STICKS AND STONES
By Emily Bazelon
386 pp. Random House. $27.
Reviewed by Nina Subin
Emily Bazelon’s intelligent, rigorous “Sticks and Stones” charts the experiences of a few bullied children and synthesizes the scholarship on how to contain or prevent such harm. She focuses primarily on the stories of three kids: an African-American girl, Monique McClain, who became the target of a few girls at her school in Connecticut, went through a depression and finally switched schools and found happiness; a gay boy in upstate New York, Jacob Lasher, who struggled against prejudice but also enjoyed being a provocateur; and Phoebe Prince, an Irish girl transplanted to a town in Massachusetts, who was bullied atrociously and committed suicide. Bazelon includes chapters on anti-bullying measures with good track records. She reviews jurisprudence on bullying, and examines both the virtues and the pitfalls of treating it as a crime. She tries to delineate what parents can achieve, what schools can achieve, and what may come of the shifting power differential among parents and schools and social agencies.
Bazelon is at her best as a storyteller, and the most interesting parts of the book are its human narratives. She resists the idea that there is always an innocent victim; among her three subjects, she paints Monique as essentially blameless, but the others as having some hand in their own suffering. Her writing about Phoebe Prince for Slate, which inspired and is expanded in this book, is especially trenchant; it rejects the simple “bullied to death” narrative that dominated the media at the time. Bazelon indicates that Phoebe’s situation was complicated: she had been cutting herself, had had problems in a previous school, had made a prior suicide attempt and had gone off her antidepressants six weeks before she took her life. Given Phoebe’s history, Bazelon writes that she couldn’t understand the prosecutor’s decision “to lay the burden of her suicide at the feet of six adolescents.”
If charity begins at home, then so, too, does brutality: at home and early, and Bazelon looks for the seeds of troubling behavior in the home lives of bullies. She is taken with the work of Dan Olweus, the grand old man of anti-bullying theory and practice, whose programs target the school, the classroom and the individual. She describes a headmaster who was able to transform the climate at his school largely through charisma, will and the methodology proposed by George Sugai, who believes that positive rewards given to students for positive social skills may be just as effective as punishment for those who are out of line. Investigating the role of the Internet in modern bullying, Bazelon visited the offices of Facebook, achieving an unusual degree of access. She describes both the company’s woefully inadequate anti-bullying protocols for young subscribers — Facebook’s current business model seems built on “habituating kids to giving up their privacy” — and their ill-advised efforts to bully her once they got a whiff of her criticisms. Bazelon explores the role of adults in the lives of kids who are bullied, and shows that often, parents and teachers who set out to help end up exacerbating the problem. She refuses the notion that the real reason for bullying is violent video games, rock music, parental neglect, social media or any other single cause. She thinks with nuance, making it clear that the problem is overdetermined and requires complex, subtle solutions.