Why did this brilliant MIT student jump to his death?
Thursday, May 21, 1998
By JOSEPH MALLIA
Alone in a 15th-floor classroom, MIT sophomore Philip C. Gale drew a physics formula on a blackboard showing what happens when a body falls from a great height.
Then he slammed a chair through the classroom window and jumped more than 200 feet to his death, as horrified students watched from a plaza below.
But the blackboard message - and a mysterious tape recording - gave no clues to why the brilliant 19-year-old chose such a dramatic ending two months ago to a life full of promise.
``Because of the public nature of Philip's act, this has been an acute time of introspection,'' MIT Associate Dean Robert Randolph said.
As evidence emerged that Gale was suffering from depression, students and staff wondered aloud about why the high-pressure school's psychological safety net didn't save him.
And friends raised questions about whether his upbringing in a controversial religion - the Church of Scientology - played a part in his suicide.
Gale had quit the church. Even so, he chose to kill himself on March 13, the church's most important annual holiday marking the birthday of the late Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Accepted at MIT at age 15, Gale excelled even on a campus that is a magnet for the world's technological elite.
Fluent in 20 computer programming languages, he took a break from MIT, and before his 17th birthday earned stock options worth perhaps $1 million - and a $70,000 annual salary - writing software at the Los Angeles-based Internet company EarthLink Network Inc.
The 7:27 p.m. Friday suicide was a shock to students passing the busy Green Building plaza or in the East Campus dorm, who saw the breaking glass, the chair falling and Philip Gale plummeting to the concrete below.
``A dozen or so people were there, some crying, some running to get help, some running to attempt medical aid,'' said sophomore Matthew S. Munsey, 19, who sang Bach in the MIT Choir with Gale.
The suicide provoked intense debate on campus, and on the Internet newsgroup alt.religion.scientology, about whether it was linked to Gale's Scientology upbringing. And Munsey soon created a Web page titled ``Who is Philip Gale?'' raising questions about a link between Scientology and the suicide.
According to Gale's friends, depression - or what he called ``boredom'' or a ``void'' - had long been masked by his irreverent sense of humor.
The tall, skinny overachiever with close-cropped, bright red hair began to see his computer and music classwork as ``inane.'' He spent hours banging on a drum set and playing computer games.
Gale was still coming to terms with the sudden death of his father two years ago - at age 47 - of a heart attack, said Lauren McLeod, 22, a college friend who is now a reporter for the Concord Journal.
``He was having a really hard time dealing with it, and with how his family reacted to it. He had drifted apart from his family since his father's death,'' McLeod said.
And Gale had recently paid one visit to a therapist.
``He was talking about how he'd seen a psychologist that week, and thought the guy was a complete dip - - - -,'' roommate Jason Politi said at Gale's memorial service.
He rarely talked about quitting the Church of Scientology, where his mother, Marie Gale, remained a prominent church official, the friends said.
Scientology's critics, however, soon pointed a condemning finger at the mother, a leader in the church's highly visible campaign against psychiatry and the antidepressive drug Prozac.
``Within 12 hours of the memorial service, an elaborate conversation had emerged on the Internet, raising questions about Marie Gale's work against psychiatry,'' Dean Randolph said.
``In the Internet conversation the question came up, `Could a mother who hated psychiatry help a son like Philip who needed help? And how fit was she to be a mother?' '' the dean said.
Randolph said the criticism of Marie Gale was misguided.
A student newspaper, The Thistle, published an obituary describing the distress Philip Gale may have been facing alone.
``He found himself caught between two worlds and terribly alone in the center,'' the obituary said.
Gale was going through an ``existential depression,'' Brian Ladner, a friend and former EarthLink co-worker, said in a telephone interview from California.
``Leaving Scientology was a traumatic experience. He was brought up thinking it was the only way,'' Ladner said.
While family and lifelong friends remained in the church, Gale set out on his own.
``He saw through Scientology, or saw past it. And he didn't understand why others didn't see past it,'' Ladner said.
``But even though he left Scientology, who knows whether it left him?'' the friend asked.
Philip Gale spent his early childhood in Clearwater, Fla., the church's Mecca.
At age 8 he went away to Scientology's top boarding school for children, the Delphian Academy in Oregon, where he graduated at 14.
Marie Gale first brought Philip and his younger sister, Elizabeth, into the public eye when she defended Scientology in a 1991 St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times series of articles about the church.
The articles contained allegations that in the Church of Scientology, children - considered ``adults in small bodies'' - are emotionally and physically neglected, while families are destroyed when one member leaves and church policy forces the others to ``disconnect'' from the defector.
Church officials denied the accusations.
``Considering my parents and grandmother, my children are fourth-generation Scientologists,'' Marie Gale told the Florida newspaper.
``I attribute much of the success and happiness in my life'' to Scientology, she said.
Neither of her children were forced into Scientology, but both studied its methods deeply, she said.
By age 12 Philip was being trained with the church's E-meter - a device like a lie detector that shows emotional reactions - to help him in school, Marie Gale said.
The Gale family was highly regarded in the church, having donated at least $100,000.
Marie Gale was also one of Scientology's top students, reaching the highest level - ``Operating Thetan VIII'' - on its ``Bridge to Total Freedom.''
Then in 1993 while working in Utah as a spokeswoman for Scientology's anti-psychiatry group, Citizens' Commission for Human Rights, she had a heated public exchange with psychiatrists in the pages of The Salt Lake Tribune daily newspaper on the subject of anti-depressant drugs.
Marie Gale proposed ``a national war on anti-depressant medications, particularly Prozac,'' Dr. Noel C. Gardner, president of the Utah Psychiatric Association, wrote in an Oct. 10, 1993 opinion piece.
``Ms. Gale's letter belies a serious lack of understanding of the nature of major depressive disorders,'' Dr. Gardner wrote.
``The lifetime risk of successfully completing suicide in individuals with recurrent depression is 15 percent,'' the psychiatrist wrote.
Marie Gale declined Herald requests for an interview.
At an MIT chapel memorial service for Philip Gale on March 20, his mother spoke to the mourners.
``I'm Mom,'' Marie Gale said, weeping.
``He had the ability to take something and just walk it out. I think that's what he did . . . He outlogic-ed himself,'' she said.
After the memorial, Philip's mother borrowed an MIT Media Lab computer to write an Internet message accusing the Boston Herald - along with Scientology's Internet critics - of pushing her son toward suicide.
She said her son had been upset by a February interview with a Herald reporter who was preparing a series of articles on Scientology. The articles, published March 1-5, contained allegations that the church enriched itself using fraud and deceit.
In a brief telephone interview with the Herald, Philip Gale made it clear he was no longer a practicing church member and in fact disliked Scientology.
Gale spoke in a breezy, offhand tone. Though he did not sound angry, his comments were laced with profanities.
``My father is dead, but my mom is a Scientologist. Everyone thinks it's a really quirky religion, but they're normal parents. They're normal people,'' the youth said.
He summed up his view of Scientology: ``I think in general it's not the best practice. It didn't help me at all.''
And he described himself as ``an atheist, or agnostic.''
He was asked specifically about two topics related to Scientology's recruitment activities in Massachusetts: its learn-to-read techniques, known as ``Study Technology''; and its detoxification method, called the ``Purification Rundown,'' which requires exercise, long saunas and huge doses of niacin.
``Study Tech? My personal opinion of Study Tech is that it's a worthless formulation, a very mechanical thing,'' Philip Gale said.
And about the Purification Rundown, he said: ``In my opinion it's all ridiculous. You run, you go in a sauna, it's all very pseudoscientific.''
For months, Gale had been despondent, and recently had talked of suicide, friends said.
``He mentioned it a couple of weeks ago. He had considered it and dismissed it,'' his fraternity brother Eruc Hu told the Crimson newspaper at Harvard University.
``He was just bored with life and I guess just depressed that he was destined to be bored for the rest of his life,'' Hu said.
Scientologists are taught that if they abandon the church they will soon kill themselves or have a serious illness or accident, said Flo Conway, a New York-based researcher and author on the mental effects of training and rituals in new religious groups.
``There is a tremendous amount of suggestion that if you leave Scientology, you will commit suicide,'' said Conway, who considers Scientology a destructive religious group.
Former Scientologists had the highest rates of persistent fear, sleeplessness, suicidal and self-destructive tendencies, violent outbursts, hallucinations and delusions, compared to ex-members of other religious groups - including the Hare Krishna movement and the Unification Church - Conway and her colleague Jim Siegelman found in a University of Oregon study.
``Somebody raised from birth to age 14 in Scientology would be deeply imprinted, deeply affected. Their technology throttles the brain and the central nervous system,'' Conway said.
After a Cambridge police investigation and an autopsy, Gale's death was ruled a suicide.
In his off-campus Central Square apartment, a friend said, he left a brief note saying, in essence: ``Don't grieve.''
Nor did Gale leave clues to his state of mind on a cassette tape recorder left running in the classroom he jumped from - a newly bought digital recorder with a $1,000-plus price tag still attached, a police source said.
``You can hear him walking around the room. You can hear the window being smashed, but no voice,'' said the source.
The blackboard diagram Gale drew was pure mathematics, ``a mass-velocity formulation explaining what happens when a mass goes out a window,'' Dean Randolph said.
While Gale's suicide was unexpected, his method wasn't.
``It was typical Phil. It's so like him to have planned a show,'' said an ex-girlfriend, Wellesley College student Christine Hrul, 22.
``He was so careful with things in his life, so methodical,'' she said.
Gale wasn't even 17 when he left EarthLink with options to buy at under $10 tens of thousands of shares. Those shares shot up to 53 5/8 by March 13, not long after the Internet company announced a partnership with Sprint Corp.
``If he wasn't a millionaire then he was well into it,'' his former co-worker Brian Ladner said.
But Gale, who often dressed in green khaki pants and a ``grungy'' shirt, didn't care about money except to buy computer equipment and drums, the friend said.
Now, months later, an impromptu memorial still marks the spot where Philip Gale fell. On a lightpost, friends arrayed an unopened packet of Camel cigarettes, a stuffed animal, flowers, a candle, a wooden hammer, and a eulogy: ``As misunderstood as he seemed in life, so he remains in the afterlife.''