Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Bullying of Phoebe Prince and other nearly tragic tales...

So in case you haven't seen the story, one of the big headlines today is the sentencing of the bullies that led to the suicide of a young woman in Massachusetts.
As I watched the bullies apologize to the dead girl and her surviving mother, I was not moved. The girl cried as she said "I'm sorry Phoebe" blah blah blah. The other bullies had similar statements and sentiments. Really? You're sorry NOW? Well that's handy. Were you sorry or even touched when Phoebe probably begged you with tears to stop bugging her? to stop tormenting her? to stop threatening her? to stop torturing her? Nope. You had no remorse or human feeling at that time. Only now do you get it. Now you have to carry this burden with you forever...that you had a hand in a young woman's death.

This is a topic that is very close to home for me, and one which I have not really spoken on much because its still very painful. In this story about Phoebe, one of the many details is that after Phoebe briefly dated some boy, a group of girls took to harassing her and calling her a whore and a slut. I had a visceral response to this story...

So let's go back about 25 years. Its 1986. Punk is all the rage. Spiked hair of various colors, ripped clothes, skulls, dog collars, and a LOT of black eye liner. On the flip side, Esprit, Converse, Benetton, and The Limited. Guess which side our protagonist falls on? Yes. A young, pretty girl with long, blonde, curly hair. She is somewhat naive. She has been popular with her friends. She enters Junior High to find herself the target of a great deal of undeserved hatred. Her first kiss was in January of 1986; she didn't lose her virginity until several years later so she is innocent and still looking up various sexual terms in the family encyclopedia. She's mostly quiet and unassuming, though outgoing and funny. She's smart. She's cute. She's followed to class. She has headless barbies hung on her locker. She is called whore, slut, dirt bag, skank, stupid, ugly, disgusting. She is followed to school. She is followed home from school. She is cornered, alone, in the park by 3 girls with skull jewelry and spiked dog collars. She is threatened. She is afraid every single day. She asks her friends, those who have not abandoned her for fear of 'guilt by association', to walk her to home room. She dreads every school bell, for when class is over and its time to walk to another class or the lockers, she is vulnerable. Administration does nothing but pat her on the hand and tell her its ok. Her mother is infuriated and reassures her. But she is not comforted, she does not feel safe; She feels totally alone, hated, isolated, humiliated.

She is frequently home alone after school since her mother worked part time during this era.
One day she gets one of the big carving knives out of the kitchen drawer. She puts the tip on her wrist to see what it feels like. She digs it in a little until the skin breaks just a bit. It hurts. For some reason, that hurt feels good. She drags the tip down her wrist a little, not really with any real intention, just ...because...

There is no blood, just a red scrape. More of a scratch or a welt than a cut. She lays the blade against her wrist and imagines slicing it. She finds the courage to move the blade just enough to lift a layer of skin away from her flesh the tiniest bit. There is blood ready to surface. She stops. She puts down the knife and walks away. She is numb.

She finds a large safety pin and repeats this exercise. The sharp tip of the safety pin presses into her arm enough to just barely pass through, and then she drags its along. She continues in this fashion for probably an hour. Her wrist and forearm are a mess...a tangle of scratches and cuts. She applies some medicated ointment and puts on a long sleeved shirt.

When asked about the cuts, she tells people that her cat scratched her. Clearly no one believes her but why would this nerdy, beautiful, honor-student brace-face lie about such a thing? No one really pursues it, including her. The bullying and torment continue, but some where in her, by the Grace of God, she find the courage to stand up to them, little by little.

By today's standards, this story would have ended much differently I'm sure. Because if you stand up to a bully now, it incites them. It enrages them. Because our children are sick. They are broken. Tears mean nothing and strength is viewed as a threat.

If this story took place in the present day, I would not be typing this. I didn't realize I had written that whole account in the third person until just now. Its the only way I can tell it. ...Because its obviously about me.

A year or two into my High School career, my mother purchased a tiny hand gun because my dad traveled on business a good deal and she felt she needed some protection. I remember one day finding it and holding it in my hand. I had no intention for it that day. I just held it, flat in my palm, terrified, and just sobbed. I knew without a doubt that if my mother had owned that gun a year or 2 earlier, I would have used it and tried to kill myself.

To this day, I can clearly see the faces of my bullies. I know their names. Some of them are on facebook. Some of them are friends with people I have been friends with on facebook. But so deep is that hurt that I have unfriended people who are mutual friends of these now inconsequential persons who probably do NOT remember my name, or my face. But I remember theirs...

This story about Phoebe, the Columbine story, all the stories of bullied young teens who hang themselves, shoot themselves, poison themselves...they all hit me in the gut. Whether they were teased for being gay, or popular, or pretty, or ugly, or short, or matter. It all makes me sick.

We have to teach our children to stand up to this kind of behavior from the get-go. Once bullying gains momentum and courage, there is little to stop it. And we all know that school Administrations do little or nothing except placate angry parents. We have to teach our children how to be strong without stripping them of their humanity, or their innocence. We have to teach them to stand up for not only themselves, but for other kids, who can NOT stand up for themselves. Had ONE person who was friends with my tormentors said to them "dude, chill out and leave her alone, let's go smoke weed in the bathroom, this is lame" it would have halted them. That's all it would have taken. I've seen it happen. Had just one of my friends stepped in and stood by me, that's all I would have needed.

I have tried to teach Cliff that being mean is wrong. He is short so he gets teased about it. I tell him it doesn't matter what they say and I elaborate on all the reasons why he's awesome and why eventually it just doesn't matter. And I also tell him that when he sees other kids being picked on for being different in any way, he needs to either step in, stand up, or tell an adult, pronto. And I am begging school administrators and teachers who read this...step in. over and over and over and over. You can't just step in once. You have to always step in. If bullying meets resistance everywhere it is seen, it will stop. But like water flows, this hatred will flow until it finds a leak in the resistance. And it almost always does. As a society we need to take this much more seriously.

Teach your children empathy, and strength, and courage. Teach them acceptance and tolerance and most of

All it took was ONE person to tell that aching blonde girl that she had no reason to try to hurt herself. That she was awesome and beautiful and really stupid for listening to stupid jealous bitches. It just took that one person to keep her from trying that ever again.

I have tried to reach him, to contact him, to thank him. But I have been unsuccessful. Its on my bucket list, for sure...

Thank you, Nathan. You'll never know how much you did for me...


  1. This breaks my heart!!! So glad you are still here to LOVE AND TO READ YOUR so honest and needed words! the word PUBLISH comes to mind when I read you!!!

  2. Being the "fat kid" in school i know just what being picked on feels like..i never realized till reading what you wrote that i too attempted suicide in a much more torturous and painful fashion...and i still have the scars....maybe this generation will understand that different does not equal wrong...i know i am trying to teach it to my kids

  3. thank you Linda. love you.

    and I love you Phillip. I am moved by your realization. I would like to think this generation would evolve that far. but...I think we have miles to go...

  4. This is so incredibly powerful I'd like to put it on my facebook and my blog, may I?

  5. It is said by people far smarter than me, that when we stand on a ledge, we are not afraid of heights, rather we are afraid we might jump. When a novice picks up a gun, there is a powerful urge to see what it would be like to point it at ones self. Now, throw a bullied teen into the mix, unaware of the coping mechanisms they could use, dependent only on outside validation to keep them from believing they are worthless.

    There is no personal accountability expected here. A parent can soothe the damage, but not repair it. They are too young, too ill-equipped, and the meanness in other teens is far more advanced than any coping mechanisms a young mind could employ. Intervention is the only sure way to stop the cycle, and if it is a peer member that takes that step, all the more validating.

    Kelly, as ironic as it sounds, you are one of the lucky ones. You managed to find a self-worth on your own, but only after suffering a hurt no person should suffer. They say that success is the best revenge. Whereas I am no fan of revenge, I am a fan of personal success. You have beaten it. You may not know it fully, but we that love you know it. You are a full-blown success story in life. Kudos to you.