Letters to My Brother
When 18-year-old Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge in September 2010, he became an overnight symbol of the fight against cyber-bullying and homophobia. Here, his older brother reclaims his memory from the headlines and pays tribute to his abbreviated life.
Tyler (left) and James Clementi / Photo courtesy James Clementi
I ’m not sure when I first realized my younger brother was gay. I think I knew he was for as long as I knew I was. I had no idea how to bring it up; it was just something we left dangling in the air, unsaid. I was open about my sexuality with friends, but around my family there was this barrier that felt unbreakable. It slowly dawned on me that I wasn’t the only one, that I had a brother who was also gay — my baby brother, whom I had always felt protective and paternal toward. I knew I was in a position to be a confidant, a role model. But I wasn’t ready to do any of that. It would have made it much less lonely for me to grow up with an older brother who had gone through and understood everything I was dealing with — and I wanted to be that for Tyler. I didn’t start to come out to the people in my life until I was in my early twenties, so I always thought Tyler would follow the same timeline and we wouldn’t need to address the rainbow-colored elephant for a few more years. I was terrified to talk to him, accustomed to secrecy and scared I would make everything worse somehow.
The summer after Tyler graduated from high school we made plans to see Toy Story 3 together, and I looked up the schedule online. I walked into his room without knocking to ask what times would work for him, and there was that awkward moment where he realized that I was standing behind him. I realized my little brother was looking at gay porn. Caught off guard, I acted like I hadn’t seen it, and I think he was initially relieved. But from this moment, there was a growing anxiety, an urgent pull from inside myself that was compelling me to talk to him, and I knew it was time — probably way past time. I gave myself a day to stress out over the right words, the best place, the perfect time. And then I just did it.
It was the Fourth of July. We had spent the day at the movies, the diner, the fireworks. So many opportunities, and I kept chickening out. That night, I found him in the house listening to Katy Perry, and I saw that, if I couldn’t do this now, something was really wrong with me. I overthought it — because it ended up being this simple.
Me: “I’m gay.” Tyler: “Oh. Me too.”
It was great because we had always known, but now we could talk about it. I saw so much relief and genuine happiness in his face. It felt like the beginning. We talked for hours about sex, relationships, bars, fake IDs, homophobia, everything that had been off-limits before. I was really taken aback by how assured and poised he was, how much better he understood himself and his desires than I did at 18. It was startling, but it also fit with my sense of him as a young man, still figuring it out but grounded in his own worth and value.
Two months later, he left to start his first semester at Rutgers. I think he left excited to grow up, to live life. I was looking forward to the days ahead and the years of brotherhood still to come.
You were one noisy kid. I remember walking inside and the most beautiful sounds of Tchaikovsky and Mozart would waft through every room. And I hated it.
Remember how I used to bang on your door and scream at you to stop being so loud? It was so unfair that I had to listen to your noise all the time — why couldn’t you just pick up a quieter hobby!? I would refuse to attend your recitals and concerts because I had to listen to you play all the damn time at home. Wow, do I regret that.
It is so quiet now. You were really talented; it was a gift. I’m not sure I ever told you that… maybe you didn’t care. It’s not like you needed my validation; I know nothing about classical music and you knew you were the shit when it came to that damn violin. I just feel really bad for not telling you how awesome you are, how much I respect your skills and dedication. I regret not listening to every note with open ears, not going to more concerts. Fuck you for making me feel bad; it’s not fair that you did that to me. But I would tell you now if I could, I really miss the noise!
So the other day I was at Barnes & Noble, trying to find a book to read since I have a lot of free time now that I can’t sleep, can’t hold a job, don’t want to be around friends or family, and pretty much need to escape my life. Anyway, I was browsing at the newsstand and I saw you. I always do. This time you were staring back at me from the cover of People. I keep thinking that I’ll look up and see you for real, the way you should be, but it’s always more reminders of the way you are. I’m sure the other customers found my anxiety attack entertaining. How am I supposed to respond to seeing you on People, though? It’s a lot to digest, you being a celebrity and all. I always knew you would make it big; I just thought you’d be around to enjoy it.
I wonder what you would think, seeing all the commotion you’ve caused. It is surreal and meaningless to see you as a mere story on The New York Times, a brief glimpse at a life with none of the detail. You were a typical college freshman, trying to adjust to a dorm room, make some friends, meet a cute guy, and enjoy your independence, and no one noticed. The headlines tell of how you were violated and ridiculed; your last moments are a cautionary tale, a scandal, something to sell and entertain.
You are on every talk show, newspaper, and blog, being held up as the issue du jour for the masses to “care about,” like they ever read you a story or wiped away your tears or spun you around in the air until you were dizzy. I wish it didn’t take you dying for your soul to know peace. I wish you could read the hundreds of letters we got, hear the thousands who rallied and marched for you, know the millions who followed your story on the 6 o’clock news. You were never alone; it just felt like it.
When you were here with me, you had no idea how important you were, and it took your death to make that point. Now you are gone. How will you know how much I love you, how much we all do? It’s not like you can read your big cover story. It’s not as though you can hear me crying.
I always thought that, between you and I, you were the stronger one. That’s why, as protective as I felt toward you, I never worried that much. I saw the best parts of myself in you. Of course, we looked like twins, albeit six years and a foot and a half apart. But — let’s face it — you were better. Where I dabbled (pretty pitifully) in painting, you devoted hours of every day to the violin since you were eight, then picked up the piano, and even taught yourself the freaking harmonica. Never one to be outdone, when I was biking a mile, you were unicycling two. Where I was shy, you were fearless. When I tiptoed out of the closet at 22, you were out and proud at 18.
I remember asking if you had a boyfriend, or if you wanted one, and you scoffed at me. “I just want to hook up.” That’s what you said — and that’s fine — but I think maybe you didn’t see how much more you deserved.
Sometimes I wonder who that guy was, the one in your dorm room. He doesn’t matter. You were so young, and there were going to be others. But in that moment, what did it mean for you? Were you bored, scared, over it, into it, what? Everyone knows their first, but who ever thinks of their last? I’m sure you didn’t even realize that it was the final time you’d be close to someone. He shouldn’t matter, but being the last gives him a strange importance. Did he make you happy?
You had a lot of growing up to do and a lot of baggage to work through before you could really feel comfortable with who you were. You’d roll your eyes at me and dismiss it with one of your “whatevers,” but it’s true. Libidos aside, when you told me you were only looking for hook-ups, I totally didn’t believe you. Sure, sex is amazing, but love is the best part. It was there within your grasp.
I guess I never really told you how much I admire you, how much I wish I was more like you. We came from the same gene pool, the same family, the same town, the same schools, the same church, everything the same. But I always saw a confidence and strength in you that I didn’t
recognize in myself. Where did you get that? When I thought about where I was going to be in five or 10 years, I could never picture it — my mind would be blank. But when I imagined your future, I saw the world at your feet. You were supposed to show me up, do it better than I could. I wanted that for you. I saw amazing professional accomplishments for you, but also personal ones. I know now that you felt so alone, but Jesus Christ — you are so, so easy to love, with your kind eyes and gentle heart. I know so many people you had yet to meet that would one day love you almost as much as I do. Even after what you did, I cannot see you as a sad or depressed or lonely kid. To me, you will always be my sweet, tender little brother.
I’ve heard the story so many times: how you did it, the night you jumped. The first time, and every time I’ve been told about it, read it in a paper, heard it on TV, or dreamt about it at night, it still confuses me. I know you and I know that is not who you are. And that is never how I will think of you, alone and cold and at the end.
You are youth, potential just beginning to unfold. You are blood, my connection to the past, and my hope for the future. You are beauty, fleeting and marvelous. I know there was pain, and I’m sorry for that, but you were joy, too. Your voice, your smile, tiny hands clinging to mine. I will never let go.