The Washington Post published more details about what’s emerging as one of the more heartbreaking bullying stories in recent years. A teenage boy identified as Michael and described as autistic started writing love letters to a pretty girl at his Southern Maryland high school. They became friends and started hanging out with the girl’s older friend, 17-year-old Lauren Bush, who was a cheerleader. On days when their parents weren’t around—mostly snow days—the girls began to toy with Michael. Bush put a knife to his throat and scared him, kicked him in the groin, dragged him by his hair, and tried to get him to have sex with the family dog. His younger “girlfriend” took video of the incidents on her cellphone. Once they got Michael to walk on a half-frozen pond. He fell through the ice, and they didn’t help him. Then, Sunday’s Post story revealed they didn’t let him ride in the warm car because he’d get the seats wet.* Instead, they made him ride in the trunk.
Given the gruesome details, there seems only one way to understand this story. The girls are sadistic bullies, and the boy is a pitiable victim. And this is likely true. Only in assigning these roles—which the prosecutors, who are trying Bush as an adult and the other girl as a juvenile, and the boy’s parents are quick to do—something is likely to get lost about the boy’s personality and the reality of what it’s like to be a kid on the spectrum navigating the complicated world of teenage love and friendship. Building a legal case and moral outrage, in other words, requires sacrificing a sensitive, maybe even respectful understanding of boys like Michael.
Before any of this, Michael was doing pretty well. From the description in the Post, Michael probably had a milder form of autism, something like what used to be called Asperger’s, meaning a kid who was smart and high-functioning but had difficulty reading social cues. He went to a mainstream high school. He got good grades. He had a learner’s permit, and his parents trusted him enough to let him be alone at home by himself after school. He wasn’t totally socially isolated if he was sending love letters and able to make friends. What seems to be baffling and depressing to his parents—and people who’ve been reading the coverage—is that Michael still doesn’t seem to realize these girls were not really his friends. “It really makes me upset that my parents want to see them in jail,” he told the Post reporter this week, after the girls had been arrested. “Because I really like them.”
Read that and you want to file Michael in the category of Lennie Smalls, someone so addled and dense that he can’t recognize even the machinations of the worst she-devil. But was Michael really so off-base in his reading of the events? The knife incident he described as a “a game gone wrong. It was a sick game, kind of creepy. But they didn’t have a serious intention about killing me.” About the pond he says he felt “coerced” at the time, which is an honest and sophisticated feeling to recognize and requires a fair degree of self-awareness.
Michael definitely showed bad judgment in continuing to hang out with these girls, but was it a different order of bad judgment than many other teenagers? Than, say, a slightly unpopular boy who is so besotted by the attention of a mean-girl cheerleader that he would beat up someone on her behalf, buy her drugs, spread rumors about a girl she hates, blow his savings on Rainbow Loom bracelets she was selling? Or for that matter, than what the average (nonautistic) frat boy might do on a Saturday night while his friends are watching?
Michael’s protectors are now, naturally, redefining him as a perfect victim. His parents seem to be regretting every instance they trusted him to take care of himself or saw him as capable. Michael’s mother threw away a heart-shaped candy box his girlfriend had given him on Valentine’s Day. In an earlier story, she said she regretted having left him at home alone. “My son is a staunch defender of his tormentors; it’s embarrassing,” Michael’s father told the Post. “He may be more disabled than I convinced myself that he was and maybe more lost than I realized. That’s something I am going to have to deal with on a later day. Right now, I am trying to get justice for him and others like him.”
For a boy on the spectrum, victory comes in the form of successfully doing what’s hardest for him, which is the work required to gain social acceptance and self-knowledge. For a boy like Michael, wooing a girl, winning her trust, and then trying to participate in her pranks, even while they made him uncomfortable and put him in some danger, took courage. The girls betrayed that, and Michael’s persistence in defending them is something to explore. Whether or not the girls should be prosecuted depends on the border between prank and crime; frat boys have ended up in jail for what they called mere hazing when the hazed get seriously hurt. But reducing Michael’s responses and feelings to an embarrassing tic of the severely disabled will not lead to justice—or confidence or empowerment—for Michael and people like him. It will only cause a different kind of harm, which is to make him a perfect victim.
Correction, April 22, 2014: This post originally misstated the date the Washington Post story was published.