People call me Aaron

6 min readJan 11, 2016

Today is January 11th. Some of you know what this day means to me — it marks the 3 year anniversary of when I was in New York and got a text from Taren asking for my mother’s phone number with no explanation, 3 years since I got a call an hour later with my mother shrieking, 3 years since I took a cab to Aaron’s apartment lobby to see Taren in tears — inconsolable, since Ben showed up shortly after just in time for the police to tell us that it was probably a bad idea for us to go into Aaron’s room — which was filled with police and medics. Since I spent the following months confused about how I should feel about being enrolled in an MIT independent activities period class, since I had to listen or force myself to not listen as people shared their unqualified musings on Aaron’s case.

That’s around the same time that people started introducing themselves by saying things about my Famous Dead Brother. Around the same time that, in the numb haze that follows that sort of trauma, I felt that I should help out with the efforts people were making to remember Aaron. From starting with a memorial hackathon — far too soon after his death — to agreeing to be interviewed by Brian Knappenberg for a documentary that I didn’t even have a concept of what it would be or how much it would completely change the way people would see or talk to me in the future.

Being Aaron’s brother was one of the most important parts of my life, but it’s almost impossible to describe how so soon after his death 3 years ago it felt like a secret I needed to hide. I got a job a few months later in a new city where almost no one knew me from before January 11th.

Imposter syndrome isn’t quite the right word, but constantly wondering at work if the only reason you were hired was out of pity, and constantly wondering if your friends only said nice things about you because they had read about your brother in the news wasn’t the healthiest thing. The worst of it was I didn’t even know who knew — so on days that I’d see a triggering headline, or thought I’d overheard someone make a comment, I didn’t know who I could talk to without having to explain the whole thing again. The thought of saying to someone ‘You know — my brother’ sounded conceited, but assuming they hadn't heard also sounded delusional. I wanted to cry all the time, occasionally I succeeded — like on the flight back from Sundance after standing on stage after the first screening of The Internet’s Own Boy — answering crowd questions about Aaron’s life and prosecution. For months the smallest things would set me off.

I watched as he was turned into a figurehead for American injustice and the open access movement, as every nuanced part of him — the parts that I loved to chat about with the people close to him — were stripped away and he was made a banner of the exceptional being crushed by dumb laws like the CFAA. I started getting emails and tweets from people who wanted to tell me how much his story had affected or inspired them, but I hadn’t (and maybe still haven’t) processed it. When I felt more stable these were merely confusing, at other times they triggered emotional reactions that would ruin entire days. For the first year almost weekly I wanted to curl up into a ball and hide from the world. There wasn’t a day that I didn’t think about Aaron, and people wouldn’t let me forget either.

Sundance 2014

I started being unable to control when I cried. Tears would stream from my eyes if I stayed up too late, or if I was feeling especially socially anxious or rejected. At DEFCON in 2014 I distinctly remember being ‘bored to tears’ at multiple parties as I watched people scan the crowd for more important conversational partners when I’d try to strike up conversation. Important enough to have around, not interesting enough to talk to or to even attempt to learn who I was. I felt like garbage.

I realized at some point that I’d never be able to have my own identity ever again, or at least one distinct from being a token of Aaron’s legacy. The disturbing emails and tweets, the people who straddled the border of overexcited fans and stalkers - who needed to meet me needed to tell me in person how Aaron had changed their lives - they weren’t the worst. The relative strangers I’d meet at events, that days later would reveal they ‘knew who I was’ all along - they weren’t either. It’s when people started calling me his name.

I spent a year in Seattle before I couldn’t stand it any more and quit my job, put most of my possessions in storage, and left. A few months later when I came back to get my stuff and make my move to San Francisco I went to one final house party with the friends I had seen weekly while I lived in town. Two of those friends called me Aaron. I half expected this when I was being trotted around as a prop for The Internet’s Own Boy, movie reps and people who had just heard the story for the first time couldn’t be expected to keep my name straight I thought. But from friends? Close friends, I had thought, did they only put up with me because they were confused?

When Aaron was alive I always had a sense that he’d take care of it. I’m sure other people with older brothers had similar thoughts, but Aaron was so active — if there was something broken about the state of the world, who could know more about it than my older brother? It felt pointless to try, he had it under control. Without him around that excuse made a lot less sense. I started getting more into the political hacker scene — to try to see what I could do, and maybe be an ounce as effective as Aaron was.

I started going to places like DEFCON, the Chaos Communication Congress, HOPE and so on. Without fail, at each of these, someone would call me Aaron. At a new years party last year. The look of horror and embarrassment on the face of the host when someone ran up to her and told her she ‘just had to meet Aaron’ was unforgettable. Was I invited just to show off that one of the hosts was close with my brother? It happened again at Burning Man, at multiple of the Privacy Lab events that I host at my office in San Francisco. Sometimes from strangers, but more often from people I thought of as friends. Once while in bed with new girlfriend, once while on stage giving a panel talk, once from barista who I’d never had a conversation with, once at a party while being introduced by a prominent cryptographer. Over and over again.

Noah Swartz — Brother of Aaron Swartz

It’s been three years now and things have gotten a little easier to handle. For one thing I can say his name without wanting to cry. But this goes on. I’d like to think that one day it will stop, but on days like today, days where I want to think about what Aaron’s absence means to me, but all that happens instead are that people want to tell me how much Aaron’s death means to them, I’m not so sure that it ever will.

I don’t have some big thesis about what I’ve learned about human interaction, nor am I writing this to garner compassion. It’s just that I’m finally ready to talk about some of these things, to stop hiding how I feel and be seen for who I am.