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South Hadley suicide: the dangers of stressing vulnerability

Guest Post by Nancy McDermott

A sad story of teenage suicide in a small town has become a national fascination.

Last week three teenage girls pleaded “not guilty" to civil rights violations and harassment in the death of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year old girl who committed suicide in her home in South Hadley,  Massachusetts. The three girls are accused, along with several other teens, of orchestrating a campaign of bullying that ultimately drove Prince, a pretty young woman recently arrived from Ireland, to take her own life.

One of the most thoughtful commentaries on the story comes from Christopher Caldwell in the Financial Times. Caldwell points out that bullying is not something that the American people can legislate out of existence.  He likens Massachusetts’s new anti-bullying law, passed in the wake of Prince’s death, to workplace and sexual harassment legislation under which “citizens can be held liable for creating a ‘hostile environment’” and “holds people accountable not for their actions but for the mental states those actions engender in other people”. It is an approach that “chills dissent and other kinds of freedom of speech, and it is not necessarily an effective way of curtailing sexism and bullying.” The Prince case, he says, is not an administrative problem but a symptom of a “larger cultural shift".

Caldwell is right to put the case into a broader social context. Unfortunately, he’s off the mark when he suggests that what happened to Prince is a product of the decline of punitive morality surrounding sex. He's also rather naïve when he suggests that “people proclaim themselves free of moral hang-ups and yet throw around words like 'slut' and 'whore' with abandon that no previous generation ever did.” Prince’s situation, that of being an outsider, persecuted by the reining “queen bees” and their cliques is common enough to be one of the major themes in children’s literature, not to mention virtually every teen movie from Carrie to Twilight. The question is, how did things get so out of hand?

Suicide, especially of the young,  is never simply an individual act, but one that tells us something about the capacity of society to bind the individual to a greater moral and temporal whole, to lend meaning to individual existence and to hold out the promise of a brighter future.  Prince’s story conforms to current expectations of bullying, that it is among the worst things that can happen to a person. For instance, the HRSA’s website, “Stop Bullying Now!", includes a long list of terrible things destined to happen to people who are bullied, including alcoholism, involvement in crime, poor health and depression.  Indeed, the vulnerability of the individual seems to be a recurring theme in the Prince case.

There were the adults in the school who did not seem willing or able to intervene effectively when she asked for help. There were fellow students who observed what was going on but felt unable to rally round and defend her. Finally, there was Phoebe Prince herself, who had also been bullied at school in Ireland, and told friends she was “not a tough girl” who could defend herself.  In the end, it was the fact that she was faced with the reality of harassment at school, and no sense that she might ever be able to survive or have a future without bullying, that led Prince to take her own life.

From this perspective, the message we are sending to our children about the impact of bullying may be making the situation far worse.

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