Nihilism Unbound

Mitchell Heisman
What he left behind: A 1,905-page suicide note

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  September 27, 2010
In the end, no one really knows what led Mitchell Heisman, an erudite, wry, handsome 35-year-old, to walk into Harvard Yard on the holiest day in his faith and fire one shot from a silver revolver into his right temple, on the top step of Memorial Church, where hundreds gathered to observe the Jewish Day of Atonement.
But if the 1,905-page suicide note he left is to be believed - a work he spent five years honing and that his family and others received in a posthumous e-mail after his suicide last Saturday morning on Yom Kippur - Heisman took his life as part of a philosophical exploration he called "an experiment in nihilism.''
At the end of his note, a dense, scholarly work with 1,433 footnotes, a 20-page bibliography, and more than 1,700 references to God and 200 references to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Heisman sums up his experiment:
"Every word, every thought, and every emotion come back to one core problem: life is meaningless,'' he wrote. "The experiment in nihilism is to seek out and expose every illusion and every myth, wherever it may lead, no matter what, even if it kills us.''
Over the years, as he became more immersed in his work, often laboring over it 12 hours a day, Heisman shared bits with friends and family but never elaborated on the extent of his nihilism - his hardened view that life is vapid and nonsensical, that values are pretense, that the "unreasoned conviction in the rightness of life over death is like a god or a mass delusion.''
He told them he was working on a history of the Norman conquest of England, cloistered in a cramped apartment he shared in Somerville. They knew the clean-shaven young man from suburban New Jersey, who always called his elderly godmother on her birthday and once donated $200 to Harvard Hillel for sponsoring services at Memorial Church, to be intensely committed to his work.
Neither his mother, sister, nor the roommates from whom he sought forgiveness in the hours before he died had any idea he was about to kill himself. They and others have been groping for answers to why he did it and in such a public way, on such a holy day.
``He was very cordial, very charming, you would never know that something was wrong,'' said Lonni Heisman, his mother. He frequently told her he loved her, and had recently visited to help her prepare for a move. ``I'm still in shock and I can't understand how he could have hid this,'' she said. ``He had everything going for him. He was in perfect health. He was handsome, smart, a good person. I'll never understand it.''
She said he was a gregarious child who grew introverted after his father, an engineer, died of a heart attack when Mitchell was 12 years old. As he got older, he became increasingly bookish and went on to study psychology at the University at Albany in New York, where he seemed shy to friends and spent much of his time reading.
After college, Heisman worked at bookstores, including the Strand in Manhattan, enabling him to amass a library of thousands of books. About five years ago, he moved to Somerville to focus on writing and be near major university libraries.
He led a Spartan existence, subsisting on microwave meals, chicken wings, and energy bars, and surviving mainly on money left to him after his father's death. He was tall, with dark eyes, and dated when he needed a break from his solitude, rarely having trouble attracting women. But he broke off the relationships quickly, saying he was too busy writing a book.
To help him concentrate, Heisman often listened to a constant loop of Bach's ``Well-Tempered Clavier,'' which he felt synthesized the mind's competing strains of emotion and reason, went to a gym daily, and took Ritalin, which his mother thinks may have induced depression and led to his suicide.
One of his longtime roommates, David Barnes, described Heisman as quiet and considerate, never angry. He engaged in conversation by asking questions; when he spoke he often gave deliberate, lengthy responses. ``He could get intense talking about his book,'' Barnes said. ``There was definitely a lot of emotion pent up in this project.''
Barnes and relatives said Heisman bought the gun, a .38-caliber pistol, three years ago, though they don't know where, and they believe he had only one purpose for it: to commit suicide when he finished his book.
``He wasn't going anywhere dangerous; he wasn't paranoid; he wasn't worried about anyone hurting him or breaking in,'' Barnes said. ``I couldn't imagine him buying a gun for any other reason.''
A month ago, as he began wrapping up his writing, he asked Barnes if he would be a witness to the signing of his will. Barnes thought it was because he cared so much about his book and wanted to ensure it would be taken care of in case something happened.
Two days before his suicide, Heisman seemed elated. He told his roommates he had finished the book. He spent the next day at the post office, buying stamps and preparing packages for friends and family, with the book on CDs.
On the morning of Yom Kippur, Heisman showered, shaved, and ate a breakfast of chicken fingers and lentils, some of which he left on the kitchen counter, something he rarely did. He put on a white tuxedo, with white shoes, a white tie, and white socks, and donned a ill-fitting trench coat, perhaps to hide the gun.
At about 10 a.m., a half-hour or so before he would commit suicide in front of a group touring Harvard, Heisman walked into Barnes's room. He told him the white clothing was a Jewish tradition, even though he rarely practiced his religion and had given up on the concept of God. Appearing to be in a buoyant mood, he explained the significance of Yom Kippur.
``He said he wanted me to know that if he ever did anything to offend me, he apologized and hoped that I would forgive him,'' Barnes said.
In his book, which he titled ``Suicide Note'' and scheduled to send to hundreds of people as an e-mail attachment about five hours after his death, Heisman produced an extraordinarily lengthy treatise on why life was not worth living.
With chapter titles such as ``Philosophy, Cosmology, Singularity, New Jersey'' and ``How to Breed a God,'' and citing more than a hundred authors from futurist Ray Kurzweil to the biologist E.O. Wilson, Heisman explains how his views took shape.
``The death of my father marked the beginning, or perhaps the acceleration, of a kind of moral collapse, because the total materialization of the world from matter to humans to literal subjective experience went hand in hand with a nihilistic inability to believe in the worth of any goal,'' he wrote.
He saw his emotions as nothing more than a product of biology, as soulless as the workings of a machine, making them in essence an illusion.
``If life is truly meaningless and there is no rational basis for choosing among fundamental alternatives, then all choices are equal and there is no fundamental ground for choosing life over death,'' he concluded.
The darkness of his views has been too much for his friends and family, many of whom have yet to read his suicide note.
``It makes me sad and angry that he didn't care for any facet of life other than the book,'' Barnes said.
As his sister, Laurel Heisman, spent last week sifting through what remains of his things - a poster in German, a well-made bed, piles of books in a small room shrouded with a dark curtain - she said she received a separate, posthumous note from him asking that she preserve a website he created to publish his book, a burden she has agreed to bear.
``I love you,'' he wrote to her.
She wishes she could have made him see more of the beauty of life, and how we create our own value and give our own meaning to life. She might have taken him up a mountain or held him more closely.
``He just told us the safe things, because he knew we would have tried to stop him,'' she said. ``It's really hard. It's not like someone who was really depressed because they lost a lover. His whole ideology was wrapped in this concept of nihilism. I wish we could have made him see things differently.''
David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Abuse of Restraining Orders

Restraining-order filings unbound; As cases surge, court officials question Mass. law expansion


By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  
April 12, 2011

One man took his neighbor to Malden District Court for allegedly blowing leaves on his property, and a woman in Boston Municipal Court insisted that actor Chuck Norris used high frequency radio transmissions to harass her at home.
And there were the two elderly neighbors who, nurturing old grudges, spent more than five hours seeking restraining orders against each other in Plymouth District Court. One said the other's nighttime strolls in black clothing were frightening; the other said the first blocked him from crossing the street.
Court and law enforcement officers have cited such cases, which were all rejected by judges, as evidence that lawmakers should reconsider a year-old law that expands the rules for who can seek a restraining order. Previously, filing was restricted to relatives, household members, or someone intimately related to the person said to be harassing them.
Officials complain the new law, which creates a category of restraining order called a harassment prevention order, has led to a surge in filings. Too many of the cases are frivolous, taxing the limited resources of courts and police departments, they say.
``Now, it's every kook in the world who comes in and wants to file a harassment order against their neighbor or landlord or someone who just annoys them,'' said Dan Hogan, clerk magistrate of Boston Municipal Court. ``It's nuts. This is not what the law was intended to do. We don't have enough people to be handling all these things.''
Harassment prevention orders were meant to close a gap in the law that made it difficult to obtain a restraining order against an acquaintance or stranger who engaged in a range of harassing behavior, including stalking, threatening to damage property, and sexual assault.
Since the law passed, the number of restraining order filings has shot up. In the ten months beginning in June, the number jumped 47 percent over the same period last year in a sampling of more than half of the state's district courts. The courts list new and traditional restraining orders together.
Officials at the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance, a state agency that helps residents file restraining orders, said their clients sought 1,075 harassment prevention orders between May and the end of February. Of those, 21 percent said they were victims of stalking or sexual assault.
Harassment prevention orders represented about 13 percent of the restraining orders sought during that period. Judges granted a temporary harassment prevention order in 65 percent of the cases and long-term orders in nearly 33 percent of the cases.
In Boston Municipal Court, officials said there have been at least 318 harassment prevention orders sought between May and the end of March, which compares to 327 requests in Malden District Court, 179 in Plymouth District Court, and 44 in Holyoke District Court during the same period.
Proponents of the law acknowledge that it burdens court resources and that it has sparked too many complaints that do not belong before a judge. To be eligible for a harassment prevention order, plaintiffs who were not sexually abused must cite three occasions when they felt subjected to ``willful and malicious conduct.''
Proponents say it is too early to say whether the law should be amended.
``There have been a lot of frivolous cases, and we acknowledge that, but this is probably one of the most important laws on the books for sexual assault and rape victims,'' said Colby Bruno, managing attorney for the Boston-based Victims Rights Law Center, which spent years lobbying for the law.
She noted that an estimated 85 percent of sexual assault victims know their assailants but lack a substantive relationship with them. In the past, the victims' only other options involved paying hundreds of dollars to seek a temporary restraining order in Superior Court, which often required the help of a lawyer to comply with court procedures. ``Even then, the only penalty was civil contempt if it was violated,'' Bruno said.
Under the new law, victims alleging harassment merely have to sign a sworn statement and await their date in court. ``Now, if a criminal violates a harassment prevention order, they are criminally liable,'' Bruno said.
Pressure to pass the law increased in 2003, after a Middlesex jury convicted Steven Caruso of Medford of using a package bomb to kill Sandra Berfield, a 32-year-old waitress in Everett who repeatedly rebuffed his romantic advances.
``There was a gaping hole in the legislation, and there were victims of criminal harassment, stalking, and sexual assault who needed to have the ability to protect themselves,'' said Helen Guyton, an associate at Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, PC, who helped shape the new law. ``This new order allows victims of these different criminal acts to get the protection they need.''
But court and law enforcement officers say abuse of the law has become a burden, pointing out that the state's trial courts have lost more than 1,000 positions due to budget cuts since fiscal 2008.
``It's been a significant drain on resources,'' said Marybeth Brady, clerk magistrate in Malden District Court, where harassment prevention orders this year account for one-third of all restraining orders. ``We have a lot of neighbor disputes, and landlord-tenant disputes. This is a new mechanism for them to hear their problems, when a lot of these matters people used to resolve themselves.''
In Plymouth District Court, where harassment prevention orders this year account for nearly half of all restraining orders, Clerk Magistrate Philip McCue said he worries that the number of frivolous complaints will ``dilute the significance'' of traditional restraining orders.
``What we're seeing is that a lot of people aren't litigating an incident; they're litigating a relationship,'' he said.
In Great Barrington, Judge James B. McElroy, who retired last month as presiding judge in Berkshire District Court, said the law has had unintended effects.
``We would chuckle at some of these cases,'' said McElroy, adding that a number of cases he heard involved friends upset about what former friends said about them on Facebook. He estimates that he denied granting harassment prevention orders in about 75 percent of the dozens of cases he heard in the past year and suggests that the Legislature sharpen the law to include only cases in which people are ``in fear of serious physical harm or financial harm.''
Wayne Sampson, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, said many law enforcement officials predicted from the start that the law would generate frivolous complaints. ``But,'' he said, ``if we don't advise citizens that they can seek redress through the courts, the communities might be at risk of liability.''

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

A Library Without Books

Cushing Academy embraces a digital future
“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’’ said headmaster James Tracy. (Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe)
By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  September 4, 2009

ASHBURNHAM - There are rolling hills and ivy-covered brick buildings. There are small classrooms, high-tech labs, and well-manicured fields. There's even a clock tower with a massive bell that rings for special events.
Cushing Academy has all the hallmarks of a New England prep school, with one exception.
This year, after having amassed a collection of more than 20,000 books, officials at the pristine campus about 90 minutes west of Boston have decided the 144-year-old school no longer needs a traditional library. The academy's administrators have decided to discard all their books and have given away half of what stocked their sprawling stacks - the classics, novels, poetry, biographies, tomes on every subject from the humanities to the sciences. The future, they believe, is digital.
``When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,'' said James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing and chief promoter of the bookless campus. ``This isn't `Fahrenheit 451' [the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel in which books are banned]. We're not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology.''
Instead of a library, the academy is spending nearly $500,000 to create a ``learning center,'' though that is only one of the names in contention for the new space. In place of the stacks, it is spending $42,000 on three large flat-screen TVs that will project data from the Internet and $20,000 on special laptop-friendly study carrels. Where the reference desk was, the school is building a $50,000 coffee shop that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine.
And to replace those old pulpy devices that have transmitted information since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1400s, Cushing has spent $10,000 to buy 18 electronic readers made by Amazon.com and Sony. Administrators plan to distribute the readers, which they're stocking with digital material, to students looking to spend more time with literature.
Those who don't have access to the electronic readers will be expected to do their research and peruse many assigned texts on their computers.
``Instead of a traditional library with 20,000 books, we're building a virtual library where students will have access to millions of books,'' said Tracy, whose office shelves remain lined with books. ``We see this as a model for the 21st-century school.''
Not everyone on campus is sold on Tracy's vision.
They worry about an environment where students can no longer browse rows of voluptuous books, replete with glossy photographs, intricate maps, and pages dog-eared by generations of students. They worry students will be less likely to focus on long works when their devices are constantly interrupting them with e-mail and instant messages. They also worry about a world where sweat-stained literature is deemed as perishable as all the glib posts on Facebook or Twitter.
Liz Vezina, a librarian at Cushing for 17 years, said she never imagined working as the director of a library without any books.
``It makes me sad,'' said Vezina, who hosts a book club on campus dubbed the Off-line Readers and has made a career of introducing students to books. ``I'm going to miss them. I love books. I've grown up with them, and there's something lost when they're virtual. There's a sensual side to them - the smell, the feel, the physicality of a book is something really special.''
Alexander Coyle, chairman of the history department, is a self-described ``gadget freak'' who enjoys reading on Amazon's Kindle, but he has always seen libraries and their hallowed content as ``secular cathedrals.''
``I wouldn't want to ever get rid of any of my books at home,'' he said. ``I like the feel of them too much. A lot us are wondering how this changes the dignity of the library, and why we can't move to increase digital resources while keeping the books.''
Tracy and other administrators said the books took up too much space and that there was nowhere else on campus to stock them. So they decided to give their collection - aside from a few hundred children's books and valuable antiquarian works - to local schools and libraries.
``We see the gain as greater than the loss,'' said Gisele Zangari, chairwoman of the math department, who like other teachers has plans for all her students to do their class reading on electronic books by next year. ``This is the start of a new era.''
Cushing is one of the first schools in the country to abandon its books.
``I'm not aware of any other library that has done this,'' said Keith Michael Fiels, executive director of the American Library Association, a Chicago-based organization that represents the nation's libraries.
He said the move raises at least two concerns: Many of the books on electronic readers and the Internet aren't free and it may become more difficult for students to happen on books with the serendipity made possible by physical browsing. There's also the question of the durability of electronic readers.
``Unless every student has a Kindle and an unlimited budget, I don't see how that need is going to be met,'' Fiels said. ``Books are not a waste of space, and they won't be until a digital book can tolerate as much sand, survive a coffee spill, and have unlimited power. When that happens, there will be next to no difference between that and a book.''
William Powers, author of a forthcoming book based on a paper he published at Harvard called ``Hamlet's Blackberry: Why Paper is Eternal,'' called the changes at Cushing ``radical'' and ``a tremendous loss for students.''
``There are modes of learning and thinking that at the moment are only available from actual books,'' he said. ``There is a kind of deep-dive, meditative reading that's almost impossible to do on a screen. Without books, students are more likely to do the grazing or quick reading that screens enable, rather than be by themselves with the author's ideas.''
Yet students at Cushing say they look forward to the new equipment, and the brave new world they're ushering in.
Tia Alliy, a 16-year-old junior, said she visits the library nearly every day, but only once looked for a book in the stacks. She's not alone. School officials said when they checked library records one day last spring only 48 books had been checked out, and 30 of those were children's books.
``When you hear the word `library,' you think of books,'' Alliy said. ``But very few students actually read them. And the more we use e-books, the fewer books we have to carry around.''
Jemmel Billingslea, an 18-year-old senior, thought about the prospect of a school without books. It didn't bother him.
``It's a little strange,'' he said. ``But this is the future.''
David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel. 

Reunited After Massacre

DINA RUDICK/GLOBE STAFF
Oscar Alfredo Ramírez Castañeda and Tranquilino Castañeda, with daughters Nicole and Andrea, looked at pictures from Guatemala.






By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  
May 30, 2012
NEWARK - The man with piercing green eyes began to shake as he stared past the checkpoint, down a crowded corridor into an unfamiliar airport terminal.
It would be the first time Oscar Alfredo Ramírez Castañeda, now 32 and living in Framingham, would meet his biological father since a squad of government soldiers slaughtered his mother and eight brothers and sisters 30 years ago in their small village during the height of the civil war in Guatemala.
Until last year, when he received a call from prosecutors in Guatemala and agreed to submit to a DNA test, Ramírez had no idea that as a young child he had been abducted by an army lieutenant who led that assault, and raised as a member of his family. Or that his real father was still alive.
On Monday, as his own young children giggled with excitement and held signs to welcome their new grandfather to Newark Liberty International Airport, Ramírez was not sure what to feel. "I'm nervous," he said. "Anxious."
Ramírez said he grew up in a loving family and lacks any grudge against Lieutenant Oscar Ovidio Ramírez Ramos, the deputy commander of the notorious squad of commandos that killed more than 250 men, women, and children and wiped Dos Erres, his village in northern Guatemala, off the map.
"It's very hard for me," Ramírez would say later. "I can't change what happened in my life. I just can't. He was good to me. First of all, I didn't get killed, and then he didn't treat me bad."
The lieutenant died in a truck accident eight months after kidnapping Ramírez, who was 3 at the time. "Everyone I knew loved him and thought he was a good man," said Ramírez. "They saw him as a hero."
Earlier in the day, with the help of a New York lawyer and a foundation supporting his bid for political asylum in the United States, Ramírez and his family took a train from South Station into Manhattan.
Now, with his wife, Nidia, by his side, and the children growing antsy, Ramírez began to sweat in the air-conditioned corridor at the airport. The children, dressed as if they were going to church, only knew they were going to meet their grandfather from Guatemala.
Over the past year, Ramírez and his father, Tranquilino Castañeda, now 70, have spoken nearly every day over the phone, even chatting twice by video. Ramírez has sent him money and urged him to go easy on the rum, which has been Castañeda's companion and tormentor since he returned from the fields that day in 1982 to find his pregnant wife and other children dead.
Castañeda had always assumed that his youngest son, a chubby toddler with missing front teeth whom he called Alfredito, had been thrown down the village well and left to die with the others. He never remarried, struggled with alcoholism, and lived in a shack in the jungle after giving up on farming when the arthritis in his leg became too much.
Now he was getting on a plane for the first time, leaving his country for the first time.
"I'm just glad to have lived long enough to see this day," Castañeda would say later.
As anxious as he felt, Ramírez said he knew he had to meet his father in person, to touch him, to hug him.
"I just wanted to have him with me," Ramírez said. "He doesn't have to be alone anymore."
A lawyer waiting with the family received a call from one of the human rights advocates traveling with Castañeda. They had landed.
A trickle of passengers grew into a surge passing through the security barrier. Then Ramírez's girls began to jump and scream.
They instantly recognized the man in the weathered white cowboy hat that shaded his sun-creased face after years of harvesting corn. He was being pushed on a wheelchair.
The children - Andrea, 11, Nicole, 7, and Oscar, 5 - wrapped their arms around their grandfather, who was beaming. Then Ramírez, still holding 10-month-old Dulce, leaned in for a long, deep hug that lasted nearly 30 seconds.
Father and son both wiped the tears filling their nearly identical green eyes.
There would be a lot to catch up on, such as how justice is slowly coming to pass in Guatemala, where members of the military and government officials guilty of ordering mass murder have evaded prosecution for years.
A Guatemalan court last August found three former commandos who participated in the attack on Dos Erres guilty of murder and human rights violations. The defendants each received sentences of 6,060 years in prison, or 30 years for every one of the 201 identified victims, plus 30 more for crimes against humanity.
Seven suspects remain at large, including two of the squad's top officers. Authorities told ProPublica, a nonprofit online news site that first reported the story of how prosecutors identified Ramírez, that they believe the suspects could be in the United States or in Guatemala, sheltered by powerful networks linking the military and organized crime.
They would also be able to talk about Ramírez's adopted family, who were shocked to learn of Ramírez's true identity. After learning the news, Ramírez's cousins promptly invited Castañeda to the town where Ramírez grew up, and treated him graciously, like family.
At the airport, Ramírez led his father to baggage claim and then to a van waiting to take the family into New York City for a dinner arranged by R. Scott Greathead, a partner in the New York office of Wiggin and Dana, who helped arrange the visit. Greathead and lawyers from Mintz Levin in Boston will represent Ramírez, who entered the United States as an illegal immigrant, at a hearing in which Ramírez will seek political asylum. He will argue that he is at risk because he is living proof of a massacre in Guatemala and could be targeted by those hoping to avoid prosecution.
After dinner, Ramírez and his family took a train back to Boston. His father remained in New York to get some rest.
The next morning, Castañeda was driven to Framingham, where he will sleep in Ramírez's bed. He has a visa to stay in the United States for six months.
As they chatted over a lunch of pupusas on Tuesday afternoon in the family's cramped two-bedroom apartment, which is full of children's toys and family photos, including portraits of the lieutenant's mother, they talked about the price of cigarettes in the States, how to buy pants, and what life was like in Dos Erres before soldiers burned it to the ground.
Castañeda showed Ramírez pictures of those who died, including one of his sisters, a 13-year-old named Maribel.
As they talked, Ramírez's children clung to their father and grandfather, who pinched their cheeks, gave them long hugs, and cooed with affection. He couldn't get enough of them.
"I'm very happy to be here," Castañeda said.
David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

When Cop Hits Baby

What happened on Seaverns Avenue? A distracted cop in a patrol wagon collides with a mom pushing her toddler in a stroller. But when local bloggers want answers, sometimes fact blurs with fiction. (Boston Globe Sunday Magazine)
By David Abel  |  Globe Staff   |  October 19, 2008

FIFTY MINUTES AFTER IT HAPPENED, THE NEWS SURFACED ON LOCAL blogs. The first account, posted on a site called Bostonist , read in part: "A witness who asked not to be identified said the baby was very small, went flying after the collision, and was crying. It was also said that the baby was taken away in an ambulance."
The same item got picked up the next morning by the more widely read Universal Hub blog , where less than an hour later, someone using the name Jchristian commented, "I have a one-year-old, and reading this, seriously, made me feel a bit ill for a minute. It's amazing how differently one feels about babies after having one - when it's not abstract anymore, the thought of one being truly hurt is a visceral experience."
SwirlyGrrl responded to Jchristian: "It is just somehow different when you can just imagine that moment where the stroller is being torn loose from your grip." Then Jchristian wrote: "Why is this story not reported yet anywhere else but Bostonist and here?"
Echoed Sheenaspleena: "I was wondering about that too. That's not right!" And on it went, with postings that bounced from indignation to curiosity to sympathy.
This is a story both about a horrifying accident and about the changing way we filter news and gossip and everything in between. The collision inspired the kind of dread that haunts any urban mom, and its impact spread quickly beyond that busy corner. It would spawn a flurry of questions, opinions, theories, all leavened with a mix of rage and ruth for police and pedestrians alike. But it would also reveal how Boston's rising number of hyper-local blogs can serve to fuel reputation-coloring gossip as well as help to reknit a city where so many neighbors remain strangers. These increasingly popular echo chambers have provided a means for those long walled off from one another in siloed lives to search for answers - immediately and collectively - about events that might not make headlines anywhere else, but that spark intense interest within the span of a few blocks.
ALL SHE WANTED was milk for her child. It was another harried day balancing work and her 1-year-old boy, whom she had just fetched from day care, served dinner, bathed, and dressed for bed in his red-striped dinosaur pajamas.
With the sun still out and her husband working late on the evening of August 7, Tara Giard decided they had time to run a quick errand. So she strapped Leo into his new Maclaren Volo stroller, wrapped a blanket around him, and wheeled him out of their Jamaica Plain condo onto Centre Street, where she faced a humdrum choice: Go to the drugstore or the convenience store?
On a whim, the 34-year-old mom instead opted to check out a new gourmet market a few blocks away and splurge on organic milk. Wearing a lime-green long-sleeve shirt, Giard joined the throngs out for the neighborhood's "First Thursday" festivities and pushed the black stroller along Centre Street, past the old firehouse, the dingy bar, the drugstore, until she arrived at the corner next to the Purple Cactus, a popular burrito spot, facing the mustard-colored City Feed and Supply, her destination.
At the same time, on the other side of Centre Street, Boston Police Officer Patrick Wayne Wood rolled to a stop in one of the department's newest vehicles, a massive Ford F250 patrol wagon that had 70 miles on the odometer and less than 24 hours on the road. Wood pulled to the side of the street to drop off his partner, Officer Cesar Abreu.
Despite traffic streaming by in both directions on Centre Street, Giard saw the idling blue-and-white wagon out of the corner of her left eye. It was about 7:40. The sidewalks were crowded, the stores open late, the sun waning in the sky, and Giard had only a few feet left before she could start shopping for milk. With the crosswalk clear, she prodded Leo's stroller off the curb and began venturing across Seaverns Avenue, a one-way road off Centre.
As Giard passed over the fading white lines of the crosswalk, Wood, who had pulled away from the curb, caught a break in the oncoming traffic, hit the gas, and turned left onto Seaverns. Giard watched as the wagon headed toward them, but she couldn't make eye contact with Wood, who had glanced to his right for one last check of the oncoming traffic and was riding high in a vehicle plagued with blind spots. "Why isn't he stopping? Why isn't he slowing down?" Giard thought.
Driving alone, Wood turned his head back to the crosswalk. He never saw the stroller. But he heard a piercing shriek and suddenly spotted Giard. Wood slammed on the brakes. There wasn't enough time to stop before impact.
THE FOLLOWING AFTERNOON, MIKE BELLO, one of the Boston Globe's city editors with a nose for tragedy, walked over to my desk in the newsroom. He'd received a call from a law enforcement source who had seen the blog posting on Universal Hub, and Bello wanted me to check it out. So I called police headquarters. What I got didn't seem to square with what we had heard. A police official read me the account from Wood's report, which said the Giards "walked into the path of the motor vehicle, at which point [the officer] locked up the brakes, and the vehicle stopped abruptly, brushing the baby carriage."
Nearly 24 hours after the collision, I drove to the scene, hoping to find a witness or anyone who knew more than what I'd learned from the blogs and the police. Then I got a call forwarded to my cellphone from our newsroom. Divya Kumar, a 31-year-old mom from Jamaica Plain, said she saw it all and wanted to set the record straight. "It's a misrepresentation to say the officer brushed the stroller," Kumar told me. She'd been standing on a corner of the intersection at the time. "The stroller caught air and landed facedown - it was horrible and frightening." She added: "They should have been in his line of sight. They were pedestrians going through a crosswalk. I don't understand how he didn't see them."
The story that I wrote for the next day's paper was brief - "Baby, 1, hit by police vehicle in Jamaica Plain" - and it appeared on a page inside the newspaper's Metro section. But the story, which quoted the police report as well as Kumar, only fueled the call for more information that had started swirling the day before on the blogs.
That night, the bloggers who had been so angry with the police for what they perceived to be a coverup of the incident turned their frustration on me. A writer on Universal Hub wrote, "They played down the accident." And another wrote mockingly: "No damage to car, police consider citing baby for being in road. . . . The effect of trying to minimize these events with misleading language is that people learn to distrust their own police departments. The Globe could have called the mother and asked her to describe the event and provided that information too."
The police, however, were not releasing her name. She was the victim, after all, not a criminal.
The online speculation spread to local user groups such as JP Moms, a forum where Jamaica Plain mothers turn to one another for advice or simply to vent, and the back and forth went on for weeks. Some shared details about dangerous intersections, others decried the paltry information provided by police, and more than a few questioned why the media had not followed up on the story and didn't seem to care about an event of such magnitude to those in the orbit of the blogs.
One mom signed on as ddkwon wrote: "It sounds like my worst nightmare."
Another mom under the name moonbeam wrote that she was horrified when she saw the aftermath. "I haven't been able to stop wondering about them since I saw that stroller hanging off the bumper of the police truck," she wrote. "I am speechless."
As time passed with no new information, the tone on the various blogs changed, and some posters could not contain their frustration and began to wonder whether, in fact, the mother who got hit was to blame.
"I think that pedestrians could try to be a bit more considerate of drivers. . . ." wrote a mom who identified herself as juniperdev. "It is nervewracking to drive in Boston sometimes because people just hop in the street in front of your car constantly. Sometimes it can take 20 minutes or more to get through Centre Street because everyone just crosses wherever they feel like. This is a huge pet peeve I have about Boston."
Then someone using the name Kaz questioned Kumar's account. "The witness statement may be a tad more hyperbole than reality," Kaz wrote on Universal Hub. "We don't know since it seems that this didn't raise any red flags . . . [and] the mother (still unnamed to the public) hasn't made a press statement to make it known that this injustice was brought upon her child, or even who she is."
The chatter veered off in that direction for some time, as others chimed in about their issues with rogue pedestrians, until a mom who identified herself as Isadora posted on JP Moms that she was friends with the mom whose child had been struck. "I think what needs to be remembered about this," she wrote, "is that a family was affected and continues to be affected by posts. . . . I feel hurt about the posts that have been going around. It feels unfair, gossipy and exploitative."
It was the first acknowledgment for all of the bloggers that their words were, in fact, being seen by the mother. And that she wasn't happy with what she was reading.
THE MOMENT OF IMPACT REMAINS SUSPENDed in time for Tara Giard. When she closes her eyes, she often sees it all over again. "It's not the kind of thing you can just forget about or move on from," she says.
We learned her name after posting a message on the JP Moms website, hoping she might see it and reach out. She did, and after hesitating at first, she agrees to meet me with her lawyer at Ula Cafe in Jamaica Plain. "It's just been really hard, hard to sleep. I keep having visions of the whole thing," she says.
When the 5-foot-6 blonde realized the patrol wagon wouldn't stop in time, she tried to push her stroller out of the way and screamed as loud as she had ever screamed. Even if he hadn't glanced to the right to check for traffic, Wood probably wouldn't have seen them. The high-riding vehicle is known for blind spots in its lower front, according to a police report on the incident.
As Wood saw her and slammed on the brakes, Giard braced herself, holding out her hands and pressing against the passenger side of the hood. The vehicle pushed her only a few steps backward. She got lucky. But at the same time Giard watched as the bumper on the driver's side of the patrol wagon struck the stroller, flipping it several times, until the 8-pound Maclaren Volo landed on the far side of Seaverns, on top of Leo.
Giard ran to her son, struggled to unstrap him, and scooped him up. She wanted to hug him tight. She wanted to cover him with a blanket. She wanted someone to call an ambulance. There were cuts on his face and blood dripping from his forehead. He was hysterical, sobbing inconsolably.
"It was just mayhem," she says.
Wood jumped out of the patrol wagon and bore the fury of a mother who had just witnessed horror. "I can't believe you're a police officer!" Giard recalls yelling at Wood. "You should know better."
Wood asked her to step out of the street and radioed for an ambulance and a patrol supervisor. Giard says Wood apologized, but she had more important concerns. Something didn't feel right in her arms. She worried Leo had suffered a skull injury.
Witnesses ushered the Giards into City Feed, which, it turned out, was still under construction and not yet open for business. With Leo still wailing, employees setting up for the store's opening offered her tea and an ice pop. She turned them away; she had to call her husband. A stranger loaned her a cellphone, and when her husband answered, he was apoplectic. "It was a call you never want to get," she says.
The paramedics arrived, and she watched as they immobilized Leo with a neck brace and a long board and carried him into the ambulance. Giard went with them to Children's Hospital, where her husband met them. Leo cried hysterically until midnight, when the medical staff decided to sedate him.
THE NEXT MORNING, AFTER CLEANING HIS cuts and running a battery of CAT scans and Xrays of his head and spine, the doctors released Leo. He appeared to be fine; they told the Giards to watch for any peculiar behavior, because head injuries can lie dormant. Leo seemed irritable, more clingy than usual, and they stayed home together the rest of the day. "I didn't want to take him outside ever again," Giard says.
When the couple finally saw a copy of the police report, they couldn't believe it. "It didn't match with my recollection of the events, in that it said the stroller was brushed, in that it said the stroller was tipped, and in that it said that I walked into the path of the vehicle," Giard says. "I felt like it was blaming me."
She called a lawyer (though no suit had been filed as of earlier this month). It wasn't until we met a few weeks later that she learned what police had told me after I sought the results of the police's internal investigation through a Freedom of Information Act request: Wood, 41 and a 12-year veteran of the department, was issued a citation for failing to yield to a pedestrian and ordered to take a driving course at the police academy before he would be allowed to drive another police vehicle. I tried to reach Wood on multiple occasions. He never returned my calls. But Lieutenant Michael Kern, the commander in charge of the investigation, summed up the police findings. "After reviewing the reports and surrounding circumstances," Kern wrote, "I have determined that PO Patrick Wood was solely at fault."
AS OF EARLIER THIS MONTH, TARA GIARD continued to wait for an official apology, or perhaps a new stroller, from the Boston Police Department. She has locked the old stroller in her basement storage unit, still bound in the police department's blue-and-white evidence tape. "I don't want to see it," she says.
Leo seems to have returned to normal, though Giard remains anxious about taking him for walks in a stroller. She prefers to carry him and continues to shudder whenever he falls. Lingering along with her persistent fear is a latent sadness. She has yet to come to terms with all the exchanges on the blogs, the volley of questions about her judgment, and meanspirited rants on sites that had become a considerable part of her social network. She feels as if the community that she had often turned to had turned against her at her most vulnerable time. "It was so offensive," she says. "It was infuriating. Absolutely maddening."
She thought there would be more empathy, more understanding about why she wouldn't want to respond to all the posts and put her name and story out there for everyone to see.
"You really can't underestimate the effect on me," Giard says. "I shouldn't care what people think about me, but I was extraordinarily upset to read comments like this. We're all pushing strollers in JP, in an urban setting."
The shock of the trauma may be wearing off, but the sting of the gossip remains, and the dark memories have begun to feel like scars. "I was very angry at first," she says. "Now I'm just very sad that it happened to us, sad that it's in our memories."
To move on, the Giards have decided it's time to escape the city's busy streets - and to take a break from JP Moms and Universal Hub and the other blogs. The couple recently reached an agreement to sell their condo. They're renting in Newton, Giard says, while they look to buy somewhere in the suburbs.
"We're done with city life."
David Abel is a Globe staff writer. E-mail him at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.