Bob Swartz: Losing Aaron

After his son was arrested for downloading files at MIT, Bob Swartz did everything in his power to save him. He couldn’t. Now he wants the institute to own up to its part in Aaron’s death.
bob swartz building 16

Bob Swartz walks past MIT’s Building 16, where Aaron was caught downloading files from an academic archive in 2011. (Photograph by Mark Fleming)

There was a point, during the two years of legal proceedings that would overtake, and then shatter, both of their lives, when Bob Swartz and his son Aaron found themselves with a bit of free time. They had arrived at the Federal Reserve building, in Boston, to meet Aaron’s lawyer—one of dozens of meetings Bob would arrange in hopes of fending off the 13 felony counts against his son. But they were early, so they took a walk.

Aaron was Bob’s first child, the oldest of three boys, and he was a fragile, thoughtful kid from the very beginning. Growing up, Aaron and his brothers, Noah and Ben, had unfettered access to the nascent Internet, creating and coding projects of their own design. Evenings were spent building robots with Legos, playing Myst or Magic: The Gathering. Dinner-table conversations might concern the merits of a particular font, or Edward Tufte’s theories of information. “It was a house of ideas,” Bob says.

Aaron taught himself to read at age three, and became bored with school shortly thereafter. By ninth grade he became an anti-school activist, arguing that rote drills and homework assignments couldn’t teach kids how to think. Instead, he chose to be “unschooled,” documenting his progress on a blog he called Schoolyard Subversion. “He lived more of his life online than he did with his friends,” Bob says. “There was a degree of alienation that occurred, especially as he got older. He was working on the Internet and that was sort of terra incognita.” But Aaron found a network of friends online—many far older than he—who shared his interest in the future of the Web. Bob understood his dark-eyed, curious son’s enthusiasms. They spent time together in their Highland Park home, bonding over books as Aaron mowed through the family’s canon. One summer, they cataloged several thousand of their books according to the Library of Congress classification system. One night a fight erupted over standards. Aaron won.

Another time, Bob took Aaron to the Crerar Library at the University of Chicago, just as his own father had once taken him. Bob led Aaron through the stacks, pulled a book off the shelf, and cradled it in his hands. It was from the 1800s, a marvel. He told his son libraries were portals into the knowledge of the world.

Whenever Aaron needed advice, his father would share an insight from life or literature. “You always answer things in stories,” Aaron would say. That afternoon, as Bob and Aaron circled the block, they discussed the events of the past few months—Aaron’s arrest, when he was forced to the pavement; his strip search and solitary confinement upon arraignment; the increasingly circuitous route the U.S. Attorney’s Office was taking in negotiating the charges; their legal fees, which would soon clear $1 million; the looming felony conviction that Aaron feared. Aaron said he felt as though he’d been living in a version of The Trial, Kafka’s classic novel, which follows the incoherent prosecution of a defendant named Josef K.

Aaron had read the story in 2011, shortly after his arrest, and called it “deep and magnificent” on his blog. “I’d not really read much Kafka before and had grown up led to believe that it was a paranoid and hyperbolic work,” he wrote. Instead, he’d found it “precisely accurate—every single detail perfectly mirrored my own experience. This isn’t fiction, but documentary.”

Bob had admired Kafka, but didn’t remember the plot of The Trial. He asked Aaron to remind him how the story ended.

Aaron just stared at him.

“They killed K., Dad,” Aaron told him. “They killed him.”

Just a few months later, on January 11, 2013, nearly two years from the date when he was first arrested by a Secret Service agent in Central Square, Aaron Swartz hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment. He was 26 years old.

 

MIT may be the world’s most prestigious engineering school, with touchscreen maps installed in its building lobbies, but it remains a remarkably difficult place to navigate. To find room 485 in the Media Lab building, you pass through a series of silver double doors, then skirt a workshop where a garden of mechanical flowers gleam purple and silver under iridescent lights. There are no bumper stickers or flyers taped to the hall window of room 485; the blinds are closed. The only sign it’s occupied at all is the magnetic poetry on the door. Most of the tiles are a random scramble, but nine have been arranged to form the lines: Construct the future to be better for your children.

Bob Swartz is inside.

Bob has kind brown eyes and a brow crowned with gray fuzz. He wears a striped button-down shirt, khakis, a brown belt, a Tag Heuer watch with a simple brown leather strap, and sensible shoes. He swivels in his chair with one leg tucked underneath him. The room is small, only about 10 by 14 feet, but there are seven office chairs. “This is where the chairs hang out,” he jokes. There is weariness in his voice. “I feel bad putting them out in the hall.”

Bob lives in Highland Park, Illinois. For more than a decade, he has traveled to the MIT campus each month to consult on intellectual-property aspects of Media Lab creations. After Aaron’s arrest, these trips took on a new urgency: He had to file motions, meet with attorneys, plead with MIT administrators. Now, in the wake of his son’s death, coming here has become an exercise in grief.

“I see Aaron on every corner,” he says. “I pass by the building. I see MIT police. I remember, I remember him…” he sighs. “We spent a lot of time here. There are all sorts of painful aspects of what happened. They come back.”


Janelle Nanos
Janelle Nanos Janelle Nanos, Contributor jnanos@bostonmagazine.com