Robbie's Story: How a fragile 14-year-old boy was crushed in his struggle to accept being gay

By Eleanor Mallet, The Plain Dealer
April 1997

Robbie Kirkland's room is a jumble of stuff - notebooks, Nintendo games, acne medicine - typical of most 14-year-olds' sanctuaries. But in that disarray at his mom's home are the objects that were shaping his life. On the wall above the top bunk where he slept is a poster of St. Ignatius High School, the all-male Jesuit prep school he entered last fall. Above his desk are two Christmas cards from Jenine Coffman, a close friend from summer camp. A play he wrote and a series of his drawings are in his trunk. In the closet is his overnight bag, which he used when visiting his father. Prominently displayed in his wallet is his father's business card - John Kirkland, Special Agent FBI. "Robbie was smart and funny," said his friend Matt Metevlis. "We'd talk for hours on the phone. He had a way of telling something about someone from meeting them one time. He helped me with relationships with girls. He did not judge anyone."

What is not apparent in Robbie's room is evidence of his struggle. For more than a year, Robbie had become enveloped in depression over the fact that he was gay.

At age 14 he was in treacherous waters; how to keep his secret, or be who he was and face the scorn and rejection of others. He was not well-armed for this struggle. He was painfully shy, easily wounded by teasing and rebuffs. On the morning of Jan. 2, Robbie Kirkland ended his turmoil by shooting himself in the head in his father's home in Lakewood. In the last five years, only two other Cuyahoga County teens that young have killed themselves.

Those who knew Robbie are in shock, wondering what could have led him to suicide. He had a core of close friendships and a loving family. But he did not want to be gay and he dreaded discovery. He may have feared exposure at school because of a crush he had on a fellow student. At the same time, he had sexual curiosity that he, like many teens, explored on the Internet. He was also mired in a deep well of hopelessness, self-loathing and isolation. He had a hard time seeing a future. "He closed himself off," said his mother, Leslie Sadasivan. "He felt a hopelessness about leading a closeted life."

Robbie grew up in the protected suburb of Strongsville. He had two older sisters, Danielle, 19, Claudia, 17, and, Alexandria, 4. At the time Robbie was born, his parents separated, divorced, and later the marriage was annulled by the Catholic church. Two years after the separation, Leslie, a nurse and a devout Catholic, married Dr. Peter Sadasivan.Robbie's father, John Kirkland, also remarried, then divorced. He did not see Robbie at first. But as Robbie grew, his father spent time with him regularly and the pair became closer. Despite the divorce, John and Leslie have worked together as parents, including agreeing to have their daughters live with their father toward the end of high school.

Family members describe Robbie as different from the outset. He was especially close to Claudia.Growing up, the two would play with dolls and other make-believe games. She saw him as creative and imaginative. He wrote comic books and wanted to be a writer."He was really gentle and sensitive," said Claudia, who is a senior at Magnificat in Rocky River. "His feelings were hurt easily.""He was a happy kid," said Danielle, who is now a sophomore at Miami University. "He was talkative but always shy, in the family very loving. He was very close to Mom."Robbie went to a speech therapist. He was teased for his mispronunciations.

His mother recalls times when he came home from school with his pants ripped or saying he had been hit with a rock. In fourth grade, Robbie switched from SS. Joseph and John in Strongsville to Incarnate Word Academy in Parma Heights."He put pressure on himself to fit in," said Leslie. He never liked sports,but in seventh grade he tried soccer and basketball. Robbie wrote to Jenine, his friend from camp, "I wish I was better at sports. I wish I loved sports. Then I could be one of the normal assholes at my school."

Two years ago Robbie began to change. In seventh grade, Leslie said, Robbiecame home after a basketball game and sobbed hysterically in his room. Someone had pushed him in the snow. Leslie is not sure of all that happened that night, but she looks back on the incident as a turning point, "somerealization [by Robbie] that he was so different."The summer before that, when he was 12, he wrote poems, some somber. One was called, "I'm Dying and No one Cares.""I try to stand and walkI fall to the hard cold ground It feels as if to life I'm no longer bound.The others look and laugh at my plight...."At the end he wrote, "Note: A lot of stuff in here is weird. I'm not really like that.""He became withdrawn," said John, whom Robbie stayed with every other weekend."It was tough to get him to do anything.""It took a big effort to get him to watch television and have meals with us,"said Danielle of the last year. "He spent a lot of time in his room alone."

Revealing letters Camp Christopher on Lake Marion in Bath was an idyllic place for Robbie. Hewent there for two weeks in the summer for four years. It was there that hemet his friend Jenine Coffman of Akron. "I love camp," he once wrote to her."There I can be popular and happy. There I know I can be myself and not be made fun of for it."

In January 1996, the middle of eighth grade for Robbie, he wrote four letters to Jenine about how depressed he was."Sometimes I feel really really alone," he wrote in the first, dated Jan. 17."Not like I am friendless, just alone. It's not sad, just kind of scary. ... Idon't like to think of being a grown up and leaving Strongsville and leaving all my adolescent friends behind. ... Yeah, I am sad when I think I am alone.... I wish I was different, No I don't. I do like myself. I have this weird feeling something big and tragic is going to happen soon. It is probably nothing. I hope it is nothing."

Jenine, now 15, sent him pages of her diary from seventh grade when she had been depressed. He wrote back on Jan. 22."Thanks for writing all that stuff. I sent it back, but I know there will be days when I will need it. I will never do anything to hurt myself. That is a lie. Right now I might not feel suicidal, but I am sure I will feel it again.... Last week everyone was nice to me. No one made fun of me but today was -let's be mean to Robbie day. Your letter made me feel better but it made me cry. ... I imagine that I am dead usually by suicide and everyone would feel bad that they had treated me so unjustly."

He wrote again on Jan. 29, skirting around the subject of homosexuality."Guess what? I'm happy.... I did good on my science project and I realized that no one means what they say when they make fun of me. ... I'll tell you why people made fun of me. I haven't told anyone else this and it's a secret. You see I talk different. You know I have a slight lisp. And I'm kind of,well, sucky at sports. So people (they don't do it often or haven't tried it recently) sometimes (only like a few people) have called me gay. They don't mean it cuz if they did I'd be beat-up by now. You see everyone in our schoolis like homophobic (including me)."

Robbie was spiraling down. On Feb. 24 he swallowed 30 Tylenol. His mother did not know at the time that Robbie had attempted suicide, but discovered a note a month later. The letter said in part: "Whatever you find, I'm not gay. I love Ashley. ... You probably want to know why I killed myself. Cuz of all the shit I've had to go through recently. That's why! Sincerely and with a lot of love, Robbie Kirkland, the boy who told himself to put on a smile, shut up and pretend you're happy: It didn't work." Two days after the suicide attempt, he wrote to Jenine but never mailed it. The letter was found after his death. It said in part: "Ashley is now going out with Ken (sad face). But what I write next is serious. I tried to kill myself Saturday night. I took like 30 of these painkiller pills and went to bed. I was really calm. Then in the middle of the night I woke up and puked it all up. Now I'm glad I puked, if I didn't I might be dead. Now I want to live...."Whenever I think of it, I shudder. I even wrote a suicide letter. 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) everyday I now fear for my life. 2) I fear online. 3) something weird is going down with me and God. 4) I have a lot of jumbled nightmares. ...I still feel empty inside because I don't have any 'REAL' friends at school.... After writing this letter the emptiness isn't so bad, so until I write again.'He confided to Jenine, but he did not reveal his true heartbreak. It was not that Ashley didn't "like" him. He couldn't have a crush on her.


Electronic connections

"Robbie loved the Internet," said a friend, Kadi Okress, 15, of Brunswick.Robbie met Kadi through his friend and neighbor Chris Collins. Kadi and Robbie would spend hours on the phone. "He loved the chat rooms and role-playing, something called Red Dragon Inn," she said."Kids love the Internet," said Jennifer Kruger, coordinator of PRYSM, a support program for gay and lesbian teens. PRYSM stands for Presence and Respect for Youth in Sexual Minorities. "They may meet the first other gay or lesbian person they have ever known. They feel, wow, there are other people out there. It is fundamentally positive. But there is a downside. On the fringe are people who take advantage of kids."Robbie started using the Internet in the eighth grade, after the Sadasivan family got a computer for Christmas and signed on to America Online.

One day Robbie's step father Peter was using the computer with his 4-year-old daughter and some pictures of naked men flashed on the screen. When Leslie confronted Robbie about the pictures, he got upset and told her an elaborate story about how a man had blackmailed him to hold the pictures. Leslie said it was the first time she began to think Robbie might be gay.

In February of 1996, the family got a $188 bill for Robbie's use of the Internet in January. They canceled the account. On March 29, Robbie boarded a Greyhound bus for Chicago. In his bag was a man's name and beeper number. He had planned to meet a man he had met on line.The number turned out not to be working."It was very scary," said his father. "Robbie was not a tough kid. I know tough kids. Robbie was not physical and not streetwise. He would not have had a clue that someone could take advantage of him."He was found in less than 24 hours. A homeless man outside the bus station befriended him after Robbie asked him how to get to a teen shelter. The man flagged down a police car. John flew to Chicago and brought him back. He began seeing a therapist. Robbie said he had tried to like a girl, but realized he couldn't. He was gay. He said he had known since he was 10 years old.

The therapist told Robbie's parents that he was gay. Robbie, however, was not entirely forthcoming with them. His parents and sisters said they told Robbie they accepted him as he was and reassured him of their love. John recalls his son once said to him - "'You know I'm not gay.'"'I don't care, Robbie,' John said he replied. "'You do drugs, you'll have a big problem with me. But if you're gay, I don't care, I still love you.'"He was at the age when he was trying to break free. But I felt if he needs me for anything, he needs me for this."Danielle said that after Robbie ran away, his dad redoubled his efforts to get Robbie to do things with him. He would get him to rake leaves or change theoil in the car with him.

Leslie gave Robbie articles about gay and lesbian issues. In retrospect she feels her acceptance may have prevented her from seeing the problem Robbie was having: "I had missed the boat. I did not realize his pain, that he was not OK with it." The problem, indeed, was Robbie himself. "

Kids have conviction about their sexuality," said Cleveland therapist Debra Dunkle, who works primarily with gays and lesbians. "But accepting it is a different thing. They may know it and hate it."Robbie couldn't stay away from the Internet. In May, he used the password of Chris' father to sign onto America Online. He got caught and had to pay Chris' father for the on-line charges. That same month, to Leslie's horror, she found a videotape of gay pornography in Robbie's room. It had arrived in the mail from a Pennsylvania man Robbie had met on the Internet. John said the man is currently under investigation. Wrestling with a secret PRYSM, the program for gay teens, is only a few blocks from St. Ignatius High School. Despite urging from his therapist and mother, Robbie never went there. He feared detection by kids at school. His shyness also may have held him back. Robbie had figured he would not make his sexual orientation known until college. He wanted to find a girl who was a lesbian to pose as his girlfriend through high school. Dunkle said such a strategy is typical.

In the wake of running away, he took the first step toward coming out. He told friends Chris Collins and Matt Metevlis that he thought he was bisexual, a common transitional step, said Kruger. He also told Kadi."He told me that the real reason he ran away was he was bisexual and he swore me to secrecy," said Matt, who called Robbie "one of my best friends if not the best.""It bothered me at first. I was kind of homophobic. But I got over it. It didn't make him any less of a person than before. Most don't get up and decide to be what everyone else thinks is disgusting. It is really hard."It changed my outlook. All these images of gay people being like faggots. ... It is always the insult we use against each other." In the summer before high school, Robbie dyed his hair black and developed his own style of dress: baggy clothes. "He was really changing," Danielle said."He was finding different avenues of expression. He developed an interest in Dungeons and Dragons, tarot cards and a Ouija board."In September, Robbie began St. Ignatius. He had scored 99 percent on the admissions test and had chosen to go there. "He wanted the best education, he wanted the name," said Leslie. "And his two best friends - Matt and Chris - were going."

Matt describes freshman year as difficult for Robbie. "Robbie had a problem fitting in. He was real shy and real quiet. People would say things about him to me. He had a look in his eye, like a devil stare, to kids who didn't know him before. They would ask if he was seriously gay. Two or three kids madefriends with him, but he didn't make friends as quickly as some.""He told me a lot of guys were making fun of him," said Kadi. "They called hima Satan worshipper, which he wasn't at all.""Robbie didn't know which way to go," Matt said. "He wanted to put it behind him and tell everyone the truth. But he knew what would happen to him. He would be an outcast and scorned. He was leading a double life."His sisters had misgivings about his choice of school. "It [being gay] was his problem, but Ignatius made it worse," said Claudia. "Gay [there] is the biggest insult. It is a really big deal to question masculinity."

One day in November, Claudia and Robbie went to a movie and they talked in the car. "He told me he didn't like being gay but he couldn't control it," said Claudia. "And it was hard being gay at Ignatius. There was a boy he liked and he couldn't do anything about it or tell anyone."

Leslie said the therapist told her it may have been easier for Robbie in a coed school. She said Robbie was always more comfortable with girls. Dunkle said that is true for a lot of gay boys.

Matt says Robbie's secret did not become known. He thought by December, Robbie was making friends, and things were looking up.

In the late fall, Robbie asked his mother if he could stop going to church with her. "The Catholic Church does not accept me," he told her. Homosexual acts, but not a homosexual orientation, are condemned by the Catholic Church. Leslie said she would try to find another church.

On the inside flap of the brown wrapper covering his geometry book, Robbie had written in small letters, "God made me this way."


Finding trouble

Leslie felt constant worry and a sense of doom the last months of Robbie's life. There were days when he was sick and did not want to go to school. He was going to bed early and not eating that much. He was withdrawn and always in his room.

In December, he saw a psychiatrist who prescribed the anti-depressant Zoloft.

He began taking it two weeks before he died. The drug takes two to six weeks to take effect. In addition to lifting depression, Zoloft reduces suicidal thoughts, said Dr. Daniel Rapport, a psychiatrist and director of outpatient services at University Hospitals' Mood Disorders program.

In November Jenine and Robbie bumped into each other in cyberspace, in a chat room. "Jen, is that you, it's Robbie," she recalled. "We talked out of nowhere. He said he had hacked his way on."

When she tried to contact him again, she found that his e-mail address wasn't valid. He had managed to open a Prodigy account using a family credit card and driver's license. The account was canceled and Robbie was in trouble again.

It was the last contact Robbie had with Jenine, perhaps his closest confidant.

In the fall, Leslie found that Robbie made calls to "900" numbers of gay pornography and international pornography services.

The bill was about $150. Again Robbie apologized. Leslie recalled wondering, "Who is this boy doing this?"


A burden too heavy

"We had a lovely Christmas," said Leslie. New Year's Eve, she went to bed early. The next morning, a mother of an Ignatius student phoned asking why a call had been made to her home at 3 a.m. She had caller ID. Leslie asked Robbie about it. He called it a prank call. It was to the boy he had a crush on.

That afternoon, John picked Robbie up to take him to his house. Leslie went to work. She doesn't even remember saying goodbye.

Matt and Robbie talked on New Year's Day. "He was weird. He said 'I'm insane and I hate my life.' He talked about killing himself. He had been in this state before.'

As an FBI agent John Kirkland keeps a gun with him at all times. After Robbie's suicide attempt the previous year, he got a lock for it at home.

The next morning, some time after Claudia left for gymnastics practice, Robbie took a key from his father's key chain, unlocked the gun and put the keys back. He went through Claudia's room and climbed up to the attic, where he lay down on a mattress. Then he shot himself in the head. His father and Danielle were in the house at the time. Danielle found him a couple of hours later.

The suicide note was found in a notebook at his mother's. "I am sorry for the pain I have put everyone through. ... I hope I can find the peace I couldn't find in life."

In this suicide note, as well as the one from his unsuccessful attempt, he left messages for dozens of friends and acquaintances. All are trying to understand why he killed himself.

Claudia feels that Robbie's sensitive, gentle personality did not equip him or his situation. "He was unhappy with the way he was. He felt too much pain. He did not let us help him. What hurt him the most was that he knew how hard life would be and thought it would not get any better."

"He was so analytical and intelligent," said Danielle. "It was a real blow to him that this [being gay] was not something he could stop, that it was the reality of his life. He could not face the implications."

In March, St. Ignatius held a Mass to console the school community and Robbie's family. "He was a son and brother," said the Rev. Robert Welsh, president of the school. "All of us could have been more attentive. He bore burdens. He is at peace now. ..."

"His situation crushed him," his friend Matt said. "He was not insane orcrazy. He was gentle and avoided conflict. He could not deal with it.

"There is something we can all learn from Robbie. Homophobia is just as bad as being racist or sexist. It is not easy to rise above it," Matt said.

On Feb. 22, the day Robbie would have turned 15, his parents bumped into each other at the cemetery in Strongsville where Robbie is buried. They wept together.

"Someone took a third of my life away," his father said. He wishes he could have given his son a toughness, not in the macho sense, but to endure life's knocks. And hope. He thinks someday he may volunteer at PRYSM.

Leslie, who sometimes goes in Robbie's room at night and cries, is compelled to tell his story. "I feel so called to help all the other Robbies out there."