This story in the Idaho Statesman on the public shaming and subsequent suicide of Klara Bowman hit me hard this morning. I was tearing up over my coffee reading about this young woman who faced a set of circumstances that were in many ways similar to my own struggle, but rather than given the opportunity to face her challenges in private, she became a front-page story and a national-thing-of-the-week. Well, international, actually.
Here was a young woman struggling with a personal loss, an addiction and mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Did she need to be further humiliated and ridiculed? To what end? If your answer is “to send a message that it’s not OK to be intoxicated around kids if you’re a teacher,” who exactly are you sending that message to? Who doesn’t know that? I guarantee you Klara Bowman knew it wasn’t OK. But an addiction changes the way you prioritize and make decisions. Speaking from experience, knowing something isn’t an acceptable behavior doesn’t mean you won’t engage in it. I’m not saying the school was wrong to fire her. I’m not saying that parents shouldn’t have been concerned. But did radio stations need to broadcast about the hidden bottles in her classroom? Why? Who did that serve?
And yet it’s hard to fault the media without looking into the mirror. How many of us have shared a story or clicked a link or retweeted something about someone caught doing something wrong and had a laugh? How many times did we stop and think about the person in that predicament? Who because an unfortunate incident in their life became a viral sensation? That because it was shared millions of times it becomes the first thing that pops up when a potential employer does a basic Google search of their name? Too often we laugh at someone and forget there’s a person there.
Take the example of Ken Bone, the guy at the second presidential debate, who somehow became another thing-of-the-week. Some people love him, plan on dressing up as Ken Bone for Halloween. Others dug into his past, looking for scandalous or damaging info. Whatever we find out about him will be shared and clicked and analyzed. And then we’ll forget him and move on.
We forget that at the end of the day these are people. Klara Bowman was a person. The disc jockeys counting bottles probably didn’t know her sister died when she was young. They didn’t know that around the anniversary of that death Klara struggled with depression. They didn’t know her father was an artist and her mom worked at a church. They didn’t know that she liked hiking. All they knew was that she was drunk in front of some five year olds and they thought that talking about that was a good way to fill some drive time radio.
Mental health advocate and Andy Behrman has written on Twitter that “We don’t always give people with
#mentalillness our empathy. Sadly, we usually give them our fear.” In Klara Bowman’s case she was given our collective derision, our collective voyeuristic need to leer at the misfortune of others and our inability to see past the lurid. So let’s honor Klara Bowman by not giving in to those urges. Let’s honor Klara Bowman by remembering that when we see someone in the paper who’s done something scandalous to think about the person. To ask ourselves if they deserve our empathy.