Mentorship Cut Short by Suicide

The Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig discusses how Aaron Swartz's death shaped his own life's work.

Lawrence Lessig discusses campaign-finance reform at the American Enterprise Institute in the fall of 2015. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty)

Before he started working with Aaron Swartz, the Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig built his professional life around internet law and copyright policy. In the early 2000s, Lessig was at the top of his academic field, then working at Stanford. As an undergraduate student, Swartz, who had met Lessig at a computer conference when he was just 14, convinced the professor to radically change his career path.

The two developed a mentorship and partnership that would lead them to take on the complex goals of making information more accessible and demanding greater transparency from political institutions. Swartz became known for his involvement in Creative Commons and Reddit, and for his alleged attempt to make information from the academic-research site JSTOR free for public viewing. And then, in January of 2013, Swartz committed suicide. Lessig is still reeling from the loss.

I spoke with Lessig for The Atlantic’s series, “On the Shoulders of Giants.” He offered powerful lessons in mentorship, risk, and securing the legacy of someone he loved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Kitchener: What are the most important things Aaron taught you?

Lawrence Lessig: He taught me some good things and some bad things. He taught me to live a life committed to integrity. He had a coherent view of what his role was, what his purpose was.

But quite frankly the most dramatic lesson he taught me was the vicious cruelty of suicide.

Suicide has a blast radius, and if you are within the blast radius, you are forever affected. There isn’t a week when I don’t feel myself at the edge of crying because I think of Aaron. That sadness is forever. And that sense of responsibility is forever. The ten people closest to Aaron could each tell a story about how they feel like their failure to do something led to his suicide. Perpetually, these people within the blast radius live their life with that reflection. And that’s just deeply, deeply cruel.

Kitchener: What do you think is the most important thing you taught Aaron?

Lessig: I was always focused on figuring out how to engage the real world to reach a real end. We’d often have these exchanges when Aaron would start in a very disengaged, reactionary, revolutionary place. I would try to walk him back, to recognize there might be a way for us to engage here. I think I helped him engage more constructively on the issues we cared about.

Kitchener: At what point in your relationship with Aaron did you feel yourself becoming his mentor?

Lessig: I don’t think I can pin down any one moment when I got my mentoring badge. Over time, I recognized that we had a common set of values—we both believed we had an obligation to make the world a better place—then our relationship became an ongoing test of whether we could each live up to those values. We had to constantly question whether we had genuine reasons for doing one thing over another.

Kitchener: How did Aaron challenge you to do that?

Lessig: Aaron trapped me into giving up my work on internet law and copyright policy to take up work on political corruption. He came to me and said, “I don’t think you’re going to make any real progress on what you’re doing while there is still deep corruption in the way the government works.” At first I tried to push him off. I said, “Aaron, it’s not my field as an academic.” Then he said, “Is it your field as a citizen?”

Kitchener: Did it sometimes feel like Aaron was the mentor and you were the mentee?

Lessig: When he died, I referred to Aaron as my mentor. There was this reciprocal power that each of us had on the other. It certainly held me to account.

Kitchener: How has Aaron’s death affected the work you do now?

Lessig: Aaron radicalized me in a profound and potentially destructive way. He moved me away from being the quintessential member of the establishment to a committed dissident.

I’ve launched a series of increasingly crazy projects. Before he died, Aaron had this objective: How do we get to a place where we don’t believe that our government is deeply corrupted? I want to take any risk necessary to advance that mission.

Kitchener: What kinds of things have you done in his memory?

Lessig: We organized a march from the top of New Hampshire to the bottom of New Hampshire. One hundred eighty-seven miles. We started on January 11, the day that Aaron died. It’s kind of crazy to march across New Hampshire in the middle of the winter, but we did it. Then I launched Mayday PAC, an experiment in whether I could leverage big money in order to curb the influence of big money. Finally, I ran for president to try to at least get into the debates, so I could get the Democratic Party to focus on corruption. I certainly never would have done any of that before Aaron died. All those things are as far from my nature as they possibly could be. But at every moment, I wanted to be doing all I could to make sure Aaron’s life was worthwhile.