What They Didn't Know
Bethesda’s Brian Go was smart, funny and kind. Everyone says so. He also was suicidally depressed—something his parents believe college counselors knew, but tragically failed to share with his family
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Around 10 p.m. on May 15, 2009, Brian Go, a 20-year-old junior at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, called his parents at home in Bethesda.
For Brian’s mother, Margaret, it was a typical late-night call from college: a rundown of family news and a discussion about logistics for Brian’s upcoming semester abroad in Valencia, Spain, where he’d be doing research through a grant from Caltech.
She told him a funny story about a recent visit to a cousin, which made him laugh.
His laughter pleased her, because she knew the spring term had been rough for him. In addition to carrying a double major in math and computer science at one of the most demanding colleges in the country, Brian—known to his Caltech classmates as “BGo”—had been elected president of his coed residence hall, Page House. But he’d immediately faced a challenge in that role: Concern over excessive alcohol consumption had led the university to impose a ban on alcohol at Page. Brian argued that his housemates would simply party elsewhere, thereby destroying house camaraderie. Reportedly, his eloquence moved one dean to tears. His leadership “impressed us to no end,” she later told the student newspaper, The California Tech. But the plea went unheeded, and Brian felt he’d let down his housemates.
Margaret also knew that her son was heartbroken when his girlfriend broke up with him and told him there was no hope of getting back together. During this phone call, however, he seemed philosophical about the ban and more resigned to the breakup.
“Are you happy, sad or medium?” she asked—a question she often put to her three children as they were growing up.
“Medium,” Brian said.
He chatted for a while with his father, Delfin, and his sister, Maddie, then 12. He told both that he loved them, which wasn’t unusual, Margaret says. He asked to speak to his brother, Mike, then 17, and when told that he was sleeping, agreed they could talk later.
But there was no later. The call was Brian’s farewell.
Early on Sunday morning, May 17, the Gos got a call from the Pasadena police: Brian was missing.
Over the next 12 hours, Margaret combed through her son’s cellphone bill, asking friends for clues to his whereabouts. She steeled herself to ask Brian’s roommate whether he thought her son might harm himself over his failed romance.
“Brian? No way,” was the resounding reply.
What the Gos didn’t know was that their optimistic, kind-hearted and brilliant son had threatened to jump off the roof of a campus building two weeks earlier, following the breakup with his girlfriend. Nor did they know that in the previous month Brian had spoken with two deans, a resident adviser and three psychologists at Caltech about wanting to kill himself.
Around 8 that night, as Delfin was en route to Los Angeles to help with the search, Margaret got a call from a dean with whom Brian had become close. Brian’s body had been found on the roof of a Caltech building. In the hours after calling home, he had committed suicide.
Shock reverberated through the Go family and everyone else who had known the young man. Two of Brian’s former teachers at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School (B-CC) were so shaken by the news that they immediately distributed their cellphone numbers to their students, imploring them to call if they ever felt they had nowhere to turn.
“He was the smartest kid I ever taught, and he was the whole package—humble, smart and kind,” says math teacher Sarah Straus, who recalls substitute teachers reporting that the then-10th-grader would teach pre-calculus in her absence. “He genuinely saw the beauty of math, and he wanted everyone else to love it as much as he did.”
Long before Caltech, where Brian published an academic paper on software, computers were his forte. He developed a computer game based on Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved for English teacher Kathryn Kirk’s class. But he also wrote poetry that moved his classmates, Kirk recalls. His writing for his Spanish class was “poetic and beautiful,” according to his Spanish teacher, Beth Groeneman. “Whatever Brian did turned to gold,” she says.
In addition to his “warmth and brilliance,” recalls Laura Swartz, a friend since elementary school, there was his enthusiasm. “If he was excited, you could feel it. It’s like he vibrated and couldn’t hold it all inside. His death crushed me...crushed all of us.”