On October 7th, 2003, Ryan Patrick Halligan, just 13 years old, hung himself in his family's bathroom.
It's a question that still haunts his family to this day. Rather than spend the rest of his life angry at the world, Ryan's dad, John, left his job at IBM to help educate kids and parents on some of the reasons they believe led to his son's ultimate decision.
"Bullying is a big problem in today's schools," said Mr. Halligan, who spoke before a audience of parents at a middle school located on Long Island, New York last night. "Too many schools have just treated this as a kids being kids thing."
It was far from kids being kids as Halligan points out. Some kids in the Vermont middle school spread a rumor that Ryan was gay, leading to a viral bullying frenzy against the shy teenager. Many of these kids would instant message Ryan, teasing him, trying to lure him into gay talk.
Mr. Halligan presented the parents with evidence. He dug deep inside Ryan's computer to try and find answers on what went wrong. What he found was disturbing, sad, and heart-breaking.
"We later found out he was talking to this girl, he really liked her," he said. "They chatted a lot online. We found out from some of his friends that when he went to meet the girl, the girl laughed at him, said it was a joke, called him names, and other girls with her laughed. He was devastated."
It wasn't long after that a friend started calling his son every night for two weeks before Ryan hung himself. "I just handed my son the phone, he would take it, and go to his room," Mr. Halligan said. "I later found out this friend was trying to help him and he promised my son not to say anything. I saw him after my son's death. The kid was crying. I told him it wasn't his fault. He felt so bad."
Then he got the dreaded call. "I never expected to get it," he said, choking back tears. "To tell me that Ryan had killed himself."
Mr. Halligan said he sought therapy after his son's death. "When you lose a son this way, you need it, believe me."
He pointed out that bystanders need to be educated. "If there was one boy who told the boy who was spreading the rumors to stop it, that it wasn't funny ... if there was one girl who told that girl who was chatting with him that it was going to hurt him, break his heart...if..."
Perhaps this is one way for Mr. Halligan to heal, to help educate parents about where the bullying is taking place, the impact it has on our children's emotional health. "We missed so many signs. Kids today won't tell you if they are being bullied for fear that they will be called crybabies or it'll get worse. We have to do a better job communicating with our kids, knowing how technology today is dangerous unless monitored. One of the biggest mistakes we made was letting him have a computer in the bedroom."
Mr. Halligan pointed out that the maturity level for kids is different. "Obviously Ryan wasn't to the level our daughter was at his age."
Mr. Halligan's story has been depicted on the Oprah Winfrey show. The parents were shown the clip, many in the audience dabbing tears from their eyes.
"I would rather not be here, telling you about my story," Mr. Halligan said. "I left my job at IBM a year ago to go around to schools and do this. I would give anything to have Ryan back and my old life back."
For Mr. Halligan, there is no old life waiting for him.
But perhaps because of him, many others can keep their old lives.
For more information, visit http://www.ryanpatrickhalligan.org/ about bullying and teen suicide prevention.
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Monday, February 22, 2010
It's frightening, isn't it?
What am I talking about? Spending another winter on Long Island? No. The way Congress goes about its business? No. The amount of money interest groups polluting the election campaign every two to four years? No.
While the above are very important topics to some, the one issue that has piqued my interest most over the past year is how do authors and writers deal with good and bad reviews. Since I began the writing process of my first novel Necessary Heartbreak more than two years ago, I've grown to admire authors in many different ways, including their ability to develop a thick skin when it comes to having their work publicly critqued.
It's how you look at the process too. During the self-publishing timeframe of Necessary Heartbreak, I welcomed any review, sought it out, and wanted to receive feedback. I was very fortunate to be reviewed by mostly informed readers who understood what I was trying to say in my story. They also cut me some slack too, realizing it was my first attempt. For the most part, reviewers want to love your story and praise your work.
What I didn't realize is that every book has an audience. And if you seek out a review that isn't quite right for a particular age group or selection of readers interested in your subject, the reaction can be downright mean. It's not that the reviewer is a jerk or lacks the ability to comprehend your story, the book is just not right for that particular person.
I was able to land many great writeups on Amazon.com and across the internet for more than 95 percent of the reviews. But the most valuable part of the process for me was hearing what the readers and reviewers had to say. I read them all, sometimes five or six times. I digested the information, put it in my memory bank, and made sure I honestly addressed all suggestions.
It's certainly easier to deal with a good review. But there were a few bad ones too. I found out my book wasn't right for a particular age group. The adult issues that Necessary Heartbreak addresses aren't of interest to a teenager or a preteen. In my novel, I focus on the loss of a spouse, cancer, the topic of dying with dignity, and homelessness.
Authors are incredible people. They work hard everyday, suffer with their characters, want their material be looked upon favorably, and then hold their collective breaths hoping someone will buy their book. The process of producing a good manuscript is challenging enough. Always remember this -- a bad review doesn't necessarily mean your book isn't worthy of reading.
I always make my point highlighting William Paul Young's journey. He authored The Shack, a book that has sold over five million copies. Mr. Young has received thousands of great reviews and many hundreds of some not-so-nice writeups. I wondered how he dealt with such a situation. Did he read them? Did it hurt him? Did he lose confidence in his story? Was he angry? Did he respond at all?
His answer was simple: "I don't allow myself to entangle my identity (and therefore my worth or significance) with anything I do (write)," Mr. Young wrote me. "Whenever you put your identity in something that can be taken away from you ... it is false."
Many of these people will be joining me for a book celebration, informal of course, on May 1st. It's my opportunity to thank the many people who bought my book during the self-publishing process.
If you would like to join us on Long Island for the book party, feel free to send me an email. We would love to have you stop by for some good food, great conversation, and hopefully a book you'll feel proud to keep on your shelves.
Mitchell Ivers, my Simon & Schuster editor, will be attending as will my book/movie agent Irene Webb. We're very excited about having them attend this all day event.