September 30, 2010

Musings about bullying and suicide

Posted in Children and adolescents, Civil rights, GLBT issues, Musings at 12:27 pm by The Lizard Queen

Tyler Clementi played the violin.  He won a scholarship for his playing, and as of this fall he was a member of the Ridgewood (New Jersey) Symphony Orchestra—pretty impressive for an 18-year-old college freshman, and he’d been playing in the RSO since high school.  A friend recently said this* about his talent: “When you picked up the violin and began to play, it was as if everything just paused until you put it down again.”  Here is a photograph of Clementi playing, courtesy of the New York Times**:

Tyler Clementi

That picture reminds me so much of one of my friends from high school; I like to think that if I’d met Tyler when I was his age, we would have been friends.

Perhaps that’s part of why I’m so thoroughly heartsick that Tyler Clementi appears to have killed himself last week.  (The phrasing “appears to have killed himself” is a pretty heavy dose of denial on my part, but since today’s ABC News article—linked below—states that “Officials are still trying to determine today whether a body pulled from the Hudson River Wednesday is Clementi”… I guess I just want to believe that he might not actually be dead, that this was all some elaborate scheme for revenge.  I’m not sure what that says about me, exactly.)

Here’s what happened, via the New York Times (linked below):

It started with a Twitter message on Sept. 19: “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”

That night, the authorities say, the Rutgers University student who sent the message used a camera in his dormitory room to stream the roommate’s intimate encounter live on the Internet.

And three days later, the roommate who had been surreptitiously broadcast — Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman and an accomplished violinist — jumped from the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River in an apparent suicide.

What this synopsis fails to mention is that the apparent suicide occurred after the student in question broadcast a second encounter, preceded by the tweet: “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes, it’s happening again.”

It sounds like Clementi asked to have the shared room to himself on those two nights—awkward, perhaps, but certainly way more thoughtful than a roommate who gets down to business and loses track of time and ends up with their roommate walking in on them (*raises hand sheepishly*).  At any rate, I’d call that an expressed desire for privacy, which the student in question then violated, on two separate occasions.  At the very, very least, he did it to build himself up at his roommate’s expense.  That’s what bullies do, no?  But I’ll get back to that in a minute.

No one appears to know for sure whether Clementi identified as gay, or bi, or questioning, or if it was just a matter of an adolescent experimenting in hopes of figuring things out for himself before choosing a label—if, indeed, he would have ended up choosing a label at all.  However, I think it would be irresponsible to ignore the homophobic reading one can give that initial tweet (at the very, very least), the homophobic comments it appears were left for the student in question (see page 2 of the ABC News article) after the first incident (e.g. “how did you manage to go back in there?”), and the fact that the shame we as a society heap on (certain) young people for being sexual increases exponentially if that sexuality is expressed toward the young person’s own sex.

Let’s look at it from another direction, not that of shaming but that of bullying.  Just as plenty of people are willing to write this incident off as an should-have-been-harmless prank gone wrong, plenty of people are willing—if not eager—to write off bullying.  “Buck up,” they say, “it happens to everyone.  Grow a thicker skin.”  And while it might be true that everyone gets bullied at one time or another, how much worse is it for the kids who are different, “Other” in some way?  How much worse is the psychological impact when so much of society is still sending the message that to be different in certain ways is wrong, immoral, etc.?

Think I’m being hypersensitive or melodramatic?  Here’s a section from yesterday’s Truth Wins Out press release on the subject of three adolescents who committed suicide, just in the month of September, after being bullied:

  • Seth Walsh, the Bakersfield, CA 13-year-old who hanged himself from a tree in his back yard after years of being bullied, died Tuesday afternoon after nine days on life support. Police investigators interviewed some of the young people who taunted Seth the day he hanged himself. “Several of the kids that we talked to broke down into tears,” Police Chief Jeff Kermode said. “They had never expected an outcome such as this.”
  • Billy (William) Lucas, 15, a student at Greensburg Community High School in Greensburg, IN, was found dead in a barn at his grandmother’s home Thursday evening — he had hanged himself. Friends say that he had been tormented for years. “He was threatened to get beat up every day,” friend and classmate Nick Hughes said. “Sometimes in classes, kids would act like they were going to punch him and stuff and push him. Some people at school called him names,” Hughes said, saying most of those names questioned Lucas’ sexual orientation.
  • Asher Brown, 13, an eighth-grader killed himself last week. He shot himself in the head after enduring what his mother and stepfather say was constant harassment from four other students at Hamilton Middle School in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Houston Texas. Brown, his family said, was “bullied to death” — picked on for his small size, his religion and because he did not wear designer clothes and shoes. Kids also accused him of being gay, some of them performing mock gay acts on him in his physical education class, his mother and stepfather said.

So: how do we fix this?  What can we do?  Aside from saying we need a sea change in our society, a move away from shame, from making fun of people who are different, from the idea that self-confidence is a zero-sum game, I really don’t know.

In the meantime, I’m going to be thinking of Tyler, of Seth, of Asher, and of Billy, and hoping that, if nothing else, they’ve found the peace they sought.  I’m so, so sorry we as a society couldn’t do better by them.

*ABC News: Rutgers, Friends and Family of Tyler Clementi Mourn Suicide

**The New York Times: Private Moment Made Public, Then a Fatal Jump

The hat-tip goes to Ta-Nehisi Coates, with gratitude toward the predominantly thoughtful commentariat there.

1 Comment »

  1. DavidD said,

    As I was reading the middle part of your piece, I was thinking about the contrast you make between bullying and the unintended consequences of an otherwise harmless prank. Of course, there are unintended consequences of bullying, too, if the bully just meant to cause some emotional comfort in himself and/or emotional harm in the scapegoat, but triggers more than that. “Hey, it’s not my fault. He can’t take a joke!”

    I’ve read professional discussions of bullying and what’s wrong with the bully psychologically, even medically. I don’t remember a definition of bully from that, but I suppose for most people “bully” implies malice, while without malice people would want to use a different word for violating boundaries, oneupsmanship, whatever hurts another person. Unless assigning a degree of blame to someone is important, I’m not sure that the label matters. Lots of human behaviors harm other people, with or without malice. We may feel angrier if someone appears to step on our toes intentionally, but it can hurt almost as much and be just as much a problem where there was no malice, just insensitivity or something.

    I thought those labels were even less important when I got to your final question. It’s not just outright bullying that needs to stop if you want a healthy society. It’s not just sociopaths or homophobes that are the problem. It’s not just gay students that are targets. There would have been a lot of distress if this were a heterosexual encounter that wound up on the internet because the roommate wanted to pull back the sheets for the world or whatever the motivation was. It wouldn’t be a national story then, but it still could have been the last straw for someone. Where’s my gun?

    How do we get people to quit picking on each other? One thing is to start with the person in the mirror, to get that person healthy. That can be a lifelong task. Who’s on my side beyond that? I think that academics and the healing professions are, but their messages don’t always reach the public well. Look at how well shaming and lying works in politics.

    I think the culture is evolving in the right direction, both worldwide and here in the land of the proud and controlling, but that’s certainly slow and uneven. I guess we do our best to improve ourselves and improve others, and realize that we’re not the only ones doing that, however we know how to help. That’s vague, but I bet you can fill in specifics for how you’re doing that in your own life. Some people do it better. Some do it worse. Some don’t give a damn and follow whatever nature biology and their individual exposure to our culture have given them, to be a bully, to be not quite that bad but still hurtful. They cannot be fixed. They have to reach for a way out of their own pain. And to make our culture so healthy that it prevents their pain? I bet cultural evolution will do a better job of that than anyone’s panacea, but I wish there were a quicker solution. Poof! No, nothing much changed. I bet the 22nd century will look different.


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