What do Phoebe Prince's English essays say about her?

The new world of online cruelty.
April 22 2010 3:33 PM

Phoebe Prince, in Her Own Words

What can we learn about the bullying victim from essays she wrote for English class?

Read the rest of Emily Bazelon's  series on cyberbullyingSee Emily Bazelon's special report on the untold story of Phoebe Prince and her suicide.

Pheobe Prince.
Pheobe Prince

We're learning more about Phoebe Prince, the 16-year-old girl who committed suicide in January after being bullied by her peers at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts. Details about her life in Ireland—where she lived before moving to the United States in September—are emerging in reporting from that country, and details about her state of mind are emerging from Phoebe's own writing. All of this makes both Phoebe and her death seem more complex.

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

Donal Lynch, a reporter for the Irish Independent, went on the Today Show Wednesday morning to talk about his reporting on Phoebe's family. Lynch says, based on conversations with family friends, that Phoebe had been bullied at a school in Ireland before she came to South Hadley with her mother and younger sister. That's become a controversial point in the town, where there's a dispute between school officials and friends of Phoebe's family about whether Phoebe's mother alerted the school to the previous bullying. Because of privacy concerns, school officials have shut down discussion of this and any other details of Phoebe's life at public meetings. But Lynch's report tracks with what family friends in Massachusetts have said. It's hard to know yet what this account of previous bullying means for understanding Phoebe's suicide. Does it show that she was especially vulnerable and fragile? That her school in South Hadley should have done more to protect her? Both?

What is clear is that Phoebe was thinking about her family as well as her peers in the months before her death. Lynch writes that for most of her life, Phoebe lived with both of her parents in a hamlet on the coast in County Clare, "in a picturesque house at the back of the cemetery" facing the ocean. But then her parents separated. When Phoebe, her mother, and her younger sister moved to South Hadley, her father and three older siblings stayed behind. Lynch says Phoebe missed her father; I've heard the same thing from people in South Hadley who knew her.

You can feel her wistfulness and the distance between father and daughter in an essay Phoebe wrote for her English class on Oct. 15, three months before her death. (It's online because the blogger The Litterbox, who reports that he found Phoebe's blog on the South Hadley High server, posted it in March.) She's describing "today's values" in "an impersonal electronic society." She writes,

We no longer appreciate simple conversations now that we have twitter and face-book. Personally I can't believe that reading an email would have the same effect as speaking with someone face to face, making a moment.

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Phoebe then starts to reminisce, and it sounds as if she's remembering being with her father in that house near the ocean in Ireland:

I get into my pink fluffy onesie my feet tingle as they rub off the soft cushioned fabric. I head downstairs into the kitchen. The walls our heath green with various paintings of vegetables. I live in an old country house with a barn door and all the furnishings to boot. My fathers sitting at the dining table reading a thriller type novel as per usual with a half glass full of white wine next to him. The fire is roaring and the smell of hydrangea's wafts through the air. I curl up on a chair adjacent from my father making sure to be cosily tucked in near the fire. He puts down his book and says, "Now what is on your mind tonight my dear?" From there on we start a heated debate about almost anything. Our conversations range from sex, drugs and rock and roll to matters of great importance such as ancient religions, politics and criminal justice. No subject is off limits with me and my father.

Reading this, it's hard not to think about how far away Phoebe's father was when she died.

There's a second essay of Phoebe's that the Today show gave more play, about the book Cutting: Understanding and Overcoming Self-Mutilation, by the lecturer and psychotherapist Steven Levenkron. As the blogger who posted Phoebe's writings points out, you have to read a lot into the essay to connect it to Phoebe's own torment. But it's suggestive of her interest in the emotional pain of adolescence that she chose this dark topic for her "1st Quarter Outside Reading Review." And that she has read and discusses two other Levenkron books: a novel about cutting ( The Luckiest Girl in the World) and Anatomy of Anorexia. Phoebe notes of the three books: "Theyall contain the same theme of mental anguish and recovering from it." And then there's this sentence, in which she's wrestling with that emotional pain, in her own intellectual way:

From a personal point of view I can see that Levenkron does truly understand the concept of self mutilation and how it's not about suicide in most cases it's about trying to transfer the pain from emotional to physical pain which is a lot easier to deal with for most adolescents who most likely don't even understand how they're feeling.

But Phoebe has some critical distance from the topic. She's curious about how Levenkron did his work. And she talks about her connection to the books in terms of the experiences of people around her, not herself:

Some questions that arise from the book for me are; how does the author himself cope with dealing with such a morose field? How does he manage to understand what's going on inside the self-mutilators head? I think Levenkron does a great job of bringing self mutilation a usually tabooed subject in our society to light. I think he wrote the piece to show that people shouldn't be afraid of speaking out about self-mutilation and those who do it shouldn't be condemned as selfish. This book I really connected with as I found there was truth in every word that Levenkron wrote and it helped me comprehend what people close to me have gone through.

These essays, and the details about her home life, provide just small glimpses into Phoebe's thoughts. There are many more details to be filled in before we can have anything like a full picture—which matters for assessing the role that bullying played in her death. But one thing is entirely clear from these passages: Phoebe was sensitive, smart, and articulate about the trials of being a teenager.

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