The parallel universes of the Zeller family

I know that many people read the suicide note of Bill Zeller — it’s terrible story of an intelligent young man who was racked with internal demons, and who finally ended his life. The primary causes of his torment were memories of sexual molestation, but there was also another significant factor: his family’s fundamentalist religion, which provided him no comfort and was apparently more of a straitjacket to limit family interaction. He wrote this:

I’d also like to address my family, if you can call them that. I despise everything they stand for and I truly hate them, in a non-emotional, dispassionate and what I believe is a healthy way. The world will be a better place when they’re dead–one with less hatred and intolerance.

If you’re unfamiliar with the situation, my parents are fundamentalist Christians who kicked me out of their house and cut me off financially when I was 19 because I refused to attend seven hours of church a week.

They live in a black and white reality they’ve constructed for themselves. They partition the world into good and evil and survive by hating everything they fear or misunderstand and calling it love. They don’t understand that good and decent people exist all around us, “saved” or not, and that evil and cruel people occupy a large percentage of their church. They take advantage of people looking for hope by teaching them to practice the same hatred they practice.

That’s a harsh condemnation, and I feel some pity for parents who had to read their child’s suicide note, and then also read that bitterness as well.

But then I read the coverage in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. It’s simply surreal; read the description above of how Zeller felt about his family’s faith, and then read all the newspaper printed about that aspect of their life.

Prayer and Bible reading had made them a tight-knit family — Anna read stories to her son, including a children’s version of “Pilgrim’s Progress.” And five days a week, they gathered for a few minutes of “family time,” in which Bill; his brother, John; and his parents would all enact scenes from the Bible.

But as Bill Zeller grew up, religion became a wedge, admits his father. When the younger Zeller was in his teens, he decided he could no longer accept his family’s evangelical life and left home, eventually attending Trinity College and paying for his tuition by developing software programs.

“There were guidelines for anybody that lived here that we would expect him to respect,” said George Zeller, who admitted the religious rift “was the hardest thing that ever happened” to the family.

Was the religious rift harder than losing a son to suicide?

Compare the two quoted sections above, though: notice any difference? Sure, it was a grieving family, and it’s not the best time for some investigative journalism, but then the reporter should have simply left out the bit selling soap for the wholesome religious life. And who should we believe, the son who says he was thrown out and cut off financially, or the father who says only that he “left home” and had to pay tuition on his own? Those sound like exactly the same stories — only good old Dad leaves out the damaging influence of his dogma.

And oh jebus…a childhood where the fun times were re-enacting Bunyan and the Bible? Hellish.