How do you shepherd your child through a personal trauma that becomes an Internet sensation? It’s a question that a small but growing number of parents are finding themselves forced to answer as social media blows up news stories into causes. One of them is Melinda Coleman, the mother of 16-year-old Daisy Coleman, whose allegations of sexual assault in Maryville, Mo., were the subject of a deeply reported October article in the Kansas City Star. The boy Daisy accused, high school football player Matthew Barnett, had been charged and then let off the hook for the rape; the local prosecutor said he didn’t have enough evidence. The decision generated outrage that a couple of online activists, in the name of Anonymous, helped channel into #OpMaryville and #Justice4Daisy. A special prosecutor was named to reopen the investigation. Barnett, now 19, recently pleaded guilty to a count of child endangerment, for leaving Daisy out in the cold for hours on the night he had sex with her.
After the Star article, which got a tremendous amount of press, Melinda Coleman had to decide how to handle the publicity. She was on her own: One of the saddest parts of this sad story is that her husband, a doctor, died in a car accident in 2009. Daisy and her younger brother were in the car and survived. Coleman moved them, and her other two children, to Maryville, “because we didn't want to be the ‘tragedy family.’ ” But then came the sexual assault allegations, and the Colemans found themselves stuck in the middle of a second tragedy. Melinda and Daisy made the unusual decision, for an alleged rape victim, to let the Star publish her name and then to go on TV. I give them a lot of credit for this—it helps diminish the stigma of victimhood when people come forward, at personal cost. In Daisy’s case, it also gave the online campaign a visible person to rally around. And it seemed to be helping her—she sounded strong when she wrote in xoJane: “I’m not done fighting yet.”
But earlier this month, shortly before Barnett’s guilty plea, Daisy was hospitalized after a suicide attempt. She tried to kill herself after making an effort to be “normal” by going to a party, her mother says. Afterward, a Twitter spat ensued, in which Daisy was reportedly called a liar and a slut. And then, according to her mom, she washed down a bunch of pain pills with Benadryl.
Fearing that Daisy could be brain damaged, Coleman lashed out on Facebook at one of the girls she said had gone after Daisy online. “She deserves some real kindness for being famous for getting someone killed,” Coleman wrote bitterly. “Isn't she a lovely person. Lets all let her know just how lovely and famous she is!!!!!” A pile-on followed. The girl tried to defend herself. “Ok can y'all say this to Daisy too??! What makes her so perfect that she can manipulate others but when one of us fights back we aren't suppose to say anything??” she wrote, and “Ok guys take your own advice and grow up, quit degrading people,” and “Ok guys I got it I'm the bad fucking person here but you know it's ok cause ik [I know] what happened yesterday and none of it is on Facebook anymore you guys can believe Melinda when she doesn't even know what happened I'm done here...looks like everyone needs to pray for me cause I'm the fucking devil for having the right to speak my opinion!” Coleman retorted: “Yeah must be so hard for [girl’s name] and all her little buddies! We will say prayers for you since you are the poor pathetic little victims!”
The exchange made me cringe. I can understand Coleman’s desperation and her crazy-making worry for her daughter. But this is the downside of social media: the instant public nature of the content and the wild opportunity for line-crossing on all sides. Twitter and Facebook have helped Coleman find support and some justice for her daughter, but they’re also a danger when you’re an emotional wreck for very good reason. There is no script to follow, so Coleman had to make up her own, but going after a teenage girl (even one who went after Daisy) seems tone deaf and a little off the rails. (Coleman also vented at Anonymous: “Where are you and your super hacking skills and internet help now,” she asked.”)
So I was relieved when Coleman (who I tried to contact but didn't hear back from in time for this post) apologized on Facebook six days later, “for getting into internet arguments and for offending anyone.” She continued, “I have been so very worried about my daughter and frantic. I am sorry for being too aggressive with my verbiage to the hacker or anonymous groups as well. I am very grateful for your help. I didn't mean to seem ungrateful. ... Again, It was the ramblings of a mother that was scared to death. Also once again, Thank you to all and I'm so sorry for anyone I hurt!”
Phew—a dose of adult maturity. Coleman has been thoughtful before: On Monday, she published a first-hand narrative in xoJane with good advice for parents:
No one deserves what my daughter has been through, but I can tell any parent who is seeking to watch over their children to make sure you are protecting your children from what other people are saying to them online. Let them know that these people are cowards, and nothing but. Do not let the cowards win. Do not let them take your child's life.
Teenagers are so susceptible to believing that a cruel comment can feel like the end of the world, and if it means keeping your child away from that by getting them offline, then that is what you need to do to protect your children.
She also reported what matters most: Daisy is home. Physically, she’s OK, “and she tells me that she has plans for the future.” Amen to that. I want Daisy to go on and thrive for herself, and also for her mom.