Suicide in Lee Hirsch's "Bully"

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[featured in the American Association of Suicidology's student newsletter, June 2012] Lee Hirsch’s documentary Bully is a heartbreaking and necessary film that illustrates the impact childhood bullying has on individuals, families, and communities. Hirsch follows the personal stories of three different teenagers, revealing their painful daily struggles with mental and physical abuse from their peers. These images are both disheartening and provocative, inspiring profound empathy for these characters and frustration toward a system that seems unwilling to help their plight.

Hirsch was inspired by his own childhood experiences being bullied, and used his film to give kids and parents a voice to talk about their experiences. “Bullying is something that your generation and my generation of folks didn't think about, didn't talk about,” he told NPR’s Robert Siegel. “It was wrapped with shame, it was wrapped with silence.”

That statement, coincidentally, could also apply to suicide, a subject that plays a large role in Hirsch’s narrative. The film opens with the tragic story of 17-year-old Tyler Long’s 2009 suicide. Hirsch interviews Long’s parents, who talk about their son’s childhood and his longtime struggle with bullying—the catalyst, they believe, that led to his untimely death. “We know why Tyler did what he did,” his father says. “It was the mental abuse and not-so-physical abuse that Tyler endured.” Long’s suicide is a prominent storyline throughout the film, along with the suicide of 11-year-old Ty Smalley, whose death inspired Stand For The Silent—a program through which Ty’s parents educate students about the effects of bullying and what they can do to help end the silent epidemic.

These cultural connections between suicide and bullying are not uncommon. Bullying has received a lot of attention recently in relation to adolescent suicide, especially in the case of LGBT youth. Bully relies heavily on this cause-and-effect relationship to bolster its anti-bullying agenda. The documentary’s message seems to be: bullying is bad because it can have fatal repercussions. While this may be true, Hirsch neglects to address other factors that may have been present in the two suicides he references—namely depression and Asperger’s syndrome—thereby oversimplifying suicide and the variety of circumstances that can lead to self-inflicted death.

This perspective is a bit cursory and a whole lot potentially hazardous. The film repeatedly implies that suicide was the single reason anyone “took notice” of the bullying issue, and that it requires something as extreme as a suicide to affect change. These presumptions could lead Hirsch’s intended adolescent audience to believe that suicide is the direct and ultimate result of bullying, a way to get noticed, and a way to solve the problem.

Various scholarly studies have established a link between bullying and adolescent suicide, but not without acknowledging that bullying first inspires anxiety, depression, and aggression amongst its victims. Hirsch’s film shows this, but neglects to say it—a technique that may communicate the reality to adults but would likely slip under a teenager’s radar. The most telling moment might be when Alex, a 13-year-old boy who is relentlessly abused by his peers, talks to his mother about his classmates. She asks if it makes him feel good when they punch or kick or stab him.

“Well, I don’t know,” he responds. “I’m starting to think I don’t feel anything anymore.”

A statement like that should pave the way for a discussion about depression, but the film avoids the topic, despite many obvious indications.

Bullying is clearly a serious and under-represented issue that deserves attention and respect. Hirsch’s intentions are admirable, and the film will likely educate a variety of people about the severity of this issue, with which adolescent suicide is legitimately bound. Bullying was likely one of many factors in these suicides, and turning a tragedy into an educational tool is not a bad impulse—one often used within suicide prevention—but doing so without taking into account all of the factors is disadvantageous and, at worst, harmful. On the upside, two of the characters’ stories end on uplifting conclusions, leaving the audience with some hope. Overall, the film carries an optimistic message: kids should rally together against bullying, stand up for themselves, and support each other. Hopefully this message speaks the loudest and inspires the positive change this film can achieve.

How Many Licks Does it Take to Get to the Center of a Neurosis?

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One Sunday when I was nine or ten, in between afternoon HBO movies, I unrolled a fruit roll-up and adhered it to the side of a vinyl-laminated cabinet that housed part of our VHS tape collection. My intention was to lick the delicious fruity square until all that remained was the residue of a childhood anomaly. I can't remember what inspired this undertaking, other than the epic boredom that descended upon many of my childhood weekends. I began licking at the beginning of whatever movie happened to be screening, and the task took almost the entire 2-hour duration. If anyone was home, they either didn't notice or didn't care. I considered abandoning the endeavor a couple times, but that seemed more ridiculous than going on, so I stuck it out. In the end, my jaw was sore and my face felt like the lid to the Aunt Jemima bottle, but I was incredibly satisfied. I have always thought this anecdote was particularly revealing. Initially, it appears to be of the ilk of childhood memories that involve activities only someone who hasn't yet taken algebra could justify—like pooping in a bucket in the backyard (age 7) or riding your bicycle around for hours in a circle half the size of a cul-de-sac, fantasizing about Dr. Alan Grant being your real father (age 12. and 13). But the fruit roll-up incident doesn't only encapsulate the unselfconsciousness of life before junior high; it hints at the humble beginnings of a person. Something about this memory screams: That is so Candace!—at least, enough for me to feature some abridged version in the anxiety-provoking About Me sections of various online profiles. The story strikes me as (in order of importance): weird, witty, and subtly sexual (although using it on OKCupid elicited some undesirable responses), a mix of qualities that seem to speak to my personality. I have a history of being weird and I'm not afraid to admit it. I pride myself on my disclosure and my knack for unearthing from the annals of elementary school such a poignant moment.

Despite my relative openness, I have neglected to admit the truly revealing aspect of this episode, which I'm not sure I fully realized until the other day when I was peeling the skins off a can's worth of chick peas. In an effort to make a creamier batch of homemade hummus, I reluctantly took the advice from at least 18 websites that instructed me to individually remove the slimy outer shells of my garbanzos before dumping them into the Cuisinart (I am still convinced there is a simpler method, but perhaps that only exists in the technological efficiency of a restaurant-grade kitchen). I poured the beans into a colander, rinsed them under the tap, and proceeded to squeeze the first victim between my thumb and forefinger until it slipped out of its suit into something more comfortable—the smallest of my set of Pyrex bowls. I was surprised to discover how easily the skin ejected its innards. Just one little press and the bean flew out of its casing like a birth control pill out of a foil pack. I laughed at my five-mintues-ago self for thinking the operation would be trying and, six to eight beans in, settled into a natural state of bliss.

Turns out I derive an envy-provoking pleasure from the kind of tedium that would drive others into fist-clenching frustration. It took about seven minutes to undress that entire can of beans, but I would have happily tackled a dozen of those cans, pausing only to stretch my fingers or slide the growing pile of translucent skins from the counter into the compost bin.

People who know me will read this and say, "Uh, yeah, I know this about you," which is what my boyfriend said while I stood over a bowl of naked chickpeas talking about how much joy I found in that repetitive undertaking. I suppose it has become rather obvious that I gravitate toward the painfully intricate. I have been known to enjoy any assignment that involves a ruler or a magnifying glass and often entertained fantasies of growing up to be an archaeological excavator, a piano technician, or a mosaicist. At many of my many jobs, the adjective most often used to describe my performance has been "meticulous." Some of my fondest on-the-job memories involve hours spent alone with my organization—filing hundreds of spools of thread with names like "champagne" and "tigerlily" into a rainbow at the fabric store or lining delicate miniature tarts into a perfect chevron on the top shelf of the bakery pastry case. My favorite part-time job was a stint working at a slide collection where one of my responsibilities was to remove slide photographs out of their old cardboard frames and snap them into new plastic frames: glorious.

I have always known that I enjoyed things like precision and organization and the mind-numbingness of repetition but was embarrassed to admit it because it's not cool to be fastidious as a child. The cool kids were careless and easily annoyed with the concept of accuracy. They colored outside the lines while I scrupulously dragged my crayon around some printed black perimeter, aspiring to photo-realism. Exhibiting conscientiousness before the age of twelve was as socially detrimental as crying when you fell hard on you coccyx.

My apprehension easily segued into adulthood, at which point "precise" translates into "neurotic," and I don't want to be considered neurotic even though I probably am in the technical sense. In my mind, neurotic equals desperate and fun-less, and I directly connect that concept to one of my childhood friend's fathers. Let's call him Martin. Martin was a severe man who wore solid cardigans and perfectly pleated pants. He swept the puddles from his driveway after rainstorms and dustbusted the bottoms of our sneakers before we got into his car. I have a sharp mental image of walking in on him on his hands and knees in the bathroom, scrubbing in between the floor tiles with a toothbrush. He looked up from his chore and asked me, very earnestly, to please use the other bathroom. When I told my mother the story later on that night, she shook her head and said, "That poor man is so neurotic."

For the record: I am not fun-less and I have never cleaned a sneaker. I may be slightly neurotic, in that I occasionally feel a tinge of anxiety when the results of my efforts are not as exact as an architectural blueprint. But I am not inspired by compulsion as much as repose. The monotonous handiwork and uniform pacing of certain tasks sharpens my focus in a way that I would describe as meditative—perhaps my only vehicle for reaching such a state. I am not one to easily meditate. I have trouble with things like "letting go" and "being in the moment." When I am told to "focus on my breathing" I turn into Ray Stantz, trying to empty my mind only to think up the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Breathing is too abstract, too essential, too endless. A whole lot of pedaling and going nowhere. But put me in front of a ceramic pig and tell me I need to hand-glue individual pink sequins to its entire exoskeleton (age 19), and I am rapt.

The difference between breathing and glamorizing a pig is that the latter obviously shows evidence of progress. I am not only working but working toward an end, which, albeit at a sometimes painfully gradual pace, reveals itself in the foreseeable future. Even though I am light-headed from forgetting to open a window and the skin on my fingertips slightly burns from the cyanoacrylate in the adhesive, I can look at that partially-sequined pig and think: I am halfway there.

The fruit roll-up incident is unique because it is reductive. I plowed away at that dried square of fruit concentrate and corn syrup with no imagined masterpiece toward which I could direct my attention. I would be left with nothing to show for my efforts. There was little precision or accuracy required. My mission was to eliminate by means of controlled patience, driven by the desire to test my dexterity. It is also, without question, the work of a weird and listless child. I couldn't have imagined I would one day reference that experience to illustrate the intuitive joy I find in certain measured labors, but—not unlike my efforts to affix the contents of my penny collection to the interior walls of a bookshelf (age: last month)—the allegory is almost perfect.

What It Means To Be An Archie

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[featured in the American Association of Suicidology Student Newsletter, December 2011] The recently released mockumentary, Archie’s Final Project, opens with an upside-down home-recorded image of a sun-drenched suburban ranch house. Enter Archie, also upside-down, holding the opening titles on placards that are right side up. This scene sets the pace for the whole film: the world may be chaotic, but the message is clear, so listen.

The 2009 film, originally titled My Suicide, follows a teenage Archibald Williams as he documents his unpredictable relationship with teen suicide. The journey begins when he declares to his film class that he plans to kill himself on camera for his final project. After his bold statement chaos ensues and the typical suicide intervention protocol follows suit—removal from school, mandatory counseling, and eventually prescription drugs. Archie’s public cry-for-help opens the conversation about suicide among his peers and his unfolding documentary records the variety of ways in which suicide affects every teenager individually.

All of this is presented through Archie’s lens—both figuratively and literally. Much of the film is Archie’s footage and the erratic style mimics the random ebb and flow of adolescence. The adult figures are portrayed as insensitive and dense—a guidance counselor unconvincingly recites a standard intervention strategy to Archie and hands him a lollypop. In contrast, the kids are emotional, impulsive, and convinced the authority figures have little clue as to the scope of the problem. The dichotomy between these two groups is visceral, and in many cases, true. While the film mocks some tried and true suicide prevention efforts—including an interview clip of the late Edwin Shneidman reciting the famous “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem”—it does so with a mission. The filmmakers have clearly done their research and what results is a message illuminating the tough reality that a monumental chasm often separates adolescence and everything that comes after.

In essence, this film is about connection. We see Archie transform and start to heal as he connects with people through his project—his peers, a depressed love interest, a frank psychologist who shares Archie’s fondness for film history, and a long-time artistic hero. He claims a few times throughout the film that the camera is his only friend, but the camera is the vehicle that hooks him up to the outside world; the project that threatened to end his life actually ends up saving it.

AFP has had a slow but steady influence. The film has spent the past couple years independently touring the festival circuit and picking up awards all over the world. After a recent U.S. tour AMC picked the film for distribution, which led to the December 6th DVD release, but the film’s greatest presence has been online. AFP has infiltrated suicide prevention within social media venues. The revolution began with a Miami teenager who posted a video on the film’s facebook page declaring he was an “Archie.” A slew of similar videos followed and marked the beginning of the IamAnArchie campaign, in which teenagers are encouraged to join the effort and share their own experiences and feelings through videos, photos, and testimonials posted on social websites like Facebook and Twitter.

Similar social media efforts like the Trevor Project and Postsecret are part of a new wave of virtual youth suicide prevention focused on connecting teenagers not only with support services, but also with other teenagers. What is unique to these programs is that kids are able to commiserate with other kids around the world experiencing similar feelings and struggles. The internet allows them to communicate on their own terms, and the social venues provide an infrastructure mediated by the larger organizations, linking kids to a bigger movement outside of themselves. Being an “Archie” means being part of a reciprocal message—putting yourself out there and realizing you are not alone.

And no, there weren't any sheets on the bed.

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Sometime during the summer I was thirteen I wet the bed. This was an anomaly. I had never had issues with bedwetting, even as a small child. I wasn't ill. I didn't drink a two liter bottle of soda before I went to bed, I just woke up in the middle of the night and I was pissing myself. I think I lay there for a minute, stunned and half-asleep in my own urine, just not wanting to take whatever was the next consequential step. The windows were open because it was July and the world sounded like someone had spread crickets over its entire surface with a godlike spatula. I listened for signs of insomnia in my house and heard nothing. After I cleaned myself off and stumbled into a pair of dry underwear, I took my Peanuts® blankets outside onto the second floor deck and spread them out on the sandpaper-like landing. We lived in the rural suburbs and the night was that kind of dark where whites like Peanuts® blankets and fingernails and underwear just barely glowed in whatever pale light reflected off the sky. I sniffed the air a few times to see if I could smell pee but it just smelled like air.

Then there was the problem of the mattress, which I flipped over and commended myself on my logic, although I didn't have much choice in this matter. I had to go back to sleep, and I wasn't going to sleep in excrement or try to lie on the fringes of the bed hoping my dormant body didn't roll into the pis gutter. And now every time I read something suggesting you should flip your mattress as often as the seasons change I laugh a little remembering my thirteen-year-old self revolving a mattress in the middle of the night and thinking only: if you can't see it, it isn't there.

And I was right, I suppose. Surprisingly none of this backfired on me. When asked about the blankets I lied and said they smelled funny and needed airing out and was never asked again. The pis dried. The room didn't smell. Life returned to its ordinary state of non-bed-wetting. The only change I made was making sure I peed before going to bed every night. That was all I could really do.

But I felt sort of betrayed. This may have been the first event that made me realize the human body is wild and precarious. If you can't trust your body won't pis itself in the night, then what can you trust? This random night of bed-pissing set me at odds with my body, convinced we were somehow pitted against each other, as though we were two completely separate entities.

But this is not about dualism; it's actually about drive-in movies.

The evening before the peeing I had spent what felt like (and probably was) hours on the cordless phone with my friend Katy, sitting in the humid dusk on the sandpaper-y deck where I would later spread the pis-blankets. We had discovered the existence of a drive-in movie theatre somewhere in Connecticut and became absurdly preoccupied the way thirteen-year-olds do with the when and how of getting to said drive-in movie theatre. I had never been to a drive-in and believed them to be nostalgic and romantic. I fell in love with the idea in the same way I loved Sunday nights at the donut shop down the street when all the local aficionados would show off their classic cars. I also associated this drive-in magic with the possibility of meeting a BOY even though we would go with Katy's parents and younger siblings in their Ford Explorer and drive-ins were dark and not conducive to meeting and falling in love with other thirteen (or fourteen) year old boys who would likely also be with their families in family-sized vehicles. Even so, she and I talked on the phone until it was late enough to almost be the next day. I fell asleep excited about the possibility of something new and different and woke up pissing myself, which was new and different, just not in the way I expected.

Life is unpredictable. I would never have predicted that the concept of drive-in movies would one day be inextricable from the concept of bed-wetting, but they are forever symbiotic in my head. I will also permanently associate the song "Kumbaya" with Girl Scout Camp and rice crispy treats with Jehovah's witnesses. But these are stories for another day.