When my brother died, I was too shattered to write his obituary. There is little record of his 29 years of life; it simply vanished. When I type “Yush Gupta,” Google autofills “Yush Gupta death,” a brutal reminder that even on the internet, a space where nothing is forgotten, Yush is a mirage, slowly disappearing.
Despite his long list of accomplishments as a computer programmer and engineer, when I complete the search there is little left of Yush: a GoFundMe started by my parents, an entry from the Toronto funeral home where his body was cremated, an article in his college alumni magazine. On the internet, a place where Yush lived his life, he has been reduced to one single fact: He died young.
I’m not exactly sure when he died. My father called me with the news on Saturday, November 4, 2017, but Yush was in Italy, which is six hours ahead. I later learned that a blood clot shot up from his leg and blocked his lungs; a pulmonary embolism. He likely fell to the floor alone in a small room in Milan, gasping for air through excruciating pain, texting his caretaker to call an ambulance. Yush drew his last breaths surrounded by Italian EMS workers who didn’t know his name, in a country that was not his.
Pulmonary embolisms are rare in young people. In the United States, they are even less common among Asian-Americans than white people. Yush was a lifelong long-distance runner; he was healthy and active. Statistically, he was among those least likely to suffer a pulmonary embolism.
And yet, despite the statistics, that is what ended his life. In the weeks following his death, I learned that his death did not result from a natural cause, nor was it suicide; it was an incident brought on by forces beyond his control, but resulted from risks that were entirely preventable.
But that was not the only mystery I uncovered about Yush’s life: While I had always worried about his financial stability, in the days and months following his death, I would learn that he had become wealthy from bitcoin investments. I learned that he was secretly building a technology that he believed could revolutionize the world. And I learned that he had written an anonymous essay about our family published in a Men’s Rights anthology, in which he lamented over a society that values the “emotional pain” of women over the burden men have to provide for them. He complained that women were inferior in logical ability, and that women in abusive relationships are not held accountable for their decision to stay, while pressures upon men are overlooked and ignored.
The truth is, though I knew Yush better than perhaps anyone, I barely understood the man he had become. In recent years, we had become estranged due to our oppositional values: I became a vocal, ardent feminist. He saw feminists as extremists who were deeply hateful towards men.
It was apparent, from a young age, that Yush was brilliant. As a rising sophomore in high school, he joined the lab of Dr. Nelson Tansu, Director of Lehigh University’s Center for Photonics and Nanoelectronics. Over the course of two years, Yush, a teen just entering puberty, worked alongside physicists and engineers. Yush became such an important figure in the development of a new type of telecom laser that Dr. Tansu told me “with absolute certainty” that the research his group submitted in 2006 and 2007, which resulted in two top conference publications, “would not have been completed and done without Yush’s contribution.”
Yush made being nerdy look cool. I remember a multi-colored Rubik’s Cube glued to his hands; he was always moving, studying, executing algorithms and patterns that he had committed to memory. Pretty soon, our friend Ranjan Rohatgi was hooked, too. Rohatgi recalls that Yush was so intent on cutting down the time that he disassembled the cube and coated all of the pieces with WD-40. “We weren’t hiding our new skills—we’d take our cubes to school, compete with each other, show everyone else how cool we were,” Rohatgi told me via email. During Yush’s sophomore year, they speed-solved a Rubik’s Cube in front of our entire high school. “Yush beat me by a few seconds with a time in the lower 40s,” he recalled. “Each round was followed by applause and cheers from literally the entire high school. It was pretty surreal.”
Despite this, somehow, Yush was also well-liked. He played the drums, ran varsity cross-country, and dated girls. His friend Veronica Fischmann reminded me of her “all-time favorite” story about their high school graduation when Yush pranked the school’s headmaster, a white British man. Yush painstakingly taught our headmaster how to pronounce a vaguely Indian-sounding middle name that Yush had made up: “VakaDakaRamaPutna.” At graduation, our headmaster unwittingly called Yush Pal VakaDakaRamaPutna Gupta to the stage, and the room boomed with laughter.
As his sister, this sillier side was one of my favorite things about him. At his eulogy, I shared a poem that he had written for my 30th birthday, which began like this, and ended with a refrain sung to the tune of Flight of the Valkyries:
welcome you to the prachi-prach
prach-prachi prach prach prach.
you want to prach with the prachi-prach?
prach-prachi prach prach prach.
Yush would later tell me that high school was the last time he felt truly happy. Though he found his calling in college, he also became less balanced and steadily slid into a depression that would nearly claim his life. In all of the interviews I conducted for this piece, no one brought up his mental health or what role it played in his death, if any. But I believe that his brilliance and apparent eccentricities masked the toll that his unmanaged depression and deep-seated insecurities about masculinity took on him.
The week after Yush’s death, I had intense flashbacks to 2009, when he was 21, beginning his senior year at Carnegie Mellon University. I had just seen him over the weekend; he cheered me on during the Great Race 10K, taking photos of me as I ran past the campus on Forbes Avenue. I flew from Pittsburgh to Boston that afternoon, where I was entering the second week on my first consulting project with Deloitte.
Three days later, around midnight, I got a call from his roommate. He had found Yush’s suicide note.
I don’t know how many times I called him, desperate to hear his voice, leaving frantic voicemails until the machine cut me off, begging him to not kill himself, crying that I loved him and needed him and would miss him so, so much. I remembered how those minutes, or maybe just seconds, stretched into eternities when I didn’t know if my little brother, my only sibling, my best friend, was alive or dead.
He would later tell a girlfriend that the thought of me stopped him from ending his life. As I tried to understand his death, I kept thinking about how this time, I hadn’t been able to save him.
I used to think that someone’s half-birthday was the day their sibling was born because Yush was born on January 19, one year and six months after me, to the day. He was always calm, my Dadaji called him “cool like Obama,” with a mop of thick, black hair and a wiry frame he tried to plump up in college by consuming milk, cookies, and beer before bed.
“Mom and I wanted you to have each other as best friends,” my dad always said, reminding us that we needed to take care of each other after they died.
We were, in fact, best friends. Growing up, we were both outcasts as the only kids of color in our white, working-class Pittsburgh neighborhood, and being nerds did not help us make other friends. We built different worlds with Legos, pretending to time travel through them; we constructed forts with foam mattresses and blankets; we turned our twin-size beds into a storefront and played shop. We decided that names were arbitrary and created our own for each other (he called me “Ingrid”). There were of course a few years in which I felt I was too cool to be seen in public with the younger brother who would, annoyingly, be mistaken for my twin. But throughout high school and college, we frequently hung out with our friends, two grades apart, in our parents’ basement as one big group. We were each other’s companions on long runs, told each other about our crushes, and became each other’s sanity checks when the world around us made no sense.
The best part about college, for me, was that Yush lived only a mile away. During finals week my junior year at the University of Pittsburgh, I had a fever that would not break. Eventually, I became so dehydrated and weak that I could not walk, I could only crawl. Yush slept on the floor of my room for several days, missing classes to take care of me, and then took me to the emergency room. In one email to him in 2005, after I broke up with my first boyfriend, I wrote, “sometimes...most times, i dont know what i would do without you. its you and me, forever.”
But in the last year of his life, we had spoken to each other only twice over the phone. To each of us, the political was very much personal, stemming from wildly different responses to witnessing domestic violence within the deeply patriarchal culture of our Indian-American family. When he died, I believed that I didn’t know the facts of his life well enough to write his obituary. Worse, I feared that he wouldn’t have wanted me to write it. How do you write about someone you loved intensely, but didn’t really like?
After his death, I set out to report on his life by interviewing the people who were closest to him—the people who knew him in ways that I didn’t, the people that he touched and who had touched him. The process was healing and heartbreaking. It made me realize that, despite our profound differences, no one was closer in Yush’s heart than me, and mine in his. In his life, I grieved the loss of a boy who had hardened himself to conform to societal expectations of manhood. Now, I mourn the death of a man who felt he had no choice but to be any other way.
Yush got into his top choice and one of the top schools in the country for computer science, Carnegie Mellon, on early decision. He majored in Electrical and Computer Engineering and minored in Computer Science. On paper, the accomplishments are long: He joined CMU’s LunarXPrize team, a now-defunct collegiate competition held by Google to build a private spacecraft. He expanded funding and membership for the department’s annual hardware hackathon, Build18, and served as vice president of Carnegie Mellon’s Sigma Chapter of Eta Kappa Nu, a national honor society for electrical and computer engineering students. Upon graduation in 2010, he was among a handful of CMU students named an Andrew Carnegie Society Scholar.
His former teaching assistant and close friend Boris Lipchin worked at SpaceX upon graduation and encouraged Yush to apply for an internship. As an intern, Yush helped build software for the Dragon, a space capsule that delivers cargo to the International Space Station. Yush’s code was launched to the International Space Station, and by the end of the summer, he was one of two interns with a job offer from SpaceX’s Flight Software Group. His code is still used in SpaceX’s Dragon missions to this day.
But Yush turned down one of the most coveted jobs in engineering because he wanted to follow his own vision. He took a less glamorous job at Intel, one that would give him ample time to work on his nascent company, Pensieve, with which he wanted to create an interactive platform that enabled anyone to create, edit, and teach online courses and books. Intel was one of the few traditional jobs he’d ever take—most of his adult life, he worked for other employers only when he was out of cash to fuel his own ventures.
In the months before his death, Yush was engineering a system of blocks that could form the skeleton for any structure, inanimate or living, and take on its behavioral properties. Though it sounds like science fiction, Yush’s abilities had long surpassed the realm of what I could imagine. The implications for its use, according to his vision, were vast: He built a skeleton of a manta ray that looked and moved like the animal. There were other potential uses, too: “He wanted to be able to build homes for the floodplains in India, for people who, if the flood destroyed the homes, would be able to pick the pieces and build a new home out of it,” my dad told me.
Yush always walked his own path, guided by a strong, personal moral compass—a quality that Lipchin, and nearly everyone else I spoke to, greatly admired. “He really followed what he believed, and wouldn’t let our crap advice ever sway him,” Lipchin said. But as Lipchin told me, Yush “only saw the forest and never the trees”—a quality that got him in trouble, too.
When Yush moved across the country in 2016, from Boston to San Francisco, he lost all of his identification, including his birth certificate. Most people would panic, but according to one of Yush’s best friends from college, his reaction was to hail Uber rides around the city and ask the drivers for advice on what they would do if they lost their identity.
My cousin remembers that later, when Yush needed to rent a car to attend a wedding, he realized that he had locked his license inside an electronic safe. But he couldn’t retrieve the license, because the safe’s battery had died, and he had amazingly also locked the physical key inside the safe (to keep the key safe, you see). It was late at night, hours before he needed to hit the road, and he needed to break into the safe—a task no mechanic would likely help him with. Late at night, he finally called up a friend who had a workshop, used an angle grinder to cut into the safe to get out his license. He made it to the wedding on time.
His last adventure sent him to Italy, from where, in late August 2017, we made a cautious attempt to reconnect through a phone call. He was due back to the United States in a few months. Instead, he came back to Canada, where my parents live, in a body bag.
Yush was motivated by a vision of what could be and then set out to build it. Money, to him, was a resource to achieve these goals; it was never the goal itself. This was always apparent in his lifestyle: Most of his wardrobe consisted of free shirts from college recruitment fairs and 5k races. I remember my aunt asking Yush what he wanted as a college graduation present. He told her: “A laundry basket.” After he started working at Intel, he called me up and asked me if he should buy a mattress—not for himself, but because our parents were coming to visit for the first time.
“Where do you sleep?” I asked, incredulous. “In a sleeping bag on the floor,” he responded.
When he was a co-founder of bitcoin start-up LibertyX, we were amazed to learn that Yush reserved his bedroom for his elaborate computer set-up. He slept in the walk-in closet.
So I was shocked when I learned that nearly overnight, in the months before his death, Yush had become rich. Not through any of his start-up ventures, but by investing in bitcoin.
He understood bitcoin well: After shutting down his education tech start-up Pensieve, he was walking through Boston’s South Bay to use a bitcoin ATM. He told me that he was alarmed by the shoddy technology, contacted the founders of the company LibertyX, and outlined to them how he planned to hack their machines. They ended up hiring him as the company’s chief technology officer. Today, the company serves thousands of stores in nearly every state across the country with a platform that Yush originally built.
“He wrote a white paper on cryptocurrency and why Ethereum was going to skyrocket,” my dad told me. “A number of his friends became rich off of him.”
None of us know how much Yush made, or where the bitcoin is now, but through his investments, he was able to bankroll at least $50,000 per month on running his new start-up, his former business partner, Nate Argetsinger, told me. Susan Farrington, a former CMU administrator and so-called “college mom” to Yush, told me that when she was between jobs, Yush suspected that she might be struggling. He called her up one day and said, “By my calculations, you are probably having some financial difficulties by now.” After much persistence, he transferred $10,000 worth of bitcoin to Farrington. “Honestly nobody has done anything like that for me,” she told me as her voice cracked. “It made him happy.”
Yush took only one self-indulgence: He spent thousands of dollars on a procedure in Italy that, he believed, would earn him more respect.
Growing up as an Indian-American kid in a white town of football, Christianity, and old steel mills was deeply isolating. Research suggests that immigrants and ethnic minorities face a higher risk for suicidal behavior than the general population, and children of immigrants deal with the added stress of trying to exist between two cultures. There’s a “psychic violence” that happens to our community, my therapist Reka Prasad told me.
“Mental health has to be a priority for us,” she explained, “because we have to deal with very real things in the world that white people don’t.”
Yet, according to the American Psychological Association, Asian-Americans are three times less likely to seek therapy than white people and, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, we are the ethnic group least likely to seek mental health services in America. The stigma in our culture is strong: Therapy is often dismissed as ineffective, and seeking help is seen as a sign of weakness and an inability to control emotion, especially among men.
As children, Yush and I both took cues from traditional ideas of our family: men were to be the strong breadwinners; women subservient and nurturing. Women were emotional—a sign of weakness—men, the more logical thinkers, were not. I was interested in the humanities and Yush in science, which only fueled the stereotypes in our household, where therapists were seen as quacks peddling pseudoscience. After Yush’s suicide attempt, our family hid the incident; none of us even told our tightknit extended family for months, perhaps over the fear of shame, or perhaps because of fear he, or we, would be seen differently. Yush had always been understated and more stoic than I, but after his suicide attempt, he struggled with expressing empathy and vulnerability with me.
In an effort to survive in a new country—one that has a history of blocking brown immigrants from entry—my father emphasized education, like so many Indian immigrants do, in order to succeed. “The system has sort of reduced us to parts,” Prasad said. “We are these labels, we are people who have to succeed, who have to be productive. There’s a hyper-emphasis on the mind. But the mind in the way that it’s used to succeed, not to understand oneself, not to be insight-oriented.”
In our Pittsburgh school, there were almost no other students of color, making us a minority amongst minorities. “Here you are, a young man, you’re the child of an immigrant, you can’t pass, you’re brown,” Prasad explained. “You already have a propensity for depression. You are coming in and are under an immense pressure to succeed, to be really smart—and let’s be honest, in the beginning of life in the States, intelligence is not what makes you popular, for the most part.” The singular focus on academic success can be emasculating, especially in a culture that has already decided brown men are not the notion of masculinity. “And if at home, you have a highly patriarchal family life, you’re not talking about what’s going on for you,” she added.
Yush struggled with the idea of what a man looks like and must be, which in turn fueled a casual sexism that, from my perspective, slowly intensified. In 2015, I remember attempting to disabuse him of the notion that women preferred to date assholes. A few months before he died, he stormed out on my grandfather when he learned that Dadaji identified as a feminist. After his death, my dad shared an email with me in which Yush had cited the deeply misogynistic Red Pill constitution—a manifesto that claims “Feminism is nothing more than a female supremacy movement posing as one of humanist egalitarianism”—as relevant commentary on psychology and sociology.
The boy I had once loved retreated deeper and deeper beneath layers of resentment and anger until I barely recognized the man that he had become. The feeling was mutual, though Yush was far more blunt and absolutist. “I don’t think we can be friends—and at this point I don’t want to be,” he wrote to me in an email in 2016. Referring to my feminism, he continued: “You’ve dedicated yourself to a political worldview, and one of its founding principles is hatred and disrespect towards people who are very much like me.”
Our estrangement happened suddenly, but in retrospect, it was not entirely unexpected. As children, we were united by our otherness in a world of white, clinging to the culture of ancestors we’d never known. Back then, my family appeared an impenetrable unit. But as I became a woman, one who clumsily began to question and prod and probe the double standards I saw, my outspokenness cracked our solid fortress. In 2010, after I disagreed with a statement he’d made, my dad smashed a chair to pieces in front of me, screaming while verbally berating me, and threw me out of the house. In a separate incident in 2012, he smashed a plate over my head, which left a tender welt the size of my fist the week that I turned 26. What I saw as clear-cut cases of domestic violence, Yush viewed as a multi-faceted, complicated dynamic in which I was always the instigator. By refusing to fall in line, I was the problem.
At the end of 2015, our relationship became too toxic for me to sustain. I temporarily cut ties with Yush, and our falling-out propelled me to seek therapy. I was finally becoming the woman I had always wanted to be, but was heartbroken that my brother, the person I loved more than anyone else in the world, seemingly hated that woman. I set out to find a therapist who could innately understand my experiences and met Prasad, a first-generation Indian-American woman and feminist, like me.
Both Yush and I were motivated by a vision of how we wanted to change the world around us. However, where he applied his vision to the physical world, I applied my observations to social constructs, questioning and challenging the power structures around me. I asked Prasad how Yush went from being my best friend to someone I couldn’t even speak to, especially since I believed that, at heart, we wanted the same things: to be free of societal expectations, and to be treated with respect and dignity regardless of appearance, race, or gender. “The reality is, what patriarchy is meant to do is divide,” Prasad told me. “Men can still be lured by it and think, Oh if I take on these characteristics, I get what I want,” she said.
“As children, obviously it’s there, but it’s not emphasized in the same way as when you grow up.” But, she explained, Yush “could get power from the system that we’re talking about because he was a man, or a boy. You were never going to be able to do that.”
In November 2017, as I attempted to choose a casket and pick out what music would play at his funeral service, I learned the unsettling truth about why he had been in Italy. Though Yush had told me in August that he was going overseas to work remotely on a new start-up company, he had lied. He was there to get limb-lengthening surgery, a lengthy procedure that involves sawing through the bone, drilling a nail and screws into it, and in the months afterward, slowly, painfully pulling the broken bones apart by a few millimeters, every day for months, to add a few inches of height. Yush, who was about 5'7", desperately wanted to be taller.
I don’t know what Yush’s mental state was in the months, or even years, leading up to his death. “He talked about seeing therapists in the past,” Chelsea Clark, who was dating him through the year before his death, told me. “But he was very much like, I can do this myself. I think he was also very skeptical of the psychiatric institutions.”
“He was very inconsistent with his use of SSRIs and so he was constantly going on and off them,” she said.
Yush’s view of manhood, coupled with unmanaged depression is one that, I think, inflicted pain, created resentment, and exacerbated his insecurities. In 2015, a few months before our estrangement, Yush told me he was pushed out of the company he helped build with men he had thought of as brothers; the betrayal deepened a belief that he was not taken seriously, or treated with the same level of respect as other male entrepreneurs, despite his profound technical knowledge and general brilliance. He told me that, should an asteroid fall on him tomorrow, it would be his fault because it would be something he should be able to prevent. He took responsibility for everything that happened to him—a burden I cannot imagine, and an illusion of control that must have been crippling.
“Depression has a really powerful influence on how we understand ourselves. Once you get into a depressive state, it tells you a lot of lies. It starts telling you nobody cares about you, or that you’re not good enough,” Prasad explained. “There are lots of people who have depression, who understand it, who manage it, who do what they need to do to get a little space from what the depression is saying and say wait a second, that’s the depression talking, that’s not the truth. But unless you’re given those tools and you understand those tools, it’s really hard to do that when you’re depressed.”
I think that asking for help, or recognizing he might need it, was harder for Yush than hacking together a solution on his own. But when Yush turned his analytical mind to solve social or emotional issues, his conclusions often worried me. Yush saw his body as “another project,” Clark said. In an email exchange that she forwarded to me dated June 2017, Yush explained his reasons for wanting the procedure: “It’s definitely an unconventional decision,” he wrote, “but I think I’m being level-headed here.”
His research directed him to Dr. Jean-Marc Guichet, a French surgeon who developed a special surgical limb-lengthening technique that yielded faster, but presumably less painful, results. Though the surgery is also performed in the United States, where it can cost upwards of $100,000, Yush believed Dr. Guichet was a world expert. “This procedure is pretty safe, with no recorded patient (of thousands) having ever been handicapped,” Yush’s email continued. “I insisted on seeing the stats with the doc.”
However, according to the website for the New York-based Institute for Limb Lengthening & Reconstruction, the development of a pulmonary embolism is a rare, but possible, risk: “Pulmonary embolism and deep vein thrombosis... are rare with [limb lengthening] surgery, but they can occur and could lead to sudden shortness of breath, chronic leg swelling and even death.” The Paley Orthopedic and Spine Center in Florida says on its website that “prevention is key” and that it sends “each patient home with a prescription for an anticoagulation drug” to prevent deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolisms.
Guichet told me that the surgery he provides is safer, and leads to fewer complications, than traditional limb-lengthening procedures. “99% of patients worldwide are operated on with external fixators, but I developed 33 years ago the only fully weight-bearing nail in the world at that time,” Guichet wrote via email. “Of course, it benefits a lot of patients and like all surgical procedures it has implications or complications, but far less than external fixators.” His website touts the ability to “recover walking, right after surgery,” among several success stories. Nowhere does it mention that one of his patients died from a pulmonary embolism during the recovery period, nor does it list pulmonary embolism as one of the potential risks of the procedure. Citing privacy concerns, Guichet declined to discuss any aspect of Yush’s procedure or recovery with me unless I met him in person in Milan, but wrote in an email that patients “are obviously informed” about the risk of pulmonary embolisms and their symptoms. Guichet also said that he generally prescribes preventative medication to lessen the risk of pulmonary embolisms and informs patients what to do if symptoms of a pulmonary embolism occur. (I do not know how aware Yush was of such a risk, whether he was prescribed any medications to prevent its onset, or whether he knew what symptoms to identify should it develop.)
Clark, along with my parents and his friends, tried to talk Yush out of the surgery, but he refused to reconsider. “There’s a huge social stigma in our culture against body modification. Basically, if you change yourself through what sound like ‘extreme’ measures to change yourself or whatever, it comes off like you’re just really insecure,” Yush wrote in the email. “In the future, it’s probably going to be totally normal for people to get body modifications like cybernetic implants and stuff. At that time, getting longer legs is going to seem like a pretty mundane thing to do. I just don’t hold the same stigmas that other people do on how I should behave.”
Yush attempted to convince Clark that his decision was based on logic and not on insecurity. But in the medical industry, his relationship with his height could have been characterized as “height dysphoria,” a “dissatisfaction with one’s stature that affects a person’s mood and thoughts about themselves,” according to Ellen Katz Westrich, a clinical psychologist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center who assesses candidates for limb-lengthening surgery at the Institute for Limb Lengthening & Reconstruction. Because of the risks associated with limb-lengthening surgery—which includes long-term damage to nerves, limitation of joint motion, chronic pain, and in rare cases, pulmonary embolisms—Westrich cautions that “although the procedure is performed for cosmetic reasons, it is not in the same dimension as other cosmetic procedures such as facelifts, breast augmentation and nose jobs.”
Westrich said that she sees many more men with height dysphoria than women. Men she’s counseled, she said, often “feel like they’re at a disadvantage. They feel like they’re not taken as seriously in terms of work environment. They feel like romantic partners don’t see them as being as attractive as they could be if they were taller,” she said. If that dissatisfaction becomes a fixation, however, in which a perceived lack of height turns into “an unhealthy obsession and preoccupation with a perceived physical imperfection,” a candidate might suffer from a form of Body Dysmorphic Disorder, making them a poor candidate for surgery. The condition is “on the spectrum of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and surgery is not going to correct that,” she explained. “It’s a psychological problem, and surgery is not going to address the fundamental problem.”
Guichet’s website acknowledges that patients like Yush, who pursue limb lengthening for purely cosmetic reasons, “are really asking the surgeon for a solution to their psychological issue or insecurity,” and “This means that we have to carefully evaluate and coach the patient psychiatrically to ensure their informed decision will have the best possible results.” Yush passed Guichet’s evaluation, and he arranged the surgery in Italy.
There is no universal standard for evaluations, and I do not know what the process, surgery, or recovery period specifically entailed. I do know, however, that Yush experienced alarming symptoms the week that he died: After returning from the gym earlier that week, he told Clark he thought he had experienced a heart attack. Hours before he died, he was coughing while on the phone with my dad. My dad, who is a doctor, told Yush to go to the ER immediately. To my knowledge, Yush didn’t reach out for help until it was too late.
“The way that he died is something that I struggle with,” I told Prasad. “I wouldn’t have been having this conversation with you, or working on this essay, if he had died in a plane crash, or a freak accident.” Undertaking such an invasive cosmetic surgery, and adding risk on top of risk by pursuing it in isolation in a foreign country, “isn’t just something that someone does, or something that happens randomly, and that needs to be interrogated,” I said.
There are, of course, myriad reasons why someone would undergo such an extensive procedure, and many of these reasons come from a healthy place. But as Prasad explained, the source is key: Did this come from an internal place that says, “This is who I am”? Or did this come from a sense of not being good enough–of believing that his self-worth was based on what he accomplished, how tall he was, and what he looked like?
While the decisions he made were his own, I believe that Yush felt that society’s narrow confines of what it means to be a man—especially a brown man in America—offered him little choice. I see the pain of a sensitive boy who succumbed to the impossible, unforgiving demands of an unhealthy relationship to masculinity; fostered by a patriarchal Indian-American household; and exacerbated within a male-dominated, libertarian tech industry where the success of certain men was treated as self-evident proof of their superiority.
Yush’s observations about power, masculinity, and his standing in the world were not incorrect. Research has shown that tall people are richer and more successful, and Western culture has a long history of trying to emasculate Asian-American men (East Asian men in particular) that can be traced to the 1800s, when Chinese men emigrating to the United States during the gold rush were viewed by whites as an economic and racial threat. Anti-miscegenation laws, formed in the 1660s to bar marriages between white people and black slaves and codify white racial purity, quickly expanded in the early 1900s to include the small but growing population of Asian-Americans in an effort to preserve whiteness. These laws remained on the books even after segregation ended, until 1967, the same year my Dadaji brought his wife and three children to Canada. Such laws are now relics of the past, but the stereotypes they codified persist. In American movies and television, Indian men have historically been portrayed as nerdy and unable to attract women, like Raj in the Big Bang Theory, or as thickly-accented human punchlines, like Apu on the Simpsons. On dating site OkCupid, among men, Asians have the fewest responses—a statistic that Yush often cited, before he created an algorithm to attempt to improve his odds on the dating site.
While Yush and I saw some of the same problems in society, our responses were opposite: I have found a community of people who reject stereotypical gender identities, roles, and behaviors, whereas I think Yush internalized these messages, deepening insecurities that burrowed even further due to unmanaged depression. As a boy and then a man, he was discouraged from connecting with his feelings and saw that to express vulnerability is to be feminine and weak. Rather than blaming a greater system of patriarchy and white supremacy for these double standards, under which we all suffer, he blamed feminists like me.
Writer and filmmaker Imran Siddiquee, who was raised Muslim, wrote in 2016 about the damaging effect that ideals of white supremacy and masculinity had on them as a brown person: “I carried with me, for a long time, that feeling of exclusion, resentment, and belief that my self-worth was tied to my ability to control my surroundings... It was an illogical mess, but all that mattered was that I felt superior — in some way, to someone. And actually, most often, those ‘someones’ were women.” Siddiquee worked hard to check all the boxes of masculinity–achieving power, showing force by bullying others, degrading women and seeing them as nothing but sexual conquests. Yet, this display of masculinity wasn’t good enough: They were still rejected by the dominant white culture. Eventually, it dawned on them: “I was struggling for acceptance into a club which you can never quite get into.” Siddiquee ultimately rejected the culture that refused to accept them, and now writes about the need for diversity, inclusion, and feminism. I think that Yush, on the other hand, was still trying to find admission into a club that was never going to accept him.
I believe even more intensely than ever that rigid gender roles harm men, too, and the effects can be deadly. But as a woman, and as the defiant sister who had challenged the natural order of her patriarchal family, though I was the closest to Yush, I had also become the person least likely to reach him.
Yush’s death has left me searching for answers to questions that have none. There is no grand lesson for me to take from his death; there is only acceptance. I don’t know what to make of his death, or of his brief life, other than to believe, intensely, that it and that he mattered, and to hang on to that knowledge even though there is no longer a trace of him in the world that I walk through and breathe in.
Many nights, he visits me in my dreams. He always appears as he did when we were still close. In one dream, he has a terminal illness and I’m trying to cheer him up. In another dream, we are kids at an amusement park with our parents and he turns to me and says, “That was the best day of my life.” Then he looks down and says he knows he’s going to die soon. We both hold hands and cry. Then I wake up.
These visions haunt me, but even though they are sad, I look forward to them. For a few seconds, I’m able to experience his embrace; I can ruffle his hair in the sisterly way that no one else could get away with; I can feel his warmth. For a flash, he is alive. And in these moments, I once again feel his love for me.
Prachi Gupta was a senior reporter at Jezebel. Her first book, about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is out this November from Workman Publishing.