On December 30, 2016, Katelyn Nicole Davis, a 12-year-old girl from Cedartown, Georgia filmed her suicide by hanging from a tree in her front yard. Recorded live, the video has gone viral. Alarmingly, a young girl’s succumbing to death logged on the Internet clamors recognition of an existence she felt helpless to bear alone. Reported in her blog, abuse and sexual assault tainted her young existence. As a result, her perception of her own isolation, her articulated sense of worthlessness, and her shame motivated a trajectory toward death, demonstrating what is at stake when these crimes go unrecognized.
Much effort has been made to remove Katelyn’s suicide video from on-line circulation, but the electronic footprint she left on cyber-world proves nearly impossible to erase. The recording corroborates experiences detailed in her hauntingly designated blog “Diary of a Broken Doll.” Suggesting the core of how she understood her place in the world, the chilling description of her self as a broken body employed as a toy echoes a life framed by abuse and sexual assault.
Hoping for connection and healing, Katelyn reached out for and found witnesses, but they failed to attend to her wounds. The platform on which she chose to make human bonds established an inviolable boundary where Katelyn became an identifiable sufferer who could not be saved. The result was a plunge into shame that left a child unable to find value in her life or in herself. The shame, initiated by abuse, perpetuated itself and led to her death.
In Wasted Lives: The Social Dynamics of Shame and Youth Suicide, Simone Fullagar writes that acts toward suicide occur “at the point of intensification where the subject cannot bear the cultural weight of silence and the invisibility of shame any longer.” In this case, as Fullagar asserts, help-seeking becomes confused, “entangled in the cultural vocabulary of shame and the sanctions that prohibit the expression of certain affective states and emotional experiences.” Katelyn directed her affect into a blog and an internet platform that, in her case, lacked the comfort of human compassion and touch needed to combat destructive shame. Further, she revealed her private self in a public way, but one that ensured that a veneer be maintained, and yet somewhere in her writing and words it seems, hope embeds itself. The hope consists of a wish to be seen and recognized as worthy, and so therefore not shameful. Her blog represents in some sense a scream for help and self-exposure to combat shame. Her instinct is right, by revealing shame, shame can be addressed. Yet, at some point in that effort, the silence of the screen met Katelyn’s refusal to be invisible, and this mix emerged in a live-streamed death.
Shame surfaces in her video and blog as a feeling of worthlessness and disgust with her own self and life. Internalized, this disgust feeds shame representing a deep wounding, “a sickness of the soul.” In a former post regarding her own suicide attempt, Karen Leslie Hernandez corroborates the impact of disgust writing that suicide is a process: “A manipulation of the disgust we feel for ourselves, our thoughts, and our lives.” Such disgust, intertwines with shame, motivating it.
Katelyn’s death is extreme, yet her blog and self-destruction point to something systemic, more banal, and to which Katelyn alludes by calling herself a “Broken Doll.” Her suicide evidences the severe end to life that begins in a cycle of shame, that, perpetuated by abuse, has serious and dangerous outcomes: the use and shaming of women’s bodies. In The Second Sex, Simone Beauvoir addresses girls’ development into a shamed body, “As her breasts and body hair develop, a feeling is born that sometimes changes into pride but begins as shame; suddenly the child displays modesty, she refuses to show herself nude, even to her sisters or mother” (368). Embarrassed not only of menstruation but also of her own desire, girls surrender sexual power and pride. Disgust, thus, indicates precisely what must be hidden or cut off: here, female sexual organs and desire. Disgust communicates and classifies the shameful, which transpires because it comes into view. Experienced by girls because of their bodies at the onset of adolescents, shame must be addressed, otherwise its normal function as a regulation of social relationships morphs into something unhealthy. But this is a difficult task as shame, addressed by bel hooks as “one of the deepest tools of imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy,” “produces trauma, and trauma often produces paralysis.”
What is at stake in the case of shame? Lives. Human lives. Girls’ lives. Katelyn did not have the resources to face shame, and she lost her life. The shame of abuse, her sense of being a burden to her family, the experience of being called “worthless” by her stepfather, all recorded in her blog, claimed her life. Katelyn was a casualty of a system that by default shames the adolescent body, while also failing to refuse to accept abuse and sexual assault.
What is an ethical, theological response to Katelyn’s suffering and death? How does one acknowledge and answer her pain? How do we attend to the needs of developing girls in our communities and lives (and to the child in ourselves) to combat shame? In her blog, Present in our Bodies, Christy Croft details an experience of ecstatic dance with her 9-year-old daughter as an event of freedom and bonding that counters brokenness. In her narration, Croft presents an imaginative alternative to shame and abuse through a focus on pleasure and bodies. Although Croft recognizes that the past cannot be undone, just as Katelyn’s suicide remains a stark and visual fact, she acknowledges the possibilities – here through dance – of nurturing the body and establishing empathic connections. I wish I could offer this hope of kindling pleasure and celebrating bodies to Katelyn. As I cannot, I honor her memory here, and in the spirit of compassion and love, wish for all girls, self – body love and pleasure.
Stephanie N. Arel is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion (IBCSR) at Boston University working on the Sex Differences in Religion Project. Her teaching and research interests focus on the intersection of theology, psychology, and philosophy. She is the author of Affect Theory, Shame and Christian Formation (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) and co-editor of Post-Traumatic Public Theology (Palgrave Macmillan 2016).