Less than a month ago a Missouri newspaper began telling a story of events that had occurred nearly a year before. For six weeks thirteen-year-old Megan Meier had enjoyed a close relationship with a sixteen-year-old boy, Josh, on MySpace.com, a popular social networking website. Then one day the tone of Josh's communications became unpleasant. He accused her of being mean to her friends. Someone from his account posted insulting messages about Megan, including that she was fat. The next day Megan hanged herself. After her death, a final message arrived: "Everybody hates you. The world would be a better place without you."
Teen suicide, sadly, is common, as are insulting messages over the Internet. What made this story newsworthy was the information that unfolded weeks after the suicide---that Josh was a fictitious character who had been created by a family living in the same neighborhood as Megan. It seems that Megan had severed a relationship with a thirteen-year-old girl in that family, and in order to learn what Megan might say about her, the girl's mother---aided by several others---created the Josh character. Initially, there was no intent to cause harm, but the neighbors did know that Megan had a history of weight problems and depression. Then additional people gained access to the site, unkind things were said, and death resulted.
When the neighbors' involvement became known, six weeks after the suicide, Megan's parents vandalized some property that belonged to the neighbors. Bloggers learned the identities of the neighbors and posted their names and other information for the entire world to see. Harassing phone calls were made, and somebody threw a brick through the neighbors' window. Eventually, the neighbors moved out of the area to an undisclosed location, keeping their daughter at home for schooling.
The public outcry over this episode has been predictable. Everybody has an opinion. It seems that almost everyone wants the head of the neighbor's mother on a plate. The vengeful language is remarkable. And people were outraged when the local prosecutor finally decided that no charges would be brought against the neighbors, stating that there really wasn't a law that covered what they had done. "There should be a law," many said. More outrage. Megan's small hometown actually did create a law, such that online harassment is now a misdemeanor, carrying a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and/or a $500 fine. Through all of this, Megan's mother has fanned the flames, demonizing the neighbors who contributed to the death of her child.
So, what should be done about this? Before we get to that, the people involved in the story so far have already provided us with unforgettable examples of what doesn't work and, I would hope, of what we should not keep repeating.
The most prominent players in this drama should not be the neighbors but Megan's parents. As soon as something goes wrong, we are in such a hurry to fix the blame, and as parents we just don't have the heart to even look in the direction of the mother who is holding a picture of her darling deceased daughter in her hand, with tears streaming down her face. Who could be so heartless as to suggest that the bereaved mother could have had anything to do with the death of her daughter?
Nonetheless, at the risk of such heartlessness---and in this case of stating the obvious---the reason people kill themselves is that they're not happy. Period. And the most common cause of people being that unhappy is that they are experiencing a complete absence of the one thing they need most in order to be happy, which is Real Love. People who feel unloved and alone are at greater risk for everything bad: depression, physical illness, suicide, and so on. Megan clearly did not feel loved, which is why she was desperately seeking attention and acceptance on MySpace. She felt so unloved that when her virtual boyfriend announced that he wouldn't be communicating with her any longer, and when she learned that some faceless collections of electrons---"people" she had never even met---were saying unkind things about her, she went upstairs to her bedroom closet and hanged herself.
What are the odds that a child would do this in a home where she felt unconditionally loved? Do I know for certain what kind of environment Megan's parents provided for her? No, but the clues are overwhelming. The very day that the tone on the website turned ugly, for example, the day that Megan became hysterical at what she was reading, her mother didn't stop everything she was doing to see to the welfare of her child. She didn't give Megan what she really needed. According to the local newspaper reporter, Megan's mother was furious at her for not signing off the Internet and for retaliating at those who had been unkind to her with vulgar language of her own. She said to Megan, "I am so aggravated at you for doing this!"
There are more clues. When Megan's parents learned of the involvement of the neighbor family, they marched over and vandalized some property in a highly visible and dramatic way. Mrs. Meier has been quite vocal in her public criticism of the neighbors and of the legal system that let them "get away with this." These are quite understandable responses, but they're also reflections of the strong tendency of the parents for vengeance and anger, rather than for compassion, which is what their daughter needed while she was alive---which is what she needed to stay alive. Now Megan's parents are divorcing, even further indication of the lack of love that had existed in the home all along.
The public response to this death has been a kind of virtual vigilantism. How ironic that we could condemn the unkind behavior of others in such unkind language and tones of our own. The hypocrisy of throwing a brick through someone's window for being unloving is obvious, but the hypocrisy is no less when we do it with our words. The people who are condemning the neighbors for using the Internet to be hateful are themselves perpetrating the same crime, somehow rationalizing their behavior because their intended victims are adults.
Finally, we come to the intriguing notion that we can pass laws to control this kind of behavior. Megan's community has done just that. I wonder what will be next. Will it become illegal to send any kind of email that could be interpreted as unflattering? Can I sue the manufacturers of weight loss products that spam me over the Internet on a regular basis, claiming that they have made me feel bad about myself? Shall I attempt suicide to make my claim more believable? Will it become a crime to honk your horn in a menacing way? Or to look at your neighbor with a really unkind expression? Will standup comedians be put out of business, because the targets of their jokes will sue them for harassment? Perhaps only if they tell their jokes online.
We can't legislate kindness. We can't force people to be nice to each other. And when they are unkind, we have many options. We can speak to them about their behavior, we can avoid them, or we can make a mental note not to model ourselves after them. But if we respond to their unkindness with more of the same---which happened in almost every corner of the Megan Meier case---we succeed only in depleting the level of love in the world. And that is what killed Megan, a lack of Real Love.
If we want to point a finger of responsibility at someone for her death, we might most productively point that finger at everyone, including ourselves. Whenever any of us is critical, unforgiving, ungracious, or unkind, we help create an environment where children like Megan can more easily die. Again. And we must not forget that for every child like Megan who actually dies, there are many more who are in such pain that they wish they were dead. Although my words about Megan's parents have been unflinching, I don't blame them. We have all contributed to the environment that produced her parents and everything else surrounding her death. We need to ask ourselves, then, what kind of world we want to create. Right now. Immediately around us. With each word we speak and each step we take, do we wish to make the world a more loving or a less loving place? Because the decisions we make are literally life or death. Megan proved that. I hope we will learn from her choice and help the next child make a happier one.