Residential Programs and Services gutted the room. It had no choice.
Greg Willoughby had lived alone in Willkie Residence Center in 2010. No one knew he had posted a warning sign consisting of two words — short, to the point —until the smell, leaking out into the halls, became too much to handle.
Hydrogen sulfide. Emits a smell like rotten eggs. Can be made with common household items, like toilet bowl cleaner or some shampoos. Lethal when inhaled.
According to a Brown University School of Medicine study released in June 2013, breathing in this toxic gas is a form of suicide growing in popularity within the United States.
The room took some of the blame. The room, some said, and the residence — the mysterious Willkie, so quiet, so shy, so solitary and alone. The room, tainted with chemicals and death, was stripped and replaced. But questions lingered. Who, in the terrible act of suicide, is ultimately responsible? The man? Or his world — the net of people and organizations meant to protect him, the net that let him slip through the cracks?
A 2007 Wells Scholar, Greg charmed the world with his smile. He played the cello and formed a quartet with two other friends — they called themselves the “Stringin’ Scientists.” He studied biochemistry and worked in a lab, where he was often trying to convince people to undergo MRIs for his research project. According to Indiana Daily Student articles from 2010, his jovial laugh permeated the corners of his life.
According to other IDS reports, students reported a strange, rotten-egg smell April 4.
Greg was not found until April 14. Dead in a closet next to a bucket which supposedly held the H2S that killed him.
The Willkie staff was in shock, says Jeanne Lady, associate director for residential operations. Disappointed. They asked themselves difficult questions, again and again.
“Why didn’t we know? How could we not have known?”
Last year, transfer student Matthew Bernbaum lived five doors down from where the event occurred a year and a half prior. When asked about it, he speaks quickly, fiercely, already knowing the story. He shakes his head when he talks.
“Something should have been done,” he says. “He should have been found by like … day four.”
The circumstances were gray, blurry — a fog of blame and responsibility.
Following the incident, Willkie fielded some bad press — press that took advantage of Willkie’s reputation of solitude.
“It is a closed off community for independent people,” one IDS report reads. “It is not unusual to go weeks or even months without seeing someone on the floor.
“Willkie residents describe the floors of Willkie as isolated and quiet.
“Willoughby’s disappearance was not noticed by his floormates.”
Much of the blame, it seemed, was placed heavily on Willkie’s single-style living environment.
Similar to resident assistants, floor presidents are the RPS liaisons on each Willkie floor, a resource for students for any issue they might have with residence hall life. Their training is not as intense as RA training, as they are not responsible for discipline or walk-arounds, says Mark Wise, floor president of South Tower floor 7. Their residents are older and don’t require that sort of policing.
But they are in charge of programming. They are expected to use these programs, both floor-wide and building-wide, to teach RPS’ Four Pillars: academic support, personal development, community development, and exploring beliefs. The South Tower basement is a common spot for these events.
It’s a Wednesday night in September. In this basement, no one is playing pool on the maroon table, the one with brown fringe at the corners. No one is sitting at the blue and black checkers table or playing at the Killerspin ping pong table.
The floor presidents wait in a tight circle by the back door. They’ve advertised s’mores and folktales from different cultures. No one has shown up yet. It’s 8:22, and the event is supposed to begin at 8:30.
This is where it gets hard, Mark says. He is a pre-med student and highly involved in Resident Hall Association. He is dedicated to his job. His residents, including Matthew, say he does his job well.
“The hard part is leading a horse to water that won’t drink,” Mark says. “That’s where the conflict lies.”
Matthew fights the idea that Willkie is lonely and empty by having weekly movie nights. He insists on everyone attending.
He is tall, his hair wildly curly. His room is straight, well-kept. The bed is made to look like a sofa. He burns incense in the corner.
He loves living in Willkie.
“It’s fun,” he says, and not for the reasons people think — the allowance of alcohol, for example. It’s fun, he says, because it’s like apartment living, except in which you know your neighbors.
But he knows the problem inherent with single-living.
“A lot of people grab singles because they think, ‘Oh I want to be alone’ and everything like that,” he says. “You don’t want that.”
The self-appointed social man of the floor, he knocks on everyone’s door to ask them to movie night. Tonight they are watching “Star Trek Into Darkness” because Matthew recently bought it and everyone wanted to see the sequel to “Star Trek,” the movie they’d watched three weeks prior.
He calls out to anyone who passes to come and join.
“Hey!” he calls out to a passing floormate. “Movie night! You in?”
He knows the power of reaching out. He wonders about responsibility, about making sure everyone is OK.
He has Asperger’s syndrome. He understands wanting to hide away in a room when things go wrong.
“That’s half the reason I like making sure a floor is social, so that if someone sees something is wrong with someone … they’ll tell someone,” he says. “They will make sure that that person gets help.”
Out of 32 students on his floor, he is the only one with his door open. In Willkie, the door automatically shuts behind you.
Living alone is not unique to Willkie. Nor are its experiences. Students live in singles elsewhere and share the same problems. But there are still many pros.
Living alone allows a sort of sanctuary from busy campus life, says Nancy Stockton, medical director for Counseling and Psychological Services at IU Health Center. People who live in single dorms choose to be there, she notes, and usually for
“I hear the other side of things sometimes,” she says, “that students have trouble finding privacy on a campus like this.”
Jessica Sigmon, a sophomore psychology student, lives in Willkie on the same floor as Matthew. She chose to live in Willkie on the same floor as one of her friends from her first year, Siara Smith, also a sophomore psychology student.
But sometimes, during the weekdays with nothing to do, loneliness strikes, Jessica says.
There is no large lounge space on the Willkie floors.
“It kills me so much,” she says. Last year their large lounge in Forest Residence Center had gaming systems set up. It was how they became close to their floor. The only reason they know half the people they know on their floor now is because of Matthew and his movie nights.
The only real lounge space on Willkie floor 7 is a small room with a single table and four chairs.
“It feels like a supply closet,” Siara says.
Willkie lost much of its floor social space in the renovation of 1998, Jeanne says. Willkie has long been the residence of upperclassmen, she notes, and after the renovation, the building reflected the students’ supposed desire to “graduate” from lounges, RAs, and first-year residence hall type programming.
That assumption was not entirely correct, she says.
“Willkie students really still want to be in a community,” she says. “They still want to be connected.”
Others may not.
“Some students may choose to live there for somewhat negative reasons,” Nancy says of single dorms. “They have a lot of social anxiety, and they kind of escape to there and don’t grow.”
People debate as to what role RPS can play in this, Nancy says.
In the battle of give and take, how much does each side have to give in realizing there might be a problem?
Matthew lives alone so that he does not burden a roommate, he says. He lives alone because he knows how to take care of himself. Living with Asperger’s is its own battle.
“It comes with all sorts of baggage,” he says. “And it causes some issues.”
He talks to a psychiatrist once a week. He used to go less. Something happened — he doesn’t say what — and Matthew knew he needed to see him more.
“So it’s like, hey, OK, I sought help, but that’s because I had to deal with this enough that I knew,” he says. “Someone without that experience would have no idea and it would just build up.”
He has strong feelings on the University’s responsibility to help with his Asperger’s and to help his fellow students.
When it comes to making his floor social, though, he sees the responsibility split.
“It’s a step forward (from dorms),” he says. “But (RPS) shouldn’t just set you on your own 100 percent.”
After Greg’s death, the Willkie staff took a hard look at its programming. The news cycle buzzed with accusations of solitude, and the staff felt like the bad guys, Jeanne says. But the coverage struck a chord.
“I’d say all the things the articles, the family, and even the TV stations were saying, which seemed accusatory,” she says. “We were wrestling with those things.”
The semester following Greg’s death, RPS formed a committee to examine how to better build a community.
It existed for a year and made suggestions that actively changed the way Willkie was run.
Welcome Week programming was beefed up, featuring hog roasts, movies shown outside, musicians, and games from all around the world.
RPS restyled the kitchenettes on some of the floors so they’d contain a “family style” dinner table set up. The South Tower basement gained its TV, its computers and pool tables.
Willkie staff also refocused its floor presidents’ training program. They are expected to get to know their residents and remain cognizant of their states of mind.
Greg’s death disturbed the staff, Jeanne says, and they sought to avoid something like that —the 10-day disappearance, in particular — from happening again.
“We really are the eyes and ears of RPS,” Mark said. “I think there’s a reason why the RA position has existed and persisted. We are the essential answer to those problems.”
RPS does perform wellness checks if someone calls in asking about a student, and it trains its RAs and floor presidents in ways to speak with someone who is struggling with a mental health issue, Jeanne says.
But Matthew also recognizes that students can’t be forced to help themselves if they have no idea what’s wrong.
“You can’t expect them to go and get help if they are already in that state,” he says.
Living alone takes initiative, too, Nancy says.
“You know what you’re getting into, there’s not many people going in and out of your room, checking on you,” Siara says.
The important thing to Matthew is that everyone tries.
“There’s a lot of people on this floor where I’m like ‘Hey, let’s chill sometime’ and they’ll just roll their eyes … and walk away,” he says.
He is adamant. But it works. When he holds movie nights, the people come.
It is 8:31.
Finally, three people walk down to greet the quiet circle of floor presidents.
Another, Darius, joins them.
“I came for the company,” he says.
By 8:45, 24 people sit in a tight circle of plush chairs and sofas. The basement, slowly, comes to life.
Eight floors up and two days prior, Matthew’s movie night is off to a swinging start. Seven people show up, including Siara and Jessica.
The door is open. Their voices fill the Willkie hallways.
Matthew knows he has the tendency to hide away. But that, he says, is why he tries. He doesn’t want a sanctuary for himself anymore. His room, he decided, is a sanctuary for everyone.
They had, after all, come for the company.