Bullied to Death: A Story of Bullying, Social Media, and the Suicide of Sherokee Harriman
Released 10 April 2018
This is a hard one to read, folks.
Ms. Yates is not to blame, except in that her gaze is unsparing, the scope of her research unafraid. Ms. Yates tells the story well, but it is the story of a child’s miserable life and rending death.
In September 2015, fourteen-year-old Sherokee (pronounced like “Cherokee”) Harriman stabbed herself to death in a public park, in view of a group of teenagers who had been tormenting her earlier that day.
Townspeople, Sherokee’s family, and the media were quick to label Sherokee’s death “bullicide,” suicide caused by the relentless bullying of her peers.
Ms. Yates is not content with this simplistic answer, and readers will come to agree with her assessment: no suicide is single-factor, and there were far, far too many reasons Sherokee had for hating the world.
The bullying, we discover in Ms. Yates’ straightforward, non-judgmental prose, was the least of Sherokee’s many problems.
Every bad thing that could happen to a little girl happened to Sherokee Harriman.
The book contains unflinching descriptions of the physical aftermath of childhood sexual abuse. There are unsparing accounts of “cutting” and other forms of self-mutilation. Those who have survived these issues may find the book too disturbing to finish, as will those of delicate sensibilities.
But this honesty is necessary to tell the story.
I would like to commend Ms. Yates for her sensitive and proactive handling of mental health issues that form the core of Sherokee’s tragedy. Ms. Yates points out that Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln, among other luminaries, may have had bipolar disorder, allowing them to see the world from a different standpoint. (Indeed, science suggests mental illnesses are outgrowths of the processes that make the human brain so successful in keeping us alive).
Ms. Yates, however, does not pretend that kinship to Winston Churchill ought to have kept Sherokee positive about her condition and circumstances.
Ms. Yates also makes the very important point that “bullicide” is a cop-out, and a dangerous one at that.
She points out, as mentioned above, that there are many factors contributing to any suicide, most of all, preexisting mental illness. She also cautions against a “false narrative” that “bullying’s only escape is suicide,” which has been shown to increase risk of copycat behavior in young people.
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These insights, however important, come after the main narrative of the book, where chapter titles address topics such as “Social Media” and “Sexting.” Presumably, these are meant to be ‘factors’ in Sherokee’s crisis, but removed from the main body of her story, they come across as rather scatter-shot.
One point, one tiny little sentence, in this book particularly grated on me.
While trying to emphasize the increased pressures on young people in our society, Ms. Yates makes an offhand, brief comment about artificial preservatives or whatnot in the food supply leading to brain chemical imbalances.
It is the last clause of a long sentence, seemingly thrown in without much thought: “all exacerbated by the unnatural chemicals in our food and drink” (281 of critic’s advance PDF).
There are many reasons to eat organic, but unless accompanied by peer-reviewed research, I immediately trash the “mental health” argument as pseudoscience. As someone interested in becoming an educator, and someone living and working with people with mental health issues and learning disabilities (as you do too, whether you admit it or not), I get really upset when these arguments make it into print unchallenged.
“Diet cures” to autism exploit desperate parents and prevent children from receiving effective treatment. The whole “diet” argument is part of a wider, tinfoil-hat-wearing school of “mental illness denialism.”
Yes, folks, this is a thing, and it’s dangerous.
I do not think Ms. Yates meant to stir this pot when she wrote that sentence, and I certainly do not think she did it with malice, but she may consider removing this, or otherwise providing more elaborate and well-cited arguments for it, in future editions of Bullied to Death.
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The Ugly Truth of Our Lives
So, if not the bullies, who then is responsible for the death of Sherokee Harriman? She took the knife, she went to the park, she made the decision, but what or who drove a child to this point?
While Ms. Yates refrains from passing judgement on the individuals in the story, even the convicted sex offender, she quietly rages against scanty mental healthcare, health insurance, public schools, the justice system and state services. In her introduction to the book, she wonders what sort of society we live in that so many children she interviewed had dealt with issues of abuse, neglect, and mental illness.
Sherokee killed herself. But dozens of others, and systems of systems, conspired to make her life a torture.
When a community, when a nation, slashes education funding, strains its child protective services, and hides bullying reports to prevent ‘failing school’ status, it makes clear whose lives are expendable.
So ask yourself:
How are you responsible?
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- 3/5 stars: good research and serviceable writing. Handles a tough topic well, but not a classic.
- 3/5 ‘fraidy cats: Very tough to read, but you cannot look away. You owe it to Sherokee and those like her.
- 3/5 ick-factor: No whitewashing of the physical and psychological consequences of child abuse, including molestation.
Thank you to WildBlue Press for a copy of Bullied to Death.
If you or someone you know struggle with suicidal thoughts and impulses, these and many other resources are here to help you:
Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255