As the son of a man who died by suicide, the father of a daughter working to destigmatize mental illness, and an old newspaperman devoted to the First Amendment, the sorrowful story of Conrad Roy, III, and Michelle Carter has haunted me. At first it may seem a tabloid tale of marginal characters, but we’re all marginal characters in the end, even if we’re also the center of our own universe. Maybe that’s why the comments I’ve read aren’t filled with the snarky prurience we’ve become inured to on social media, but raise important questions about: personal responsibility and mental illness; the difference, if there is one, between moral and legal culpability; the limits of free speech in a time of weaponized words; the pervasiveness of bullying.
This is a tragedy that took one young man’s life and destroyed many more. Yet the story has a disturbingly disembodied air. Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy, boyfriend and girlfriend, barely knew each other. Theirs was a virtual relationship, and Carter was not even present when Roy died. That, her lawyers argued, must legally absolve her of murder. But the prosecutor argued otherwise: “She was in his ear, she was in his mind, she was on the phone.” The judge agreed: she was there.
But was she? Maybe I’m naïve to hope that if she had been confronted with a real person instead a cell phone, Carter would have acted differently. Among the many questions this story raises, here’s one more: As we plunge deeper into a virtual world where people are constantly connected and yet so often alone, how can we hold on to our common humanity?