Thursday, January 13, 2011

Phoebe Prince

Salutations, New Mad Nation.

Today, I have decided to speak with you about something that I frequently get very mad about - victim blaming in suicide. In particular, there is one case that has mobilized my feelings on this matter, and that is the case of the above listed young woman: Phoebe Prince.

For some relatively recent reporting on the matter, I turn your attention here:
The purpose of this article, (which was published before the pre-trial hearings whose proceedings I assume are still confidential, as the trial itself has yet to occur), is apparently meant to be to illustrate the complexities surrounding the case; it is meant to de-mystify the "untouchable mean girls" story circulated by the Boston Globe shortly after the fact in Spring last year. It is meant to indicate that the accused teens are perhaps not as malicious as they have been made out to be, indeed to generate sympathy for some of them, and it is meant to shift some of the responsibility for Phoebe's tragic suicide onto her own "mental illness."

As far as I am concerned, this is all basically victim-blaming at its core.

On the surface, it presents an image of care and academic concern, but you can read between the lines to see clear indications that "depression" and "mood disorders" are what the author thinks are the true culprits; that "teens are just going to be nasty to each other, and what can any of us do about that?" That "the school is trying but there are just limits to what they can be expected to accomplish, after all. " Though the author speaks down on our human desire to point fingers in the wake of suicide, she is clearly pointing one of her own, but at the "safe" target of a medical disease that no one else can take responsibility for - except, we may assume to be suggested here, for Phoebe herself. This relentless investigation into Phoebe's history of mental and emotional health is clear evidence of a rampant and dangerous paradigm in our country, that mental illness is some monolithic thing to be blamed for our troubles and fought with all our might (1st Edit: which often translates to fighting the beliefs and feelings of the people being most hurt). This approach conveniently removes the burden of personal, moral responsibility for our own harmful behavior, and illustrates the deeper poison of our society, which is a general unwillingness to take responsibility for our own failures and fuckups. (1st Edit cont.: And, all too often, blame the victims instead.)

10 bucks says the author of this article was either a bully and is covering for their kind, or was painfully bullied herself and is in serious denial.

The truest victims of suicide are those who commit it. DO NOT BLAME VICTIMS. They do so (almost always) because they feel they have no other choice. It is not some kind of immature decision inspired by a mood disorder; it is a last option forced upon them because absolutely everything else has failed. People sometimes do impulsive, dangerous things to harm themselves, or even make suicidal gestures (though this is a very dicey territory which I will get into further in "personality disorders") as a form of manipulation or even just impulsivity, but actual suicide takes something a bit more serious than that. People who have never seriously considered it themselves probably don't understand how the actual thought process of "damn should I actually do this?" works. For one thing, it completely stops most impulsiveness.To go through with the thought process to completion and execution takes zen-like focus in most cases. Every fiber in your being is genetically programmed not to die, and will resist that impulse. You have to really want it. And anyone who is driven to desire their own death more than anything else is not an unstable, impulsive immature child, they are a victim. And the people who have hurt them should be held responsible.

Our author asks, "Should we send teenagers to prison for being nasty to one another?" Frankly, I think we should. If all our money that we spent on the war on pot was re-allocated to a war on bullying, something that ACTUALLY harms people on a regular basis, I think we might see some significant improvement in the general quality of people's lives.

I'm not here to lay out the actual specifics of this plan. It's just an idea. But I don't think that people being horrible to each other is something we should just tolerate, and even when schools like South Hadley are willing to suspend a student for a few days, it just isn't enough. Schools are not considered reputable authorities and being suspended doesn't actually inhibit your ability to succeed all that much. Prison, on the other hand, sends kind of a clearer message.

Perhaps this is too much. But I like it better than what we have now. And is it really such a stretch? We imprison people for assault and battery, and the physical damage done by these actions could easily have less long lasting repercussions than the malignant seeds planted by verbal assault. If your support network is seriously profound, and you have the great bright armor of self-esteem, verbal assaults will probably ping off you harmlessly - but if you are like Phoebe Prince, surrounded by people who seem to be your friends but don't understand the depths of your pain at all (isolating), and the few people you have trusted have often turned around and started betraying you for very poor reasons (you don't know who you can trust), your father is absent and your mother is your mother while you are a teenage girl (obvious), you don't have that kind of armor. Verbal assaults cut deep in this situation. Easily worse than a random mugging, for instance - but people caught in the act of mugging will be thrown in jail no questions asked, or at least in holding for a little while.

Many detractors of Phoebe's cause would respond to this sentiment by saying "No one knew how psychologically hurt Phoebe was, so they can't be held responsible."

I have several rebukes to this.
1. A wise mage from the pre-Renaissance period, by the name of Abramelin, taught that Ignorance is the greatest sin that a man can commit. Do not be ignorant if you can avoid it.
2. BULLSHIT. She was in relationships, or at least confidante situations, with two of the men implicated in this situation. They knew. Why did they never say anything to the girls, who seem to have launched the worst of the verbal assaults? Maybe they even did. Didn't stop the bullying.
3. Saying that you can't blame bullies for bullying someone into suicide because the victim already had depression, is no different than saying that you can't blame bullies for beating someone to death because the person was already half dead. 'Oh, have mercy, we only meant to beat them half to death, we didn't think it would actually kill them!'

Now, I will own, as more details come to the surface of this case, more testimony collected, more angles exposed, it does become less clear just how involved various students were. Personally, I remember highschool all too well to believe some of the feel-good descriptions of these students; the star of the football team goes out of his way to help others, just because they need it? BS. But hey, I could be wrong. And because of that, I am glad that there is going to be a trial, and hope that appropriate blame is placed on appropriate shoulders. If one or two students were drawn into this mess because of a single passing comment or a few dirty looks, then I hope they will get a lesser sentence. 
But I am sad that Phoebe's mental health will almost certainly become one of the primary witnesses to be cross examined, when as far as I can see, it is a virtually meaningless entry. 
And I DO think everyone involved should receive some kind of punishment. 

Don't blame victims of suicide. Don't make excuses for the people who drove them to it. Don't be afraid to look deep in the heart of humanity and say "Goddamnit, we do horrible things to each other...all the time." And don't be afraid to say "No more." This will require you to break yourself down - we all do hurtful things, and all the time, unless we are actively working on not doing this. For some, this isn't a problem - some have great armor. But you never know who might not have such great armor. Tragically, many who lack armor lack the freedom to show it, and so have to force on a smile every day, and never let anyone know - don't assume that a smiling face is a happy one. There is always a story behind the smile. Why are they smiling? Think about it. And when faced with someone who is smiling to protect themselves, you must be ready to not be a jack.

Break yourself down, and from the pieces, make a better self. Sounds painful and scary, and it is. But it's necessary to break out of the patterns instilled in us by life in a society that would rather blame nebulous, non-existent entities like "depression" than actually point fingers at emotionally damaging acts. To be perfectly honest, I think machismo could be to blame here. I once heard someone say that physical courage is so much easier than moral courage, and I don't think this is inherently true - I think it is true of a society that values physical bravery over emotional bravery. And that has been true of us for hundreds of years. Because we value physical bravery over emotional bravery, we are also more willing to punish acts of physical transgression than emotional transgression - this punishment is seen as standing up to the archetypal physical threat and quashing it. Punishing emotional transgression is seen as validating a weakness in our collective psyche and not allowed. are remembered. I'll never let the press convince me that you were anything other than a victim here. 

Feel free to discuss any of the above, or even challenge some of the lines of thinking. Be warned though, I reserve the right to totally shred you if you are not paying attention to the guidelines of privilege as laid out by 

Next week we'll probably be looking more closely at just what the hell "mental illness" really is, anyway. But as always, I am open to suggestions.

Thank you for reading, everyone. To the New Mad Nation, I bid my Fondest Salutations.


For additional reading on the subject of victim blaming and suicide, I refer you to a note I wrote a while back on a related subject.!/note.php?note_id=438824286827

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing this. I get really sick of people talking about how her depression was "the reason" for her suicide. I mean...people were assaulting her on her way home, so even if people don't care about "harsh words" that has to count for something. Some people also like to mention that she was bullied in Ireland too "so there." So is it really impossible that the kids she knew in Ireland were doing things that were wrong AND the people she met in America were wrong? I guess to some people it is.

    Good post.