Friday, April 23, 2010

The Case of Phoebe Prince

Clearly, South Hadley High School student Phoebe Prince was bullied to death. Just as clearly, those who were responsible, both the bullies who tormented her and the authorities that ignored her plight, should be subject to appropriate opprobrium.

Now, as the story of Phoebe's last months and days is revealed in the press, other issues come to the fore. See articles by Donal Lynch in the Irish Independent, here and here, and Emily Bazelon's most recent essay in Slate. Link here.

It's one thing to be subjected to bullying. Another is not possessing the psychological resources necessary to deal with the situation. From reading about Phoebe Prince I am struck by her lack of what I would call psychological capital.

Some would call psychological capital self-esteem but this term has been brutalized beyond recognition. Others would call it self-confidence, a person's ability to stand firm in the assertion of her own value. It is created and supported by social relationships, by the sense of belonging to a group, by contributions to the good of the group, and by the feeling that one's membership is solid and inviolate.

You lose psychological capital when you are cast out of a group or treated like a pariah. But you also lose it by being too vulnerable and too exposed. A child who barely feels that she belongs will feel vulnerable to rejection and will lack the confidence to assert herself as a member of the group. The situation will be worse if she is new in town and does not know enough of the social codes to know what she should do to make herself fit in.

I daresay that a child does not have that much psychological capital to begin with. She will need to buttress her own developing resources by borrowing capital from her parents and family members. The better her relationships with them, the more capital they have, the more she will have.

As an outsider, a new arrival in South Hadley, a girl living only with her mother and sister, Phoebe was vulnerable. Her primary emotional support, her father, had stayed back in Ireland. Bullies sense out vulnerability and weakness. Once they find it they exploit it mercilessly.

Given the difficulties adjusting to a new culture, why was Phoebe Prince in South Hadley anyway? Why did her mother take two of her five children to America, leaving the older ones in Ireland with their father?

Here there are two conflicting reports. One suggests that Phoebe's mother, Anne O'Brien wanted her youngest children to see America. Anne's sister lived in South Hadley, so that was the logical place to go.

For my part I would dismiss that reason as a transparent attempt at dissimulation.

Others have suggested that Phoebe had been bullied in her high school in Ireland. If so, it would make some sense for her parents to believe that it was imperative to remove her from an unhealthy environment. The greater the distance, the better.

If that is true, then Phoebe's parents may simply have made a well-intentioned mistake. The worst part of the mistake was separating Phoebe from her father. From reading one of Phoebe's high school class assignments we get the impression that she was very close to her father. Link here. He was her rock and her refuge; he was her most important social contact. He would comfort her and protect her.

We do not know whether Phoebe's father could have protected her from the South Hadley bullies, but surely his presence would have given her the feeling that she was protected, thus, less vulnerable to the abuse that had become a painful part of her everyday routine. And this feeling of being protected must increase one's psychological capital.

In moving to South Hadley Phoebe lost her best conversations and found that life in an American high school involved manic texting and twittering.

In an essay where she extolled the value of her relationship with her father, she also described the shortcomings of "today's impersonal electronic society." In her words: "We no longer appreciate simple conversations now that we have twitter and facebook. Personally I can't believe that reading an email would have the same effect as speaking with someone face-to-face, making a moment."

If psychological capital is built by an accumulation of gestures that signify social connection, the "impersonal electronic society" would diminish psychological capital while creating a false sense of connection.

Feelings of solitude and anomie, not merely not belonging, but not even knowing how to belong, must be more powerful for a child who has been dropped into an alien community and alien culture.

Emily Bazelon offers a slightly different explanation for Phoebe's move to South Hadley. She says that Phoebe's parents had separated... which could mean that they were living separately, but which seems to mean that they had separated as a prelude to divorce.

Could it be that Phoebe's mother was so distraught over her separation that she wanted to have a fresh start for herself in South Hadley? Even if it cost her daughter her most important social tie, her conversations with her father.

Next we must ask whether the school contributed to Phoebe's loss of psychological capital by making her feel even more vulnerable and exposed, even more threatened with social oblivion.

I find something strangely disquieting about Phoebe's touching essay on her father and her iPod. It feels too personal, too intimate, emotionally too raw and vulnerable. Keep in mind that this essay was posted on her blog, for all to read, for all bullies to exploit.

A child who is developing psychological capital should become more thick skinned, not more exposed. Those educators who believe that their job is to provide a kind of rough therapy by helping children to get in touch with their feelings are doing them a serious disservice. Seeing the way it worked for Phoebe Prince confirms my judgment.

Perhaps this happens in all American high schools. If so, American high schools should get out of the therapy business and return to the three Rs.

While the school was encouraging Phoebe to expose her feelings, she was writing that what made her happiest about talking with he father was their discussions of politics. Would it not have been better if Phoebe was assigned essays on politics and history than on her intimate emotions?

Phoebe also posted a second essay on her blog. It is a book review of a book by psychotherapist Stephen Levenkron about girls who self-mutilate by cutting themselves.

Maybe I am just revealing my age, but has anyone asked whether it is appropriate for a child to read books about disturbing psychological conditions? Especially when she is likely to identify with the girls who tell there stories of depression, anomie, and self-abuse. Do we really want a high school girl to find herself among that group? Do we want her to discover a new way to deal with her anguish?

I hope that no one believes that such reading materials will be therapeutic, or that they will help a troubled girl get in touch with her feelings. Do we really want a girl who is lost and disconnected, subjected to psychological abuse, to hear some of her own darkest feelings echoed in the words of girls who self-mutilate. You build psychological capital by accentuating your good qualities, not indulging your darkest moods.

I am assuming, charitably, that her teacher did not assign this book. But I must assume that if it was the topic of a book review the teacher approved Phoebe's choice.

Think about it. If a child asks to review a book about self-mutilation would you not take that to be an alarm. In my view the minimally acceptable adult behavior would have been to refer the girl immediately for counseling.

From the evidence we have up to now, no one seemed to understand that a fifteen year old does not have the emotional capacity to deal with issues like self-mutilation. Nor, I would add, does a fifteen year old have the emotional capacity to deal with the aftershocks of hooking up.









16 comments:

dan said...

An open letter to American poet Maya ...

dan said...

An open letter to American poet Maya Angelou: "You got the Phoebe Prince case wrong, dear!"

Maya Angelou, one of American's most accomplished and moving poets, is one of those people who seems to be accomplished at everything she tries.

Now, at 82, full of energy and inspiration, she's writing a poem about Phoebe Prince but it won't be read out loud in public or printed until next fall.

IN HER OWN LIFE, as a little girl aged 8, Maya Angelou was raped by her mother's boyfriend, who was subsequently killed by her uncles. The event caused the young Maya to go mute for nearly 6 years, and her teens and early 20s were spent as a dancer, filled with isolation and ''experimentation''. At age 16 she gave birth to a son. So her poem about Phoebe will be informed by the experiences and insights of her own long life!



Hopefully, Angelou will have time to learn that Phoebe is alleged to have attempted suicide 8 times in Ireland before ever coming to Massachusetts.

And hopefully, some of Jennifer's letter below will make it into her poem as well. [see below]


In her efforts to be continue to be a force with her words and her constant calls for people to be better to one another, Angelou is working on a poem about Phoebe, the 15-year-old student at South Hadley High School who committed suicide in mid-January after an apparent barrage of bullying and harassment from nine other students.

That's what she told Ray Routhier [rrouthier@pressherald.com] of the Maine Sunday Telegram newspaper in a recent Q and A sesssion with the reporter.

"I'm at work now on a poem; it won't be finished for maybe six months. It's about [that] young [Irish girl][Phoebe] who committed suicide," Angelou told Routhier. ".....The brutality today is a pandemic, an epidemic of bullying, and cruelty..."




But Angelou should know the real story, and perhaps the Rashomon version of the Phoebe Prince story, too, before she publishes her poem. Thus this open letter. I hope you're reading this, Maya!

"Phoebe Prince likely placed herself in high-risk situations", a sexual abuse survivor told this blog the other day. Maya Angelou should be aware of this, no?

http://zippy1300.blogspot.com/2010/04/major-break-in-phoebe-prince-case.html

dan said...

Stuart for a smart guy you are pretty dumb here...

PP was not bullied to death. she came to USA with 8 previous suicide attemots, but you did not knmow that. now you do,.

but donal lynch and Emily bazelon got it all wrong, i am in touch with both of them nowm, bcauise they also did not know or chose not to report the truth: PP was damagwed good before she ever came to the USA. she was likely sexually abused in Ireland. guess who was likely the perp? DANNY

re


re "Clearly, South Hadley High School student Phoebe Prince was bullied to death. Just as clearly, those who were responsible, both the bullies who tormented her and the authorities that ignored her plight, should be subject to appropriate opprobrium.


Now, as the story of Phoebe's last months and days is revealed in the press, other issues come to the fore. See articles by Donal Lynch in the Irish Independent, here and here, and Emily Bazelon's most recent essay in Slate. Link here.


It's one thing to be subjected to bullying. Another is not possessing the psychological resources necessary to deal with the situation. From reading about Phoebe Prince I am struck by her lack of what I would call psychological capital."

dan said...

i am struck by YOUR lack of psychological capital dr shrink! SMILE....don't follow the shallow media narrative, there is a deeper darker story here, but yes, the bullies must be punished sure. but start reading my blog to find the truth sir....danny bloom, 1949-2032, Tufts 1971

email me SS at danbloom at Gmail

Anonymous said...

I'd love to get a diagnosis from Stuart about our new friend Dan.

dan said...

dear anon above, o dan? he is eccentric meshagnauh loose cannon off the wall totally fekarkt luftmensch and not to be trusted at all, ignore him. he is looney from the get go. but follow the news story, since.......drum roll...

xxxxx, about the 8 earlier suicide attempts u told me about....a major major TOP reporter covering this story emails me today, and asks

Hi Danny,

About your FB message about Phoebe Prince -- do you think your friend who is a teacher in South Hadley would be willing to talk to me about the alleged 8 previous suicide attemtpts, off the record?

Best,

_____ ____ ______, from a major top reporter covering this case

I told this reporter that my source might be able to talk to her anonymously without your name being used, and without your tel number being used, maybe call from public pay phone,....but that YOUR FRIEND who is the teacher probably CANNOT talk to media, for fear of job and word gettting out, but MAYBE, if is it really anonynmouys and on background and off the record, but i said it will be up to YOU and your friend to decide....i think this will be a big break if you can do it, but only do it IF you understand the the rules so be careful, do not get invovled unless you trust the angels to guide you....but the media is good here stillm this reporter ius a good WOMAN and she cares about PHOEBE first and foremost....but she open to truth too... --- DANNY, let me know ASAp..i can guide you to this reporter....

Anonymous said...

Stuart suggests that bullies victimize those with more modest psychological capital. We’ve all heard about bullies being inherently insecure. But I’m curious about the possibility that many if not most bullies may have too much psychological capital.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, anonymous. I am intrigued by the idea that bullies have too much psychological capital. Could we say that theirs is in something like an asset bubble... wildly overbought... like a stock that has been bid up to values beyond any relation to reality... but whose owners are in constant fear lest someone call them out, challenge them, and show that their confidence is a sham.

Anonymous said...

Indeed... hence their vigilant defense of their reputation, such as it is. I have seen this often.

taiwan77 said...

taiwan77 said...
Stuart, news tip. Maya Angelou the poet is now writing a national public poem about the Phoebe case, due out in the fall. google for more. true. -- dany bloom

April 28, 2010 9:26 PM

Anonymous said...

Stewart,
Now that you have seen Emily Brazelon's SLATE follow up on this, what is your POV now?

RE:

Clearly, South Hadley High School student Phoebe Prince was bullied to death. CLEARY?

Just as clearly, those who were responsible, both the bullies who tormented her and the authorities that ignored her plight, should be subject to appropriate opprobrium.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I have read Emily Bazelon's long article on Slate, and, as you say, it is excellent. I recommend it to all who are interested in the case.

Perhaps I overstated my opening paragraph, but we must keep in mind that these students are being criminally prosecuted. The court will eventually decide the facts in the case.

Bazelon's account seems plausible, but it is another side, and not necessarily the absolute truth.

It feels, as one commenter said, like Rashomon.

We do discover via Bazelon that Phoebe Prince was a very disturbed and vulnerable girl, who had been subjected to bullying in Ireland, and whose family had moved her to the States to help her to recover.

In Ireland Phoebe got into trouble with older girls for dating older boys. These girls gave her the silent treatment, which is surely akin to bullying.

As we all suspected Phoebe cut herself, was treated by psychiatrists, was prescribed medication, and ultimately committed suicide.

Maybe we should ask about the effectiveness of some of the treatment she received and whether mere pills were sufficient.

Did Phoebe contribute to the bullying? It appears that she did. Though she was fifteen years old, so I am inclined not to expect the most highly developed social skills.

Anonymous said...

Stuart
That Rashomon commenter was me. Dany Bloom in Taiwan. And will notice that Emily's first article about Phoebe way back in April in Slate followed the old media narrative and she only changed her mind and POV after I got through to her by phone and email and FB msgs to tell her of the smoking gun info I had in my hands, send to me by sources in S Hadley. Then she changed her mind and started digging deep. She came up with a great article that deserves a Pulitzer, INHO. She nailed it. nobody believed me when i said the same things on my blog zippy1300 and in comments even here back in April, YOU did not even believe me, but now the truth is out. I wonder what Maya Angelou's poem will say now, i hope she has time to revise it to reflec the truth.

Danny Bloom, 1949-2032

RE: "I have read Emily Bazelon's long article on Slate, and, as you say, it is excellent. YES IT IS....I recommend it to all who are interested in the case. YES. AND GUESS WHO TURNED HER? ME!

Perhaps I overstated my opening paragraph, but we must keep in mind that these students are being criminally prosecuted. The court will eventually decide the facts in the case.

Bazelon's account seems plausible, but it is another side, and not necessarily the absolute truth. IT IS THE ABSOLUTE GOD'S TRUTH, STUART. TRUST ME ON THIS.

It feels, as one commenter said, like Rashomon. I AM THE ONE WHO SAID THAT.

We do discover via Bazelon that Phoebe Prince was a very disturbed and vulnerable girl, IS AID THAT IN APRIL HERE AND ON MY BLOG AND SENT MY NEWS TIPS TO NY TIMES AND BOSTON GLOBE, THEY DID NOT REPORT. ONLY BRAVE EMILY WENT FOR THE KILL, ONCE SHE ASCERTAIEND I HAD THE SMOKING GUNS...who had been subjected to bullying in Ireland,AND SHE ATTEMPED SUICIDE THERE 8 TIMES ALSO, NOT REPORTED YET BECAUSE NOT CONFIRMED BUT I HAVE THAT TIP IN MY FILES SENT TO ME BY TEACHER FRIEND IN S HADLEY... and whose family had moved her to the States to help her to recover. YES. SIGH. AND THEN SHE GOT FURTHER INTO DRUGS AND PARTIES AT HER HOME AND ORAL SEX AND FULL SERVICE SEX. I BELEIVE SHE TRADED SEX FOR TALK, SEX FOR FRIENDSHIP, SEX FOR UNDERSTANDING.

In Ireland Phoebe got into trouble with older girls for dating older boys. These girls gave her the silent treatment, which is surely akin to bullying.

As we all suspected Phoebe cut herself, A LOT! ......was treated by psychiatrists, was prescribed PROZAC AND WORSE! medication, and ultimately committed SELF-suicide.

Maybe we should ask about the effectiveness of some of the treatment she received and whether mere pills were sufficient. YES YES YES GOOD QUESTIONS SIR!

Did Phoebe contribute to the bullying? It appears that she did.
SHE BROUGHT IT ON, BUT NOT ON PURPOSE AND SHE WAS NOT IN CONTROL. BUT YES SHE CONTRIBUTED TO THE BULLYING. SHE EGGED IT ON. MAYBE THIS WAS HER UNCONCIOUS MODUS OPERANDI? DOCTOR?.... Though she was fifteen years old, so I am inclined not to expect the most highly developed social skills. AND SHE WAS JUST 13, 14 WHEN SHE STARTED "DATING" OLDER BOYS, as in F_CK_NG!

Anonymous said...

http://zippy1300.blogspot.com/2010/07/open-letter-to-american-poet-maya.html

dan said...

summary now after legal cases closed?

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