Death of a Nethead
In 1999, Rolling Stone assigned Hollywood reporter Mark Ebner to the story of Philip Gale, an MIT prodigy born into Scientology who killed himself on the birthday of the cult's founder. The organization sent Rolling Stone a damning dossier on Ebner and the story was spiked. Ebner says he was told by his assigning editor that Rolling Stone owner Jann Wenner was close to John Travolta, one of the sect's most prominent Hollywood supporters. Since then, the Church of Scientology has softened in its response to critics; and internet outlets have proven less easily browbeaten. So here—after the jump— is Ebner's original piece, Death of a Nethead. (as republished on Gawker)
BETWEEN BONG HITS AND BEER, Philip Gale brooded over ending his young life. Outside his apartment, marrow-chilling March winds scoured the streets of Cambridge's seedy Central Square. Inside the cramped walk-up, the air was hazy from the Camel Filters he'd been chain-smoking. Gale, a 19-year-old computer prodigy and MIT junior, had loaded his CD player with enough angst tunes to make anyone a little suicidal: the electronic frigidity of Kraftwerk and the pseudo-industrial hair-pulling of Filter. The last disc Gale's CD changer spun that night was Steel Pole Bathtub's musical mindfuck, "Scars from Falling Down." He zipped a windbreaker over his T-shirt, adjusted his trademark neon-orange watch cap atop almost matching carrot-colored hair, and strode out of his room, the music still blaring behind him. He walked over to Massachusetts Avenue, nearly gridlocked by Friday-night partyers, and headed for the MIT campus. Climbing a massive staircase at the main gate, Gale headed down MIT's main pedestrian thoroughfare, "The Infinite Corridor." He carried an expensive, new digital sound recorder. It was Friday the 13th — the birthday of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Scientology had played a big role in Gale's life, although he had by then broken with the church. Both his parents were committed Scientologists; his mother was the national spokesman for a Scientology front group that seeks to ban the practice of psychiatry. Born in L.A., Gale had been sent to a Scientology boarding school in Oregon, where he'd honed his extraordinary gifts as a computer geek. As a 16-year-old MIT freshman, he'd written a key computer program for EarthLink, the Pasadena-based Internet provider created by Sky Dayton, another Scientologist.
For weeks, Gale had been asking classmates how to get to the roof of MIT's tallest structure, the Earth, Atmospheric & Planetary Sciences building, more commonly known as Building 54 or the Green Building. His friends thought nothing of it, recalling the annual ritual of dumping pumpkins off the roof, to watch them splatter 18 floors below. In a more recent stunt, MIT students had arranged the Green Building's classroom lights in the shape of an Oscar statuette in tribute to the movie Good Will Hunting. But Gale didn't have a prank in mind. Apparently unable to get to the roof, he entered an empty classroom on the 15th floor. Inside, Gale switched on his digital recorder and began scribbling on the blackboard. In his bold hand, he wrote out Newton's famous equation for how an object accelerates as it falls. Next to it he sketched a stick figure of a man throwing a chair and signed his work, "Phil was here." Then he picked up a wooden chair and flung it through a large plate-glass window. He calmly wiped glass shards off the sill, stepped onto it, and heaved his six-foot-two-inch frame into the wintry night.
The recorder didn't pick up any screaming. Moments after Gale's body hit the concrete of the East Campus quad, an eerie, real-time 911 alert blazed among the computers of MIT dorm rats in nearby rooms. The messages would stretch into a six-day online discussion:
Time: 19:28:08 Date: Fri Mar 13 1998 Host... What is CP [campus police] number fast? Time: 19:28:23 Date: Fri Mar 13 1998 Host... 253-1212? Time: 19:28:25 Date: Fri Mar 13 1998 Host... 100 for emergencies Time: 19:28:31 Date: Fri Mar 13 1998 Host... got it, never mind. jumper off of 54. Time: 19:28:35 Date: Fri Mar 13 1998 Host... Seriously? Time: 19:28:39 Date: Fri Mar 13 1998 Host... threatening? Time: 19:29:40 Date: Fri Mar 13 1998 Host... true. cps there. apparently dead. Time: 19:30:01 Date: Fri Mar 13 1998 Host... right outside my window. dear God... Time: 19:30:39 Date: Fri Mar 13 1998 Host... cpr being performed. Time: 19:30:41 Date: Fri Mar 13 1998 Host... threatening to jump or has jumped? oh, that answers Time: 19:30:58 Date: Fri Mar 13 1998 Host... I was going to ask how you knew it wasn't a legit person on the roof. now I know Time: 19:34:05 Date: Fri Mar 13 1998 Host... ambulance here. Time: 19:34:49 Date: Fri Mar 13 1998 Host... there has been something decidedly unhealthy about being an MIT student this year
"Is this my 15 minutes of fame?" joked Bob Randolph, MIT's bearded, avuncular dean of students in his office off the Infinite Corridor. Among other duties, Randolph is the fall guy for tragedy at MIT. And at the time of Philip Gale's suicide in March 1998, Randolph had his work cut out for him. A graduate student, Mark Sitton, had recently shot himself to death and a Boston grand jury was investigating the death of 18-year-old freshman Scott Kreuger after a night of binge drinking at an MIT frat party. Randolph patiently listed the resources available to students in distress: faculty advisers, peer counseling, a 24-hour hot line, a campus psychiatric department. But in Gale's case, he acknowledged, "the system didn't work."
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among Americans aged 15 to 24 (after accidents and homicide). But despite MIT's reputation as an intellectual pressure cooker, its suicide rate is about the national norm for universities. For reasons no one can explain, campus suicides often occur in bunches. Cornell, for example, had five suicides in 1995; in 1997, it had none.
Time: 13:40:11 Date: Sat Mar 14 1998 Host... If there's no note or anything, I tend to believe it was not to get attention or send a statement. In fact, it sounds more likely to be unpremeditated and spur of the moment... Time: 13:41:12 Date: Sat Mar 14 1998 Host... One does not climb to the 15th floor of a building "on the spur of the moment."
Philip Gale's suicide marked the second death in his family in less than two and a half years. His father, David, an itinerant computer-software maven, had died of a heart attack in October 1995 at the age of 47. Yet Philip's mother, Marie Gale, recently bounded from a pickup truck in a small Oregon coastal town with the exuberance of a teenager to discuss her son's short life.
A tall woman in jeans and a work shirt, Marie lives on a timber ranch not far away from the Coos Bay café where she was interviewed. She agreed to talk about Philip on condition that his story not be used to attack Scientology. "First, foremost, and above all else — I am a Scientologist," she said. She has been a practicing Scientologist since she was 12. Her parents and grandparents are Scientologists, as was her husband. Her 15-year-old daughter is also a member.
In the church hierarchy, Marie is rated OT [Operating Thetan] VIII, which supposedly gives her not only complete psychic control over matter, energy, space, and time, but also makes her privy to all the Scientology trade secrets subject to endless copyright-infringement lawsuits triggered by legions of critics who post the material on the Internet. As chief spokesman for the church's Citizens Commission on Human Rights, she has for years preached the ostensible evils of psychiatry in speeches, radio interviews, and newspaper articles. Scientology wants to ban psychiatry as part of its goal of "clearing the planet" and eliminating emotional trauma from the lives of all humans.
Philip was born in 1978 as his mother struggled to adhere to L. Ron Hubbard's directive for silence during childbirth. "I would like to think [it was silent], but I don't think it was completely silent," she said, laughing. His dad had a job in software at the time, but the couple agreed that L.A. was not a good place for kids and moved to rural northern New Hampshire. Philip had an early aptitude for numbers and machines.
One day just before he turned two, he toddled into Marie's room while she was arranging some math flash cards. As she put them in sequence — 67, 68, 69, etc. — she said, "Hand me 70." He picked up the correct card and gave it to her. "Oh, God, I was in absolute shock," said Marie. By age four, the boy was tooling around the back roads of New Hampshire aboard his father's Yamaha three-wheeler. "Here was Philip, driving it down the driveway, and his little legs weren't long enough to reach the brake and gearshift," his mother said. "I mean, he could drive that thing better than most adults."
Marie taught her son at home until he was about four and a half and then set up a homeschool, joining with another mother to teach their kids. "Basically, I had this kid who was doing second and third grade math and reading at the second and third grade level," recalled Marie. "He was a brilliant student, and I couldn't see putting him in a local public school."
At six, Philip decided he wanted a job. He cooked up a plan to be a messenger at his dad's office, mapping out where everyone's desks were in relation to where messages were received at the reception area. But child labor laws got in his way. "That was devastating to him," said Marie. "He was like, 'What do you mean? I can do this job.' I think that was the first time he got hit by society saying you're too young. And it became a real issue for him. It made him rant and cry." The boy, with his rapidly growing intelligence, was particularly upset because "it was something he couldn't fight back against," his mother remembered. The experience, she said, left him with an undying resentment and cynicism toward "the establishment."
Despite his outburst over the messenger job, Philip was more analytical than emotional and often puzzled for hours over things he'd seen. When a friend of his parents seemingly pulled a piece of gum out of the child's ear, Philip wouldn't let it go as a simple magic trick. "He thought about it and thought about it," said Marie, before finally asking, "'How does my body put the wrapper back on?' He constantly thought things through like that until he got to a point where the logic broke down."
In 1986, the nomadic Gales moved to Clearwater, Florida, to be near Scientology's worldwide headquarters. David Gale started a computer company, and Philip was enrolled in a private school that used a Scientology learning system. But Philip's mind had already soared into realms that neither his teachers nor parents could follow. "He asked too many questions," said Marie with a sigh. "I had to go to the library and get books and talk to people in order to answer him. I couldn't do it...I think homeschooling is a cool alternative, but there I am and I couldn't do it."
So, at age eight, Philip was shipped off to Scientology's Delphian School in Sheridan, Oregon. Located on 700 acres of hills, forests, and meadows in the lush Willamette Valley, the boarding school is part of a network of church-run schools that includes six other day campuses in the U.S. By the time he was 12, Philip had completed Scientology "auditing sessions" involving the use of a device called an E-meter, which Scientologists claim detects harmful emotional reactions called engrams. Through auditing, Scientologists believe, the negative "charge" of engrams can be eliminated, hastening achievement of the state of "clear," when a person functions purely on the "analytical mind" rather than the emotional, trauma-plagued "reactive mind."
Time: 15:28:48 Date: Sat Mar 14 1998 Host... What's interesting, to me, is his Scientology connection. he was educated at the Delphi Academy, a pro-Scientology high school, and his mother is the director of a Scientology front organization (according to Web pages). that organization has been known to really mess up people's lives. Time: 15:31:24 Date: Sat Mar 14 1998 Host... oh, God, not Scientology... Time: 10:33:57 Date: Thu Mar 19 1998 Host... I have friends who went to Catholic school. That didn't necessarily mean they were Catholic.
It was at Delphian that Philip's gifts as a computer programmer began to emerge. One of his friends at the school was Colby Africa, who met Philip when he was 14. Africa, then 16, began to hang out with the younger boy, shooting hoops, playing video games, and taking physics classes. At first, there was a competitive electricity between them, until Africa began to realize Philip "was an order of magnitude smarter than I could ever hope to be."
Africa had hacked together a computer application, which he showed to his friend. But Philip quickly improved it "by 500 times," said Africa. Soon Philip was teaching his older friend all about software, putting Africa on the path toward a career with Microsoft, where he now works in marketing.
It was also at Delphian that Philip began to make frequent use of that time-honored social weapon of smart adolescents: the clever put-down. "He was heavily sarcastic," said Africa, now 23. "You know, heavily." And Philip suffered no fools. "If he believed you were lesser than he was intellectually, then you might as well just shut up," recalled Africa.
Unlike Philip, Africa was not a Scientologist when he enrolled at Delphian. In trouble with the law, he got a hold of some Delphian literature at a library and decided he wanted to go there. He became a Scientologist while at the school, which is staffed entirely by Scientologists. "You're a teenager. You want to be accepted. So what do you do? Well, you start acting like them, and talking like them, and then pretty soon — poof! — you are one of them," he said.
Philip, on the other hand, began edging away from Scientology while attending Delphian, according to Africa, who also later broke with the church. "He was approaching adulthood before the rest of us were, and he was younger than us," explained Africa. "It was kind of weird. It was almost like his intellect offset the fact that he hadn't spent a lot of time on this planet in order to really understand life without having religion there. He backed out of Scientology, and at that point was forced to look at the universe without that tool kit."
As he had promised his parents, Philip graduated from Delphian at 14. His family had since moved to Utah, and the boy soon landed a job as a computer programmer at the Salt Lake City marketing firm where his dad worked. But the precocious kid ran circles around the adult programmers, including his dad. The job, Philip told his mother, was hard on him because he was "faster and smarter and a better programmer than some of the guys who had been there and been programming, you know, forever."
But again, the boy couldn't contain his tendency to dismiss people he considered less intelligent than him — a trait that rubbed a lot of his older colleagues the wrong way. "His personal public relations were really bad," said Marie, laughing. "I mean, his tolerance for stupid adults was really bad." Although he was making serious money at his computer job, he quoted Plato and invoked Marxist theories of class warfare in order to cadge more money off his parents. "I never found any system that would work with that kid," said Marie. "Because he could outlogic any system that I ever tried. I finally just quit, 'cause I couldn't win."
In the fall of 1994, as his mother railed against psychiatry through articles in Utah newspapers and his father went off to his computer job each day, Philip entered MIT as a 15-year-old freshman. The move to Cambridge virtually cut him off from his parents, but Marie said her son rarely paid much attention to familial bonds anyway. Throughout his life he insisted on addressing his parents by their first names. "He didn't have a strong sense of family," Marie said. "I didn't know what the deal was. Grandparents and aunts and uncles, all that....It wasn't like he wasn't around family. He just never, I don't know....It's weird." In hindsight, she said, she should have been more concerned about her son going so far away to college at such a young age. But Philip had looked forward to MIT as a great adventure and she saw no reason to stand in his way. In fact, Marie never visited Cambridge until she came to identify her son's body.
The MIT campus is divided geographically into two halves — East Campus and West Campus — which sometimes seem as different as East and West Berlin before the wall came down. The East Campus dorms house adventure-loving freaks who amuse themselves with hacking games and late-night excursions to pick locks in the campus' alluring network of underground steam tunnels. West Campus is a more vanilla living environment, a haven for the serious student.
Then there's the school's large Greek system, which handles the overflow from the dorms. For some reason, Philip passed up East Campus to bunk at the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity. But he didn't stay long at MIT. Over Christmas break that year, he got a job with EarthLink Network Inc., then a fledgling Internet service provider founded by 23-year-old Sky Dayton, a Scientologist and fellow Delphian alumnus.
While still in Cambridge, Philip designed a user-friendly software package called Total Access, which allowed the firm to connect far more customers to the Internet. The program, for which he was paid $10,000, was a crucial technical breakthrough that helped propel Dayton's tiny company into the ranks of the country's biggest Internet providers; today it has more than one million customers and a market worth of $2 billion.
So impressed was Dayton that he offered Philip a full-time job at his Pasadena headquarters: director of programming and development, complete with a $75,000-a-year salary, stock options, and a car, according to Marie Gale. Philip accepted and moved West in the spring of 1995; he had recently turned 16.
Philip's best friend at EarthLink was Web designer Brian Ladner, then 30. In between programming projects, he and Philip started hitting L.A. rock clubs and concerts together. Though still a minor, Philip lived like a wild and crazy twentysomething, at one point heading for Las Vegas with Ladner and Sky Dayton. There they attended the annual Comdex technology conference during the day; at night, they hit the poker tables, gambling and drinking until 4 or 5 in the morning.
In Vegas, Philip stood out even more than he did in L.A. Pale, skinny, and gangly, with his red hair severely shorn, he found himself being asked by a dealer if he was from another planet. Philip responded "by giving the dealer a quarter tip," said Ladner with a chuckle.
Back at EarthLink, Philip and Ladner were asked to do what Ladner described as "some side business." Since both were proficient in Web design, they were hired out to another Internet firm to create Super Nudes, a pornographic Web site hosted by EarthLink.
Besides drinking, gambling, and helping sell dirty pictures online, Philip was smoking dope and getting into alternative rock with an angry edge, like Nine Inch Nails and Garbage. He had also discovered sex. "We actually talked a fair amount about that," said Marie Gale. "He told me when he got laid." In fact, he showed her the very spot. "When I went to see him in his [L.A.] apartment, he showed me his bedroom. He has this new bed, and the mattress is on the floor. I said, 'What happened?' He goes, 'My bed broke.' " As she told this story, Marie doubled over with laughter.
According to Ladner, Philip had abandoned his Scientology beliefs while he was at EarthLink. He had instead become enamored with the self-parodying Church of Sub Genius, which specializes in debunking cults and which has its own cult following among Gen-Xers. Ladner gave Philip the group's tongue-in-cheek bible, Revelation X: The Church of Sub Genius, and they watched its "recruitment video" together. "It was hilarious," recalled Ladner recently at a Venice cafÃ©. "There were certain things that really struck Philip. Both religions [Sub Genius and Scientology] sort of draw upon similar ideas. One has humor, one doesn't."
"Sub Genii" worship a pipe-smoking cartoon character named Bob Dobbs. Philip loved a line in the video about how Dobbs "once told L. Ron Hubbard, 'They may be pink, but their money's green,' " recalled Ladner. Philip even hung a Bob Dobbs poster on his office door at EarthLink.
Although distancing himself from Scientology, Philip still worked for a key Scientologist, Dayton, at a company that was run according to Scientology management principles. Philip also briefly dated a 17-year-old girl who was an active church member. But her faith irritated the boy, prompting him to ask Ladner: "Why can't she see through [Scientology]?"
Philip wasn't exactly a model EarthLink executive, said Ladner. "Sky would come running into the office, and Phil would be playing a video game," he said. "And Sky would be saying, 'We need so many thousand discs with Netscape pointing to X's home page, and we need to get them out right away!' Phil wouldn't break his stride, man. He'd be playing that video game, and Sky would be going, 'We need this, we need this!' and Philip would go, 'OK,' and keep playing his video game. And Sky would go, 'Well, when do you think you can get it done?' And Philip would just say, 'When I'm done with this.' Which might have been six, eight hours later."
The EarthLink offices did hold one major attraction for Philip: Susie Wu, a slender, pretty coworker who was a few years older. She became not only his girlfriend but his soul mate.
"I was the only person that he could speak to honestly about, you know, substantial matters like love, life, death, hope — whatever," said Wu, now 25. But even amid the young computer whizzes at EarthLink, the boy's intellectual arrogance continued to surface. "He was young, he'd act out and have an attitude," said Wu. "Because he was, like, much smarter than they were." He continued to use his cynical wit, she said, as a barrier between himself and "anything that generate[d] emotion." Ironically, his wunderkind cachet seemed to backfire, as his grateful EarthLink superiors placed too many expectations on him, according to Wu. "If he wanted to take time off and figure things out, no one would understand that," she said. "No one would give him the latitude to explore himself as an individual."
In October 1995, Philip's father died. About six months later, Philip signed documents to become an emancipated minor, allowing him to exercise his stock options at EarthLink, which was about to go public. That summer, he joined his mother in North Carolina, got his braces off, and dyed his hair blue. In the fall of 1996, still shy of his 18th birthday, Philip returned to MIT.
Time: 01:20:18 Date: Sat Mar 14 1998 Host... did he bounce, or was the impact sufficiently inelastic to kill all the kinetic energy? Time: 01:20:49 Date: Sat Mar 14 1998 Host... Well, you could approximate the horizontal speed when he launched from the building... Time: 01:20:52 Date: Sat Mar 14 1998 Host... the wood pieces and glass were also not directly below the window... at least 10 ft east or so I'd guess Time: 01:21:46 Date: Sat Mar 14 1998 Host... from what I've heard, at that height there is definitely a bounce. yet the wood was not quite as far out - probably less wind to catch it. I've heard that at least one person actually saw it happen... (shudder) Time: 01:22:43 Date: Sat Mar 14 1998 Host... I wonder how long it will take to replace the glass.
Eric Hu, ponytailed and handsome, slumped so far down in a booth at a Cambridge restaurant that he almost disappeared. He acted as if he didn't want to be seen but answered questions freely and frankly about his late friend.
Hu met Philip when both were members of the Phi Sigma Kappa frat, where they bonded over their mutual taste for cool music and ganja. Hu believes Philip made his final break from Scientology between the time he joined EarthLink and his return to MIT about a year and a half later. Although Philip had denounced his parents' religion, he still seemed to be struggling for something to believe in. "It was sort of a trying experience for him as far as I could tell," said Hu.
After coming back to Cambridge, Philip also suddenly began to grieve for his father, who'd been dead a year by then. "The way he had seen his father was that he had sort of become this sort of corporate, pretentious guy," recalled Hu. "But then his mom showed Philip this picture of his father back in the day, when he was this sort of free and fun-loving sort of person. That moved him, moved him to start feeling his father's death."
Jason Politi, who was also a frat brother of Philip's and later a housemate, confirmed that David Gale's death hit Philip hard, if belatedly. "I think the most memorable image that I have of Phil is [that] when he smiled he really meant it," said Politi at a campus memorial service following Philip's suicide. "But he didn't show a lot of emotion other than that. This one time, at a [frat] house meeting after he got back from California, when the house members passed around the gavel — he just started crying. And it was because of the loss of his father. And that's something that I'll never forget about Phil."
Marie Gale said Philip and his dad had an open and communicative relationship. "They were friends and had a lot of mutual respect in many subjects, including computers," she wrote by e-mail, answering questions after an initial interview. "They went fishing and skiing together." Although she talked to Philip many times about his dad's passing, she was "quite surprised" at hearing of her son's emotional reaction afterward.
By the fall of 1997, Philip was sick of most of his fraternity brothers, not to mention frat-house food. With a couple of other undergrads, he moved into an apartment on Brookline Street in Central Square. He also made a big change in school, switching his major to music from physics and engineering. "It's pretty unusual for students to do the full move [from a science major to humanities]," noted Hu. "But Philip didn't see anything to relieve the boredom. He said 'Why fight the pain?' "
Philip also joined Professor Tod Machover's elite group of students at MIT's famed Media Lab, where they worked to create new musical instruments and environments for children.
"Inventing the future" is the catchphrase for the work and much of the play at the Media Lab, an artificial-intelligence think tank cum technological amusement park that draws fans like Robin Williams and Penn & Teller.
Philip worked on a project with two other students but walked away before it was finished. "He basically ended up thinking that they were too dumb to work with, and he went off on his own," said Machover, who's known as a pioneer of electronic music.
But Philip's interest in music continued to grow. He participated in the campus Concert Choir as well as with a group of students who played Balinese percussion instruments. He also formed a rock band with his pal Michael Tarkanian, a materials science major from blue-collar Brockton, Massachusetts. Tarkanian played bass, Philip was on drums, and a third undergrad played guitar.
Philip eventually returned to the Media Lab bearing a prototype for a musical game that was "just hot," recalled Machover. By using a computer keyboard to make brightly colored balls pop in and out of tubes on the screen, Philip's device not only synthesized music but could also change its tone. "I've seen hundreds of these things, but with Philip, you could just see it right away and say, 'OK, this kid's got it,' " said the long-haired, boyish Machover, 45. "A lot of toy companies we're working with would have loved it."
The professor tried to encourage his innovative student. Before leaving on a post-Christmas sabbatical to Big Sur, he sent Philip an e-mail: Look, Phil, this is the start of something great...It would be great to work on this with you, it would be fun to have you around. Philip didn't respond.
His brilliance and creativity notwithstanding, Philip Gale seldom felt satisfied with his achievements. He'd become fascinated by something for a spell, master it ("Faster than anyone else," remarks Eric Hu), and then just as quickly lose interest. Take his brief enthrallment with chess. "I had been playing chess for a while, and Phil really wanted to learn how to play," said Hu. "Within a month or two, he was beating me. And, you know, I had been playing for years. But then, after another month, he stopped playing. [He had] a sense of satisfaction when he beat me in chess and whatever his minigoals along the way were, but I guess the longer things would take, the less interested he was."
Hu gave an example related to Philip's new major. The first thing you learn when studying music at MIT is how to write a Bach chorale. But Philip didn't want to spend time at that. "He was sort of upset that he had to do those things," said Hu.
Another of Philip's housemates, Jesse Koontz, a senior, said Philip seemed angry much of the time in the months preceding his death. He was bothered in particular at not being able to get into Boston-area rock clubs, which tend to be strict about enforcing Massachusetts' drinking age of 21. "I think he had a lot of trouble getting into certain clubs because he wasn't 21," Koontz said. "I think he made a fake ID at the Media Lab, but he...hated that. He'd say, 'This is ridiculous. I want to go here.' He didn't really care about drinking there, but he was so pissed off that he couldn't go for the music because they would give him shit about his age."
Despite his frustrations, he had no problem meeting girls. His romance with Susie Wu had ended, although they stayed in touch. But at a frat party that fall he connected with a young woman who was nearly his emotional mirror-image: Christine Hrul, 21, a student at nearby Wellesley. Tall and blond, Christine empathized with Philip's depression. In fact, she didn't feel that good herself, and had recently begun taking antidepressants. While Philip self-medicated with booze and pot throughout their tempestuous relationship, Christine's drug of necessity was Zoloft. Although Christine allowed that she and Philip "didn't have that much in common to talk about," she could see what he was going through. She told him how much better she felt on prescription drugs but rebuffed his requests for some of her Zoloft. "He was like, 'Whaddya think?'" Christine remembered. "And I was like, 'No. That's not a good idea.' You know, 'What if it's not the right thing?' And so I didn't do that. I probably should have. But then I wouldn't have my own prescription."
Hu said Philip smoked pot daily and placed an order for LSD with a campus dealer, although he apparently never received any of the hallucinogenic. "That was sort of the first thing I asked [after his suicide]," said Hu. "Did he get anything in the mail or anything? Everyone I had talked to said no."
Finally, at the behest of his faculty adviser, Philip paid a visit to the campus shrink. But, according to Hu, he had an ulterior motive. "What he told me was just like, 'I wanna try and get drugs from them and see what they do to me.' That was his primary motivation." Philip came away from the session declaring that the psychiatrist — who prescribed no drugs for him — was "a dipshit."
Between going to parties and plays, Philip and Christine shared many of those long, intense, soul-baring conversations that are a staple of college affairs. One such exchange, held on the Phi Sigma Kappa roof, stands out in Christine's mind even now. "He asked me if I had ever thought about jumping off a building," she said. "But he didn't really ask me in the context of suicide. He asked me in the context of, 'Wouldn't it be cool to jump off and see what it was like?'" The frat roof probably wasn't high enough to kill, but the conversation alarmed Christine. "I've taken peer courses where they say that even if you're really good friends with a person and they mention suicide, you're supposed to take it seriously and ask them how they'd do it," she said. "So even though we were just joking around, I asked him. He was just like, 'Uh...I'd jump.' And I was just like, 'That would be kind of messy.' And then we moved on in the conversation."
The couple parted ways in February 1998, with Philip sending Christine a few final e-mails. "He talked about sloth and boredom, and how he didn't like being with me because he was too comfortable with me," she recounted sadly. When he made a final phone call to her on February 23, she sensed he was going to be a jerk. She asked him to come over, but he refused, saying that wasn't a good idea. When she said OK and prepared to hang up, he begged her not to. Someone finally broke the connection, and she never heard from him again.
The next day, Susie Wu received the following e-mail from Philip at her new workplace near Washington, D.C.:
i liked our relationship. i liked its abnormality. i was so attracted to you and your stubborn idealism. after my dad died, i would sit in me [sic] bed late at night, crying and crying. but the absurd selfishness of it all is that i was crying about you, not him. i have done so little yet; i do not want to slow down. but yet i feel no motion now. my life has been about growing...but i never truly realized that includes, more than anything else, people and experiences. earthlink's money has merely removed a nuisance. i have no material goals. and in the intellectual realm, well in truth i am not cut out for it—i am more a doer. my interest in computers—the time sink for all my other voids—has fragments into a rare amusement. a sophisticated tv. and music, well i chose music for the combination of technical, intellectual, and social aspects. but until recently i failed to see that people, other people, drive the machine. in other words, for all i enjoy these activities, they can no longer fill the holes in my life. i fear the settling down: buying a house, having kids. becuz i postulate (the real meaning, not the elron one :>) ['elron' is an apparent reference to L. Ron Hubbard] that i spend my time wishing i had done different things or my life were different. becuz i am so bored by the layman's life. and what i find an interesting life seems only for the priveleged few. and above all, i dont think i will ever be in love again. im not sure how to deal with these problems. i suppose i may float through life in the same semi-sedated state i have for a while now. my advisor (without me saying anything personal) told me he thot i should see a counsellor. get some drugs and tell my mind things are different? i dont know. i hope i am not imposing by saying these things. i feel bad about it sometimes, this spewing forth of depression. most people wouldnt stand for it and their hearing it would be meaningless to me. i say this looking for no sympathy: i have been thinking about committing suicide. it is so surreal; i laugh to myself when i read the alt.suicide faq [an online suicide-related newsgroup]. if i were to do it, i would probably jump off mit's green building. but im not shur i have the guts (its not the heights, its deth itself). and i am afraid of the impact it would have on my family. they would be hurt very badly, much worse than from my dad's natural death. ok, well if u still dont think im a fuked up loser (:> — i really am laughing when i put this smile up there, ya know), then i was gonna ask you where u were gonna travel. i dont really like traveling tho.. only a little bit, for a very short time. but it is an intriguing thot. ok susie, bye fil
A week before Philip climbed the stairs of the Green Building, the manic prodigy sent an e-mail with a very different tone to Professor Machover in Big Sur. "I've got this idea, and I'm really interested in this," wrote Philip. "Tell me what you think about it, and I'd love to do a [class project] on it."
Machover remembers the idea well. It was to create a device that would allow people to take ambient sounds from the world around them and turn them into music. Philip wanted to record different types of sounds — people talking on the street, subway noises, music in clubs, animal sounds — and write software that would analyze their specific qualities. From there, he would mix the sounds together and turn them into melodies. The next step was to put the recorded material in an audio library that could be navigated with a joystick. Philip's goal was to make it possible for people to make music out of the world around them and combine sounds that didn't normally go together.
"That's great!" Machover e-mailed back. "Not only am I personally interested in this, but it's just a terrific idea, and I think you're a great person to do this. I'm in California, but — go for it!"
Philip immediately began working on his plan, enlisting the help of his buddy Michael Tarkanian. Tarkanian built a microphone for a high-resolution digital sound recorder Philip had acquired, and they walked around looking for choice aural material. One day they waltzed into the student rec center to record the sound of pinball machines.
In the meantime, however, Philip was binging on junk food and had all but stopped going to classes. "He didn't care about being on time to class, he didn't care about going to class," said Jesse Koontz. "I don't think he cared too much about nutrition either. I mean, it was kind of funny. He would eat McDonald's until he realized that he couldn't stand to eat it anymore. I think he was getting a little scared. He wouldn't bother himself with some of the details of life. There were too many annoying factors that seemed to bother him."
The day before he killed himself, Philip spent time with Jason Politi, sucking up hits of strong marijuana from a bong as he talked about what an idiot the campus shrink was. That evening, he went to Tarkanian's dorm room to borrow the microphone again. Then he stayed up long into the night playing the Internet computer combat game Dark Reign, duking it out online with top-ranked players.
By the morning of Friday the 13th, Philip was an exhausted, bleary-eyed mess. He started alternating bong hits with slugs of beer. Later, he slammed some CDs into his player and jacked the music up loud. One was Filter's Short Bus album, which includes a song, "Hey Man, Nice Shot," about a man blowing his brains out with a handgun:
"They think that your early ending was all wrong/For the most part they're right/But look how they all got strong/That's why I say, Hey, man, nice shot."
Sometime after 6 p.m., Philip walked down the stairs of his apartment toward bustling, party-crazed Central Square. Then he headed for the Green Building. He didn't bother to turn off the music.
Matt Munsey, a serious-faced MIT sophomore, edged up to Philip Gale's motionless body minutes after it struck the pavement. "He was lying on his back," said Munsey. "I think his face was in a shape of great distress or pain. Or anger."
Although he hadn't known Philip, Munsey was deeply upset by what he saw. In an effort to make sense of his feelings and share information about Philip, Munsey created a memorial Web site headlined "Who Was Philip Gale?" The site's introduction reads: "Since I saw him lying on the ground, I have felt that Philip Gale wanted us to know something, something about him and his life. My thoughts have caused me to create this site as a memorial to him and a warning to the world about Scientology." Munsey ended his introduction: "Philip Gale: You will be remembered forever."
Time: 14:23:32 Date: Tue Mar 17 1998 Host... how certain is it that Philip Gale was a suicide? (everyone seems to think so, although there's no official word) Time: 14:24:48 Date: Tue Mar 17 1998 Host... I don't think anyone really knows. There's been a bunch of speculation. Time: 14:26:24 Date: Tue Mar 17 1998 Host... I'd guess they'll decide it's suicide or murder. It doesn't look to be an accident. Time: 14:30:41 Date: Tue Mar 17 1998 Host... The thing is, if you wanted to murder an MIT student, could you think of much better cover? I suspect the CPs may be investigating this for a while... Time: 14:33:20 Date: Tue Mar 17 1998 Host... Even the worst stories I've heard about the Church Of Scientology don't generally include bumping people off. It's possible they've gotten less scrupulous, though. Time: 00:54:34 Date: Thu Mar 19 1998 Host... Whee, Scientology flamewar on mit bulletin board
When the denizens of a popular anti-Scientology newsgroup caught wind of Philip's suicide, a frenzy of online speculation ensued about the church's possible involvement. Soon after, Marie Gale logged on from the Media Lab and implied that his death might be related to an interview he'd given to a Boston Herald reporter for a story criticizing Scientology. "I can only assume that there was some connection between this newsgroup (or the individuals on it) and that reporter contacting him," wrote Marie. "The interview was upsetting to him. That was the last time I talked to my son."
Despite her scolding, a flame war erupted on the newsgroup. Some writers wondered, among other things, if Philip's early immersion in Scientology — and its rabid opposition to psychiatry — might have kept him from seeking help that could have saved his life. Marie adamantly rejects that notion. "If Philip was listening to his upbringing, he wouldn't have been doing drugs, right?" she said. "He made his own decision. He had decided that the moral code of Scientology doesn't apply to him....That's evidenced by the way he was living his life. So his decision to see a psychiatrist or not was purely his own."
Cult experts and some ex-Scientologists believe otherwise. The church, they said, insidiously plants the idea in adherents' minds that if they ever leave, something bad will happen to them — such as suicide.
Steven Hassan, a cult exit counselor, described Scientology as a "mind-control cult" and argued that Philip, like other members past and present, was "systematically indoctrinated with phobias of the mental health system."
In any event, Philip's emotional problems closely paralleled those of many gifted college students who take their own lives.
Suicide expert Ralph L.V. Rickgarn cites a number of factors linked to suicides of smart young people: the death of a father, mobility and rootlessness, a difficult or failed romance, loss of a confidant, and — most strikingly — decreasing social involvement and lower levels of tolerance for others. Another problem, notes Rickgarn in the book Perspectives on College Student Suicide, is an "understanding of adult and world situations but an impotence to effect change." This, he says, contributes to feelings of powerlessness and frustration that can help trigger suicidal behavior. And of course, heavy use of alcohol and drugs can lower an individual's natural inhibitions about suicide. But Philip himself provided the deepest insight into why he took his own life in a handwritten suicide note found at his apartment:
"Presumably I have jumped from a tall building. Yes, it is odd. To tell you why would be to tell you my mind! I cannot do this. I am not crazy, albeit driven to suicide. "It is not about any single event, or person. It is about stubborn sadness, and a detached view of the world. I see my life — so much dreary, mundane, wasted time wishing upon unattainable goals — and I feel little attachment to the future. But it is not so bad, relatively. I exaggerate. "In the end, it is that I am unwilling (sick of living) to live in mediocrity. And this is what I have chosen to do about it. "The saddest part is the inevitable guilt and sorrow I will force on my family and friends. But there is not much I can say. I am sorry. Try to understand that this is about me and my 'fuked up ideas.' It is not because I was raised poorly or not cared for enough. It just is. "Please give my $ to my family and my gizmos to people who will use them. — and no fuking suing! "I am scared of the fall. I am scared of the impact. But when it is through, it will be through. "take care world, Philip"
At the end of the note, he drew a smiley face and added: "And stay happy!"
Time: 12:21:46 Date: Sat Mar 14 1998 Host... Does anyone else have a fuck-you anger-reaction at this person? I've got this real sense of rage that he killed himself in a way that was seriously fucking traumatic for a bunch of completely innocent people.
Following a somber memorial service in the MIT chapel, Philip Gale was cremated at a Boston funeral home. His ashes were shipped to his mother, who planned to scatter them by a sapling on her Oregon ranch. His friends got some of his toys; Eric Hu got an amplifier, some CDs were distributed.
The tragedy past, the campus settled back into its normal rhythms, its thousands of undergrads gearing up for spring finals. But Philip lingered in the minds of those who'd known him best. Michael Tarkanian remembered him as "one in a million...just the most outstanding person I ever met." Eric Hu, who keeps a framed photo of Philip at a happy moment atop his desk, described him as the smartest person he ever knew. Susie Wu called him "a beacon of hope to all of us who wanted to live their lives the way they wanted to live their lives." To his ever-rational Scientologist mother, Philip "opened the door to computer concepts that I had no prayer of understanding."
One of those who was most affected by Philip's death was his old EarthLink pal, Brian Ladner.
Ladner, then working as a senior software engineer for another Internet firm in L.A., was devastated by the suicide. He found it hard to concentrate at work; he couldn't stop thinking about Philip. At the time, Ladner was also grappling with a particularly complicated project at work, trying to write a code that would allow a client's Web server to talk to a new Oracle database. "I had spent nearly a week trying everyone and everywhere on the 'Net, on the phone, on newsgroups, mailing lists, and Oracle themselves," Ladner said. No one could help him. But one night, he just decided to do it, somehow, and began coding. For the next 72 hours he worked without a break, determined to solve the problem. "I would talk to friends at night who began worrying about me working so much and not sleeping," he said. "And finally I admitted to them and to myself that I couldn't leave the building. If I did, I would have to walk home, and that walk would include thinking about Phil. And I just wasn't ready to handle that."
Finally, Ladner hit on the answer, which gave him profound insight into other technical challenges he faced. In fact, it prompted him to think in whole new ways about integrating computer systems with the Internet. Excited and happy, he yearned for somebody to discuss his triumph with. But almost no one, he knew, had the brains to understand what he'd done; even fewer would care. It was at that moment, he said, that he truly understood what it must have been like to be Philip Gale.
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