EXPLORING THE GREY AREAS by Sarah Darer Littman
Reading about several different cyberbullying incidents in the news inspired my latest book, BACKLASH (Scholastic Press) in stores April 28th.
One was the Megan Meier case, in which a mother aided her daughter in deceiving and cyber bullying Megan, who ended up taking her own life. As someone who believes that the most important thing we can do as parents is to model the behavior and values we hope to transmit to our kids, I wondered what would motivate a parent to do such a thing.
Then came Steubenville. The behavior of the young men – and the adults who enabled them and attempted a cover up because they were on the football team – was despicable. It resulted in another conversation with my own kids about responsible alcohol use, how to look after friends, and how not to behave towards another person, ever.
But Steubenville made me think even more deeply about another issue – online activism vs. vigilantism.
Steubenville showed women what we already knew – that the system was stacked in favor of athletes. School superintendent Michael McVey was indicted on felony charges of tampering with evidence and obstructing justice, but on a previous assault charge by Steubenville football players – this time of a 14 year old girl.
So when Anonymous began a “Justice Op,” I had mixed feelings. I am a law-abiding citizen. I want to trust in the system to do the right thing, but too often “the system” seems to close ranks to protect the players and blame the victim – and that’s what seemed to be happening in Steubenville. Anonymous was responsible for getting information about what happened into the hands of the media, so that the power structure couldn’t safely ignore it anymore.
But what about hacking the voicemails of the parents and grandparents of one of the football players? What about sending death threats? Where is the line between online activism, trying to ensure justice is served in a situation where those in authority are attempting a cover up, and irresponsible vigilantism?
More recently, retired Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling revealed the horrific abuse leveled at his daughter Gabby following Schilling’s proud tweet that she’d been accepted to college and would pitch for the softball team. The tweets aimed at Schilling’s daughter were vile and misogynistic (and I know how awful this feels having being on the receiving end of similar myself). Schilling himself was able to determine the identities of some of the culprits (several have since suffered off-line consequences such college suspension or job loss) but at the end of his blog he posted screen caps of two that he hadn’t been able to identify and wrote:
I wanted to let you internet sleuths have a go. Here are two guys that, as you can see, thought they were somehow funny and tough at the same time. … These guys went to town. If you guys reading this that know how to find people on the ‘net want to have at it, please do.
While I admired Schilling for his vocal stance against the misogynistic cyberbulling of his daughter, the update disturbed me, in light of previous attempts at online vigilantism.
But I’ve often thought about my own teenage years and how I made so many stupid mistakes that it’s a miracle I survived to adulthood. Like Lara, one of the characters in BACKLASH, I had very low self-esteem and was depressed in high school. I often wonder: would teen Sarah have been able to cope with life today – and what digital evidence would now be left behind of things that I’m quite happy to just have as memories for a few close high school friends?
Allegedly responsible adults have big mistakes on the Internet; even US Congressmen. Imagine, then, how much harder it is to “think before you post” when you’re an adolescent and actually have neurological reasons for lack of impulse control.
What if, like Bree, you’re a teenage girl who is angry, confused and resentful, and those feelings lead you to make a bad choice? What if that choice leads to further bad choices? What if you don’t have a parent who models good behavior? What if the choices you make end up having repercussions you couldn’t have ever imagined at the time you made them; consequences that affect not just you, but your entire family?
And what happens if you’re Liam, or Sydney, the younger siblings of Bree and Lara, and your life ends up being affected by events surrounding your older sisters, through absolutely no fault of your own?
Perhaps BACKLASH will get readers asking themselves and talking to each other about the kinds of questions I’ve been contemplating in researching and writing the story. One of the things I love to do in my writing is to explore the grey areas of human behavior, because we all contain within us the potential for good and not-so-good behavior, and what makes people so endlessly fascinating is why they chose one decision over another.
For more information about BACKLASH, and a reading guide, visit: backlash-book.com
Sarah Darer Littman is the critically acclaimed author of Want to Go Private?; Life, After; Purge; and Confessions of a Closet Catholic, winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award. Her next middle grade novel, Charmed, I’m Sure is coming from Aladdin (S & S) in Spring 2016. When she’s not writing novels, Sarah is an award-winning columnist for the online news site CTNewsJunkie. She teaches creative writing as an adjunct professor in the MFA program at Western Connecticut State University, and with Writopia Lab. Learn more about her other books at www.sarahdarerlittman.com and follow her on Twitter @sarahdarerlitt.