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.