We are each other’s business . . .
by Jane G. Tillman, PhD, Evelyn Stefansson Nef Director of the Erikson Institute for Education and Research
The surprise verdict of guilty in the Michelle Carter texting and suicide case in a Massachusetts courtroom has far-reaching implications for how we think about suicide, personal responsibility and culpability, free speech, and our duty as citizens to one another, particularly those on the brink of suicide. As a psychologist and psychoanalyst who works with suicidal patients, and a researcher who studies suicide, the verdict leaves me deeply ambivalent. Words are the tools of my trade, and according to Judge Moniz, the wrong words, to the wrong person, at the wrong time can be equated with involuntary manslaughter.
Whenever a person takes his or her own life, the loss of life and the toll on family, friends, and communities can be staggering. And yet, the individual who dies by suicide has exercised the ultimate decision around self-determination, even if made in a state of psychological pain or confusion. It is sobering to think that a judge has ruled one person responsible for another person’s ultimate choice, particularly through the medium of texting. We are living in an age where words are thought to be inciting violence of all sorts and so we know that words matter. What are the obligations and legal duties of one who speaks or texts, in terms of how another might respond to such speech or texting?
The Carter verdict came in the same week that our national leaders were briefly reflecting on their inflammatory language and its potential role in provoking unstable members of our society to homicidal violence, directed at elected officials, or in recent weeks and months at minorities, members of faith communities, or other groups. Politicians, pundits, and now a young woman in Massachusetts are all involved in speech that has an effect and potentially incites violence. Our President expresses his outrage and anger through presumably unfiltered tweeting. Michelle Carter is being held to a different standard regarding her speech, where one judge has decided that her texting has a direct causal connection to the suicide of Conrad Roy III. The message delivered to Michelle Carter may have been delivered to the wrong address; she is a vulnerable target and stand-in for a much larger issue in our society. We are all responsible for our choices and our behavior: speaking, texting, and violence against oneself or others.
In another context, Michelle Carter’s behavior might be considered some form of “assisted suicide,” or euthanasia, which in Belgium is legal for those suffering from psychiatric conditions. It is doubtful Ms. Carter had that in mind as she repeatedly urged Mr. Roy to take his life, but the message that psychiatric suffering makes one a candidate for euthanasia or justifies a suicidal action is out there. I believe this is a dangerous message; most psychiatric illnesses are manageable with adequate psychiatric treatment. Mr. Roy did not receive such intensive treatment despite his history of a prior suicide attempt. Young people are particularly vulnerable to the mixed messages about what is acceptable and what is not. Might Michelle Carter, described as a deeply troubled person herself, have erroneously believed she was helping Conrad Roy III? Here in Berkshire County, Massachusetts we have seen a recent spate of suicides in young people which adds to the pain of a community where people of all ages are dying from opioid abuse. Our community is reeling around notions of contagion, intervention, and how to reach out to those in need. Some of our young people are in tremendous despair and they do not make good decisions in such a state of mind. The adolescent brain is still in the process of developing and adolescents can act impulsively or without adequate reasoning about alternative courses of action. Michelle Carter’s actions are dreadful to read about, and Conrad Roy III made a poor choice in suicide that is permanent. Perhaps neither believed that there was effective help available to them. Mental health care is woefully under-resourced and not always easy to access and in that sense the failure of care extends well beyond these two teenagers.
As I followed the Michelle Carter trial, the 100th birthday of the American poet Gwendolyn Brooks occurred, and I was reminded of her poem “Paul Robeson” in which she writes, “. . . we are each other’s / harvest: / we are each other’s / business: / we are each other’s / magnitude and bond.” This is what I imagine Judge Moniz was attempting to uphold in finding Michelle Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter. The ruling in the Carter case ought to stop us in our tracks. Free speech is a fundamental and treasured right in our democracy and yet we are on a very slippery slope when we are increasingly tempted to believe that words assume the weight of responsibility in the choices made by others. We are each other’s business and our words and actions matter. Conrad Roy III’s death, like most suicides, is an enormous loss and tragedy. Michelle Carter’s texts and reasoning about Conrad Roy III’s suffering are difficult to empathize with. Carter and Roy seem like tragic child sacrifices in a world where our adult leaders tweet and speak with cruelty, malice, and little forethought about destructive consequences. Judge Moniz has now called this murder and we should all take notice.