2 min

Imagination & Dewees’ suicide

David Dewees had been a popular high-school teacher at Jarvis Collegiate Institute near Toronto’s Church and Wellesley neighbourhood since 2003. In the summers he worked as a counsellor at Ontario Pioneer Camp near Port Sydney.

Clearly he liked working with young people and until recently had a clean record as an educator and camp counsellor.

Police allege that he met two young guys at camp, 15 and 16. He supposedly kept in touch with the youngsters over the net until police say he had “inappropriate” online contact with them.

He was charged on Oct 1 with two counts of invitation to sexual touching and two counts of luring. That same day the Toronto Star erroneously reported that he had been charged with sexual assault against two 13-year-olds. In fact there’s no evidence or accusation that Dewees assaulted anyone. The Star somehow jumped to that conclusion.

Dewees was arraigned and released on $25,000 bail on Oct 2. On Oct 3 he calmly lay on the subway tracks at High Park station where he was killed by a train. He killed himself.

This story is highly engaging. There is conflict, shocking surprise, sexual scandal and a bloody end. It’s stranger than fiction, starts innocently and ends tragically. There are mysteries that may never be solved. It’s an easy hit. Don’t let anyone in media, no matter how seriously they purport to take journalistic integrity, tell you different.

Media clearly have a responsibility to tell stories like Dewees’ but the other edge of the sword is that media and its consumers — people — latch onto potentially sensational elements regardless of what is right or true. It is precisely the phenomenon that makes us gawk at car accidents.

 Imagination plays a much larger role in stories like Dewees’ than do the scant available facts.

With only the knowledge that a teacher and camp counsellor was facing sex charges, people imagined what Dewees must of have done. They imagined what was going through his mind as he befriended these young guys. They filled in blanks with their own fictions, fictions written in the ink of personal experience, desire and fear.

Virtually everyone jumped to the conclusions that Dewees killed himself out of guilt: guilt for getting too close to his charges, guilt for getting caught, guilt for embarrassing his family and guilt for being exposed as having same-sex attractions (Dewees was not, by accounts reported to Xtra, openly gay).

At 15 I could tell when older men and women were hitting on me or otherwise interested in my sexuality. I never had any trouble ending conversations I didn’t want to have or pushing away suitors I didn’t want to know. I suspect the two young guys at the centre of the accusations against Dewees are similarly astute and will survive undamaged by whatever messages Dewees sent them online. Obviously these young guys bear no blame for Dewees’ death but this must be an extremely difficult situation for them.

One reality is that we simply don’t, and likely never will, know the whole truth. And we likely won’t know how the two young guys in this story feel about Dewees’ suicide.

Another reality is that we live in a society — we have created a society — in which Dewees, who was accused only of “inappropriate” web chatter with a couple of teenagers, was subjected to a media storm that painted him as a sexual pervert and child predator. As the story unfolded publicly, with all its fiction, innuendo and assumption, he chose to kill himself.

That is at least as telling a comment on how we as a nation approach human sexuality as it is on whatever choices Dewees made in his short life.