Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Ghost of Phoebe Prince

The story of Phoebe Prince, the Irish girl who hung herself after a series of encounters with alleged bullies, reminds me of Columbine. There's no good news- only a chronology of events that go from bad to worse.
Make no mistake people, it isn't the redundant cynicism of the story that bothers me-  but a willingness to uncritically accept guilt or innocence based on little more than emotional pandering. (I was actually astonished at the venom directed towards those kids by many adults.)
When the story first broke, claiming that Phoebe Prince had been bullied by her classmates to the point of committing suicide, I was skeptical.
To clarify- I wasn't skeptical that Phoebe committed suicide. I wasn't skeptical that an older boy had a relationship with her that he ended. I wasn't skeptical that her romantic rivals behaved cruelly towards her. I was skeptical that a person is driven to suicide, that something could cause an otherwise normal person to suddenly become suicidal.
In every case of suicide I have ever heard of, suicide is the culmination of persistent, chronic (often lifelong) psychological and emotional issues. Evidence suggests that suicide has a strong biological component. Depression and suicide are both linked to low levels of serotonin- and there's evidence that genetic factors also play a role in suicidal behavior. Other personality disorders further increase the likelihood of suicide.
Nonhuman animals commit suicide too.
(Before anyone jumps on me about it, I'd like to state that I don't believe that the same type of self-destruct sequence seen in other lifeforms is exactly the same as human suicide. I'm merely pointing out that suicide is not unique to humans- and that alone merits further investigation into the phenomenon. It also means that if nonhuman animals can terminate themselves in absence of complex internal dialogue, then maybe a similar stress response exists in humans, outside of the actions of other people.  It could also be argued that the animals studied were responding to environmental stress by killing themselves- hence returning blame to outside factors. Still, that doesn't explain why some things terminate, and others don't, even when confronted with the same stressors. Suffice it to say, suicide is an abnormal response to comparatively normal stimuli. So there.)
Now I've sidetracked myself- I'm not interested in debating the degree to which biological factors contributed to Phoebe's death.  My point is, that there were other factors in her death. Well before the now-infamous South Hadley bullying bout, in 2008, Phoebe was cutting herself severely enough to cause scarring. She was on Prozac and Seroquel. Seroquel was used in her first suicide attempt following a break-up, two months before any of the alleged bullying related to the current case even took place.
None of this condones the actions of the South Hadley teens- but what exactly were those actions? The specifics of what occurred not only vary, but just don't seem that severe. (Sorry.) From what I've read, Prince was called a 'slut' in person and on Facebook, Twitter, and Craigslist. Her books were knocked from her hands (although according to some, this can't be corroborated). Threatening text messages were sent to her phone. She had an empty can of soda tossed at her head from a moving car. While that's horrible- it's not unheard of.
(And for those of you who are wondering, yes I have had things thrown at me. I have had my books knocked out of my hands. I was never called a slut [that I know of], but I have been called other choice names. It isn't fun. It hurts. But it does happen and probably always will.)
Those kids behaved like real assholes. On that matter, I am 100% convinced.... but are they criminals? One of the basic precepts of American justice is that a person has to intend to do something wrong. Even if it isn't the standard for committing a crime (ignorance of the law doesn't excuse breaking it so on and so forth...) the lack of intent to commit a crime usually mitigates the crime itself, at least in the eyes of the public.
I don't think the South Hadley kids were trying to kill Phoebe (if they were, they probably would have thrown something sharper from the car... I joke. I joke. Please don't text me death threats, you bullies.) Those kids have not had the benefit of the mitigating effect associated with lacking intent- at least in part, because everyone's been bullied (don't waste my time telling me you're the one kid who was never EVER bullied. I think you're full of it.). Those painful, personal memories can be difficult to see past.
Even if I extend the benefit of the doubt to those who claim to have never been bullied- they've at least seen it on TV, and isn't that the most credible and realistic medium for the diffusion of information?
To complicate matters further, Phoebe's parents were outraged and wondered why the school officials didn't do more to save their daughter. Yeah. Why? But Mr. and Mrs. Parents of Phoebe, I must also ask, why didn't you do more to save your daughter? As a mother, if my daughter had attempted suicide, the first place she'd be headed would be to a hospital with lots and lots of therapy- not back to school. Why didn't the parents know about this bullying- and if they did- why didn't they do something about it? If your child has a history of self-mutilation, attempted suicide, and severe mood disorders, it stands to reason that you might want to monitor things like cell phone use and computers. After all, her parents fundamental gripe was that because Phoebe was troubled someone should have paid more careful attention and been more proactive- but that door swings both ways. It was within her mother's power to disconnect the cell phone and remove the bullies' ability to torment her daughter. She could even have called the cops (which, as a tattler, I would have done). Yet she did none of that, and that makes her parents at least as responsible as the school officials- if not more so. And as adults, aren't they ALL more responsible for the tragedy than the children who stand to face jail time?
I could muster some self-righteous, anti-bullying ire if I thought about every time I was ever bullied. In fact, I did when I first began reading Phoebe's story- but then another uncomfortable thought crept into my mind. I certainly have said my fair share of mean things: You're stupid. Were you raised by boars? What's wrong with you, dumbass? Are you some kind of moron? Wow... nice highlights. Did you use the Clorox bleach pen? I've probably given as good as I've gotten, and I think that's true of everyone.
Again, there are those of you who lie to yourselves and say "Not me. No,no,no, no." To those people... well I'm simply not interested in holding a conversation with a group of deluded vagabonds. For the rest of you, every kid I've ever known, who could be identified as a 'victim' of bullying, was at least as savage as his/her bullies behind their backs. I've known nerds who made fun of fat people. I've known fat people who make fun of red necks. I've known red necks who make fun of homosexuals- and the cycle of disdain goes on and on. 
At the end of the day- we share the role of bully and bullied- embodying both at once. It just happens to be easier to remember all the times where we took it, rather than dished it out.
In addition, portraying bullying as a social phenomenon practiced by some routinely, rather than a circumstantial social occurrence that's practiced to some extent everywhere, obstructs our ability to understand human nature in an objective way.
Our species didn't invent bullying. Chimpanzees are noted for their aggressive social maneuvering, as are others species of nonhuman primates. Competition for access to mates, in particular, can be incredibly fierce.
I am not one of those people who think that kids will be kids, and that it's a 'normal' for kids to ruthlessly terrorize their peers. I simply think sending the South Hadley kids to jail won't send a message about justice and won't save kids like Phoebe. Even if 'vulnerable' children are sheltered in high school, what happens when they leave the cocoon of the public education system? Do they have special services set up to make sure they remain immune from the kinds of negative social interactions all the rest of us face? Who protects them then? Inevitably, life throws everyone a curve ball, and for people with psychological issues those curve balls can be deal breakers.
The South Hadley 'bullies' should be punished, but they should be punished based on their intent- not based on our anger towards our own bullies or impersonal ideals of moral perfection. In other words, they should be punished the way you would want your kid punished if they were guilty of the same crimes.
I mentioned a parallel between this case and Columbine. In both, young lives were senselessly lost. Blame was tossed in every direction. From Columbine, what ultimately emerged was a witch hunt, were schools pulled 'troubled kids'  from their classes to "talk"(read= 'kids in black or wearing trench coats'- occasionally they hit on a bona fide weirdo but most of the time it was the usual suspects who happened to have the misfortune of having too many piercings) . Kids were deprived of their education by being sent home from school for offenses as innocuous and inane as refusing to turn T-shirts inside out (that happened to me).
None of it amounted to anything of course. There was no feared global trench coat mafia lurking in the shadows waiting to kill their high schools. There's absolutely no evidence that any of those rules deemed so necessary in the wake of Columbine ever prevented any bullying (if anything, singling kids out to go to special talking groups only made them more of a target for their peers). Nor is their proof that it prevented any school shootings.
That's because Columbine was never about Marilyn Manson T-shirts or bullying. It was about two very disturbed young men who suffered from a myriad of psychological and emotional problems. Bullying and societal apathy may have shaped their psychosis- but it didn't create it. Everyone exploited easy scapegoats- video games, bullies, and Manson but no one made a serious attempt to look at the boys' pre-existing problems. The trouble with that kind of selective reasoning is that it reinforces incorrect ideas about why things like Columbine and Phoebe Prince's unfortunate suicide happen.
The Prince case is shaping up to be a witch hunt too, although the subjects of these hunts are not completely innocent. 
But rather than waste time needlessly persecuting overworked school officials, or sending 17-year-old girls to prison, why not discuss ways to better recognize kids actually in need of mental health care services. Or perhaps highlighting the need to better understand the biological factors that make someone predisposed to suicide. Maybe the parents could speak out about the lessons they learned from their tragedy. Then perhaps some good could come out of the loss of a bright, young girl and lives could be saved.
I disagree with those that trumpet empathy as a means to eradicate social meanness. It can't. Meanness is an integral part of human nature- you can't shame it into non-existence. The ability to act like an asshole is a universal human skill. Examining the reason why we're mean and what role it serves would be more useful than championing simple solutions to issues that are inherently complex.
What I think is most ironic-the press uses terms like 'evil brood' and "Mean Girls' to describe the children involved... (just a reminder, they haven't had due process and they aren't even able to vote) which is a little like the things they're condemning the 'evil brood' for doing to Phoebe Prince in the first place. So who are the real bullies in the end?

1 comments:

James Austin said...

True story.

I was never bullied, people tried.. at best insults were made whcih I returned, better.. or worse? or however you want to call it.

So I can't really know what it's like. I can imagine, but it's probably not Real enough to be true empathy.

I bet she was made fun of long before these particular incidents. Kids who are made fun of have like invisible huge targets on them. It's just sooo easy srsly.

for nice kids they see those easily bullied kids and take pity, and others lay it on. I pitied those kids. laughed at some comments behind their backs.

I don't think they deserve any serious punishment. suspension from school is about the sane level. I think their infamy is way way worse than millions of people doing the same thing have faced.

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