Silent suffering

by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Wednesday, January 12, 2011, at 4:54 pm

Bill Zeller's suicide is a tragic story of a Christian home, sexual abuse, and a man trying to make sense of his pain. According to The Daily Princetonian, Zeller died on the night of Jan. 5 from injuries resulting from a suicide attempt. He was a fifth-year Ph.D. student in computer science at Princeton University and was already a nationally known computer programmer.

Zeller left behind a 4,000-word suicide note (warning: contains some profanity) that details his agony of dealing with being sexually abused:

"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. . . . I've never been able to stop thinking about what happened to me and this hampered my social interactions."

Zeller wrote that he never shared what happened to him with anyone, including professionals. Instead he tried many things to soothe the pain-drugs, alcohol, relationships, success-but nothing seemed to work. Zeller wrote about having nightmares about his abuse three to four nights a week. He also expressed hatred for his family and for Christianity:

"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."

Zeller went on to describe his family as one where "church was always more important than the members of their family. . . . A house where the love of music with any sort of a beat was literally beaten out of me." When he was 8 years old his parents told him that his grandmother was going to hell because "she was Roman Catholic." His parents claimed not to be racists but "[talked] about the horrors of miscegenation." If Zeller's description of his parents' faith is accurate there are many concerns. And some atheists are already claiming that religion was partly to blame for Zeller's death.

But what compounded his agony was how he felt uncomfortable going to anyone for help. No one was safe. No one could be trusted. There was too much shame. I can't imagine how painful it must have been for his family and friends to learn of his struggles along with the rest of us in his note.

As I've written before, men like Zeller suffer in silence because they doubt the frequency of this type of abuse and rarely talk about it within the church. In the end, my hope is that the Holy Spirit will give hurting people like Zeller courage to seek help and provide people to listen so that this type of suffering can be relieved through the grace of Christ.

Zeller's note is one of the most difficult things I've ever read. I'm encouraging people to read it with the hope that it will foster good discussions about handling abuse, trauma, trust, friendships, parenting, Christianity, and more.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

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