Did religion figure in the suicide of rising programmer Bill Zeller?
Hugh Kramer | LA Atheism Examiner
Bill Zeller, a 27-year old graduate student in Princeton University's computer science department, died Wednesday night after a suicide attempt left him in a coma from which he never recovered. Zeller was a promising young man who had already made an impact in his field by creating things like myTunes, a free program that allows music bought from iTunes to be downloaded to other computers, and Graph Your Inbox, a tool to analyze and visualize Gmail activity over time. Even so, his suicide would probably not have attracted all the attention it has were it not for the 4,000 word suicide note he wrote that detailed a dark history of childhood sexual abuse that he'd never spoken about to anyone but which haunted him all his life.
Bill Zeller requested that his note be reprinted in full but space considerations on this page make that difficult so you can find the entire text of it here: http://documents.from.bz/note.txt [also copied below in full]
It makes for disturbing reading.
"My first memories as a child are of being raped, repeatedly. This has affected every aspect of my life. This darkness, which is the only way I can describe it, has followed me like a fog, but at times intensified and overwhelmed me, usually triggered by a distinct situation. In kindergarten I couldn’t use the bathroom and would stand petrified whenever I needed to, which started a trend of awkward and unexplained social behavior. The damage that was done to my body still prevents me from using the bathroom normally, but now it’s less of a physical impediment than a daily reminder of what was done to me."
Throughout his life, he says, the darkness followed him, poisoning his relationships and affecting every aspect of his life. Finally, he decided it wasn't bearable any longer and decided to end his life.
All this you can read about in the mainstream media, but none of the sources I checked -not ABC or CBS or even The Daily Princetonian from Zeller's alma mater, mentioned what he wrote about his family and the role religion played in all this. I didn't find out about it until I read Zeller's note in its entirety on Hemant Mehta's Friendly Atheist blog.
Here's part of it (bold type added by Mehta):
I’d also like to address my family, if you can call them that. I despise everything they stand for and I truly hate them, in a non-emotional, dispassionate and what I believe is a healthy way. The world will be a better place when they’re dead—one with less hatred and intolerance.
If you’re unfamiliar with the situation, my parents are fundamentalist Christians who kicked me out of their house and cut me off financially when I was 19 because I refused to attend seven hours of church a week.
They live in a black and white reality they’ve constructed for themselves. They partition the world into good and evil and survive by hating everything they fear or misunderstand and calling it love. They don’t understand that good and decent people exist all around us, “saved” or not, and that evil and cruel people occupy a large percentage of their church. They take advantage of people looking for hope by teaching them to practice the same hatred they practice.
A random example:
“I am personally convinced that if a Muslim truly believes and obeys the Koran, he will be a terrorist.” – George Zeller, August 24, 2010.
If you choose to follow a religion where, for example, devout Catholics who are trying to be good people are all going to Hell but child molestors go to Heaven (as long as they were “saved” at some point), that’s your choice, but it’s fucked up. Maybe a God who operates by those rules does exist. If so, fuck Him.
Their church was always more important than the members of their family and they happily sacrificed whatever necessary in order to satisfy their contrived beliefs about who they should be.
I grew up in a house where love was proxied through a God I could never believe in. A house where the love of music with any sort of a beat was literally beaten out of me. A house full of hatred and intolerance, run by two people who were experts at appearing kind and warm when others were around. Parents who tell an eight year old that his grandmother is going to Hell because she’s Catholic. Parents who claim not to be racist but then talk about the horrors of miscegenation. I could list hundreds of other examples, but it’s tiring.
I wrote a comment about Zeller and his family on the Friendly Atheist blog which I'll repeat here:
Hemant Mehta said:
Some of you sent me Zeller’s note because of a religious reference made toward the end — it’s clear from the message that Zeller could never trust his parents with his secrets because their loyalty rest with their fundamentalist Christian church and god, instead of with their son. It’s awful how religion tore his family apart and it’s just another example of how faith is capable of doing so much more harm than good.
But there’s another aspect of this case that almost no one has mentioned and it likely involves a failure on the part of religion too.
While Zeller doesn’t name his abuser, the fact that he says it happened repeatedly almost certainly indicates that it was a relative or close friend of the family who was responsible.
From the National Center for victims of crime:
Incest has been cited as the most common form of child abuse. Studies conclude that 43 percent (43%) of the children who are abused are abused by family members, 33 percent (33%) are abused by someone they know, and the remaining 24 percent (24%) are sexually abused by strangers (Hayes, 1990). Other research indicates that over 10 million Americans have been victims of incest.
If, as I said, you add the repetition factor (which is not mentioned in these statistics), the likelihood of the abuser being a relative or family friend rises from 76% to near certainty.
It’s not much of a stretch from that to conclude the perpetrator was a fundamentalist Christian whose religion did not deter him (or her, I suppose) from committing these crimes nor confess them or even admit to having a sex-related problem and seek help for it.
Quite probably this is another example of how faith is capable of doing so much more harm than good.This article was found at:
Pharyngula - January 10, 2011
The parallel universes of the Zeller family
by PZ Meyers
I know that many people read the suicide note of Bill Zeller [see below] — it's terrible story of an intelligent young man who was racked with internal demons, and who finally ended his life. The primary causes of his torment were memories of sexual molestation, but there was also another significant factor: his family's fundamentalist religion, which provided him no comfort and was apparently more of a straitjacket to limit family interaction. He wrote this:
I'd also like to address my family, if you can call them that. I despise everything they stand for and I truly hate them, in a non-emotional, dispassionate and what I believe is a healthy way. The world will be a better place when they're dead--one with less hatred and intolerance.
If you're unfamiliar with the situation, my parents are fundamentalist Christians who kicked me out of their house and cut me off financially when I was 19 because I refused to attend seven hours of church a week.
They live in a black and white reality they've constructed for themselves. They partition the world into good and evil and survive by hating everything they fear or misunderstand and calling it love. They don't understand that good and decent people exist all around us, "saved" or not, and that evil and cruel people occupy a large percentage of their church. They take advantage of people looking for hope by teaching them to practice the same hatred they practice.
That's a harsh condemnation, and I feel some pity for parents who had to read their child's suicide note, and then also read that bitterness as well.
But then I read the coverage in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. It's simply surreal; read the description above of how Zeller felt about his family's faith, and then read all the newspaper printed about that aspect of their life.
Prayer and Bible reading had made them a tight-knit family — Anna read stories to her son, including a children's version of "Pilgrim's Progress." And five days a week, they gathered for a few minutes of "family time," in which Bill; his brother, John; and his parents would all enact scenes from the Bible.
But as Bill Zeller grew up, religion became a wedge, admits his father. When the younger Zeller was in his teens, he decided he could no longer accept his family's evangelical life and left home, eventually attending Trinity College and paying for his tuition by developing software programs.
"There were guidelines for anybody that lived here that we would expect him to respect," said George Zeller, who admitted the religious rift "was the hardest thing that ever happened" to the family.
Was the religious rift harder than losing a son to suicide?
Compare the two quoted sections above, though: notice any difference? Sure, it was a grieving family, and it's not the best time for some investigative journalism, but then the reporter should have simply left out the bit selling soap for the wholesome religious life. And who should we believe, the son who says he was thrown out and cut off financially, or the father who says only that he "left home" and had to pay tuition on his own? Those sound like exactly the same stories — only good old Dad leaves out the damaging influence of his dogma.
And oh jebus…a childhood where the fun times were re-enacting Bunyan and the Bible? Hellish.
This article was found at:
Full text of Bill Zeller's suicide note:
I have the urge to declare my sanity and justify my actions, but I
assume I'll never be able to convince anyone that this was the right
decision. Maybe it's true that anyone who does this is insane by
definition, but I can at least explain my reasoning. I considered not
writing any of this because of how personal it is, but I like tying up
loose ends and don't want people to wonder why I did this. Since I've
never spoken to anyone about what happened to me, people would likely
draw the wrong conclusions.
My first memories as a child are of being raped, repeatedly. This has
affected every aspect of my life. This darkness, which is the only way I
can describe it, has followed me like a fog, but at times intensified
and overwhelmed me, usually triggered by a distinct situation. In
kindergarten I couldn't use the bathroom and would stand petrified
whenever I needed to, which started a trend of awkward and unexplained
social behavior. The damage that was done to my body still prevents me
from using the bathroom normally, but now it's less of a physical
impediment than a daily reminder of what was done to me.
This darkness followed me as I grew up. I remember spending hours
playing with legos, having my world consist of me and a box of cold,
plastic blocks. Just waiting for everything to end. It's the same thing
I do now, but instead of legos it's surfing the web or reading or
listening to a baseball game. Most of my life has been spent feeling
dead inside, waiting for my body to catch up.
At times growing up I would feel inconsolable rage, but I never
connected this to what happened until puberty. I was able to keep the
darkness at bay for a few hours at a time by doing things that required
intense concentration, but it would always come back. Programming
appealed to me for this reason. I was never particularly fond of
computers or mathematically inclined, but the temporary peace it would
provide was like a drug. But the darkness always returned and built up
something like a tolerance, because programming has become less and less
of a refuge.
The darkness is with me nearly every time I wake up. I feel like a grime
is covering me. I feel like I'm trapped in a contimated body that no
amount of washing will clean. Whenever I think about what happened I
feel manic and itchy and can't concentrate on anything else. It
manifests itself in hours of eating or staying up for days at a time or
sleeping for sixteen hours straight or week long programming binges or
constantly going to the gym. I'm exhausted from feeling like this every
hour of every day.
Three to four nights a week I have nightmares about what happened. It
makes me avoid sleep and constantly tired, because sleeping with what
feels like hours of nightmares is not restful. I wake up sweaty and
furious. I'm reminded every morning of what was done to me and the
control it has over my life.
I've never been able to stop thinking about what happened to me and this
hampered my social interactions. I would be angry and lost in thought
and then be interrupted by someone saying "Hi" or making small talk,
unable to understand why I seemed cold and distant. I walked around,
viewing the outside world from a distant portal behind my eyes, unable
to perform normal human niceties. I wondered what it would be like to
take to other people without what happened constantly on my mind, and I
wondered if other people had similar experiences that they were better
able to mask.
Alcohol was also something that let me escape the darkness. It would
always find me later, though, and it was always angry that I managed to
escape and it made me pay. Many of the irresponsible things I did were
the result of the darkness. Obviously I'm responsible for every decision
and action, including this one, but there are reasons why things happen
the way they do.
Alcohol and other drugs provided a way to ignore the realities of my
situation. It was easy to spend the night drinking and forget that I had
no future to look forward to. I never liked what alcohol did to me, but
it was better than facing my existence honestly. I haven't touched
alcohol or any other drug in over seven months (and no drugs or alcohol
will be involved when I do this) and this has forced me to evaluate my
life in an honest and clear way. There's no future here. The darkness
will always be with me.
I used to think if I solved some problem or achieved some goal, maybe he
would leave. It was comforting to identify tangible issues as the source
of my problems instead of something that I'll never be able to change. I
thought that if I got into to a good college, or a good grad school, or
lost weight, or went to the gym nearly every day for a year, or created
programs that millions of people used, or spent a summer or California
or New York or published papers that I was proud of, then maybe I would
feel some peace and not be constantly haunted and unhappy. But nothing I
did made a dent in how depressed I was on a daily basis and nothing was
in any way fulfilling. I'm not sure why I ever thought that would change
I didn't realize how deep a hold he had on me and my life until my
first relationship. I stupidly assumed that no matter how the darkness
affected me personally, my romantic relationships would somehow be
separated and protected. Growing up I viewed my future relationships as
a possible escape from this thing that haunts me every day, but I began
to realize how entangled it was with every aspect of my life and how it
is never going to release me. Instead of being an escape, relationships
and romantic contact with other people only intensified everything about
him that I couldn't stand. I will never be able to have a relationship
in which he is not the focus, affecting every aspect of my romantic
Relationships always started out fine and I'd be able to ignore him for
a few weeks. But as we got closer emotionally the darkness would return
and every night it'd be me, her and the darkness in a black and gruesome
threesome. He would surround me and penetrate me and the more we did the
more intense it became. It made me hate being touched, because as long
as we were separated I could view her like an outsider viewing something
good and kind and untainted. Once we touched, the darkness would
envelope her too and take her over and the evil inside me would surround
her. I always felt like I was infecting anyone I was with.
Relationships didn't work. No one I dated was the right match, and I
thought that maybe if I found the right person it would overwhelm him.
Part of me knew that finding the right person wouldn't help, so I became
interested in girls who obviously had no interest in me. For a while I
thought I was gay. I convinced myself that it wasn't the darkness at
all, but rather my orientation, because this would give me control over
why things didn't feel "right". The fact that the darkness affected
sexual matters most intensely made this idea make some sense and I
convinced myself of this for a number of years, starting in college
after my first relationship ended. I told people I was gay (at Trinity,
not at Princeton), even though I wasn't attracted to men and kept
finding myself interested in girls. Because if being gay wasn't the
answer, then what was? People thought I was avoiding my orientation, but
I was actually avoiding the truth, which is that while I'm straight, I
will never be content with anyone. I know now that the darkness will
Last spring I met someone who was unlike anyone else I'd ever met.
Someone who showed me just how well two people could get along and how
much I could care about another human being. Someone I know I could be
with and love for the rest of my life, if I weren't so fucked up.
Amazingly, she liked me. She liked the shell of the man the darkness had
left behind. But it didn't matter because I couldn't be alone with her.
It was never just the two of us, it was always the three of us: her, me
and the darkness. The closer we got, the more intensely I'd feel the
darkness, like some evil mirror of my emotions. All the closeness we had
and I loved was complemented by agony that I couldn't stand, from him. I
realized that I would never be able to give her, or anyone, all of me or
only me. She could never have me without the darkness and evil inside
me. I could never have just her, without the darkness being a part of
all of our interactions. I will never be able to be at peace or content
or in a healthy relationship. I realized the futility of the romantic
part of my life. If I had never met her, I would have realized this as
soon as I met someone else who I meshed similarly well with. It's likely
that things wouldn't have worked out with her and we would have broken
up (with our relationship ending, like the majority of relationships do)
even if I didn't have this problem, since we only dated for a short
time. But I will face exactly the same problems with the darkness with
anyone else. Despite my hopes, love and compatability is not enough.
Nothing is enough. There's no way I can fix this or even push the
darkness down far enough to make a relationship or any type of intimacy
So I watched as things fell apart between us. I had put an explicit time
limit on our relationship, since I knew it couldn't last because of the
darkness and didn't want to hold her back, and this caused a variety of
problems. She was put in an unnatural situation that she never should
have been a part of. It must have been very hard for her, not knowing
what was actually going on with me, but this is not something I've ever
been able to talk about with anyone. Losing her was very hard for me as
well. Not because of her (I got over our relationship relatively
quickly), but because of the realization that I would never have another
relationship and because it signified the last true, exclusive personal
connection I could ever have. This wasn't apparent to other people,
because I could never talk about the real reasons for my sadness. I was
very sad in the summer and fall, but it was not because of her, it was
because I will never escape the darkness with anyone. She was so loving
and kind to me and gave me everything I could have asked for under the
circumstances. I'll never forget how much happiness she brought me in
those briefs moments when I could ignore the darkness. I had originally
planned to kill myself last winter but never got around to it. (Parts of
this letter were written over a year ago, other parts days before doing
this.) It was wrong of me to involve myself in her life if this were a
possibility and I should have just left her alone, even though we only
dated for a few months and things ended a long time ago. She's just one
more person in a long list of people I've hurt.
I could spend pages talking about the other relationships I've had that
were ruined because of my problems and my confusion related to the
darkness. I've hurt so many great people because of who I am and my
inability to experience what needs to be experienced. All I can say is
that I tried to be honest with people about what I thought was true.
I've spent my life hurting people. Today will be the last time.
I've told different people a lot of things, but I've never told anyone
about what happened to me, ever, for obvious reasons. It took me a while
to realize that no matter how close you are to someone or how much they
claim to love you, people simply cannot keep secrets. I learned this a
few years ago when I thought I was gay and told people. The more harmful
the secret, the juicier the gossip and the more likely you are to be
betrayed. People don't care about their word or what they've promised,
they just do whatever the fuck they want and justify it later. It feels
incredibly lonely to realize you can never share something with someone
and have it be between just the two of you. I don't blame anyone in
particular, I guess it's just how people are. Even if I felt like this
is something I could have shared, I have no interest in being part of a
friendship or relationship where the other person views me as the
damaged and contaminated person that I am. So even if I were able to
trust someone, I probably would not have told them about what happened
to me. At this point I simply don't care who knows.
I feel an evil inside me. An evil that makes me want to end life. I need
to stop this. I need to make sure I don't kill someone, which is not
something that can be easily undone. I don't know if this is related to
what happened to me or something different. I recognize the irony of
killing myself to prevent myself from killing someone else, but this
decision should indicate what I'm capable of.
So I've realized I will never escape the darkness or misery associated
with it and I have a responsibility to stop myself from physically
I'm just a broken, miserable shell of a human being. Being molested has
defined me as a person and shaped me as a human being and it has made me
the monster I am and there's nothing I can do to escape it. I don't know
any other existence. I don't know what life feels like where I'm apart
from any of this. I actively despise the person I am. I just feel
fundamentally broken, almost non-human. I feel like an animal that woke
up one day in a human body, trying to make sense of a foreign world,
living among creatures it doesn't understand and can't connect with.
I have accepted that the darkness will never allow me to be in a
relationship. I will never go to sleep with someone in my arms, feeling
the comfort of their hands around me. I will never know what
uncontimated intimacy is like. I will never have an exclusive bond with
someone, someone who can be the recipient of all the love I have to
give. I will never have children, and I wanted to be a father so badly.
I think I would have made a good dad. And even if I had fought through
the darkness and married and had children all while being unable to feel
intimacy, I could have never done that if suicide were a possibility. I
did try to minimize pain, although I know that this decision will hurt
many of you. If this hurts you, I hope that you can at least forget
about me quickly.
There's no point in identifying who molested me, so I'm just going to
leave it at that. I doubt the word of a dead guy with no evidence about
something that happened over twenty years ago would have much sway.
You may wonder why I didn't just talk to a professional about this. I've
seen a number of doctors since I was a teenager to talk about other
issues and I'm positive that another doctor would not have helped. I was
never given one piece of actionable advice, ever. More than a few spent
a large part of the session reading their notes to remember who I was.
And I have no interest in talking about being raped as a child, both
because I know it wouldn't help and because I have no confidence it
would remain secret. I know the legal and practical limits of
doctor/patient confidentiality, growing up in a house where we'd hear
stories about the various mental illnesses of famous people, stories
that were passed down through generations. All it takes is one doctor
who thinks my story is interesting enough to share or a doctor who
thinks it's her right or responsibility to contact the authorities and
have me identify the molestor (justifying her decision by telling
herself that someone else might be in danger). All it takes is a single
doctor who violates my trust, just like the "friends" who I told I was
gay did, and everything would be made public and I'd be forced to live
in a world where people would know how fucked up I am. And yes, I
realize this indicates that I have severe trust issues, but they're
based on a large number of experiences with people who have shown a
profound disrepect for their word and the privacy of others.
People say suicide is selfish. I think it's selfish to ask people to
continue living painful and miserable lives, just so you possibly won't
feel sad for a week or two. Suicide may be a permanent solution to a
temporary problem, but it's also a permanent solution to a ~23 year-old
problem that grows more intense and overwhelming every day.
Some people are just dealt bad hands in this life. I know many people
have it worse than I do, and maybe I'm just not a strong person, but I
really did try to deal with this. I've tried to deal with this every day
for the last 23 years and I just can't fucking take it anymore.
I often wonder what life must be like for other people. People who
can feel the love from others and give it back unadulterated, people who
can experience sex as an intimate and joyous experience, people who can
experience the colors and happenings of this world without constant
misery. I wonder who I'd be if things had been different or if I were a
stronger person. It sounds pretty great.
I'm prepared for death. I'm prepared for the pain and I am ready to no
longer exist. Thanks to the strictness of New Jersey gun laws this will
probably be much more painful than it needs to be, but what can you do.
My only fear at this point is messing something up and surviving.
I'd also like to address my family, if you can call them that. I despise
everything they stand for and I truly hate them, in a non-emotional,
dispassionate and what I believe is a healthy way. The world will be a
better place when they're dead--one with less hatred and intolerance.
If you're unfamiliar with the situation, my parents are fundamentalist
Christians who kicked me out of their house and cut me off financially
when I was 19 because I refused to attend seven hours of church a week.
They live in a black and white reality they've constructed for
themselves. They partition the world into good and evil and survive
by hating everything they fear or misunderstand and calling it love.
They don't understand that good and decent people exist all around us,
"saved" or not, and that evil and cruel people occupy a large percentage
of their church. They take advantage of people looking for hope by
teaching them to practice the same hatred they practice.
A random example:
"I am personally convinced that if a Muslim truly believes and obeys the
Koran, he will be a terrorist." - George Zeller, August 24, 2010.
If you choose to follow a religion where, for example, devout Catholics
who are trying to be good people are all going to Hell but child
molestors go to Heaven (as long as they were "saved" at some point),
that's your choice, but it's fucked up. Maybe a God who operates by
those rules does exist. If so, fuck Him.
Their church was always more important than the members of their family
and they happily sacrificed whatever necessary in order to satisfy
their contrived beliefs about who they should be.
I grew up in a house where love was proxied through a God I could never
believe in. A house where the love of music with any sort of a beat was
literally beaten out of me. A house full of hatred and intolerance, run
by two people who were experts at appearing kind and warm when others
were around. Parents who tell an eight year old that his grandmother is
going to Hell because she's Catholic. Parents who claim not to be racist
but then talk about the horrors of miscegenation. I could list hundreds
of other examples, but it's tiring.
Since being kicked out, I've interacted with them in relatively normal
ways. I talk to them on the phone like nothing happened. I'm not sure
why. Maybe because I like pretending I have a family. Maybe I like
having people I can talk to about what's been going on in my life.
Whatever the reason, it's not real and it feels like a sham. I should
have never allowed this reconnection to happen.
I wrote the above a while ago, and I do feel like that much of the time.
At other times, though, I feel less hateful. I know my parents honestly
believe the crap they believe in. I know that my mom, at least, loved me
very much and tried her best. One reason I put this off for so long is
because I know how much pain it will cause her. She has been sad since
she found out I wasn't "saved", since she believes I'm going to Hell,
which is not a sadness for which I am responsible. That was never going
to change, and presumably she believes the state of my physical body is
much less important than the state of my soul. Still, I cannot
intellectually justify this decision, knowing how much it will hurt her.
Maybe my ability to take my own life, knowing how much pain it will
cause, shows that I am a monster who doesn't deserve to live. All I know
is that I can't deal with this pain any longer and I'm am truly sorry I
couldn't wait until my family and everyone I knew died so this could be
done without hurting anyone. For years I've wished that I'd be hit by a
bus or die while saving a baby from drowning so my death might be more
acceptable, but I was never so lucky.
To those of you who have shown me love, thank you for putting up with
all my shittiness and moodiness and arbitrariness. I was never the
person I wanted to be. Maybe without the darkness I would have been a
better person, maybe not. I did try to be a good person, but I realize I
never got very far.
I'm sorry for the pain this causes. I really do wish I had another
option. I hope this letter explains why I needed to do this. If you
can't understand this decision, I hope you can at least forgive me.
Please save this letter and repost it if gets deleted. I don't want
people to wonder why I did this. I disseminated it more widely than I
might have otherwise because I'm worried that my family might try to
restrict access to it. I don't mind if this letter is made public. In
fact, I'd prefer it be made public to people being unable to read it and
drawing their own conclusions.
Feel free to republish this letter, but only if it is reproduced in its