Izabel Laxaman and the Usefulness of Public Shaming and Other Forms of Abuse

Izabel Laxaman was a thirteen year old girl from Tacoma, Washington who recently died by suicide. A video of what appears to be Izabel responding to her father’s questions subsequent to his cutting off much of her hair was speculated by many media outlets to be directly related to her death. Apparently, the action was meant to punish Izabel for sending an inappropriate photo of herself to a young boy, something it seems logical to deduce from the available evidence, she was repeatedly told not to do; though we cannot be certain. In the video a seemingly despondent Izabel is addressed by a man off-screen after first filming a pile of long, black hair on the floor: “The consequences of getting messed up, man: you lost all your beautiful hair. Was it worth it?”. Izabel replies with a perfunctory “No”, to which the man responds, “How many times did I warn you?”. “A lot”, replies Izabel. Initially, it was reported that her father had posted the video online in an attempt to publicly shame, and thus supposedly rehabilitate his daughter. Only that turned out not to be true. According to the most recent reports, the father made the video for Izabel to hold onto herself, only it was acquired by a third party and posted online. Police say Izabel shared it with her friends though they did not say who put it online. Several suicide notes were left behind on an iPod she gave to a classmate in the hours immediately preceding her death. In the notes she tells her family that she did some things that she thought would be embarrassing and feared doing harm to the family name. She also assured her family that they were not to blame. Friends of Izabel have told the local news channel in Tacoma that she was also coping with bullying and not being permitted to participate in student government due to lacking her family’s permission. The school claims they provided Izabel with counseling after they became aware of the video’s existence and made a report to Child Protective Services. They also claim that they were unaware of any student to student harassment.

The nature of the immediate outrage over the method of punishment allegedly used by the father, and its potential causal relationship to her death, as well as how the press and the police corrected the record relative to the relationship between the video and the girl’s death is strange. The press and the police seem eager to exculpate the father, specifically, and the family, more generally, of any wrongdoing. Especially since we now know that the video was posted, not by the father, but by an unknown third party who police seem to implying acquired it from Izabel. It seems like both an attempt to calm the outrage festering online throughout the world as well as an attempt to shift blame from the father to the young girl. In comments to the New York Daily News the police are quoted criticizing Izabel as “a 13-year-old that made some poor choices, meaning that she didn’t have to kill herself”. Certainly, any mental health expert will responsibly and reasonably argue that determining cause and effect in the case of a suicide is difficult. Many potential factors exist, such as mental illness, drug use, brain damage, cultural, social, and family values, as well as genetics, and socioeconomic issues like unemployment, homelessness, or discrimination.

What ultimately caused Izabel Laxaman to die by suicide is unknown. In some sense it seems as though the responsible choice would be to take her notes at face value. Respecting her agency as a person it would be legitimate to accept the reasons she offered, whatever they might be, and not blame her father or her family. However, one cannot ignore what we do know of the content of her suicide notes in which she says that she did some things that were embarrassing and feared damaging her family name. Regardless of whether or not the video itself was a trigger shame seems to be an integral part of Izabel’s psychology. In the final analysis, whatever role the video played in her death the true relevance this story has to the broader public is the role that public shaming plays in how people attempt to change other people’s future behavior.

Publicly shaming or otherwise abusing someone is a common form of punishment at all levels of society, not just at the level of parenting. Even judges have taken to shaming convicted criminals by making them wear signs stating their intolerant bullies or are violent felons. Last year, on her third day at a new high school, a young girl named Miranda Larkin was forced to wear an enormous neon yellow t-shirt with red shorts. Text was emblazoned on the shirt reading, “Dress code violation”, when the girl wore a black skirt one teacher claimed was too short. Recently, while driving to an appointment, I was listening to a local right wing radio station. The two hosts were discussing a couple news stories, one about the torture of Majid Khan, and an ACLU lawsuit against Baltimore’s jails. The hosts argued that the attempted drowning go Khan in a bathtub filled with ice water was akin to a football player soaking in an ice bath after a game, thus making the case that he was not actually tortured. Then they argued that the squalor in which the prisoners of Baltimore’s jails were forced to live was a useful means of rehabilitating them. Make prison so horrible that no convicted criminal would ever want to return. Arguments such as these call to mind the penalties for what are today considers non-capital offenses like theft that used to result in executions throughout the western world; or the imprisonment, or forced military conscription, or indentured servitude of the poor or indebted.

No amount of abuse will ever inspire a person to behave more decently or otherwise exhibit whatever behavior the abuser wishes to see the abused perform. Abuse only perpetuates trauma and further abuse. Abuse is learned and because it is learned it is passed on from one person to another, from one generation to another.

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