Thursday, January 17, 2008

Megan Meier

When I first heard the Megan Meier “MySpace Suicide” story in November, my first thought was “thank God MySpace didn’t exist when I was thirteen.” I know how easily things go out of whack online, and middle school and high school are hard enough without internet games.

The basis of the story is that Megan Meier, on the eve of her fourteenth birthday, hanged herself in late 2006 after a boy she was friendly with online—but had never met—told her he refused to continue the friendship because she was “mean to her friends.” After insulting her, he signed off with “The world would be a better place without you.”

It turned out that the boy, 16 year-old Josh Evans, was a creation of a neighbor, friends with Megan’s parents and the mother of a girl who used to be friends with her. She knew Megan well—had even taken her along on a family vacation—and so created the account to gain Megan’s trust to learn what she was saying about her daughter. The mom also decided to involve an 18 year-old employee in the prank, using her for help, and told another teen girl who lived across the street.

After a year-long investigation by the Feds which resulted in no charges, the Meiers broke the story to the news media. The St. Charles Journal broke the story locally, and they made the executive decision not to publish the name of the mother who created the fake identity. Bad idea, as bloggers got ahold of the story and with a little investigating, found not only her name—Lori Drew—but her address, phone number, and details of her and her husband’s businesses and local dealings. As the story grew and notoriety spread, the Drews became victims themselves, losing all privacy. On the internet, they were vilified. Their business had to close, they had to put up cameras on their house because people were ready to attack. Once the Times published it the story exploded, which was how I heard about it.

At first, like many others, I was horrified. The woman knew her actions would cause this girl emotional distress, and for an adult to bully a 13-year-old—one who she knew already had problems—was appalling. But the more information came to light, and the more I thought about it, the more I began to see it isn’t so black and white.

None of the accounts I’ve read, including blog entries, ever brought up the topic of revenge or the fact that, as it seems to me, hanging oneself is a premeditated action, not a sudden inkling to obliterate yourself by swallowing massive amounts of pills. Hanging takes planning, gumption, and knowledge, as you have to know how to kill yourself with the least of amount of pain possible. It reminds me of a memorable scene in The Sopranos where Chris is injecting heroin into his arm: doing this drug takes work, boiling water, tightening the muscle, finding the proper vein, loading the needle with the drug, having the right angle, all to pass out in exhaustion. Too much effort for a high. Megan Meier, for some reason, had decided that hanging was the way she was going to kill herself, and she decided this long ago.

Which brings me to the conclusion that Megan Meier had been planning to kill herself—or at least attempt suicide—before that particular day. She had been bullied online for a while, so maybe she came to this conclusion a few days earlier and at the last contact she decided she was ready to put her plan into motion. So in that regard, Lori Drew did basically lead her to her death.

But I’ve also thought a lot about why Lori Drew would do what she did. She knew what she did was wrong. She’s said that she wanted to mess with the girl. But she takes no responsibility for it, which is insane. She basically said that the girl was troubled anyway so it didn’t matter what she did to her. What kind of logic is that? No, obviously if the girl was troubled, and you knew it, intentionally causing her pain and distress isn’t going to make things all better. A normal teenager girl wouldn’t have killed herself, but she sure would feel that her life was over.

I understand revenge, which to me is what this boils down to. It’s misplaced revenge, though. From what I’ve read, it doesn’t sound like Ms. Drew’s daughter came up with the idea; she was just carried along with the hoax. It’s been implied that it was Ashley Grills, the 18 year-old employee of Ms. Drew’s, who came up with the idea. It makes perfect sense that an 18 year-old would devise that scheme: she is old enough to understand MySpace and dynamics with other girls, old enough to understand the culture yet still be firmly enmeshed with it that she can work it inside and out. She would be excited by this game, and hey, it would only help her in her boss’s eyes. She would know that it would be easy to create a fake account, and Lori Drew would fill in the details. Preteens and manipulation are practically like braces and bad hair: it’s a requisite of the age. They naturally go together. It’s impossible to break away from the pack mentality at that age, and mean girl behavior is rampant. Causing pain and humiliation is practically automatic.

Bullying now is so pervasive because it can follow you everywhere. Technology has made nasty messages both persistent and replicable. Can you imagine hearing about this in school? You’d immediately hit up the MySpace profiles in question and marvel at the gossip. The idea of facing this in school is enough to make any teenager consider suicide as a viable option.

What I didn’t realize until after a few days of obsessively following this story was that I had been a target of internet bullying. I had never quite put it in those terms before, but it was true. And then it struck me how much better equipped I was to deal with this type of harassment at 20 than I would ever have been as a teenager. At 20, I had a life where I was able to escape the harassment: I had tons of supportive friends, I had a job and school to keep me busy, all separate things that had nothing to do with the people who were harassing me. But no matter how hard I lobbied, I could never get anything to stick to the perpetrators. Although I came with proof—hard copies of the MySpace and Facebook messages, things pinned to my bedroom door—and witnesses of behavior, no charges ever stuck. It was grossly unfair.

And that’s why I feel that Lori Drew should be charged. MySpace has just been issued a subpoena, so the process is starting. There should be laws on the books about internet harassment. It gets murky when it deals with schools, because if things happen off the premises the schools often cannot intercede, but clearly technology informs our relationships with other people, and we cannot tote the benefits of instant connection without understanding the drawbacks and minimizing it as much as possible. Parents can only do so much. Megan Meier didn’t really do anything stupid—who could blame a sad, lonely girl from talking to a boy who seemed to like her?

For those of you who think “Megan’s mom should have monitored her use of MySpace,” she did. She wouldn’t let her have a MySpace unless it was private, which is why she questioned how Josh knew her. She would always be in the room when she used the site. And when she heard about the comments Josh said, she told her to log off immediately and to cut off contact. While she was making dinner, mulling over the situation that they were to continue discussing during the meal, Megan hanged herself in her closet.

How can you monitor the internet? Ms. Meier knew about all of this, and while she didn’t approve, she knew that belonging to the site—a necessity in the preteen world—and interacting with peers was not only a fact of modern life but made Megan feel happy and that she belonged. While both Facebook and MySpace have received loads of negative press, the roots of it have been very different, mainly due to the type of people who use the sites and the culture within them. MySpace has always had a problem with anonymity, since people don’t use their real names, and with child predators. Facebook is hipper, caters to an educated and (increasingly) adult clientele and has complex business-y problems but privacy issues of a different sort, with Beacon and open-source applications—not things that parents and teenagers care about. Undoubtedly as a result of this tragedy, MySpace has instituted some new policies, the most notable being that all profiles under 18 will automatically be private. Regardless, there is no effective way to prove who you are with just an account.

One of the reasons this story is so fascinating is that it has multiple angles from which to analyze it. This will become a case story in journalism classes, because it deals with sensitivity, privacy, and whether or not to reveal sources—and proves that today, especially with a juicy story people will find out what they are desperate to know. Lots of people felt that because Lori Drew violated Megan Meier’s privacy it was justified for her privacy to be violated as well. The idea of vigilante justice, and how the internet feeds this, is another hot topic. Should we burn down Lori Drew’s house? Up until a few days ago, the only person charged with anything in this case was Megan’s father, Ron Meier, who smashed a foosball table the Drews were hiding in their basement as a Christmas gift for their kids. That’s actually how the police first heard the story, since the Meiers dumped the destroyed table on the Drews’ lawn with a nice welcome message. Honestly, I can’t blame them. A lot of other folks—and it’s all over the internet—would have and want to do a lot worse.

As more and more details emerge the story has just become even murkier. I will be following it. I hope that because of this case, anyone who thinks that messing around with some little annoyance for kicks will realize that it does real damage.

Other links of importance:
The contested blog of does not exist anymore.
I have yet to read The New Yorker article.


John said...

I definitely think there should be updates to the books that make this a case of harassment, if not manslaughter (or conspiracy to commit murder, if you really want to nail Lori Drew and her accomplices to the wall.)

When I hear about cases like these, it shocks and amazes me to think that I made it through high school at all. I swear, some people (such as the mean girls you refer to) must have some sort of venom glands in their bodies. If they don't sink their metaphorical teeth into someone on a regular basis and force the poison into their very blood, the venom sacs could fatally burst. That has to be it, right? I mean, what other reason could there be for teenagers to be so awful to each other?

Then again, people are awful to each other from before preschool through post-nursing home. Dirk Gently may have been onto something when he surmised that in order to solve a crime in society, you have to solve the society in which the crime was committed. But, as the mayor of New York said in Ghostbusters II, "Being miserable and treating other people like dirt is every [American]'s God-given right." As long as you can't prove a direct causal relationship in a court of law, no one will turn over a new leaf and start treating other human beings as such.

Emily said...

This story made think of the line in Mean Girls where Tina Fey says, "You guys have to stop calling each other sluts and whores because then guys think its ok to call you sluts and whores."

Girls are mean. It's a sad fact of life. If they banded together at a younger age instead of tearing each other apart, it would make life much easier for them as they get older. Many grown women have trouble trusting other women, and is that really any surprise given how girls treat each other when they're young?

The fact that a grown woman, an educated, successful business woman and MOTHER could treat another child like this almost makes me throw up. I've heard about all the backlash on her and her husband- and she deserves every bit of it. She knew Megan was on antidepressants and was troubled, but all that mattered was to stop her from gossiping about her little girl.

Judith Warner, a blogger for NYT, says this is the extreme effect of "helicopter parenting," where parents are just so overly involved in kids lives. I don't know what Drew's problem is, but the fact that she could do this without guilt makes me wonder if she has some sort of psychopathic tendencies. And if not, I hope her community runs her right out of town.

Maybe Megan would have killed herself without the bullying from Drew. But Drew, being an adult and mother, should have tried to reach out and help Megan deal with her depression, rather than capitalize on it for her own sick needs.