Why did Robbie Kirkland have to die?
by Doreen Cudnik, Gay People's Chronicle
Cleveland - During the early morning hours of Thursday, January 2, fourteen-year-old Robbie Kirkland walked through his sister Claudia's bedroom and climbed the stairs to the attic. He had gone into his father's room earlier the same day, where he found the key to the lock on his father's gun. Before walking away with the gun and some ammunition, he put the keys back exactly where he had found them.
Alone with his secret and the loaded gun, Robbie decided once and for all to put an end to the life that caused him so much sadness and confusion. Pulling the trigger, he reasoned, would stop the turmoil he felt inside. He wouldn't have to keep his secret any more.
Robbie Kirkland had grown weary of being different. He was gay; and in Robbie Kirkland's mind, death seemed like the easier option.
"Robbie was a very loving, gentle boy," said his mother Leslie Sadasivan, a registered nurse who lives in the affluent Cleveland suburb of Strongsville with her husband, Dr. Peter Sadasivan, their four-year-old daughter Alexandria, and until his death, Robbie.
She remembered her only son as a very bright boy who was a good writer and an avid reader. "He wrote beautiful poetry . . . he was a very sweet, loving son."
Taught diversity at home
While she was pregnant with Robbie, Leslie's marriage to her first husband, FBI agent John Kirkland, was in serious trouble. She had a difficult pregnancy and nearly miscarried. But with her strong faith to sustain her, she persevered, and on February 22, 1982 gave birth to a healthy baby boy by Caesarean section.
"Because my marriage was suffering at the time, I felt like [Robbie] was God's gift to me. I saw this child as part of the reason I kept going. I had to . . . there was this helpless little baby."
She was divorced from Kirkland shortly after Robbie was born. When Robbie was two, she married her second husband, Peter Sadasivan. Robbie seemed to accept his step-dad and developed a close relationship with him over the years.
Robbie and his older sisters Danielle and Claudia were raised in a very religious, yet open and accepting home. (Danielle is presently away at college, and Claudia now lives at her father's Lakewood home, where Robbie was visiting the night he died.)
Because of her deep religious convictions and because her new husband was Indian, Leslie taught her children to respect people of of all races and nationalities. This appreciation for diversity included gay and lesbian people.
She remembered a time when she hired a lesbian couple to put up wallpaper in their home. "I remember telling the kids, 'Now, you might see them give each other a hug or a kiss, and that's okay'."
Conflicting messages outside
While Robbie had so many positive messages given to him at home, at the same time he was receiving conflicting messages from outside. He learned at a very young age that, unlike his mother, not everyone thought that being different was a good thing.
Faith played a large role in determining how Leslie Sadasivan raised her children. A devout Catholic, she took her kids with her to St. John Neumann Church, a large suburban parish that was dedicated the same year Robbie was born. She involved them all in youth-related church activities, and considered the tuition that was paid to provide her kids with a Catholic education as an investment in their future.
"I saw it as a way to protect them and give them the best education," she said. "I also wanted them to be raised Catholic, because I do believe in the church. I don't believe in everything the church says, but I find my comfort and spirituality in the church. I wanted [my children] to have that foundation."
When Robbie was in the third grade at St. Joseph's school in Strongsville, he asked to be transferred to another school. He told his mother that the other kids were teasing him. He started the fourth grade at Incarnate Word Academy, the school that his sister Danielle was already attending. As he neared his last year at Incarnate Word, Robbie seemed to flourish academically as well as socially. He made friends and served on the student council.
But the poetry he wrote reflected a deep despair and sense of isolation that went well beyond the problems of most twelve year olds.
While Leslie does not know if the verbal harassment her son endured ever escalated to physical violence, a poem written by Robbie in 1994 appears to be a very chilling account of an assault:
I try to stand and walk
I fall to the hard, cold ground.
The others look and laugh at my plight
Blood pours from my nose, I am not a pretty sight
I try to stand again but fall
To the others I call
But they don't care . . .
As Robbie entered the eighth grade at Incarnate Word, he seemed, at least on the surface, to be surviving all the difficulties that accompany adolescence. Below the surface, however, Robbie had begun searching for answers to the nagging questions about his sexuality.
Exploring the Internet
On January 29, 1996, Robbie wrote a letter to his friend Jenine, a girl he met at Camp Christopher, a resident camp in Bath, Ohio run by the Diocese of Cleveland. Robbie told Jenine why other kids teased him, and indicated that he was well aware of the price one has to pay for being different.
"I'll tell you why people made fun of me," he wrote. "You see, I talk different . . . I have a slight lisp (S's come out th's) and I'm kinda well, sucky at sports. So people (only like a few people) have called me gay. They don't mean it, if they did I'd be beat up by now. You see, everyone in our school is homophobic (including me)."
In the same letter, Robbie tells her about his new pastime, the America Online computer service. "I love AOL. My favorite thing to do is chat."
The Sadasivans had purchased a computer for Christmas 1995, giving Robbie access to the Internet, a lifeline for many gay and lesbian teens. Like most adolescent boys, regardless of their sexual orientation, Robbie found his way through cyberspace directly to the porn sites.
One day while he was on the computer with his four-year-old daughter, Peter Sadasivan was shocked when images of nude men appeared on the screen. Robbie admitted to downloading the photos, but told his mother an elaborate story about being "blackmailed" as a way to explain.
"At this point, I didn't suspect that he was gay, because he was saying that this man blackmailed him. He was crying telling me this story," Leslie said.
First suicide attempt
Whether it was the shame he felt about the discovery of the downloaded images, his ongoing battle with depression, or that he was really in over his head with the Internet, during the next few months, Robbie began to sink deeper and deeper into despair.
On February 24, 1996, two days after his fourteenth birthday, Robbie attempted suicide for the first time. He took thirty Tylenol pain capsules and went to sleep. In a suicide note left at the time, he wrote: "Whatever you find, I'm not gay."
Only Robbie knows what happened in the month since he wrote the letter saying he loved AOL, and the next letter dated February 26 where he told Jenine that he had tried to commit suicide. But whatever it was, it frightened him.
Robbie wrote, "The reason why I tried to kill myself was because of stuff that happened that would take a novel to fill. I'll tell you a shortened version: 1. Every day now I fear for my life. 2. I fear on-line. 3. Something weird is going on with me and God--I don't like church masses [but] I still have faith in God."
He added, "[Numbers] one and two are connected."
John Kirkland remembers that the situation definitely got complicated as soon as the Internet came into play.
"I'm involved with investigations of people who entice both boys and girls through the Internet. Unfortunately, it's very common. I tried to explain to Robbie that people will try to get you to do all kinds of things through the Internet. But you can't be with a kid 24 hours a day."
Leslie began what would be an ongoing struggle with her son about his Internet usage, and considered cutting him off completely. "Right from the beginning, he was going on-line more than we allowed. It's almost like he was addicted to the computer and on-line," she said. "I know now that he was going into these gay chat rooms."
On March 29, about a month after the Tylenol incident, Robbie ran away from home.
"He had somebody's number from on-line," his mom said. "He took a bus to Chicago, but because he wasn't street smart, he got scared and turned himself in." Robbie had been gone less than 24 hours when John Kirkland flew to Chicago to retrieve him.
According to Kirkland, Robbie offered no rational explanations for his actions during the ride home, but instead "gave whatever reason he thought he could get away with."
"It was very frustrating to us," Kirkland said. "I think he said what he thought would work so people would get off his butt about the real reasons."
Slowly, tentatively coming out
Clearly, Robbie's trip to Chicago alerted both his parents that their son was in serious trouble. His computer privileges were cut off, and shortly thereafter, he began seeing a therapist. Slowly and tentatively, Robbie began taking his first steps out of the closet, and his family began taking their first steps towards understanding.
Leslie describes her first reaction to Robbie's attempt to come out as denial. "I asked the therapist, 'What's going on here? Is he just confused?' And the therapist said, 'No, he's gay'."
Slowly, Leslie moved towards acceptance and asked the therapist to recommend some resources for her son. "I said to the therapist, 'I don't care if my son's gay--I want him to be what God meant him to be'."
Robbie's journey towards understanding and accepting his homosexuality was not an issue for his dad.
"I was not going to lose my son over it," John Kirkland said. "I told him honestly, 'Some people are not going to like you because of this, Rob,' and he already knew that. I told him, 'If you were out dealing drugs, or hurting people, or robbing people, then you and I would have big problems. But I'm not going to have a problem with you over something like this, Rob. If it's what you are, it's what you are'."
His sisters and his parents all tried to let Robbie know that they loved him just the way he was. "However," John Kirkland said, "he had a tougher time accepting it himself."
Leslie recalled a conversation last May in which Robbie's therapist explained to her that being gay was not something Robbie was happy about. "He said that Robbie knew how hard this life was going to be--especially to survive the teenage years when you have to be so closeted because of what society says."
"I remember sitting down with him on the floor in his bedroom. I held his hand and said, 'Robbie, I am so very sorry. I didn't understand that this was not something you're happy about'."
Leslie apologized to her son and told him that she loved him. "From then on I had a better understanding of what a struggle this was for him," she said.
Said no to support groups
Last summer, between eighth and ninth grade, Robbie found a way to get back on-line. He used a password that belonged to the father of his best friend, Christopher Collins, one of the few peers that Robbie told his secret to. Like Robbie's family, Christopher was open to the news.
"I just accepted it and decided not to stop being friends with him just because of one aspect of his personality," Christopher said.
Christopher's father stopped Robbie's access when he got the bill. Robbie paid him back for the on-line time and apologized for what he had done. Once again cut off from the computer, he began making calls to gay 900-number adult entertainment lines.
When his mother confronted him about the phone bill, again Robbie was apologetic.
"He was always very sorry," Leslie said. "Everything else in his life had always been honest and decent--I always trusted him. This behavior was uncharacteristic for him. This was the one thing that he felt he had to lie about because it was part of his expression of being gay."
Leslie suggested having a gay friend come over and talk to Robbie, and offered to take him to PRYSM, a support group for gay, lesbian and bisexual youth. Robbie said no to both. "I think he was fearful that his cover would be blown," Leslie said.
Macho culture in high school
After graduating from the eighth grade, Leslie let Robbie choose which high school he wanted to attend. He tested well enough to be offered a full scholarship to St. Edward High School in Lakewood, not far from his father's home. Instead, he chose St. Ignatius High School, a Jesuit preparatory school in Cleveland's near west side known for its academic excellence as well as its championship football program.
"He wanted to be a writer, and he felt that St. Ignatius was the best," Leslie said.
Choosing Ignatius also meant he would be going to school with Christopher Collins, and since Robbie had been having problems, Leslie felt that it would be best for him to be around at least one friend. Each day began with getting the boys off to school, and Leslie and Christopher's mom Sharon took turns making the 40-minute trek into the city.
Robbie's oldest sister Danielle is a sophomore at Miami University in Oxford. She remembered her women's studies instructor, Marcie Knopf, coming out to the class on the first day, and asked her about resources for Robbie.
"One of Danielle's biggest concerns was that she had gone to an all-girls Catholic high school, and she had a sense that for Robbie, entering the ninth grade at a Catholic all-boys high school was a really dangerous and scary thing," Knopf said.
"I'm familiar with the atmosphere at St. Ignatius," Danielle said. "They're very homophobic and driven by masculinity. The few guys that I did know that were gay had to really make a statement about it in order to survive. If a guy's sexuality was called into question, it was a very big deal. I just didn't think that it would be good atmosphere for [Robbie]."
Danielle was also concerned that Robbie always "had more girl friends than guy friends, and he wouldn't have them there."
Robbie's other sister Claudia, a senior at Magnificat High School in Rocky River, was also well aware of what her younger brother might be up against. She made the senior St. Ignatius boys that she knew promise not to harass Robbie.
"I told them, 'He's nice, he's sensitive, don't be mean to him'."
An unfortunate crush
Unfortunately, though, Claudia could not make all Ignatius boys promise to be nice to her brother, and one in particular made his life miserable.
"Robbie had a crush on a boy who was a jock, a football player," his mother said. "This kid was not gay and this kid teased him."
According to Claudia, Robbie knew better than to tell this boy about his crush. "He never really said much about it," she said "He told me he had a crush on [this boy], but said that he knew he couldn't tell him or do anything about it." He indicated that knew he was in for a long four years when he said to Claudia, "You know, it's hard to be gay at St. Ignatius."
Besides Christopher, Robbie had told two other Ignatius boys that he was gay. News tends to travel in any high school.
Rejected by the church
The family continued to stay involved in Robbie's coming out process, reading books that had been recommended by Knopf. They got in touch with Cleveland area resources for gay and lesbian youth and their families, and planned on looking into a church that would accept Robbie just the way he was. Robbie had begun to express his displeasure with the Catholic church. Whether or not he was aware that the catechism of the Catholic church had declared his desires "intrinsically disordered," and "contrary to natural law," he clearly understood that he was not accepted the way he was.
"A few months before he died," his mother recalled, "Robbie said, 'Do I have to go to church? The Catholic church does not accept me, why should I go to it?' At that point I said, 'Robbie, we can find a church that does accept you, that's fine, we can go to a different church.' But he still went with me [to Catholic church] with a little bit of protest at the end."
Last November, Robbie signed on to the Prodigy computer service using his mother's checking account and driver's license. Leslie found out about it on the Monday before Christmas. A week later, on December 30, she and Robbie's therapist discussed getting him into PRYSM again, and for the first time, Robbie was agreeable.
"It was like he said, 'Okay, Mom's finally going to force me to go to PRYSM'."
The therapist also told Leslie that, in the meantime, she should put locks on the computer room door and "treat Robbie like a two year old."
Earlier in December, Leslie had also taken Robbie to a psychiatrist who was also gay. "I was glad he was gay," Leslie said of the doctor. "I thought he could be an excellent role model for Robbie."
The doctor prescribed Zoloft, an anti-depressant that takes about four to six weeks before it becomes effective.
Leslie said she grieved that things seemed to happen just a little too late to save her son. Robbie would have attended his first PRYSM meeting at noon on Saturday, January 4, but two days earlier, he was dead. The day Robbie was buried, Leslie had to cancel the locksmith who was to install the lock on the computer room door.
Called to save other boys
Not able to save her son, Leslie felt "called by God" to reach out to other boys like him. The day of her son's wake, Father James Lewis from St. Ignatius met Leslie at the funeral home.
"I mentioned to him about Robbie being gay. I said, 'You must help these boys--you know you have other Robbies at your school.' He agreed that there were other gay students. I said, 'Please tell those who are not nice to gay people to change and learn to be kind and sensitive. Tell those who are already being nice that they are doing God's work.' He just listened to me, and said that the school teaches kindness to all people."
She also asked Father F. Christopher Esmurdoc, an associate pastor at St. John Neumann Church, to say that Robbie was gay and deliver a eulogy that would speak of the importance of being accepting of gay and lesbian people. For whatever reason, he did not.
In the following weeks, Leslie began the long and painful process of putting together pieces of the puzzle that might explain what had happened to push her son over the edge. She wonders if things might have been different if she would have gone into Robbie's room prior to his death. Instead, acting on the advice of the therapist, she was trying to respect her son's privacy.
"I would have found the suicide note. I would have found out how obsessed he was with this boy."
Robbie's therapist told her how he had said that getting over the boy had "left an empty spot in his heart."
"But truly," his mother said, "he was not over this boy."
Leslie was further grieved when Christopher told her about some rumors that had been circulating around the St. Ignatius campus. One of them was that the boy that Robbie had a crush on was telling other students that Robbie had written "Fuck you" to him in his suicide note.
"This boy never even saw the note," Leslie said.
The message that Robbie did leave for this boy was, "You caused me a lot of pain, but hell, love hurts. I hope you have a wonderful life."
Leslie called the boy's mother to find out if there was any truth to another rumor that Robbie had spoken to her son on the telephone at 3:00 a.m. the day he died.
"The mother was fearful that if it got out that Robbie liked this kid, it would ruin this kid's reputation--that if the [other] kids knew, then they might think that her kid was gay. Her concern was that her son would be perceived as gay and would be teased and ridiculed. I said to this woman, 'Please, I just buried my son. Please don't scream at me'."
St. Ignatius declined gay talk
Hoping to have some goodness come from Robbie's death, Leslie spoke with Rory Henessy, who is in charge of discipline at St. Ignatius, and the school's principal, Richard Clark.
"I told Mr. Henessy the same thing that I told Father Lewis at the funeral home--that there are other Robbies at their school. I told him that Robbie's therapist offered to talk to the school. I said I would come and read something about Robbie's life and about his being gay."
The school has politely declined Leslie's offers, and principal Clark reiterated that the "message of the school is kindness and tolerance." He also said that St. Ignatius is planning to do a mass that will focus on the issue of suicide.
"The funny part of all this," Leslie said, "is that Robbie would have wanted to stay in the closet."
"I see him laughing at me, saying 'Oh, mom, this is my mom--always trying to help people."
"I'm not a public person, but I would read on a loudspeaker if it would help one boy out there," she added.
Leslie feels no bitterness toward the school or the church, and wants only good things to come out of this tragedy.
"Me and his sisters and his father, and his other father, we all feel that this is a terrible tragedy that we have to live without him for the rest of our lives. We feel that there are all these other Robbies in the world, and if we can somehow help just one of them. Not just the Robbies, but the people that treat the Robbies badly. If we can help them in any way, then we feel called by God to do it. This is hard for me, I'm not an articulate person. I'm just a mom who loved her son.
John Kirkland is equally as passionate about telling his son's story, and in time, plans to become active with PRYSM or P-FLAG.
"I would tell any parent that I can reach that I tried, and I still lost my son, and it's something that's going to hurt every day for the rest of my life. You can lose them in other ways too. It'll hurt just as much if you lose your son because you alienate him as it hurt me because my son killed himself. You may not think it now, but believe me it's going to. And one day you're going to wake up and realize: That little boy or that little girl I raised, I lost them. I lost them because I couldn't accept them. Is it worth that?