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The legacy of Brandon Bitner

Editor's note: In the growing movement against antigay bullying, few figures loom larger than teenager Brandon Bitner. In November 2010, when Bitner killed himself by stepping in front of a speeding truck, his family declined, for privacy reasons, to release the words of his suicide note. Here, South African-American memoirist Glen Retief — himself both a survivor of antigay bullying and a family friend — shares new excerpts of Bitner's final message, while reflecting on what Bitner might teach us about this kind of adolescent self-harm.

One a.m., then 1:30, on a cold Pennsylvania morning. For most of us, the early hours are the wildest, the most overblown and hallucinatory. This morning, 14-year-old Brandon Bitner, soon to be one of the iconic martyrs of the anti-homophobic bullying movement, sits typing at his living room computer:

Everyone:

On this day I am taking my own life. (January 2, 1996-November 5, 2010).

Many of us know what happens next. Brandon walks 7 miles in the cold and dark and steps in front of a speeding Weis Markets tractor trailer truck. His suicide note, which his mother will discover on the computer screen at 4 a.m., describes years of bullying, and calls on Midd-West High School to address harassment "with more power."

The people who harassed me were my peers ...

But do we really comprehend him?

Eighteen months after Brandon's death, I befriend Tammy Simpson, Brandon's mother, who lives in a town near mine. Tammy wonders how her son's experience may be mirrored in my own memoir of being bullied in a South African apartheid boarding school. But as the two of us talk, Tammy shows me glimmers of a strikingly different Brandon Britner, one who does not in the least remind me of the terrified 14-year-old I remember being, hiding away from fists in piano rooms. Even less does it evoke the archetypal victim-martyr of the cable news reports.

"Look," she says, showing me a YouTube video on her phone. A high school talent show, just five months before Brandon's death. From the stage, Brandon stands and leads a crowd of several hundred in first a clap, then a collective fist-shaking as the exhilarating symphonic metal beat of Within Temptation's Jillian pounds out.

As the song reaches its frenetic climax, Brandon falls to his knees and leans over the stage's rim, accompanying the singer's voice on his violin, upside-down. The audience, which likely contains some of the same teenagers who have been humiliating him, roars with love.

Or here Tammy shows me Brandon's musician fan page on Facebook. Mere days before his suicide, Brandon is enthusiastically promoting his "Death Tour," the Goth-chic name he has given for his senior high school project, a night's live performance scheduled for October 2012, two years out from this publicity blitz.

October 20, 2010. Possibly First ever CDs coming out Next week. Preorder: (He provides his personal email address.)

October 24, 2010. Because of hitting the 100 fan line, I am redoing my all my performance videos and adding some new ones.

At 14, I had never met a gay person, not even in fiction or movies. The idea of a plain country kid like me having a "fan club" was otherworldly. At a vulnerable and impressionable age, facing violence, is ignorance bliss? Or is knowledge power?

Brandon's suicide note is tender, sincere and affectionate, heartbreakingly so, thanking his mother for giving him a reason to live, expressing deep love for his biological father, even as he acknowledges that paternal rejection magnified the schoolyard bullying.

Reasons why:

To (sic) many people harassed me of being gay

Father was commenting to siblings that I was girly

Have been sexually harassed a couple of times (none were actually sexual)

I can't seem to be striding in life without a struggle.

What sexual harassment was Brandon talking about? No one seems to know for sure, but I imagine the kind of mocking gestures I so clearly remember.

Right after this list, Brandon provides, for the police and the doctors, a methodological note. He will take three Motrin, five NyQuil, all the sleeping pills, and then either hang himself or step in front of a car. (He will later change his mind and not take the pills.)

If there is one thing this boy seems to know, it's what publicity means. He is ridden with a true, dark despair, but he is also managing the performance, spelling out the night's program the way he promotes his play-lists. He is leaning over the edge of the stage as he dresses, now, for his night walk. He is playing his violin as he strides through the dark, the phone number written on his arm so the ambulance can identify him.

In Vietnam in 1963, Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc self-immolated at a busy Saigon street corner to protest the treatment of Buddhists under Ngo Dinh Diem's government, at the time backed by the United States. Witnesses commented on how the monk barely moved a muscle. He seemed lost in meditation as his eyeballs shrunk from the heat and his skin blackened — his self-composure a stark contrast to everyone's screaming horror. In doing so, Duc helped bring down the Diem regime.

I have always believed surviving my teenage bullying — telling my story and fighting for justice; enjoying a happy life — was my benign adult revenge. Suicide, which I contemplated at age 12 but rejected, is horrifically destructive. It almost exclusively harms not our tormentors, but our loved ones, exploding in their lives like a hydrogen bomb.

But is it possible to recoil at a destructive act and at the same time admire its creative acumen? Brandon's death was a carefully crafted protest suicide. To notice this about it is not to glamorize self-harm but rather to return to Bitner a dignity and agency of which we deprive him when we view him as mere hapless victim.

How does a human being step out, on an icy moonlit night, in front of a hurtling ton of unyielding metal? How does he ready himself to have his body smashed?

We'll never know. But today I imagine Brandon Bitner waiting calm as a monk along the side of the road, watching the headlights draw near. I see the crescent moon shining on the Susquehanna. I sense Brandon breathing, in, out, in, out, ready now as he'll ever be to step onto the stage for his final act.

Glen Retief's memoir, "The Jack Bank," won a Lambda Literary Award for gay memoir. He teaches creative nonfiction at Susquehanna University. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

The legacy of Brandon Bitner 03/30/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 28, 2013 5:23pm]
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