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.

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.

Field Hands

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This morning, against the better judgment of my conscience and my wallet, I abandoned a pile of thesis research and decided to get a manicure. After much deliberation and a google search for the most affordable and least creepy nail salon, I landed on a place called Euphoria in Portland's Hollywood district. Euphoria's website promised "a unique sense of creativity and calmness," and more importantly, their prices wouldn't render me meal-less for the next week. On my way out of the house I scraped my left index finger on the doorframe and spent the twenty-five minute walk to Euphoria trying to clot the blood. I suppressed my instinct to read this as a bad omen. I am a thirty-year-old, white, middle-class American woman, and this is only my third manicure ever. My first experience happened when I was twenty-five. It was of the french variety and a requirement for my stint as a close friend's maid of honor. The bride was paying so I hadn't much say in the matter. The second happened two years later after I quit a much-hated job working for a florist. The motivation was to cleanse my fingers of six months worth of dirt that had embedded itself into my skin.

While manicures are undeniably pleasurable, it is difficult for me to justify spending fifteen or twenty dollars getting my hands rubbed and my nails painted. Even if I did have the money, I'm not sure I would indulge in regular nail maintenance—perhaps just on principle. The average manicure runs a dollar a minute, about the same as a full body massage. While the activity does feel good, my guess is that most women engage in manicures because there is a social expectation for us to have lovely, polished and graceful hands. I like to place myself somewhere above this expectation, reasoning that my natural state of being involves caring little about the appearance of my fingertips. Nevertheless, the nail industry is a $6 billion annual venture, and it's likely those who don't participate regularly decline because they can't afford it, not because they're slaves to principle.

When I arrive at Euphoria, six round faces simultaneously greet me and a young man asks me to pick a color from about 300,000 options on a spinning rack. I just want clear. No jazz. Nothing to draw any attention to my temporary lapse in judgment. I sit down at an open nail station and dump my hands into a small bowl filled with warm water and those glass beads people put in the bottom of flower vases.

My "licensed nail technician" wears purple scrubs and a name tag that says Lily. Judging by her age and the authority of her native tone, she is clearly the matriarch of the group. I don't know whether to be intimidated or honored. She smiles and says something barely in English that I think includes the word "water," so I nod and she disappears behind me.

The salon's interior smells of lavender and its walls are decorated with foam-board posters advertising stock photos of women's manicured hands. There are a couple fake trees and a small waiting area boasting a large bowl of hershey kisses. A handful of women—and one man—dot the rows of cushy black chairs, getting their fingers or toes attended to. I am surprised to see how bored and miserable everyone looks, as though they are all waiting in line at the DMV. This is supposed to be a treat.

Lily returns with a styrofoam cup of water and wraps a scolding hot neck warmer over my shoulders. She smiles and says something else I can't understand at all. Lily speaks with confidence, but what comes out of her mouth doesn't sound like English or anything else. It is like the words are coming out backwards. I nod and smile and hope that's the correct response as she gets down to business with my nails.

The inspiration for this manicure arrived the other night while I was having a beer with a group of female peers. Six of us sat around a table, twelve hands holding pint glasses, toying with paper menus and casually flipping open cell phones to check for updates. I began to fixate on how all of the other women's fingers appeared so smooth, so well-maintained, so...feminine. These are not high-maintenance women, either. We are all writers and grad students—in other words: broke. Yet my hands did not fare as well as theirs. My skin was dry, my cuticles peeling and broken, my knuckles spotted with nicks and scabs. This shouldn't be an issue, but it is. I hate to say it, but my scuffed hands make me feel like less of a woman.

This association dates back to a day in the sixth grade. During the Civil War segment of our social studies class, my teacher made us watch Gone with the Wind, a judgment call that still blows my mind. We were eleven and twelve years old—too young to understand, interpret or care about what the heck was happening in that film. The epic viewing stretched over three class periods, flashing hours of Technicolor images at our bored and disinterested faces. The only scene that stuck out in my young mind occurred post-war, when Scarlett dresses up to visit Rhett in jail to solicit money. She tries to fool him into thinking she is oh-so-terribly unaffected by the Reconstruction, but he sees through her act solely by judging the state of her hands, which are uncharacteristically weathered from working the field (there are several blue-screen parodies of this scene on youtube). "These don't belong to a lady!" he says, casting her off and comparing her to a common field hand.

I remember sitting on the edge of my school desk, looking down at my calloused and cuticle-bitten kid-hands, and feeling totally hopeless.

Lily's reading glasses sit at the edge of her nose and she studies my fingers with the concentration of an archaeologist, buffing and clipping and filing. She notices me sitting on the edge of my seat and pulls the chair closer to the table, gently pressing her hands on my shoulders so I will lean back and relax.

"Better?" she asks.

I smile and laugh and tell her I don't do this often, as though that's an excuse for not knowing how to lean back in a chair.

She laughs and sighs and I translate that to be Mandarin for, "Tell me something I don't know."

The current plight of my hands is probably due to a number of circumstances, the first being that I work in a bakery and my fingers are constantly immersed in water, chocolate, or anti-bacterial soap. I also ride a bike, exposing my raw fingers to twelve- or fifteen-mile-an-hour winds. While I put lotion on...sometimes, I admittedly don't do much else to improve the quality of my skin. I should also mention I am a twenty-some-odd-year veteran to moderate cuticle biting, although I proudly never went for the nails out of an irrational fear that I might break a tooth. All of these factors add up to my present predicament, with which Lily is astutely plugging away.

A woman enters the salon, winded and fraught with a sense of urgency that doesn't seem like it should apply to nail-painting. She has just come from a competitor who "cannot paint for shit." The woman plops down at the station next to mine and practically throws the words, "express manicure," at her technician before the young girl has a chance to try and up-sell her to the $22 "Euphoria," which includes a heated essential oil soak. Lily tried this on me, too, holding out a laminated service menu and speaking backwards while pointing at my options. I went for the "classic," because I'm most comfortable when my porridge is warm.

Lily has to talk me through every step of the procedure, sometimes relying on her cohorts to translate. She is patient and understanding with my circumstances from soak to top coat, and for that I leave her an absurdly large tip. After she places a miniature electric fan in front of my shiny tips, she puts a file and a buffer in a little resealable sandwich bag and slips it into my purse. I don't know if this is par for the course or if she feels sorry for me.

She looks at me and says something involving the words, "next time," and moves on to a pair of feet in the next room.

As I reemerge into the daylight I stop to admire my hands. There really is a noticeable before and after, making me regret I didn't take photos. My nails are shiny, my hands are soft and there aren't weird pieces of renegade skin shooting out from the edges of my cuticles. I walk looking down for a few blocks admiring my newfound loveliness.

I realize the issue of my hands is only a microcosm for a much bigger problem—that many women, including myself, have a warped understanding of femininity. The more I stare at my manicured hands the more I feel like a child trotting around the house wearing my mother's four-inch pumps. I can blame Gone with the Wind all I want, but the only Rhett Butler accusing me of worker's hands is myself. Lucky for me there's no way I will be able upkeep Lily's fantastic finger makeover, and I may not get another manicure until I'm in somebody else's wedding, so I'll have plenty of time to grow comfortable with my natural, bakery-tainted, wind-blown fingers.

For now, though, I'm going to relish in the reflective surface of my lacquered finger nails, and pretend I'm a real lady.