Emily Bazelon tries to explain ‘What really happened to Phoebe Prince,’ but finds many readers don’t trust her account

Emily Bazelon’s recent series of articles for Slate seeks to answer the question: “What really happened to Phoebe Prince?”.  In her series, Bazelon offers readers a far more nuanced look at Phoebe Prince and the students who bullied her than readers got from most of the other media outlets that covered the story of Prince’s suicide.  Readers learn from the first article in Bazelon’s series that Phoebe had been troubled long before she was bullied by classmates at South Hadley High–long before, in fact, she had even left Ireland, the country where she was born and raised.

The more complicated, more nuanced, and ultimately more human Phoebe that emerges from Bazelon’s reporting on the case is one whose suicide was perhaps more the result of a deeper mental illness and less the product of verbal attacks–in person and online–from classmates who did not like her.

While Bazelon is to be commended for providing far more information and far more depth in her articles than many in the media provided in theirs, her series is not without its problems.  Many who commented on the series (and as of this writing, the articles had logged some 1,739 comments) noted that Bazelon comes across as “blaming the victim,” in particular because of this passage, which set the tone for the first of the articles in the series:

My investigation into the events that gave rise to Phoebe’s death, based on extensive interviews and review of law enforcement records, reveals the uncomfortable fact that Phoebe helped set in motion the conflicts with other students that ended in them turning on her. Her death was tragic, and she shouldn’t have been bullied. But she was deeply troubled long before she ever met the six defendants. And her own behavior made other students understandably upset.

In stating that Phoebe “helped set in motion the conflicts with other students that ended in them turning on her,” Bazelon appears to be saying that the students were cruel to Phoebe because of the things she was doing to them–in essence, that Phoebe brought the bullying she was subjected to upon herself.

To her credit, Ms. Bazelon addressed this issue in a blog post to readers:

I of course did not write this story to turn the blame back on Phoebe, nor excuse the bullies, especially for their behavior on her last day. But in this case, there are six other kids whose futures are on the line, and the prosecutor is directly blaming five of them for Phoebe’s death. With stakes this high, it is necessary to put Phoebe’s behavior in context and explain the many complicated factors that led up to her suicide. It is still a tragic and unhappy story, but not the same, simple, tragic story the media has wanted to portray.

Fair enough.  The futures of six other kids are “on the line,” a fact that should not be taken lightly.  But in trying to have readers question the validity of the charges against the “South Hadley Six,” Bazelon swings the pendulum too much in the opposite direction: In trying so hard to portray the charges against the six individuals involved as being excessive and unnecessary, Bazelon seems to paint them all with the same brush, when it seems–judging by the information she provides–that some of them are especially culpable for their behavior.

Particularly troubling are the actions of Sean Mulveyhill, “a senior and star of the football team,” and Ashley Longe, a friend of Sean’s who is also the girl at school who, hours before Phoebe killed herself, “drove by [Phoebe] in a friend’s car, yelled ‘whore’ out the window, and threw an empty drink can at her.”

Mulvehill faces statutory rape charges for having had a sexual relationship with Phoebe.  Because Phoebe was cutting herself–and according to information in Bazelon’s first article, was doing that cutting on various areas over her entire torso, from just above her chest all the way down to her hips–it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which Mulvehill could have had sex with Phoebe without seeing these cuts–marks that clearly indicate a troubled soul.  Based on what Bazelon reports in her first article, Phoebe had a habit of turning to boys for comfort; it seems unlikely that Mulvehill would not have realized that Phoebe was emotionally troubled.  Yet he chose to sleep with her anyway, and then later, when Phoebe’s interaction with the girl who had by that point become Mulvehill’s steady girlfriend put Mulvehill’s relationship in jeopardy, he labeled Phoebe a “slut” and apparently either enlisted the help of others in perpetuating that label, or at the very least, did nothing to defend Phoebe when kids lobbed that insult at her.

So it appears that even now, in the year 2010, a girl who is clearly depressed and troubled and is likely sleeping with boys because she is depressed and troubled, will be labeled a “slut” by her classmates; meanwhile, a boy three years her senior can sleep with this girl, then two weeks later be in a relationship with someone else, but gets to maintain his status as a “star football player”–he was the good kind of “known on campus,” while Phoebe was a no-good “slut.”

Bazelon seems to want readers to sympathize with Mulvehill, but it’s hard to do so when he is also the person who, it seems, was in the best position to recognize Phoebe’s signs of distress.  After all, the South Hadley principal had chosen Mulvehill “to read public service announcements over the loudspeaker as part of the school’s participation in National Bullying Prevention Awareness Week.”  The principal chose Mulvehill because he was “the kind of kid who would seek out someone having difficulty just to help him.”  Bazelon notes:

In his PSA, Sean laid out four steps that victims of cyberbullying can take: Don’t return nasty texts or IMs. Make copies of them. Set up filters to block the bully from sending more. Talk to a caring adult. Sean’s message ended: ‘Remember that when you are targeted by a person or group of people, whether online or face-to-face, you are not alone and you can take action to make it stop.’

On the day that Phoebe took her own life, “Phoebe encountered Sean, Kayla, and Ashley […] on her way to the parking lot. According to student witnesses, Sean said, ‘Here she comes,’ and then Ashley called Phoebe a whore. Sean and Kayla laughed.”  So if you’re being berated by classmates, “You’re not alone,”–I guess, that is, unless Mulvehill thinks you deserve to be called “slut.”  Then, you are on your own.

As for Ashley, she seems quite troubled herself.  According to Bazelon:

Ashley had a reputation at school for making trouble[…].  She’d walked by other girls in the halls and hissed ‘slut’ or ‘whore’ at them for dating a boy that a friend of hers liked. She was well-known to administrators. South Hadley staff members say they had worked hard to convince Ashley that she could be the first person in her family to go to college. But she was always getting pulled into someone else’s drama.

Not content with limiting her “slut-shaming” to people whom she thought were trying to break up her friends’ relationships, Longe saw fit to call out “slut” and “whore” to girls simply for the fact that they might be “dating a boy that a friend of hers liked.”  Bazelon comes off as trying to defend Longe’s behavior, though, noting that Longe could never turn her attention to her studies because “she was always getting pulled into someone else’s drama.”  The passive “getting pulled into” makes it sound as though others sought Longe out to get her involved; yet the descriptions of Longe’s behavior in Bazelon’s article make the opposite seem to be the case: Longe seemed quite bent on making everyone else’s business her business, and she seemed to relish her role as someone who doled out punishments to anyone she deemed worthy of them.

My aim is not to try this case in my blog post–to convince readers that the students involved in bullying Phoebe Prince deserve whatever legal punishments we can throw at them.  Rather, I am trying to explain why Bazelon’s reporting struck such a nerve with so many readers; despite her claim that what people most took issue with was Bazelon’s assertion that “Phoebe helped set in motion the conflicts with other students that ended in them turning on her,” the problem with Bazelon’s series extends far beyond that one statement.  The way in which she arranges her information seems designed to make the reader feel that the whole of the punishment for these students should be suspension or expulsion–not legal prosecution, which, if successful, will interfere with whatever prospects for success in life that these six students might have had otherwise.  But in doing so, Bazelon seems to evoke a tone of, “They were just kids being kids,” when I’m not so sure this behavior is as typical as she wants us to believe.  Yes, kids are often cruel to one another; but repeated cruelty of the kind Phoebe was subjected to is at the very least harassment, and–in the case of Ashley Longe’s behavior, at least–even assault.  Is punishment through the school system alone the right way to go here?  I’m not so sure.

Even beyond that question are the bigger issues that I think every one of us needs to examine.  Most notably is the fact that so many kids are getting into sexual relationships that they are clearly not prepared to handle emotionally.  In the school districts in which kids have access to sex education, that education focuses almost entirely on the technical aspects of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.  Among the things we can learn from Phoebe Prince’s tragic death is not just that we need to be better equipped to deal with bullying on campus, but that we also need to be getting more involved with the teenagers in our lives, talking to them about their choices and making sure they are making healthy ones.  Phoebe had emotional problems, yes, but it’s clear that Mulvehill had some problems of his own: People who are emotionally mature enough for sex can pick up on signs that a potential partner is or is not ready to handle a sexual relationship that comes without a commitment.  Mulvehill told police that he was “not dating Phoebe,” but rather that the two were friends who “were intimately involved.”  Phoebe was clearly not prepared to be involved in such a relationship, but neither, it seems, was Mulvehill, who dealt with the emotional fallout of the situation by laughing when friends called Phoebe–the girl who was once his friend and whom he had slept with–a “slut.”  This is not the behavior of someone who is ready for the emotional maturity necessary for healthy sexual relationships.  The rabid jealousy exhibited by the other girls at school shows that they, too, do not understand how to appropriately handle their feelings, particularly when it comes to their sexuality and their self worth.

Schools can’t do it all, of course.  Many can barely afford the technical sex ed that we want most teens to have access to–the information about condoms and the like–so it is unrealistic to expect them to fit in curriculum on emotional development as well.  I wonder how much the parents of South Hadley knew about their kids’ relationships–sexual and otherwise.  Did Mulvehill’s parents know he was “intimately involved” with Phoebe just a couple of weeks before he started dating someone else?  Did they think this was problematic, or did it just seem the mark of a popular high school senior, star of the football team?

I can’t help but feel that our approaches to ridding our schools of bullying would be more effective if they addressed aspects of emotionally healthy relationships of all kinds.  If Mulvehill had understood how vulnerable Phoebe was and the complicated set of emotions that would likely come into play for her after they had sex, he might not have had sex with her in the first place.  If Ashley Longe didn’t view other girls as a threat to her own self worth (you don’t go around school calling other girls “slut” and “whore” if you feel good about yourself), she probably wouldn’t have taunted and bullied Phoebe to begin with.

In her articles, Bazelon implies that Phoebe might have killed herself regardless of whether or not the kids at South Hadley had acted differently toward her.  That may be true.  But even if inner demons alone would have led Phoebe Prince to suicide, I think it’s reasonable to believe that if her classmates had chosen compassion over competition, Phoebe would at least have suffered a lot less torment in her young life than she already felt inside. And that, for sure, is something.


About Sarah

Grammar goddess, cultural critic, full-time media junkie. I read, I bake, I watch tv. And then I write about it.
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