Mental Health

Programmer's 4000-Word Suicide Note Highlights Impact of Child Abuse

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That's Bill Zeller on the front page of  1000 Memories, a collection of memorabilia sure to break your heart. Great-looking, a brilliant young man, best known as the creator of MyTunes, an enhancement of iTunes, and Zempt, another technical upgrade, this one for movable type. A computer programmer with more potential than any one person needs, splashed the news January 5, 2011 with his suicide.

He left us a note that does a more than adequate job of explaining why he did it. But he wasn't a therapist, and didn't know how to save himself. Like most people who take their lives, he had to get out of the pain.  It's so hard to read about a case like this (he's now a case), because not only is the story going to be sad, but there's no happy ending.

Some people blame bad therapy, which he most certainly suffered. There's a reason doctors detach, there's so much secondary trauma in this work, absorbing the pain of the patient (you have to be infected some) and living, if vicariously, the trauma. 

But sometimes it is the patient who is incested (once again), if this person pays for a lack of professional attention, for professional indifference. Bill Zeller made an effort, took the a chance, played the Lotto for professional understanding, desirous rid himself of the cloud, talking to the likes of us. Only to find the cloud follow him out the door.


Zeller was a victim of sexual and psychological abuse. It's clear from his writing that the abuse left him unable to interface with the world in any way that didn't leave him feeling he was too sullied to have the same experiences that he thought others had. He had a self-described "darkness", which despite his prostration it's clear he handled more ably than perhaps he ever realized.

Programming was a solace, but only temporarily. Zeller never felt he could escape the things that had happened to him because he carried his torment with him everywhere.

Yes, it is that painful. Rape kills.

Body memories, terror, an invasion that is gruesome, hurts, overpowers, shames, confuses and traps, sullies, violates, and won't let go.

How does one recover a sense of separateness, wholeness, integrity, goodness-- when someone else has declared possession, enslaved, degraded, etched memories, sensory memories, physical feelings within one's very body? Soul? The self is no longer one's self, but some shared object, an object that someone has used, over and over again.  Abused.  That's the word. The crime, heinous. Taboo everywhere, all over the world, incest.

Sex therapy doesn't work with incest survivors who sometimes come to therapy as young adults, frustrated with socializing, relationships, the expectations. It is a stretch, as a sexual assault victim (especially if the assault was repeated, chronic), to have what is considered a a normal, intimate relationship. Touch isn't pleasure, but is associated with pain. Initiating that, touching, or the very experience of another initiating touch is packed with terrifying memories and dread, anxiety. 

This isn't fun, this isn't goodness, this certainly isn't holy or sanctified. It isn't even pleasure for the sake of mutual pleasure, forget the blessings of commitment. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse does not usually enjoy sex, not without a head trip. Therapy must address all of the above, all of the trauma, and more:

Who am I?
Why am I?
Why me?

There are many objectives of such a therapy. Self-esteem, for one. A fresh cognitive assessment of one's life, two. Loving one's self, three. Becoming a social person, four.  Somehow capturing that self and rewiring it, inhabiting the place with all the memories, the shell that symbolizes identity.  This is the goal.

The body memories? How does one get rid of these? So complicated, that these can lie side by side with pleasure, but they can.  In the process of reclaiming, redefining, re-identifying self, they must be ignored, as if they don't belong, don't matter. Willfully set aside, the focus on a new relationship, a good, loving relationship that needs love back. 

Working a therapy like this is hard, and support group work has to be a part of it.  Holding onto that new identity, a survivor, is experiencing the self as clean, new, good.  Knowing.  A person with something very important, perhaps, to teach others.

It can be very difficult, very painful, very sad, but then, there is a happy ending.

Not always. Incest can make some people so sick that they can never get a grip on a therapeutic relationship, can't sustain one. One of the ways that children survive incest is to split off, disassociate from the assault at the very moment it is happening, become someone else, invent a second, third, a fourth identity. Fall into a trance, a happy dream. The goal for a person with this disorder is different, demands an integration of the many identities, or exile.  This is Dissociative Identity Disorder and it is unarguably one of our most challenging disorders to treat. 

Mr. Zeller didn't have it, not from what we can tell from his writing. Brilliant, it seems he stayed Bill, a guy who played tennis and got good grades and fought depression all of his life. 

We don't know if he ever confronted the perpetrator. If he had, and if the perpetrator apologized, if the animal owned his offense, then Mr. Zeller might have had a better chance at beating his darkness.

Chloe Madanes, the spouse of Jay Haley, a father of family therapy, offers a powerful family therapy technique:

(1) The victim holds court. The perpetrator is literally forced down on his knees (or her knees).

(2) On his knees the perpetrator begs forgiveness, acknowledges wrong-doings, admits everything. This person is more than contrite, he is disgusted with himself, ashamed, moribund, dying inside for having committed an act that is so perverse, so cruel, taboo.

(3) If the apology is sincere, and if it is accepted, the perpetrator proposes amends.   (I don't remember if Chloe's protocol works this way, but mine does, apology first, amends later).  The perpetrator offers to pay for all of the therapy, past and future, or to pay for a college education, a down payment on a house. Something.

Never happened for Bill Zeller, is my guess, raped by a family member repeatedly, systematically, a little boy, first memories.  Had he told a teacher, had he known to tell someone, he may have been spared.

So we clearly have to teach about child abuse in schools, for that is where the children are.

Child abuse education won't be taught at home, not in the homes that are breeding grounds for this barbarity.  For child abuse is often transgenerational, passed down from one generation to another.  It is learned behavior.  Not always, but percentage-wise. Family therapists see all kinds of gradations, variations on a theme, from one generation to the next, each saying, Mine was worse.

The suicide note, in its entirety, should be read by everyone old enough to understand cause and effect.  Mr. Zeller requested that it be circulated. He knew that he had something to say, something very, very important, more important than whatever he could create as a programmer, an identity he established to distract from his darkness.

Read it and know that people learn to perpetrate sexual violence from people close to them, that sexual violence is usually a family affair, that 48% of all acquaintance rape is right there, it is in the family, and 90% of all rape is acquaintance rape.

Makes a case, to plug the profession, for family therapy. At some point, family therapy.