Life Inside the Aaron Swartz Investigation

Quinn Norton was never quite able to obey her lawyer's orders to not write about what was happening. She wrote these two pieces during the investigation. The first describes the connection she saw between how her father was treated and how Swartz was treated. The second, on the following page, is a letter she wrote to prosecutor Stephen Heymann, which, after being told she couldn't send it to him, she left for him on her Dropbox account in case it was ever subpoenaed.

Essay 4-5-11

Nearly a month into all this. I have downloaded Kafka's The Trial in my ongoing misguided attempt to get life advice from literature.

I am in New York. I am watching men in hardhats, lamps in hand, working on the MTA at 2am. Their lamplight is up against black of the tracks, no reflection. Just a feeble warm light eaten by the sooty black of the i-beams that make up so much of the subway that they are the mise-en-scène of getting around the city. I am walking around Manhattan on a perfect night, watching the bikes in Union Square. Clear, crisp, first day of the year in New York that didn't require a coat. Free.


I think a lot on how to explain incarceration to Ada. It's different than it was with my father, and like all parents, I'm determined not to make the same mistakes. If it's to come, she'll know what's coming. I'll help her think about it. She might still be scared and confused, god knows I am. But she won't be ashamed and disassociated. I will stop the terrible numbness that took me from taking her.

Dad wrote me letters from San Quentin, telling what he saw, how he survived. He described men moving from cells to the yard as a sea of soulless eyes. Until those letters, his grotesque and evocative descriptions of prison, I didn't know how poetic my father could be. I think SQ would have killed him if he'd had to stay there. He didn't want to be with the white supremacists, he had to fight to stay away from them. Until he found some Latino friends, my fat red headed dad lived in constant fear.

Aaron tells me Club Fed is nothing like that. I said good, I didn't know where jews end up in the prison hierarchy. My dad explained a lot of it, but he never mentioned jews. I don't think he encountered any in SQ or Chino. He wrote me and still, I feel like maybe I don't know the smallest part of what happened to him. I will never know what my dad hid from me about prison. I was 17 when he went in; he died when I was 23. I never got to a place where I could ask him. I never knew I had so little time to get there.

I sleep very badly most nights, dream fitfully, and argue with imaginary agents of criminal justice system through my days and nights. They take on monstrous proportions, the psychic size of my personal history, the size of my pain and my fears. In my dreams i'm arguing with a judge, with the prosecutor, agents, men of suits, dressed in formal darkness. Even my own lawyers-- all about the concepts that have haunted me since I opened the first of the little cards cut from a manilla folders that my father used to send me from prison. I am arguing about the monopoly on the use of force and the moral responsibility of it. I am explaining the nature of motivation and memory. I am arguing about the drug war. I am trying to explain to stone faced men the nature of addiction, and they are remaining thick and distant. I never talk about copyright.

Some days I feel I can barely breathe, that the weight of this system is compressing my lungs into a thin space where only short, shallow breathes can fit. Like my body is a cell for the air. Sometimes it is 1996, & I am at the Washington Monument, gasping, almost unable to physically cry for how hard the sobs are trying to break free of my lungs. I am kicking the monument, and I am trying to scream. Sometimes I manage to scream, sometimes the air and the tears and the terrible compressed emotion are trapped, too big to get out, too big to stay inside my little body. I am kicking and screaming and gasping. My friends are standing by me, taking care, bearing witness, reaching out to steady me and hold me as I need it. I am screaming at America. Beside me Amity says "America ain't shit" with such bitterness that I startle a little. Behind me is the Vietnam Memorial, where I have carefully spread a thin line of bone white grit along the top of the monument, just on the soil side. It is the second of four places I will eventually spread my father's ashes, until finally I will release him into his beloved Pacific 12 years after he died. I will do that 11 years after kicking the Washington Monument, after it occurs to me that the first tip in getting over the death of your dysfunctional dad is to not carry him around for 12 years. My father was thrown away after a war shattered him. The state that did this took no notice or care of him until they locked him up, sick, old, drug addicted, screaming in his sleep every night night because of the things that followed him back from Vietnam.


Aaron asked me if I could think of anything nice he'd done, someone that could give an affidavit about some orphans he'd adopted or something. Apparently, "That sort of thing helps," he said. The best thing I could think of off the top of my head was the crime they are accusing him of. That probably wouldn't help. Instead, I told him, "I'll think about it."

He is so delicate, so haunted by little things. He stays so far away most of the time. A sadness and a silence hang on him, and even people that don't know him well can feel it. He never wants to tell, which I guess is the part people find unimaginable. It's so strange that the world is prying in to discover that he never tells. Prying at the stretches of time when I would lie beside him, or hold him, or hug him goodbye and say "I love you," and he'd look at me with his mouth shut and his face tense, until I'd say, "You love me too." and he'd kiss my cheek. How could I testify to that? I told him not long ago, when all this is done, you have to finally tell me what you got for Reddit. He grinned and said "Nope!" How could anyone understand him and me? We are strange, even to ourselves. Neither of us fit well and comfortably in this world, like alien scouts doing a lifetime patrol. I used to tell people when we were together, "We're not from the same planet, but we're sure as hell neither of us from this one."

I am trying to imagine who he should make friends with if he goes to prison, who will protect him. I imagine writing him letters, sending him books, snatches of songs, bits and things, the poesis of everyday life. I imagine sending him a thousand little life preservers, and waiting for him to make his way back to me. I imagine that it could go horribly wrong, but I can't imagine who I would be if it did.

Presented by

Quinn Norton is a science and technology journalist whose work has appeared at and inThe GuardianMAKESeed,, and The Irish Times.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Technology

Just In