Maryville Case: A Parent's Worst Nightmare
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. Today, we want to talk about a sensitive story that you may have seen or heard something about. And this is probably a good time to say that this conversation may not be appropriate for all listeners - and that's because we want to talk about the story of the Maryville, Missouri teenager who says she was raped last year by a high school senior and then left in freezing temperatures at her own doorstep. She also says that another boy, also 17, videotaped the assault on a cell phone and that her 13-year-old friend was raped the same night by a 15-year-old boy. Now charges were filed but they were then dropped against that high school senior, but after attention from the media and a firestorm on social media, a special prosecutor has now been assigned to take another look at the case. Whatever the legal outcome of this story, though, we felt that there was a lot to talk about here.
We wondered what kinds of conversations parents and teenagers should be having about this now that this issue has surfaced. So we've called Rosalind Wiseman, she's the author of the New York Times bestseller "Queen Bees and Wannabes" and, most recently, "Masterminds and Wingmen." Both about teen behavior. She's a mom of two. Ros, thanks so much for joining us once again.
ROSALIND WISEMAN: Thanks for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: Jenifer Marshall Lippincott is the author of "7 Things Your Teenager Won't Tell You: And How to Talk About Them Anyway." She's also a mom of two. Thank you so much for joining us once again.
JENIFER MARSHALL LIPPINCOTT: You're welcome. I enjoy it.
MARTIN: And Lester Spence is one of our regular contributors and he's an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. He's a father of five. Lester, thank you so much for joining us once again.
LESTER SPENCE: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So let's hear first from Daisy Coleman. She is the teenager who says she was raped last year. She spoke to NPR member station KCUR recently and she told them what she remembers about that night. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)
DAISY COLEMAN: What I do remember is me and my friend were drinking in my bedroom without my mom's permission, and then this guy texted me and he's like, hey, you want to hang out? And I was like, well, we'll have to sneak around. It's, like, one in the morning.
MARTIN: Now let me note here that NPR, like a number of other major media outlets, normally do not identify alleged rape victims, but we're doing so because Daisy Coleman and her family have publicly identified themselves in the media and they wish to be heard on this. So let me start with you, Ros Wiseman. You've written a lot about the way kids interact and what - the kinds of things that cause them to make decisions that they made. What strikes you about this?
WISEMAN: What strikes me is that older boys with social power will consistently go after younger girls that are 13, 14 or 12 years old, and go after them specifically because they believe they can exploit the power that they have over those girls. Say, do you want to hang out? The girls are flattered because these are older boys that have social status in the community. They're trying out and experimenting with risky behavior, but they don't think that it's going to end in being left on their front porch freezing, being raped. And...
MARTIN: Now do you think - I'm curious about whether you think the boys started out as predators, because this sounds like predatory behavior. It's very interesting that the community has not...
WISEMAN: They didn't...
MARTIN: ...The community has been very divided on this. This is one of the reasons this issue surfaced in the media. They think that the girls were equally complacent, do you think that the boys started out as predatory and the girls were the ones who were kind of not sure what to do? Or do you think it's both sides?
WISEMAN: I think that the boys - there's a minority of boys who feel that it's their right to entertain themselves however they want, and that that is backed up by people, their parents or by the community - because of the social status that they have. And that as a result, they feel that they can go after - for their entertainment in all the different kinds of ways they want to do that - to people who are more vulnerable. And those girls are vulnerable. And so they don't think of themselves as predators, and they also think that it's an equal playing field.
They will not in the moment, like, especially afterwards or when they're trying to explain themselves - they will go after the girls and say, no, we were on equal - there's - we were on equal playing fields here, like those girls knew what they were getting themselves into. They do not, after the fact, ever acknowledge or admit the power that they have and exploit. So they don't acknowledge that they are the predators after the fact. Before, they laugh and joke often about how they can get people and do things that they want to do and that nothing's going to happen to them.
MARTIN: Jenifer, what strikes you about this?
LIPPINCOTT: What strikes me, Michel, is that it's a classic case of the adolescent brain making bad decisions. And the - this rivalry that goes on between the emotional part of the brain, which is the impulsivity part - the inability to recognize and foresee danger and consequences - is winning out over that seat of judgment, that prefrontal cortex. Now the boys who are 17, they should have more neural pathways laid down at this point. They should have been - I think there wasn't equal playing ground at all between what's going on between a 13 and a 14-year-old in that brain and what's going on in the 17 and 18-year-old brain. However, the point is that it was terrible decision-making.
MARTIN: And Lester Spence, what strikes you about this?
SPENCE: First off, I want to applaud the girl and her mom for actually reporting and actually saying out loud what happened to them. Often times, as you guys know, these cases go either unreported, or if they are reported, the people - stigma - the victim doesn't want to report. So I think this is really important. But on top of that I just want to reaffirm - I think this is really an issue about power at work. You're talking about a 17-year-old kid and his friends. The 17-year-old kid was not only older, but he was like a star on the football team and his family was politically connected. And I think that that really creates a - it was an accident - no, not an accident, but it was a problem waiting to happen. I think he had already been arrested by that - he'd already had a drunk driving incident on his record by that time.
MARTIN: So let's talk about what kinds of conversations you would hope that people would be having as a result of this. Ros, why don't you start and, you know, obviously I think the first thing that occurs to you is, if you're the parent of a girl, you're thinking, how do I protect my daughter? But I think that, you know, everybody here agrees that there are conversations that people should be having with both genders around this. So, Ros, why don't you start?
WISEMAN: Sure. Well, you know, when I was doing the research and working with the boys on "Masterminds," what was so clear to me from the boys and what they were telling me is that even well-meaning parents were not having specific conversations with their sons about this issue. And even well-meaning parents, when we say things like you know no means no - well, of course that's true, but we need to be able to provide a context for the boys. And to be able to fold in that there is an analysis or understanding that this stuff happens within group dynamics, and that the boys are going to be having to speak truth to power amongst their friends - amongst people that they want to have ongoing relationships with. And we also have to realize that we have got to get beyond soundbites of saying things like, make the right decisions, or you know no means no, or you have to respect people.
We have got to get beyond soundbites because the boys in these situations, even though it seems from the outside like it's simple, it's not simple to the boys - to the bystanders that are around the boys that are exploiting their power and going after these girls. So we are not having those conversations and we have to. And we have to recognize that it's normal - common for these boys to be partying. It's common for them to think that they can go after people and do things without consequence. And so the other boys and other kids around them think, well, they've never had any consequences before, so why should I say anything, because if I do it's just going to come on to me. So you've got to be able to say to your kids, look, when you're in a situation - you might be in a situation like this, and when you do that, I need to hear - for me - that you've got to be able to speak to your friend and say, you're not going to exploit and assault this girl.
MARTIN: OK, Jenifer, what do you think about what kinds of conversations you think we should be having about this?
LIPPINCOTT: So, we can no longer control our teens once they reach a certain age - we could when they were younger, we can't now. So what we can do is to aid in developing their ability to make these decisions. And the way that we can do that is through conversation - but not lectures, not threats, not force-feeding. We need to be clever, we need to anticipate, as Ros was just saying, what the kinds of things they might be confronted with will be. So we do a lot of role-playing. What would you do if you got a text at one in the morning, and a guy you had a crush on said, hey, you know, there's a really cool party. Why don't you come. What would you say if you did find yourself in a situation where someone hands you a glass of clear liquid and says, oh, go ahead. Have a drink. And what they don't want to know is what we would say - what they don't want to know is, here is what you should do - here's what I did, that's the kiss of death. Here's what I did. So what...
MARTIN: Let me ask you about this, Jenifer...
MARTIN: ...Because Daisy made it clear in the interview with KCUR that she and her friend were drinking without their moms' permission. Now it's interesting - and I also want to mention here that this family was in grief. I mean, they were living in this town in part because Daisy's dad was killed in a car wreck...
MARTIN: ...And that they had moved to this town to kind of get away from those memories. So this is a family that was kind of hurting.
MARTIN: But she said we were drinking without my mom's permission. Her older brother, who was also on the football team, had warned her about this particular boy saying that he was trouble. But it doesn't sound like the parents were kind of clued into this. And so that's one of the questions I'd have, since you've studied this is - just raise it anyway?
LIPPINCOTT: Right. So this is exactly what I'm talking about, Michel, in the sense that these conversations should have happened well before this incident. So you have to pick your moments, obviously. You can't be constantly sort of going there, but you pick your moments, and you rip from the headlines, you pick up on things you've heard, and you take the opportunity to say, you know, what would you do in these situations? And then you fill in the blanks because they want to know - they want to know what you think.
There is no research anywhere that says that they don't. They care what you think and what you think is going to affect the decisions that they make. She knew that her brother did not approve of this older guy. But from what I read, the older brother said well, she doesn't - you know, she doesn't listen to me. She does. She does. Don't let go. Don't assume. Keep following through. Tell stories. I say to parents, everybody needs an Aunt Karen. Everybody needs somebody to say, you know the story Aunt Karen told me? You wouldn't believe what happened to these two girls who snuck out of the house. Everybody needs to have that to go to.
MARTIN: If nothing else, this is a teachable moment.
LIPPINCOTT: It's a teachable moment. And you know what? Our brains have cognitive hooks for stories, not so much for lectures.
MARTIN: Lester Spence, can we - you know, we've picked on you in this program before about - you were saying you are kind of a believer in role modeling as opposed to giving direct kind of lectures about these issues, in contrast to your professional life where you are paid to lecture. But, you know, at home your feeling is more that it's more important to role model. How would you handle this? I mean, you've got both boys and girls. You've got a range of ages at home. How would you handle this kind of thing?
SPENCE: So what I - So I've had conversations with my daughter, and not just because she's a girl in this case, but she's the oldest and actually has the most leeway and freedom outside of the house. And in her case, I've talked about - I haven't used the techniques that Jenifer, I guess, proposed, and I think that's really, really a good idea. What I've talked about is my own circumstances, and to the extent that I see her or her friends making mistakes, I talk her through the mistakes, right. So that's part of it. And then, I would - as my boys mature, I plan to have them - to have the same conversation about them. But I just want to add one thing.
I think the most important thing we can take - one of the most important things we can take from what the parent in this case actually did was that she stood behind her daughter and continued to fight for her. Even as the, literally, the entire city was arrayed against her, she continued to fight. And that's the other thing we have to do because when something like this does happen, we as parents have to stand with our - you know, if our children are the victims, we have to stand with our children no matter who is arrayed against us. And I think that's something we have to really reiterate.
MARTIN: Well, I have to tell you, though, that the parents of the boys are standing with them, as well. I mean, one of the points that has to be made here is that, in fact, one of the mothers of one of the boys involved in this incident says that they believe that their sons are owed an apology, that they believe that this was consensual and that they believe that their kids are the victims in this. I just have to raise that. Ros, what do you want to say about that?
WISEMAN: Well, I mean, I've worked with 13 and 14-year-old girls for so long, and we can talk to them about exactly, you know, the advice about, you know, talking to your Aunt Karen - all of that stuff is great - and then the power of that moment of this boy and how charming he is comes in at 1 o'clock in the morning. And just like we said in the very beginning, and sometimes you're going to make a bad choice. The thing that we have got to go back to is that if parents have children - if they have boys who are in positions of social power, for whatever reason, we have got to get to a place where - this parent has got to get to a place where we say, or she says to herself, now wait a minute. Did I actually raise a child who left a 13-year-old baby on the front steps freezing to death? Did I actually raise a child who would do that, who thought that that would be appropriate?
Forget about all the legal stuff. My gosh, I have clearly failed as a parent if I have taught my kid that that is an appropriate way to treat another human being. And what we don't do, we're often so focused on the targets or the victims of these things, and then we don't really talk about and address the kids who are in positions of power who abuse it. So if you are a parent and your child is in a position of social power, for whatever reason, you - please, I would ask people to take this as an opportunity to talk to them and say, I don't know if this is ever going to happen to you or if you're ever going to be in this situation, but you got to know from me that what I'm hearing - that story that I'm listening to in Missouri - if there was ever a place where you participated or saw in any way that something like that going down, it is absolutely imperative to me as your parent, as your mother or your father, that you stand for what - you stand for the person who has the least power in that room and you speak out. And if that parent did not feel that they should've hauled their son over to apologize or to take responsibility is really a reflection of how difficult it is sometimes for people in positions of power and privilege to own it and take responsibility for it.
MARTIN: One of the other things, Jenifer, I know you wanted to talk about was alcohol - was the role of alcohol in this whole scenario. But again, Daisy tells us that she was not - her parents were not - her mother was not aware that she - she took steps to make sure that she was not aware. I don't know what was going on at the party where there was so much alcohol being freely distributed, that there was no adult apparently on the scene to monitor that. I don't know how that happened. But talk if you would - and we only have about a minute and a half left - talk about alcohol.
LIPPINCOTT: Well, we know the effect of alcohol on the teen brain. It has a heightened affect. It shuts down the hippocampus, which is the memory, which is why she doesn't - she blacked out. She doesn't remember anything that happened. It affects the part of the brain that controls, you know, your motor skills etc. - your physical being. Clearly, alcohol had a huge impact on this. And again, the conversations, whether it's the conversation with the boy's family or the conversations with the girl's family, the same conversations - excuse me - not the same conversation. Conversations need to be happening. With boys, they need to be a little bit different. And they need to acknowledge that alcohol is available, its presence. They need to acknowledge - with both the boys and the girls - the impact of alcohol. By the way, if kids see their parents drunk, they're twice as likely to binge themselves. So that gets back to the role modeling part that Lester talks about. Alcohol is a huge instigator for these kinds of behaviors and those conversations need to happen.
MARTIN: Do we ever think we're going to get to a place where we won't be having conversations like this?
LIPPINCOTT: Of course not.
MARTIN: Yeah. I guess. All right, well, that's why we're here. Jenifer Marshall Lippincott is author of "7 Things Your Teenager Won't Tell You: And How to Talk About Them Anyway." She's the mom of two. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. With us from Baltimore, Lester Spence. He's an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and a dad of five. And from Boulder, Colorado, member station KGNU, Rosalind Wiseman the author most recently of "Masterminds and Wingmen" and the New York Times bestseller "Queen Bees and Wannabes," and a mom of two. Thank you all so much for this conversation.
WISEMAN: Thank you.
LIPPINCOTT: Thanks, Michel.
SPENCE: Thank you.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.