Light & Verity

Campus mourns professor who died in jail

Sam See “had a remarkable capacity for appreciation.”

Yale professor Samuel See encountered “nothing that could not command interpretation… from fly-fishing to forensics,” his mother, Ann Sturdivant, recalled at a January 25 memorial service at Battell Chapel.

See “never took anything for granted, and had a remarkable capacity for appreciation,” said fellow English professor Janice Carlisle.

The ten people who spoke or read at the service did not try to bring up the painful circumstances of See’s death at age 34 last fall, in a holding cell at New Haven police headquarters. Nor did they speak about the apparent troubles in his life, which may have included drug use. Instead, they remembered the man they knew as engaged, kind, passionate, and committed, whether as a friend, a teacher, or a scholar.

See, who was hired as an assistant professor at Yale in 2009 upon earning his PhD from UCLA, was a scholar of modernist literature, with a particular interest in the portrayal of sexuality in modern works. (He had a secondary appointment in the women’s, gender, and sexuality studies program.) “Even if you know Sam only a little, you know that the word ‘queer’ was pretty important to him,” said his friend Kathryn Lofton, a religious studies professor at Yale, “and it was a word he sought to define in his scholarship and live out in his life. For Sam, queer is a word that described a defiance of normativity and a rejection of simple identity formations.”

History professor George Chauncey ’77, ’89PhD, read from student evaluations that praised See as “the most gracious, effusive, caring professor I have ever had,” someone who was regularly e-mailing his classes with additional thoughts and who seemed to be “always thinking about this class.” Graduate school colleague Samantha Pinto said See was “the most generous reader of my work—of everyone’s work.”

See’s death came early in the morning of November 24, after he and his husband had been arrested during a domestic dispute the night before. Both men were charged with violating protective orders against each other, and See was also charged with interfering with police and making threats. Police said See fought with officers and sustained a cut over his eye that was treated at Yale–New Haven Hospital before he was taken to jail.

The Connecticut Judicial Branch, which oversees the lockup, said in a statement that See had been “alert and communicating” with marshals throughout the night, but he died shortly after being discovered “nonresponsive” in his cell at 6 a.m. In January, the state medical examiner reported that See had died of a heart attack after taking methamphetamine. The New Haven police are conducting an internal investigation into See’s death.

See had been arrested in September on misdemeanor charges of assault and breach of peace; he took an unplanned leave of absence from Yale last semester.

“Something happened, and I don’t know what it is, between the Sam I knew and the Sam who ended up dying so young, so tragically, and so mysteriously,” See’s English department colleague Joseph Roach told the News. “And I can’t put those two pieces together.”

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