We’ve heard of kids being mercilessly bullied to the point of suicide, and while tragic it seems to be a topic that doesn’t need much more ink devoted to it. However, one surprise came immediately when I picked up Emily Bazelon’s book “Sticks and Stones”, and that was that the story that shook the country, about an Irish girl who came to Massachusetts and was bullied to the point of taking her own life, was inaccurate.
Emily talked to the bullies involved, one of them a girl named Flannery. And she did an in-depth investigation. This is what she found:
Phoebe was 15 years old, and was sought after by the popular boys. Flannery by contrast did not have a lot of friends, and had no use for cliques. But despite the popularity, Phoebe had history of cutting herself back in Ireland. “Cutting” is what it sounds like, people slice their arms or chest or other parts of their body, and there is a link between it and depression. Phoebe even wrote an essay about it explaining that it was an effort to “transfer the pain from emotional to physical pain which is a lot easier to deal with…”
Phoebe’s mother would leave her daughter alone at home on Saturday nights, while she visited her sister in Springfield. One time Phoebe sent an email to a friend about how one Saturday night went:
a few seniors came over and brought weed and beer and vodka……they had so much weed and we rolled blunts and man they put some coke in one of the blunts…aww…it was like better than sex!
Talking of sex, Phoebe was having sex with the football star of the school, who did have a long running romantic relationship with a girl named Kayla, though the relationship was in a lull at the time. When caught in bed with Sean, Phoebe claimed he was gay, and that they had not had sex. This was of course not true.
Bazelon continues the story:
As Phoebe spent more time with Sean, she talked about them being together for real, the way Kayla had been. This wasn’t what Sean had in mind.
Phoebe did not take Sean’s dismissal well, and eventually was comforted by a boy named Austin, who happened to be Flannery’s boyfriend. I’m not totally clear how far that comfort went, but eventually both Austin and Sean were charged with having sex with a 15 year old (formally known as ‘statutory rape’). I believed Austin denied that particular allegation.
Flannery vented some of her anger on Facebook. Talking about an equestrian event she attended, she said to a friend “‘we kick it with the true Irish not the gross slutter poser ones :).”
Then a friend of Flannery’s name Sharon Velasquez decided to call Phoebe out. She walked up to her in the cafeteria and called her a “whore”, and warned her to stay away from “people’s men”.
It wasn’t long after this that Phoebe took a scarf and hanged herself in a stairwell.
We could take various lessons from this. One lesson, to me, is that secondary sources can be suspect. At the time, the story, which went nationwide, if not worldwide, seemed to be simple – a bunch of “mean girls” had harassed an Irish visitor for months until she killed herself. There was a lot of understandable anger at this, and Flannery was one of the targets of this anger. But the story was too simple, and also inaccurate – there wasn’t three months of bullying as claimed.
Another lesson might be this. We know that marijuana can increase the likelihood of psychosis. So a person who already had mental problems, like Phoebe, should perhaps stay away from pot-parties. In fact, judging from the studies of what pot does to the brain, maybe we all should stay away from that drug. (Our current presidential candidate on the libertarian ticket was CEO of a recreational marijuana company, and also smoked the stuff. Obama was a big pot user, at one time. Former president Bill Clinton also smoked it.) My feeling is that we should not ingest substances that have unknown effects on the brain, let alone ones that have known bad effects.
The other lesson might have to do with sex in high school. Other fifteen year old girls were “doing stuff” with boyfriends, but Phoebe was overstepping some line. But where do you draw the line? I don’t want to be hypocritical here, I’ve been called a “swine” and the description fit, though I’ve never had sex with anyone while conscious (though I believe (with rather strong evidence) that I have been molested while drugged).
I wonder if parents teach their children not to hook up in high school, and whether the children listen when they do. Maybe you can’t argue with hormones, and there may seem to be no downside in the minds of the kids who do this. But looking at the above story, Phoebe, who did have her good points, might be alive today in a world of men who acted like Victorian gentlemen.
People do get bullied to death, but this particular incident was not exactly an example of that. It caused huge problems for the people involved inspiring comments online such as:
I think the names, home addresses, current photos, license plate numbers, routes to school…should be posted on billboards all over town, so that those little bitches can find out what it REALLY means to live in fear all the time.
I don’t think we should give a blank pass to the bullies in this case either. Before her death, girls had told Phoebe they hoped she’d go kill herself and then after her death, had written “She deserved it” and “Mission accomplished” on Facebook.
We should not assume that Ireland is a healthier environment for kids to grow up either. It probably is, but that did not explain Phoebe, though she wanted to go back. According to Phoebe’s mother “Phoebe’s started cutting herself while she was at a private Irish boarding school. A close friend of Phoebe’s in Ireland told the police that she and Phoebe both had trouble with other girls because they were dating older boys.”
Putting this story aside, there are a few interesting points about bullying that come from Emily’s book and elsewhere. One is that schools are not easy to police. The corridors, the playgrounds and the school buses are all spots of attack.
Also, some kids really are persecuted for longer periods of time. Sending children repeatedly to places where they are called names or physically assaulted would seem to be child-abuse, but many parents see no choice but to do that.
And some bullies themselves have cognitive distortions, including a difficulty in distinguishing a provocation from an accident.
Studies reliably show that they have a distinctive cognitive make-up – a hostile attributional bias, a kind of paranoia. They perpetually attribute hostile intentions to others.
The last point is from Bazelon’s book, she says there are five types of bullies. These are:
1. Malicious bullies. (these types often grow up to be criminals) 2. clueless (not malicious) bullies. 3. People who are both bullies and victims of other bullies 4. Popular, socially adept boys and girls who are good at manipulating others. 5. The Facebook bully. “Many of the kids I spoke to … talked about girls who tried on brasher meaner personas online than they’d ever displayed in person.”
Maybe there is a sixth example: “the imaginary bully”. I believe that I have been persecuted for the last 22 years by an organized mafia of bullies who feel that justice requires that I be persecuted. I’m told they don’t exist by every sane person who I talk to.
One recommendation that Emily gives is that a bullied child have a support system. Other children who give the victim support, even if they don’t fight the bullies directly, can make a big difference. If you have a child who is being bullied, read the concluding sections of the book (if not the whole book). It has some interesting findings and suggestions and resources.