Teddy stood before the eleventh-story window. Other than figuring out how to fold his large body through its small opening, what was he thinking? A family friend would later say he was “probably trying to measure the speed of the wind or the angle of the shadows,” as if the whole thing were just an experiment gone awry. People naturally defaulted to explanations from physics because Teddy was a physics prodigy, having taught himself the subject from a college textbook in eighth grade. In math, too, he was the one who could always find the quickest solution to a problem. But what was the problem he was trying to solve by jumping?
When 17-year-old Teddy Graubard landed on the sidewalk in front of the Dalton School at around eleven o’clock on a cloudy, cold February morning last year, just as fourth-graders were emerging for “playstreet” on the closed-off block of East 89th Street between Lexington and Park, no one could understand what had propelled him to commit such a terrible act. In the following days, after the ambulances and crime-scene tape and TV cameras and emergency psychologists were gone, the question hovered. Fifteen months later, most people in the Dalton community still don’t know what happened. How did a generally happy and inarguably brilliant eleventh-grader, who would likely have achieved honors at next week’s graduation had he lived, come to believe his world was over? Was it something within him a parent could have predicted? Was it something beyond him a school should have prevented? Or was it just a terrible glitch, like an aneurysm that goes unnoticed until it bursts? Certainly his mother, Carla Graubard, was frantic, amid her grief that day, to find out. And eventually she got some answers. But at the time she had none, and the people who did were not yet telling.
People who knew nothing, though, were quick to weigh in. In conversation, in the comments sections of media websites, and on Facebook groups both hagiographic and nasty (one, now deleted, was called something along the lines of “If You Were So Smart, Why Did You Jump?”), they speculated. His billionaire father had lost all his money in the stock market, someone said. He had applied to Harvard and not gotten in. He was on drugs or, because he was a fierce three-season athlete, on steroids. He was tortured by a secret gay life. Absent any hard information, the circular logic with which bystanders comfort themselves in such situations took hold: He jumped because he was disturbed, and the proof of his being disturbed was that he jumped. Suicide experts quickly asserted that mental illness was probably involved, even if it was undiagnosed, and the Post obliged with a quote from an unnamed student saying Teddy was depressed: “People were talking about him having a breakdown last week.”
But more frightening than any of that being true was the likelihood that none of it was.
Teddy was unusual, Teddy was intense, Teddy was spontaneous with both affection and self-reproach. (He gave bone-crushing hugs to almost anyone, and banged tables so hard when frustrated that classmates flinched.) But when Carla last spent time with him, when he came into her bedroom at 11:30 the night before, wanting to talk and expound his theories on the limits of artificial intelligence, he was the same excited-by-life boy—actually now a muscly six-foot-one, 220-pound man—as ever. He had recently been accepted to a summer internship in value investing at Columbia Business School, was hoping to fit in a three-day “throws” camp (javelin, discus, shot put) in July, and had just persuaded Carla to let him order new track shoes online.
She did not yet know of the foolish plan he would hatch over the next few hours, and how it would lead step by step, through narrower and narrower hallways of thought, to the eleventh-floor window that was just wide enough.
“I was happy,” Carla says of the time before she was a mother. One of only two women to graduate from the Wharton college class of 1971, she was, in her own words, “very aggressive and very successful and very career-oriented.” She steadily advanced through a series of media jobs, from a trainee at a start-up to general manager of Newsweek to president of a five-magazine outfit in Texas.
It was a good life, but she wanted a family and, as with everything else she wanted, set out deliberately to explore the possibilities. A surmountable problem was that she was almost 40 and had yet to find a man she wanted to marry. Her mother suggested that perhaps she intimidated prospects with her outspoken ways, and her friend Ava Seave, with whom she eventually helped start a media consultancy, agreed.
“You have to understand who we women are,” says Seave, referring to her colleagues in the consultancy. “We’re really efficient. We kick ass and take names. We’re not ‘nice.’ It’s not easy for this sort of woman. Carla was set up with a guy; his report after one date was that she wasn’t supportive enough. On a first date! What did that guy need: his napkin tucked in? We are not those people.”
And so, with the happiest memories of her own childhood in suburban New Jersey, Carla decided to go it alone. She quit smoking, moved back to New York, turned down high-prestige, full-time jobs in favor of consulting work that would give her more flexibility. She visited a shrink “to be sure I was going to do this for the right reasons, not because I was lonely or as a substitute for a boyfriend or to have a pet.” She concluded that her motives were in order and that she was ready. “I tested it and found I could earn a living and support a family. I had enough savings so I could hire a nanny. I didn’t want to be a frazzled mom who had no life. I wanted being a mother to be the biggest thing in my life, but not the only thing.”
The doctor who performed the in vitro fertilization had picked what he thought would be a good match from his roster of anonymous donors, all of whom were married medical interns with children. After a first attempt that miscarried, Carla got pregnant on Valentine’s Day 1991. She was 42. Nine months of unremitting nausea followed, complicated by an unusual form of arthritis that had plagued her since college and fused part of her spine. But when Teddy was born that November, the nausea disappeared, and with it whatever doubts that may have lingered. “Without overdramatizing, I feel I was reborn the day Teddy was born,” Carla says. “I found who I was the day I became a mother.”
At the Graubard apartment, a few blocks from Dalton, thousands of photographs, school art projects, athletic honors, and vacation souvenirs cover every surface. If there was ever any tendency toward spareness here, it has been overwhelmed by an aggressive demonstration of family love. Even Carla’s office, once situated in a back bedroom, had to give way. After she adopted another son, Clay, in 1996, she turned that space over to him. Her professional life is now corralled within the confines of a small desk in the living room.
Not that her professional life is booming. For the first few months after Teddy died she could not work at all. Then, when she felt she had to try, if only to provide normalcy for Clay, she found that the economy refused to cooperate. Where once she was well remunerated to advise Hearst and Reader’s Digest on the development of brand strategies, and to organize digital marketing initiatives for clients like Condé Nast, now she is living off savings. And the savings, while adequate, aren’t what they were; her father, a Bear Stearns broker, left her a major inheritance of the company’s stock, which turned to dust in 2008.
The energy and attention she formerly trained on clients’ publishing dilemmas and on supporting her kids’ every endeavor are now lavished on the possibly unending project of understanding what happened to Teddy. During the course of a long conversation recently—which she agreed to on the condition that the topic be confined to “Teddy’s life and the life of the Graubard family”—Carla, now 61, frequently illustrated her comments with documents drawn from neatly organized piles and portfolios: fulsome report cards, grade-school essays, a compilation of eulogies offered in Teddy’s memory.
Discussing the wonders of young Teddy seemed momentarily to lift Carla’s spirits. A calm and happy baby, he walked at 9 months. His unusual intelligence was also evident early. He would ask peculiar, probing questions (“How does the sound of a voice travel?”) and not accept answers without working them through for himself (“I found what infinity times three is! And it’s not three!”). For the much-loved boy, math and metaphysics had not yet diverged, and when he insisted that you could “avoid the rain” by how you paced your steps, the joy of discovery must have seemed almost like poetry.
But as he grew, as his blond floss turned to brown wool and he shot up in height, his thinking became more concrete. Math was easy; poetry was hard. When family friends ran into the Graubards getting burgers at Sassy’s Sliders on 86th Street, they’d find Teddy furiously flipping through pages of massive textbooks. Drew Heuman-Gutman, a preschool classmate who stayed close after they moved on to different schools, was sometimes baffled by his riddles and arcane interests. “He stayed up late reading almanacs,” he says. If there were signs of anything odder than that, Carla missed them. “Maybe sometimes he didn’t know the names of everyone in his class,” she recalls. “And his handwriting was the worst I’ve ever seen.” But when your son teaches himself the theory of relativity by the time he is 12, you mostly want to celebrate your luck.
It was Teddy who diagnosed something if not unlucky then different about himself. In seventh-grade biology, he was studying Gardner’s seven types of intelligence. Around the same time, in English, he was reading Flowers for Algernon. Something clicked, and one day, when Carla came home, he asked if she thought he was autistic.
“No! What are you talking about?”
“Well, I’ve been doing some reading … ”
Tests soon confirmed that Teddy had a mild form of Asperger’s syndrome, which is itself a form of high-functioning autism. Typified by social and often physical awkwardness, by narrow interests and rigid thinking, Asperger’s, especially a mild case, can look rather like ordinary male adolescence. Indeed, Teddy’s executive-functioning scores were perfectly average—but so much lower than his intellectual-ability scores that the gap implied a deficit. Suddenly, his social awkwardness and his intense focus on specific interests began to make sense, and it did not require speculation about the anonymous sperm donor to posit a genetic source. Carla wondered if she herself had a touch of the syndrome—“I certainly have social issues, too,” she says—and is all but sure about her father, who was a brilliant businessman but “very blunt.” In a high-achieving family (Carla’s sister, Cinda, is an exploration geologist), it can be difficult to say; for all its limitations, Asperger’s often brings with it uncommon gifts.
Teddy seemed to accept that mixed message. In an English paper he wrote three months before his death, he shrugged off the downside of being evaluated (“I hate uncertainty”) but relished the upside (proof of his super-high IQ). He seemed less interested in the resultant recommendations than in the process of discovery itself. “Yes, it may be strange that I take so much pleasure in testing,” he wrote. “I strive for achievement, and I’m not convinced such passion is a bad thing, even if I do get overzealous at times.”
Overzealous and yet also otherworldly. With his intolerance for ambiguity, Teddy was black and white, rarely gray: “Awkward or lovely,” his best Dalton friend, Andrew Beaton, says, “depending on your perspective.” He constructed precise, “architectural” four-decker sandwiches but left filthy socks (which smelled, a cousin said, like kimchee) on his pillow. Flashes of rage subsided in quick, heartfelt apologies. Sometimes he’d cut people off or cluelessly dominate a conversation; yet “despite the Asperger’s he was the friendliest person to me in a new school,” Beaton says. During a discussion last winter about middle initials, when asked about the meaning of R (as in “Theodore R. Graubard”), Teddy replied that “R equals .0821 liters times atmospheres divided by moles times Kelvin”—the ideal-gas constant. He didn’t get that the context demanded an answer like “Robert.”
But everyone was used to this; for years Heuman-Gutman had no idea Teddy even had Asperger’s, only that he sometimes laughed at “not necessarily appropriate moments.” His friends innately understood how his peculiarities were tied to his best qualities. Was his focus a little intense? Well, that meant he would also dedicate himself to helping anyone who asked, even delivering homework to distant apartments. (He once picked up an exhausted teammate and carried him around the track for two laps.) Were his boundaries vague and permeable? Well, that meant he could express his affection not only to friends but also to mere acquaintances in the halls. Was his sense of frustration fierce and sometimes all-encompassing? So was his loyalty.
To be sure, he could be a growly, secretive, get-off-my-back kind of teenager with his mother; but when strangers later suggested that Teddy was unhappy at home, harboring resentment about his fatherless family, people who knew him just laughed. (Carla says that while Teddy occasionally expressed curiosity about his biological father, the impossibility of learning anything was “totally not something that bothered him.”) Their difficulties were more ordinary: She didn’t give him enough “space”; he spent too long in the shower. Carla accepted as normal that Teddy loved but didn’t always like her, while he loved and liked Clay without reservation. When Clay, a student at Dalton himself, would say that he could never be as smart as his brother, Teddy would tell him to cherish the great gift he had of knowing how to read people and sensing what they want.
Perhaps the most double-edged of Teddy’s binary qualities was his sense of honor, of living by the rules: Even in a world of “cutthroat Dalton private-school things,” Beaton says, “he was not the type of kid who would let someone say something bad about a friend in front of him.” Another friend recalled how with a shake of his finger he would chide classmates for texting in class. “Teddy’s moral code was incredibly strict,” says Stephen Puschel, who, with his brother Andrew, tutored Teddy, tag-team style, four days a week. “He took honesty and integrity more seriously than almost anyone I ever met.”
Mostly the diagnosis spurred Teddy to conquer the now-apparent symptoms. After all, he transformed himself from the awkward athlete he had been as a child to the formidable opponent he became in adolescence through willpower and a savvy focus on those sports—wrestling, football, track and field—that took advantage of his brute strength rather than his iffy coordination. He would do the same with Asperger’s: “wrestle his problems to the ground with logic,” Andrew Puschel says. If he didn’t know what to discuss with girls on a date, he’d ask his mother for ideas. If he had trouble organizing himself for a writing assignment, he would follow his tutors’ advice and try breathing for a moment before speaking his thoughts aloud. And though he declined to renew his membership in a social-skills group for teens with Asperger’s despite Ava Seave’s bribe of $100 per session, he took his medications—a standard regimen of low-dose risperidone and citalopram—diligently. Traces of the latter were found in his blood when he died.
Despite or perhaps because of its reputation as a high-pressure, achieve-or-else institution, Dalton embraced and supported Teddy. He may have had issues but he was some sort of genius, certainly headed for a prestigious college. (He maintained an A/A- average; his PSAT scores were nearly perfect.) Teachers loved him, even when he corrected them. “Dalton truly lived up to its promise and my expectations,” Carla says. “They molded the school experience to Teddy’s needs, and they gave him a chance to follow his passions.” Doing so often meant finessing difficulties associated with his condition by creating independent studies and skewing the curriculum toward his strengths. As recommended when he received his diagnosis, Dalton gave him extra time and a laptop computer to use on tests in some subjects. That these accommodations eventually became, in a way, accomplices cannot be blamed on the school.
It was Teddy who made the typical, paltry teenager’s mistake that led to disaster. On February 17, he found himself unprepared for a Latin test the next day. Partly this was because of his usual procrastination. And partly it was because he had been sick the previous week with a bug bad enough to keep him home longer than he’d ever been absent before. By the long Presidents’ Day weekend, he was feeling better; on Monday, he and Stephen Puschel had gone on a college visit to Columbia. But now it was Tuesday night, and Cicero loomed.
What Teddy didn’t know while taking the test is that the school’s technology department was monitoring his laptop remotely.
E-mails and texts to friends show that he was awake most of that night, catching up not only on the Latin but on the other subjects he’d missed as well. It must have been during these exhausted hours that he devised his plan. At any rate, when his alarm rang (or when it shook his bed—an alarm for the hearing-impaired was the only one strong enough to wake him), he proceeded to school and immediately checked out the laptop he was permitted to use on exams. This was unusual; even though the Latin exam would begin early for him, almost two hours remained before it started.
The teacher would later explain that translating Cicero’s complex language was not a matter of the straightforward application of memorized vocabulary and grammar rules, but required a degree of inference that would certainly prove difficult for anyone—especially Teddy—who wasn’t in class when the material had been taught. Teddy was good at Latin but smart enough to know that he might well fail. And so, worn out and apparently unable to imagine other options, he cheated by accessing files he must have loaded onto the laptop earlier that morning.
What he did not know is that the teacher, suspecting something, had asked members of the technology department to monitor Teddy’s laptop remotely. They watched as he cut and pasted elements of the translation. They informed the teacher, who allowed Teddy to finish. Only when Teddy was ready to print the test did the teacher indicate that something was amiss: Unusually, he asked Teddy to turn in the laptop. It was about 10:30 a.m.
The other students, who started the test after Teddy, continued to work. Some saw him become agitated, leaving and then barging back into the room repeatedly, wanting to talk to the teacher. The teacher suggested they meet later in the day, but Teddy begged to talk sooner and the teacher agreed to do so at the end of class. The content of that conversation, which began around 10:55, will never fully be known. Certainly Teddy learned that several people, including administrators, had witnessed his cheating. The teacher concluded by telling Teddy that this might be a tough couple of weeks but they would get through it together.
Teddy left the room, had a brief exchange with an acquaintance in the cafeteria (“What’s up?” “I’m hungry”), and then headed upstairs. In the eleventh-floor dance studio, where he had often practiced the hip-hop moves that made him a hit at bar mitzvahs during seventh grade, he chatted with a dance teacher, who then went into her office, thinking nothing was wrong. Teddy put down his jacket and backpack. He must have climbed atop a radiator and used the stacked ballet bars above it as a kind of ladder. (One broke.) A safety device prevented the bottom sash of the window from opening more than a few inches, but the top sash lowered all the way.
It was eleven o’clock, no more than five minutes since the idea, if you can call it an idea, took shape. Still, that was five minutes in which anything might have broken the chain. The teacher might have mentioned how minor the punishment for a “first offense” of cheating was: an F on the test and a one-year removal from leadership positions in extracurricular activities. Someone might have escorted Teddy to a staff member’s office, as is protocol at some other schools, instead of leaving him to stew on his own. A friend might have recognized his distress and told him, as his tutors often did, to breathe.
To say these were all possible is not to say anyone is to blame. Teddy’s—and the school’s—success at integrating his Asperger’s symptoms would have made it hard to see how disordered his thoughts had become. The blow to his reputation must have seemed, in the moment, insuperable. All those lectures he’d given Clay about honesty and integrity, Clay who adored and admired him—was he a hypocrite? All the ways he’d made himself into a model scholar-athlete, his “disability” be damned; all his college hopes: Had he, in one bout with Cicero, ruined everything forever?
Neighbors on East 89th heard a thud. Kids taking a math test heard a huge boom, like a truck backfiring, and people screaming. The fourth-graders at recess were quickly shepherded inside. Though no one at first seemed to know who it was that had landed, slumped in a seated position, on the sidewalk, word that something terrible had happened spread quickly—even, by text, to other schools. Dalton went into a kind of shock mode. Some kids sat on the floor crying. Others, on instruction from administrators, taped newspapers over the windows. They tried not to look at the view they were obscuring.
How someone from Dalton called to say there had been an accident and Carla should come right away; how she was then allowed to happen upon the tarp-covered body alone; how she had to ask, “Is that Teddy?” and “Is he dead?”—these are things she won’t talk about. Nor will Dalton, whose administrators, citing privacy concerns, declined to comment beyond saying that “the Dalton community continues to honor the memory of Teddy Graubard.” (Last week, the athletic department paid tribute to him at the annual sports-awards dinner.)
To be fair, school officials were dealing with a traumatic and unprecedented emergency involving a boy they, too, loved. But Ava Seave, who arrived a few minutes later to find Carla wailing in grief, still cannot believe how “tone-deaf” the school’s response was. Though someone at Dalton familiar with the events says her recollection isn’t correct, Seave insists that she and Carla were sent, unescorted, past Teddy’s body, blood everywhere, a foot sticking out from the tarp, with a sock but no shoe—“Can’t someone cover his foot!” Carla screamed—past the television cameras and police barriers, to walk the two blocks to the gym to tell Clay what had happened.
Because he had been taken from gym class, Clay thought at first that he was in trouble. “What did I do?” he cried when he saw his mother. When told he had done nothing, he wondered if she had come to tell him that she was terribly sick. The real news was delivered behind a closed office door, through which Seave heard only the boy’s sobs and screams.
A 12-year-old processes tragedy in small packets, and perhaps it’s best that way. At one point Clay protested that Teddy had promised to teach him Java that weekend, as if this meant he couldn’t really be dead. At another, as Seave settled him into a cab to take him to her apartment that afternoon, he asked if they might drive by the television cameras. Seave explained that, quite the opposite, he had to avoid all media that might come after him. When he asked what to do if someone “tried to interview” him, Seave told him to say, “Fuck you, you asshole!”
“Really? I can say that?” he asked, delightedly.
Though there was no intermittency for Carla, she had to make arrangements: medical examiner, undertaker, funeral, burial. When she arrived home, with friends and, later, her rabbis from Rodeph Sholom there to help her, a package was waiting as well: the track shoes Teddy had ordered not two days earlier.
Mourning rituals, when they work, function like emotional retirement accounts: putting off the worst of grief, the long slog of hopeless yearning, until it can be better borne. But how could this grief ever be borne? Still, the funeral was, in a way, the best of it: Thousands turned out at the synagogue—the block had to be closed off—and Teddy’s wrestling and football teammates formed a kind of honor guard as the plain pine coffin passed. Clay somehow managed to make a speech (“This is why it is so hard to say good-bye, is because I was the person closest to him”) and then at the cemetery lightened the mood with his earnestness. (He kept shoveling dirt onto the grave, getting more and more tired, until someone informed him that the shoveling was only symbolic.) The hours of shivah passed in a blur, Clay wearing one of Teddy’s huge football jerseys, with those multitasking Dalton mothers BlackBerrying all the arrangements. City Harvest had to pick up the leftovers night after night.
But when the rituals subsided, Carla was left with a mystery that made her grief even worse. The medical examiner, whose report I obtained, found no alcohol, steroids, or illegal drugs in Teddy’s blood. The psychopharmacologist who treated Teddy asserted that he was not and had never been diagnosed with depression. (Citalopram, though marketed for depression, had been prescribed off-label, as is common with Asperger’s, for obsessive-compulsive-like behaviors.) Was it even a suicide? An Asperger’s specialist the family consulted could suggest no known link between the syndrome and Teddy’s death, unless perhaps a recent traumatic event had triggered the “I see no way out” ideation that is typical in Asperger’s kids. But no one outside of Dalton yet knew what such an event might be.
It took more than a week for administrators to share what they must have learned quite quickly about Teddy’s unprecedented cheating. Granted, as Ava Seave says, “they’re not C.S.I., and putting together a story of what happened in something like this is not a trivial skill.” But it’s hard not to connect the delay to what appeared to be a general policy of extreme caution and controlling information—or, as a Dalton parent put it, “running for cover.”
One person’s running for cover is another’s due diligence. In any case, the school hired NYU’s Child Study Center to help the community deal with the tragedy. (The founder of the center is a former Dalton parent whose wife teaches art in the middle school.) After talking to worried administrators and teachers, Anthony Charuvastra, a psychiatrist at the center’s Institute for Trauma and Resilience, told the student-run Daltonian newspaper that the healing process could be compared to recuperation from a heart attack: “no strenuous exercise for several months, while the remaining heart muscle recovers.” Charuvastra, who, for reasons of confidentiality, declined to comment for this article, therefore recommended the removal of suicide-related literature from the curriculum, though not, as rumor had it, from the library—and in fact Dalton teachers stopped assigning such works as Hedda Gabler, Death of a Salesman, Anna Karenina, The Sound and the Fury, and Mrs. Dalloway. “Beautiful stories that depict suicide are associated with higher risk of emulation in young people,” he told the Daltonian.
The fear of contagion is a genuine concern, as “cluster” or “copycat” suicides at Cornell and NYU demonstrate. But guidelines offered by suicide experts do not always agree on how to balance that fear with the need for traumatized teenagers (and others in a community) to express their feelings together. Joanne L. Harpel, the director of survivor initiatives at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, believes that treating suicide differently from other deaths, for instance by not acknowledging to schoolmates what happened, is a mistake. “What you don’t want to do is reinforce the stigma, which can be deeply painful to the student’s family and friends,” she says. “At the same time, because adolescents are especially at risk of suicide contagion, you also want to be careful not to romanticize or glamorize the death.”
No one could accuse Dalton of having done the latter. A front-page article entitled “Teddy Graubard: Lasting Memories” in the March 12, 2009, issue of the Daltonian goes to great lengths to avoid the word “suicide.” Instead of a photo of Teddy, it is accompanied by a shot of the 1,000 origami cranes that students and faculty folded as “a means of remembrance.” While preparing a subsequent issue, editors were told by the school that a letter from Ava Seave, in which she gently questioned the removal of the literature, could not be published because it came from someone outside the Dalton community. And though psychologists were made available in the weeks after the trauma, kids I spoke to (all of whom insisted on anonymity out of fear of some kind of reprisal) said that talking about their grief to strangers—and doing so in private—was not what they wanted.
Even a year later, on the anniversary this February, the school infuriated some students and parents by seeming to squelch any meaningful group observance. Flowers brought by several friends were removed from the high-school lounge and relocated near administration offices, presumably to prevent emotion from spilling over unobserved. In an introduction to a moment of silence during ten-o’clock announcements, the speaker did not mention Teddy’s name. After students complained about what they perceived to be these “boneheaded” insults to Teddy’s memory, as well as to their grief, the administration pointed out in an e-mail that it had to take into consideration not just those who wished to mourn but those who might have different needs that day.
Doubtless Dalton, whose motto is “Go Forth Unafraid,” was following “best practice” advice—both psychological and legal. But while plenty of Dalton families found the response impeccable, that’s exactly what upset others. One parent said it would have been better to act with less advice and more heart. Taken cumulatively, this parent added, Dalton’s actions gave the appearance of protecting its reputation, not its students.
For elite private schools, the two things may not be very different. When media attention quickly focused on the famous pressures of a Dalton education, as if to suggest they played a role in Teddy’s death, it would therefore have been counterproductive to respond, even though it was true, that such pressures had not caused other students to kill themselves. Having a fight in the tabloids over Teddy was not going to help anyone. Nor would a trial. Perhaps that’s why Susan Karten, a personal-injury litigator who represented Carla in her dealings with Dalton, found the school immediately willing to sit down. “Everyone was in the frame of doing the right thing,” she says. “But the right thing for Carla and for public consumption might be different.”
Given the facts, it’s entirely unclear that Karten could have won a liability case; given New York’s peculiar wrongful-death statutes, it’s doubtful she could have produced a significant award even if she prevailed. Dalton apparently preferred not to find out. A Surrogate’s Court decree dated November 9, 2009, approves a deal whereby the school agrees to pay Carla $200,000 and Carla agrees to “discharge and release” Dalton “from any and all claims” she might have asserted. Though I found the document in the court’s public records, no one would discuss it—or any other settlement, public or private, that might have been made. When I asked Karten about it, she said, “What settlement?”
Either way, a settlement does not imply a resolution. So Carla did what she always does in addressing a problem: research. Books on depression, on causes of suicide—“You name it, I read it,” she says. “To the point where I could write them myself. I wasn’t learning anything new.” It was not until months later, when her thousandth Google search brought up a Times article called “The Urge to End It All,” that anything gave her “a window into what might have happened.”
What might have happened was a so-called impulsive suicide, which accounts for perhaps 10 percent of suicides. As the article, by Scott Anderson, pointed out, impulsive suicides are seldom accompanied by the classic warning signs, such as prior attempts, diagnosed mental illness, or drug or alcohol abuse. The act is sudden, unrehearsed—and is thus especially common among young people, who are naturally impulsive to begin with. Among 153 young survivors of nearly fatal suicide attempts interviewed in a 2001 University of Houston study, “70 percent set the interval between deciding to kill themselves and acting at less than an hour,” Anderson reported, “including an astonishing 24 percent who pegged the interval at less than five minutes.”
Carla immediately latched onto this as the missing explanation. It was preferable to think that Teddy belonged to a group of people who, as one psychiatrist put it, did not truly want to die but sought a physical solution to a temporary spiritual agony. Though this would not bring Teddy back, it mattered to Carla. “Because I now understood,” she says. “Because I didn’t miss something. It doesn’t relieve the grief at all, but it helped relieve the guilt.”
As much comfort as it may provide survivors, the idea of impulsive suicide is controversial, and many professionals I spoke to responded with mixed feelings. Public-health types embrace the concept because it explains otherwise inexplicable phenomena, like why suicide rates go down substantially when even minor obstacles (such as guardrails) go up. To them, the data suggest not only a need but also an opportunity for prevention. Harvard professor David Hemenway, who directs the school’s Injury Control Research Center, told me that impulsive suicides are probably easier to prevent than the “regular” kind. “It’s not like someone who’s clinically depressed and doesn’t have a job,” he says. “This is a kid with a really good life, who just needs to get over this little hump, that’s all you have to do.”
But mental-health types, including many youth-suicide experts, prefer to de-emphasize the concept, insisting that almost no one kills himself without a history of mental-health issues. (“The way they define ‘mental-health issues,’ ” Hemenway snorts, “about a third of the U.S. population has one.”) To school psychologists, the alternative is too scary. They do not want to destabilize healthy or, especially, struggling kids with the idea that anyone might jump with no reason. “Keep in mind,” says John Draper, project director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, “that in spite of having the lowest completed suicide rates, this is an age group that has the highest rates of suicidal thinking and attempts.” Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control suggest that in a class of 28 kids, four will have thought about killing themselves and, of those four, two will have tried. “The overwhelming majority get over it and live,” Draper adds. “But there is this crisis period in which, unless someone teaches them to deal with those thoughts, they’re flying blind.” This is the legitimate fear that schools are responding to when they say they don’t want to “glamorize” or “romanticize” a desperate act by making it seem a reasonable way to get attention, invoke outpourings of postmortem love, or earn forgiveness.
But Teddy gets lost in this debate. He’s neither a romantic hero nor a public-health trend. Nor did he jump because of a mental illness, even if a “mental-health issue” contributed. He jumped because his foolish solution to a passing academic problem reacted with the peculiar ideational rigidity of his condition—and, who knows, perhaps with the “suicidality” that is a potential side effect of most psychotropic medications—in a way even he, with his complicated brain, could not have predicted.
That does not mean it could not have been prevented. And that’s where Carla’s deepest pain resides. Because the other thing about impulsive suicide that distinguishes it from the more common type is that survivors almost never try to kill themselves again. They look back on what they attempted with incredulity. In seventh grade, in response to a “letter to your 30-year-old-self” assignment, Teddy produced a series of commandments that seemed to reverse that perspective. “Commandment #4,” he wrote. “Do not get lost in your anger. You don’t completely understand the situation. Take a breath. Commandment #5: Stop it. You don’t need this. Wait an hour.”
But he only had five minutes.
The unveiling of the grave, which marks the end of the Jewish year of mourning, has passed. (Clay nixed the planned Star of David on the tombstone, suggesting that a more fitting symbol would be that irrational constant pi.) Also over is the season when Teddy, like his friends who are juggling Duke and Emory and M.I.T., would have received his college-acceptance letters. Those classmates who stay in touch with Carla instinctively avoid dwelling on their plans. Dalton, on the other hand, failed to remove Carla from an e-mail list of senior parents requesting pictures of their children—one as a baby and one “current”—for use in a slideshow at the upcoming graduation.
Not, of course, that she tells me about it. (A family friend does.) Carla has nothing bad to say about Dalton, where, after all, Clay is still a student. But just as Teddy’s gaucheries and his genius were really the same thing, Carla’s stoicism and her tragedy are fused. Her folders of photos, her neatly stapled piles of relevant documents, her apparent sangfroid are not escapes from grief but expressions of it.
“My life is a struggle every day to live,” she says, trying not to cry. “I don’t know what to say. I refuse to stop trying to be a great mother to Clay. And I go on faith that somehow joy and happiness will come back into my life one day. ‘Oh, Carla’s okay,’ people say. ‘How’re you doing?’ they say. I look at them and want to answer, ‘How do you think I’m doing?’ I want to say the two most precious things in my life were Teddy and Clay. But what is true is that they are the only things that ever mattered to me from the day they were born. The rest of it I could give a shit about. I’m strong, I’m hard-nosed, but in terms of what gives me joy, it is only my two children. And I have to find a way to live without one of them, who was not only my son but, I thought, would contribute something amazing to this world. I thought that’s what his gifts were all about. So I don’t know how I get up every day. I do it. It’s a cliché, but I do it for Clay. What would I be like without him? I try not to think about it. I don’t know how I am going on.”
Carla takes me into Teddy’s room. Though his javelin still leans in a corner and the unopened box of track shoes still waits to be dealt with, it feels like Teddy’s life, not his death. Carla likes spending time there, as does Clay, who has taken over his brother’s desk as a homework center and patiently waits to grow into Teddy’s favorite hoodies. Clay seems to have figured out something about holding on while letting go. “I love you sooooooomuch and one day we will meet again, or maybe not,” he wrote on one of the Facebook memorial sites last February. “I know you were only 17 but you had the best seventeen years of your life.” And at his bar mitzvah, in October, he read a Yehuda Amichai poem called “A Man in His Life” that ends with the lines: “When he loses he seeks, when he finds / he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves / he begins to forget.”
Teddy’s cosmology did not admit of more than one truth—neither his math nor his morals allowed it. Carla is left to walk up and down the same narrow corridor, over and over. And Dalton seems to have stuck with its instinct of covering up the windows. Not Clay. His commandeered desk in Teddy’s room faces a bank of panes as wide as the room, and through them, the always inviting, always terrifying view of the world.
Resources for Suicide Prevention
There are more than 34,000 suicides each year, and suicide is the third leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 24. Kids (or adults) in distress, as well as family and friends concerned about them, can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK), a confidential service available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. After being routed to the nearest of Lifeline’s 147 centers nationwide, callers receive help from trained crisis workers and, if needed, referrals for mental health professionals.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is dedicated to understanding and preventing suicide through research and educational campaigns. AFSP also works with those grieving the loss of loved ones. The website provides specific information on risk factors, warning signs, and what to do if you think someone’s in trouble–as well as offering information on More Than Sad, a program for teens and educators.
Also for teens, a Columbia University-affiliated organization called TeenScreen provides voluntary confidential screenings for mental health illnesses, including depression, on high school campuses across the country.
– Sam Dangremond