In grief, a father goes hunting for answers
By KEVIN O'CONNOR STAFF WRITER | April 05,2010
Photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
Vermonter John Halligan, pictured last week in Williamstown, is touring the nation telling the story of his son Ryan's suicide in hopes of saving other students.
Vermonter John Halligan felt like he had died when he learned of his 13-year-old son's suicide.
It was 6 a.m., Oct. 7, 2003. The IBM engineer, away on business, woke to a phone call from his wife, Kelly.
"You need to come home," she said through hysterical sobs. "Our son is dead. Ryan killed himself."
Ryan what? It seemed impossible. His boy wasn't dark-hearted or delinquent, but instead a gentle soul disguised as just another gangly eighth-grader.
Numb in disbelief, Halligan stuffed his belongings into a suitcase, raced out of his hotel and, crashing into reality, collapsed on a plane.
Tears streamed down his face as he stared out the window, his mind replaying the same question: "Why? Why? Why?"
Frantic for answers, he couldn't foresee the journey he was about to take.
'The best present'
Ryan Patrick Halligan was born a week before Christmas, on Dec. 18, 1989.
"Ryan was the best present," his father recalls. "Life at that point felt so perfect."
Ryan had loving parents, an older sister and, later, a younger brother. But by age 2, the green-eyed, brown-haired boy struggled to move about and hadn't spoken or seemingly understood a single word.
Diagnosed with developmental delays in speech and motor skills, Ryan received early and special education. He learned he'd always have to work harder than his classmates on assignments. But by fourth grade, he was back on track with his peers.
Then came fifth grade. His father noticed students starting to decipher who had better marks, more friends and wealthier families. Ryan complained of one boy in particular who picked on his academic and athletic struggles.
Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can shatter your spirit.
"Ryan, that kid probably has a lot of issues of his own," the father told his son, "and he's looking to take it out on somebody."
Dad's advice: Walk away and eventually he will, too.
Graduating to Essex's sixth-through-eighth-grade middle school, Ryan seemingly left the teasing behind. Then in December 2002, his father came home to find his son face down atop the kitchen table.
"Can you home-school me?" he remembers the seventh-grader asking. "Can we move?"
His tormentor was back to bullying. The Halligans wanted to talk to the principal, but Ryan said a classmate who complained was tagged a crybaby and tattletale. Wiping away tears, he had another idea: "Dad, I want you to teach me how to fight."
His father didn't believe in fisticuffs, yet thought of the self-defense film "The Karate Kid." Soon he and his son were training in the martial arts program Tae-Bo.
Halligan told his son not to attack anyone but, if hit, to stand up for himself. And so his parents weren't entirely surprised when a school administrator called in February 2003 to say he had broken up a fight between Ryan and the bully.
"I got a few good punches in," the boy, still trembling with adrenaline, told his father, "and I don't think this kid is ever going to bother me again."
Cue the credits and you'd have a happy ending. But the Halligans faced new concerns. By the end of seventh grade, they exchanged skeptical glances when Ryan announced the bully had befriended him. Then they watched their once avid swimmer, camper, skateboarder and cyclist sit hypnotized all summer in front of the computer.
Halligan reminded his son of the family's Internet rules: No contact with strangers and no secret passwords. The parents respected their children's privacy. But in a cyber-world of scammers and stalkers, they wanted access if the unthinkable ever struck.
'All about u'
Halligan will share his every thought and feeling from before and after his son's suicide. But the specifics of the death itself are too horrific to remember, let alone recount.
"We tore the house apart," the father says after a moment of silence, "searching for the note that would answer the question, 'Why?'"
Afterward, Ryan's room looked like a tornado had hit. But there was no explanation underneath the wreckage.
Then Halligan, crying uncontrollably, spotted his son's seventh-grade yearbook. Opening it, he discovered photo after photo crossed out with scornful scribbling. The bully's picture was written over so hard, the pen had shredded the paper. Worst of all was the stick-figure drawing of a hangman.
After dinner, Halligan turned on a computer, typed the password he had given his son and, with an unsettling feeling of thrill and trepidation, saw the boy's Internet account spring to life.
Classmates couldn't believe the signal that popped up on their screens: Two days after his funeral, Ryan appeared to be back online.
"Who are you?" they typed one after another. "What are you doing? This isn't funny ..."
"I'm Mr. Halligan," he replied. "Is there anything anybody is willing to share that might explain why Ryan did what he did?"
The responses came together like puzzle pieces. Months earlier, Ryan had wound up in the emergency room with digestive pains. Back at school, he confided the particulars of the doctor's private exam, thinking them funny.
The bully thought so, too. He told everyone Ryan must be gay.
Halligan stared at the computer as schoolmates recounted how his son, inconsolable, hid in a bathroom between classes so not to drown in the tsunami of corridor torment.
The father then clicked on a file of his son's correspondence.
"I have found all about u," one student wrote.
Too many others sent messages too graphic to repeat. That's what made one giddy, giggling back-and-forth between his boy and a girl so unexpected.
He liked her. She liked him. Amid all the mud, a seed appeared to be sprouting.
Halligan knew only the girl's screen name, but he feared his son's death had left her heartbroken.
'Why didn't I?'
Soon after, a policeman arrived with news: On his last day, Ryan had told a classmate, "It's girls like you who make me want to kill myself."
The boy bared his heart to his online crush, only to discover her true intentions.
"Ryan, you're just a loser," classmates said she told him. "I was just joking."
Worse, she had forwarded his personal messages to her friends.
The Halligans were hurt and angry. But hearing that the girl was skipping school after a firestorm of blame, they knew they didn't want another family to suffer.
Reaching out, the Halligans told her Ryan's suicide wasn't sparked by one person but rather a snowballing depression hardened by years of bullying. The girl was so choked up she couldn't speak. But her vise-like hug communicated her sorrow and remorse.
The bully was a different story. When Halligan heard about the gay rumor just after his son's funeral, he grabbed his car keys and headed for the door.
"I want to crush this kid," he told his wife.
Kelly, more reasoned and reserved, told her husband to sit down. Two months later, he received a call from another father. The bully, it seemed, was still spreading tales about Ryan. Halligan again grabbed his car keys. This time, his wife wasn't there to stop him.
Driving to the bully's house, he strangled the steering wheel when he reached a red light.
"I'll be honest with you," he says now. "I wanted to kill him."
Minutes after the light changed, he stood face to face with his target.
The boy didn't know who Halligan was or why he was asking for his father or mother.
This is Ryan's dad, his parents went on to say.
The teenager turned white.
"You probably have no idea the amount of pain you brought into my son's life," Halligan practically shouted.
The bully denied everything. Halligan looked him straight in the eyes.
"You're lying," he said.
The boy went silent. Then he started to sob.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he said over and over.
Halligan breathed in the apology and exhaled.
"Why didn't I do this a lot sooner?" he thought on his way home. "If I'd only ... my son would still be alive today."
What if Halligan had consulted the school from the start? He learned that administrators would have brought the boys together for a "conflict resolution" session, asked Ryan to describe what happened, then waited until the bully apologized.
The father figured that would only humiliate his son further and persuade the bully to say he'd stop, knowing he could start again with little penalty.
What if Halligan had talked to police instead? He learned that authorities couldn't prosecute, as state law at the time didn't address bullying.
Seeking a strong deterrent, Halligan went to his state representative. Seven months after Ryan's death, the Legislature voted to require all Vermont schools to develop rules to prevent and respond to bullying. Two years later in 2006, Halligan won passage of a law supplementing health education with lessons about depression and risk of suicide.
But for Halligan, it wasn't enough. In 2005, he accepted an invitation to tell his son's story at a local school. Afterward, one student e-mailed: "I just wanted to let you know how you affected me ... I had picked on kids, after that speech I went to the few that I had and broke down apologizing to them."
Soon other schools asked him to speak. IBM let him take time off from work. But again for Halligan, it wasn't enough. Last year, when the microelectronics manager had to lay off workers, he gave himself notice, calculated what he'd need to charge to cover household and travel expenses, and began touring the nation.
Halligan has spoken at more than 350 schools in 21 states and two Canadian provinces, is booked for the rest of the academic year and has filled almost half of his fall calendar. (He's scheduled as far ahead as March 1-3, 2011, in Wayne, N.J.)
Last week, on his way home for Easter, he told audiences in Charlotte and Williamstown that while society talks of protecting children from computer predators and pedophiles, students are hurting each other daily through unsupervised e-mail, texts and message boards.
His son, alive in photos projected on the wall, was so present yet so painfully missing.
Halligan concludes his talks by recalling his own childhood and his favorite art teacher.
"You can always turn an inkblot into a butterfly," he quotes her.
Some days, the stain of what his family has experienced seems indelible.
"Ur finally gonna kill urself?!" a boy e-mailed Ryan before his suicide.
"Yep," he replied.
But Halligan keeps striving to rise above.
"All I want is to be with Ryan again someday," he says. "My wife and I have a strong faith he's with God, and we need to live the rest of our lives in such a way that we earn the right to be reunited. If we keep using him as a guiding light, everything will be fine. But I know if I go down that path of anger and do something I'd regret, I'll jeopardize that."
He understands how striking out hurts - and speaking up heals.
"There is no greater pain than for a parent to lose a child," he tells students. "Don't ever believe for a second that you don't matter, that no one would miss you if you were gone. I don't care who you are or what circumstance you're in. You all are loved beyond belief. Trust me on this one."