Texting suicide case: When words have terrible consequences

In 2014, Michelle Carter, then 17 years old, used an ongoing series of text messages to repeatedly encourage her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, age 18, to die by suicide. Prodded by Carter, Roy killed himself by using a truck filled with carbon monoxide gas.

Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 15 months in prison. Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld her conviction, holding that Carter’s intentions and acts overcame concerns about freedom of speech. As reported by WBUR News:

A young woman who as a teenager encouraged her boyfriend through dozens of text messages to kill himself is responsible for his suicide, Massachusetts’ highest court ruled Wednesday in upholding her involuntary manslaughter conviction.

The Supreme Judicial Court said in a unanimous decision in the novel case that Michelle Carter’s actions caused Conrad Roy III to die in a truck filled with toxic gas in a deserted parking lot nearly five years ago.

…”After she convinced him to get back into the carbon monoxide filled truck, she did absolutely nothing to help him: she did not call for help or tell him to get out of the truck as she listened to him choke and die,” Justice Scott Kafker wrote.

The Court’s full opinion may be accessed here.

Both of these young people had struggled with mental illness during the time preceding Roy’s death:

Carter and Roy both lived in Massachusetts but met in Florida in 2012 while both were on vacation with their families. Their relationship consisted mainly of texting and other electronic communications. Both teens struggled with depression. Carter had also been treated for anorexia, and Roy had made earlier suicide attempts.

Carter was 17 when Roy, 18, took his own life in Fairhaven, a town on the state’s south coast, in July 2014. Her case raised thorny legal questions about free speech and provided a disturbing look at teenage depression and suicide.

“I thought you wanted to do this. The time is right and you’re ready – just do it babe,” Carter wrote in one message.

“You’re finally going to be happy in heaven. No more pain. It’s okay to be scared and it’s normal. I mean, you’re about to die,” she wrote in another.

Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen, who has followed this case closely, expresses concerns that, in the court’s eyes, Carter’s actions didn’t become illegal until she directed him to get back into his poisonous gas-filled truck and then failed to call for assistance:

The Supreme Judicial Court unanimously affirmed Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz’s ruling that Carter was guilty because she took “wanton and reckless” actions by ordering Roy to climb back into his truck and by not summoning help.

The SJC ruling suggests that, absent behavior as egregious as Carter’s, it will be a stretch for prosecutors to charge someone who encourages or coerces a vulnerable person to kill themselves.

Carter repeatedly encouraged Roy to kill himself, recommended ways for him to do it, and chastised him when he lost the nerve, besieging him with text messages and calls so that her cellphone became a virtual weapon. But under current Massachusetts law, none of those abhorrent actions amounted to a crime.

Cullen would like to see the law cover the broader spectrum of Carter’s actions.

When it comes to this particular set of facts, I am comfortable with the legal result: A manslaughter conviction with a very light sentence. The crime for which Carter was found guilty sends the right message, while the sentence imposed takes into account her age, immaturity, and mental health status at the time. As to whether the criminal law should reach deeper into the ongoing course of Carter’s behavior that led to Roy’s death, I think it is worthy of discussion.

Furthermore, Cullen may be hinting at what some of us are thinking: There is something profoundly disturbing about this young woman. Yes, she may have psychiatric problems that call for treatment and understanding. But her own words also reveal how a sharp intellect and a seeming absence of conscience combined to prod and manipulate Conrad Roy into taking his own life. Especially given her age at the time of the act, I will defer to my colleagues with clinical and counseling training to opine on whether this is suggestive of a more baked-in personality disorder that could lead to future like behaviors. That said, in my psychological layperson’s view, she gives me the creeps.

Applications to workplaces

I pay attention to stories like this one in part because I ask how they may be pertinent to workplaces. Alas, there is no shortage of relevancy. The worst instances of workplace bullying and mobbing, and most toxic workplaces generally, are often fueled by intellectually sharp people who lack a conscience. Whether it’s targeted abuse towards an individual, or, say, a wave of ground-level layoffs without an ounce of sacrifice from highly-paid executives, the actions are frequently executed and/or enabled by those who are missing qualities of empathy and kindness. In cases of work abuse, words are typically deployed as weapons.

Here in the U.S., we pride ourselves on boasting that we enjoy the right of free speech, as enshrined in our Constitution. How true that happens to be in reality may be subject to debate, but it is part of our cultural norm nonetheless. In any event, we too often see that right as absolute, rather than acknowledging how freedom of speech should come with a responsibility — moral if not legal — to use it wisely. In some cases, an expression of speech becomes harmful conduct, such as when it is used intentionally to harass, bully, and hurt others. When words are used specifically to wound, and they achieve that desired objective, then we should at least be discussing the possibility of legal interventions.

We’ve already crossed that juncture with employment discrimination laws, under which harassment on the basis of race, sex, religion, disability, and other protected classes is an unlawful employment practice. We’re also working on creating legal protections against severe workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse via the proposed Healthy Workplace Bill, which is currently pending before the Massachusetts legislature with over 90 co-sponsors. Adapting from sexual harassment law, the bill uses the term “abusive work environment” to signal needed legal protections.

Freedom of speech is necessary for open, democratic societies. But when words are used to abuse and destroy others, well, that’s not something we should be waving the flag about. A decent nation embraces human dignity as part of free expression.

 

Are workplace abusers “emotional terrorists”?

Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (1893)

In my last post, I discussed a lengthy investigative piece in Variety magazine from December, detailing the story behind Live Nation Entertainment’s decision to place leading producer Heather Parry (“A Star is Born”) on leave, in the wake of multiple accusations of severe workplace bullying and verbal abuse. The Variety piece is loaded with anecdotes from former Live Nation employees, including this one from one-time development executive Wynn Wygal:

Wynn Wygal went to work as a development executive at Live Nation Prods. in November 2017. She said she immediately noticed that her colleagues tensed up whenever Parry walked by.

Wygal soon found that she was prone to angry outbursts, and her moods were impossible to predict.

“Heather berated me on a regular basis for a whole slew of trivial reasons,” Wygal says. “She didn’t like my tone of voice on a call. She didn’t like the way I phrased my emails. She didn’t appreciate my body language in a meeting… I braced whenever she called me into the office.”

Once, she says Parry threatened to fire her for not responding to an email within 15 minutes when she was at lunch with an agent.

Wygal says others were treated even worse, and that Parry was especially hard on the women.

“One day I was sitting in our lawyers’ office when she came in and berated our lawyer right in front of me and the other attorney,” Wygal says. “On multiple occasions I had colleagues come to me distressed and often crying about how Heather had treated them that day.”

“She’s an emotional terrorist,” Wygal says.

Emotional terrorist. Whoa, now there’s a loaded term. I was curious to see how it has been used in other contexts, and quick Google search yielded a lot of hits, especially in the realm of personal relationships. Here’s one from the Urban Dictionary, with a gendered spin:

A person (usually a female) who uses seemingly subtle or inconsequential text messages, body language, or short tone of voice to begin a surprise emotional attack against a boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife or Ex. The attack usually results in catastrophic relationship damage.

A person engaging in the planning and execution of heinous acts intended to kill relationships and scare off potential relationship commitment.

I’m not sure where they got the “usually a female” angle, but you get the point. It’s about searing, surprise emotional attacks that can destroy relationships.

Of course, this is all from the perspective of the person on the receiving end of the abuse. And given that targets of workplace bullying and mobbing often invoke references to psychological torture in describing their experiences, emotional terrorist is not off the mark. 

The term itself has no clinical meaning. However, it may characterize behaviors suggestive of a mental health disorder suffered by the person who is launching the verbal attacks. In that sense, listening to targets’ experiences and labels may help us to understand more about the psychology of workplace abusers. If we are going to adequately prevent and respond to these behaviors, then that greater level of understanding is necessary.

Is a “personality crisis” fueling abuse and cruelty?

Psychologist John Schumaker, in a thought provoking piece for the New Internationalist, posits that a fundamental crisis of human personality is undermining our ability to grapple with serious societal challenges in humane and responsible ways:

For a culture to avoid self-destruction as it progresses, writes Henry George in his classic 1883 work Social Problems, it must develop ‘a higher conscience, a keener sense of justice, a warmer brotherhood, a wider, loftier, truer public spirit’, while ensuring responsible and visionary leaders who embrace ‘the mental and moral universe’. By stark contrast, modern consumer culture barrels in the opposite direction, breeding an increasingly trivialized and disengaged strain of personhood, devoid of the ‘loftier’ qualities needed to sustain a viable society and healthy life supports.

…While the ever-deepening mental-health crisis is common knowledge, less understood is the even more serious ‘personality crisis’ that has rendered the consuming public largely unfit for democracy and nigh useless in the face of the multiple emergencies that beg for responsible and conscientious citizenship.

Schumaker aptly cites global climate change as the most alarming crisis being fueled by a lack of collective responsibility, but his observations apply to other core problems as well:

Guilt has lost much of its former powers of persuasion and deterrence. Character building as a socialization pathway to ethical resolve and civic commitment is virtually extinct. The trait of narcissism, as well as diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, have risen so much in recent decades that many now regard the narcissistic personality as a normal outcome of current social-cultural conditions. The same is true of the sociopathic personality.

Researchers, such as those at Essex University’s Centre for the Study of Integrity, have chronicled a deepening crisis in which people are increasingly willing to condone behaviour, both in themselves and others, as well as their leaders and institutions, that once would have been deemed dishonest, immoral, unjust and anti-social.

The full article is well worth your attention.

Interpersonal abuse at work

Obviously Schumaker’s observations and insights resonate with many topics discussed on this blog, especially how they inform our understanding of workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse. This includes comprehending the actions of both individual aggressors and the organizational cultures that enable them. All too often, qualities of narcissism and sociopathy are found not only in those who abuse others, but also in the organizational responses to the abusive behaviors. Indeed, how many times have targets of workplace bullying reported the behaviors to management, only to have their complaints dismissed or even used against them? In such circumstances, the cruelties are multiplied.

Schumaker’s opinion piece reminds us that toxic organizational cultures are, in part, a reflection of the larger society. And if his thesis is true — namely, that a deeper and broader personality crisis has beset us — then we have a lot of work to do. Personally, I fear that he is onto something with this worldview. While there certainly are many people who have developed “a higher conscience, a keener sense of justice, a warmer brotherhood, a wider, loftier, truer public spirit” (to borrow from Schumaker’s invocation of Henry George), these qualities are in shorter supply than circumstances require. 

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Hat tip to Charles D. Hayes for the Schumaker piece.

Does “Mindhunter” yields insights for the workplace anti-bullying movement?

Between enjoying some holiday downtime and catching a mild cold, I devoted myself to some quality binge viewing during the past couple of weeks. Among the programs I galloped through was Season 1 of “Mindhunter.” This Netflix drama, set in the late 1970s, and features two FBI agents (Holden Ford, played by Jonathan Groff; Bill Tench, played by Holt McCallany) and a forensic psychology professor (Wendy Carr, played by Ann Torv) who commit themselves to understanding the psychology of mass murderers and serial killers. It’s based loosely on the real-life pioneering work of FBI agents John Douglas and William Ressler and Boston College professor Ann Wolbert Burgess.

Although “Mindhunter” does not re-create in detail the gruesome crimes of the perpetrators being studied and interviewed, this series is not for the squeamish. It’s dark, profane, and at times R-rated. The deep conversations with convicted killers are particularly intense.

“Mindhunter” is also a fascinating narrative of early efforts to understand the minds and behaviors of those who have committed horrific crimes, as well as the social contexts that helped to make them what they are. It has a very intellectual side. For example, the work of sociologists Emile Durkheim and Erving Goffman enter the discussions between the main characters. The series also depicts the skepticism of “old boy” law enforcement officers who are deeply skeptical of the value of researching and interviewing these criminals. 

At various points during the 10-episode first season, I found myself asking whether this series yields any insights for those who are involved in the workplace anti-bullying movement. Here are some of the thoughts that came to mind:

  • In both contexts, research matters. It gives us a base of understanding that enables us to talk about prevention and response. However, unlike the FBI agents who visit prisons to talk to convicted murderers, we don’t have a lot of interview access to workplace abusers. If alleged abusers are managers or executives, then we have virtually no access to them. This is why so much of the research on bullying and mobbing at work is based on the experiences and perceptions of targeted workers.
  • Like the early work to understand serial killers, initial efforts to study and understand workplace bullying and mobbing were greeted with some skepticism and even ridicule. I can recall many quizzical looks and responses from 15-20 years ago, when I first started investigating, researching, and writing about workplace bullying.
  • Of course, even the worst workplace abuse rarely rises to the level of direct, violent aggression displayed by convicted killers. However, the conscience-free, eliminationist mindset that I’ve discussed in past blog pieces (e.g., here and here) is definitely present in both settings. Psychopathy, sociopathy, and severe narcissism are found in many repeat murderers and severe workplace abusers alike. The same goes for systemic influences on individual abusive behavior.
  • Just as the “Mindhunter” researchers sometimes have to think like the murderers they’re studying in order to gain understanding, so do workplace bullying and mobbing researchers have to get into the heads of workplace abusers. Also, at times I find myself telling those who are trying to understand the actions of their workplace tormenters to “think like a sociopath.” Sadly, it can be a very clarifying exercise.

 

Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Affirming dignity at work and elsewhere

The United Nations has designated December 10 as Human Rights Day, and this year it commemorates the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. From the 70th anniversary webpage:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a milestone document in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.

Article 23 of the UDHR specifically addresses work, and there’s a lot more that applies to workplace conditions in more general terms as well:

You can access the full UDHR here.

If you’d like a more interactive way of learning about the UDHR, take a look at this neat card set designed and published by Dr. Diane Perlman, a clinical and political psychologist and dispute resolution specialist. I met Dr. Perlman at the just-completed annual workshop organized by the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, and I was delighted to pick up a set.  

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I cited the UDHR in my 2009 law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law” (University of Richmond Law Review), in which I posited that human dignity should be our framing concept for designing and implementing labor and employment laws.

Life lessons from Dr. Edith Eger, Auschwitz survivor

Dear readers, if you can spare two minutes, please watch this uplifting BBC video segment featuring Dr. Edith Eger, a noted psychologist, writer, and survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Here’s the BBC description:

Edith Eger was 16 when she was sent to Auschwitz with her parents and sister. Her parents were executed. She survived – but barely. She endured unimaginable experiences, including beatings, starvation and being made to dance for the infamous Josef Mengele. When the camp was finally liberated, she was harrowed by trauma and survivors guilt. In order to understand her experiences she trained as a psychologist, a role she still works in to this day. She’s written a memoir called “The Choice” about her experience. She tells us her top tips for living your best life.

Dr. Edie, as she is known, has experienced and witnessed the worst of what humanity can serve up. Yet she proclaims, “I want to practice love, joy, and passion for life.” She offers four life lessons toward doing so:

First, “don’t be a victim.”

Second, “love yourself.”

Third, “feed your brain.”

Finally, “forget your age.”

The video segment is two minutes well spent. And if you’d like more, then I highly recommend her memoir, Dr. Edith Eva Eger, The Choice: Embrace the Possible (2017):

These lessons are especially valuable for those who are dealing with the effects of workplace abuse. I met Dr. Edie last year at a conference sponsored by the Western Institute for Social Research. Here’s part of what I shared on this blog:

I had a chance to talk to Dr. Edie during Saturday’s conference events, and getting to know her was such a gift. During the evening session, I had the intimidating task of immediately following her moving and insightful keynote remarks with my presentation about workplace bullying and mobbing. I confessed my nervousness about comparing the eliminationist instinct that fueled the Holocaust to that manifesting itself on a much smaller scale in workplace abuse situations, especially in the presence of someone who had survived the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. When I finished, Dr. Edie applauded enthusiastically and gave me a nod of approval. Yup, her opinion of my presentation meant so much to me that I looked to her as soon as I was done.

Edith Eger offers inspiring, healing words for those who are dealing with trauma. She is a treasure.

Related post

The Holocaust is a key to understanding interpersonal abuse and systems that enable it (2018)

 

Instead of “weaponize,” let’s “dignitize”

I’ll take the opposite, thank you (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

The word “weaponize” has been appearing frequently in our public discourse in recent years. John Kelly, in a 2016 Slate piece on the topic, had this to say:

But it’s outside of military contexts that weaponize has really proliferated in the last decade. We’ve weaponized: women, architecture, black suffering, anthropology, the facts, texting, femininity, marketing, secularism, religion, ideology, traditional forms of dress, virtue, sadness, social constructions, iWatches, and fictional experiences in video games. The word, of course, has enjoyed glibber applications: Writers have weaponized everything from flatulence to kale salads. This website appears, to some, to weaponize the narcissism of small differences.

The 2016 presidential election has been a hotbed for weaponization. . . . This weaponization has transformed just about every political act “into a powerful means of gaining advantage,” as Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark argue in their election glossary, Doubletalk.

In essence, it’s about using words, communications, and artistic expressions as weapons to hurt others. “Weaponize” thus becomes an easy way of describing the act and its underlying intention.

Given the work I’ve been doing concerning workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment, I’m well aware of how words can wound. We can weaponize annual reviews, e-mails, and meetings. We don’t need missile launchers to do incredible damage to others. 

Well folks, put me down as someone who yearns for a more peaceful, humane opposite of weaponize to enter our conversations with greater frequency. However, an internet search did not yield an appropriate antonym.

Okay, so here’s my suggestion: Dignitize. It’s not a perfect opposite, but it’s close enough.

Thus, instead of weaponizing our everyday interactions at work and elsewhere, let’s dignitize them. How does that sound?

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