplaces and faith communities.
“The only thing I could do was say ‘yes’ and move forward,” Clementi said.
For Clementi, a private person who was still in mourning, it was uncomfortable speaking before cameras at first. But the foundation’s work, and her faith, helped her to survive the loss of her son, she said.
The mission gave her a reason “to get up in the morning, which when you are very depressed is very important,” Clementi said.
The foundation runs the Day 1 campaign, a bullying prevention program that encourages leaders in school, sports or work to pledge with others not to bully and to clearly state behavioral expectations and responsibilities for the community.
Through the Million Upstander Movement, the foundation also teaches people to take action when they see bullying. It’s inspired by Tyler’s story, said Clementi, noting that other students knew that he was being mistreated online but failed to act or reach out to him.
Tyler Clementi was barely a month into his college career when his life was derailed. A skilled violinist, he was one of just two freshmen at the university chosen for an orchestra with upperclassmen and graduate students. Friends and family called him bright, creative and determined.
He had come out as gay to his family and friends shortly before he moved into his dorm in New Brunswick. But just days before the suicide, his roommate used a webcam to spy on his romantic encounter in the dorm room. The roommate, Dharun Ravi, posted to Twitter about it and encouraged followers two days later to view a second encounter.
‘Every breath hurts’
The writings his mother finally found the courage to read this year suggested a pain that had built up long before that betrayal.
“Every breath hurts, I wish my breath would stop,” her son wrote. “God meet me half way and take me to you. I cannot serve you here. I am of no use to you here… the tomorrow here is so long, I cannot make it to the end…. Give me an escape… Set me free.”
Ravi was found guilty in 2012 of bias intimidation and other charges. He was sentenced to 30 days but released on good behavior after serving 20.
A New Jersey appeals court overturned the convictions in 2016, after the hate-crimes law under which Ravi was convicted was ruled unconstitutional in an unrelated case. He later pleaded guilty to attempted invasion of privacy and was sentenced to time served, ending the case.
Ravi had viewed the webcam in the room of student Molly Wei, who admitted that she had seen the video stream and briefly accessed the images a second time to show her friends and roommate. Wei was also charged but reached a plea agreement and was not prosecuted.
Today, Clementi also focuses on changing behaviors and attitudes within faith communities. She believes the denunciations of gay life that Tyler heard in their Evangelical community contributed to his pain.
The foundation’s most recent effort involves an educational and letter-writing campaign calling on Southern Baptist leaders to end teachings and traditions that she says perpetrate bias and discrimination against the LGBTQ community.
“No one should ever feel as unworthy as Tyler felt, as he hid how sad and lonely he felt,” Clementi wrote in one of those letters. “He was working so hard to hide who he loved from those that loved him the most, his family…. his mom…. me.”
“Look long and hard and try to see their pain,” she implored the church. “I assure you, it is oftentimes very difficult to see. I know I missed it within my own son and for that I will forever be grieved. But you have the opportunity here and now to heed the cries of those before you.”
Progress and setbacks
Months after Tyler’s death, Gov. Chris Christie signed an anti-bullying law with bipartisan support in the state Legislature that is considered the toughest in the country. It requires school districts to train staff to spot bullying and mandated school safety teams to review complaints. Schools also must track and report bullying incidents to the state.
The bill had already been in the works but gained momentum after Tyler’s’ suicide.
“The tragic death of Tyler and especially the way in which he died galvanized the LGBTQ community,” said Stuart Green, director of the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention. It “spurred and focused and empowered advocates in the LGBTQ community and in general to do more.”
Last year, New Jersey also signed a new law requiring schools to teach about the history and contributions of the LGBT community.
But problems persist. Twenty-three percent of gay and lesbian children reported that they had attempted suicide last year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Nearly a third of gay and lesbian kids have been bullied at their schools, according to the report.
Anti-bullying leaders say the fight has gotten harder in an era when President Donald Trump often turns to bullying and name-calling from the White House and on Twitter.
In that environment, the Clementis have been essential, said Christian Fuscarino, executive director of Garden State Equality, an LGBTQ advocacy group.
“We are really fortunate to have an ally like Jane Clementi in the state and ensuring that young people never have to go through what Tyler went through,” he said. “Unfortunately, bullying is still very present in our society.”
One last Christmas
Clementi moved to Harrison in February. Before she left, her family celebrated Christmas in the Ridgewood home, decorating for the first time since Tyler’s death. It was his favorite holiday. He loved to shop for presents and decorate, his mother recalled.
It’s still not easy to get through some days, she said. Holidays, Tyler’s birthday – he would have been 29 on Dec. 19 – and the anniversary of his death are painful.
“This is a difficult week,” Clementi said at the Ridgewood park last week. The anniversary week, she expected, would be “unbearable.
“I do still feel like a mother’s primary job is to protect her children and obviously Tyler felt unprotected and wasn’t protected because he’s not here today.”
After the death, Clementi said she had to act, noting that her oldest son, 35-year-old James, is also gay. “I couldn’t have another son harmed by the world,” she said. “I had to figure it out.”
James returned to school and earned a master’s degree in mental health counseling after his brother’s death. He works for the foundation and in a blog post this month, he reflected on his brother’s death.
“I remember Tyler as a kindhearted, loving and joyful young man, but I know there was a deep reservoir of pain that he hid from me,” he wrote.
He urged people to replace judgment with empathy and compassion for one another, calling suicide “completely preventable.”
“As someone who once stood in his shoes as a young man, I know there was so much joy and love waiting for him to experience in life, and it breaks my heart to realize that Tyler will never get to experience the life he was destined for,” he wrote.
Jane Clementi said she was still processing what her son had written in his notes. She was struck, she said, discovering a side of him she never knew.
“He was sad,” she said. “He felt lonely. He felt he couldn’t be himself and that grieves me greatly. We were in two very different places. And I didn’t know, maybe, how to support him at the time.
“He was a whole part of me. It leaves you with a hole within.”
Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.