Rehtaeh Parsons could not escape the memories of that night in 2011, a few weeks before her 16th birthday.
She tried therapy, she switched schools, she moved to another community. But Rehtaeh, who died Sunday after attempting suicide last week, was made to remember until the end – persistently tormented after a disturbing photograph of her was circulated among her high-school classmates in a suburb of Halifax.
Her grieving family alleges she was not only the victim of bullying, but also of sexual assault.
“She would not be gone today if that didn’t happen – not just the rape,” her mother, Leah Parsons, said Tuesday. “What made it so much worse is the people who turned their back on her, the name-calling.”
An RCMP investigation ended without charges; the high school has refused to comment, before and after the 17-year-old’s death. But, just days after they removed their daughter from life support, the Parsons are taking the rare step of speaking out against the perils of growing up in the cyber age.
In a tribute page on Facebook, the family has written an uncomfortably familiar horror story – one reminiscent of the case of Amanda Todd, the 15-year-old from Port Coquitlam, B.C., who died by suicide after a blackmailer circulated a topless photo of her. The Parsons, who have shared their daughter’s tragedy with local and national media, believe the justice system has failed them and Rehtaeh.
Late Tuesday, after the story made headlines across the country, Nova Scotia Justice Minister Ross Landry said he has asked for a review of the case. “This situation is tragic, I am deeply saddened – as I think are all Nova Scotians – by the death of this young woman,” Mr. Landry said in a statement.
Rehtaeh is “Heather” spelled backwards, a name her mother thought was pretty. They live in Cole Harbour, a suburb of Halifax just across the harbour. It boasts a population of about 25,000 people and is famously the hometown of hockey star Sidney Crosby.
Cole Harbour District High School, where Rehtaeh attended and was a straight-A student before the alleged assault, has about 1,000 students.
The alleged rape happened, according to her family, after she and a girl friend were visiting the house of a family friend in November, 2011 – in Eastern Passage, a community just south of Cole Harbour.
She was 15 at the time. An adult was asleep in the house. The kids were drinking vodka. The other girl left, leaving Rehtaeh alone with a group of boys. Afterward, a picture circulated in the community, showing her throwing up and allegedly being assaulted by one of the boys.
“Everybody had it. She came home and had a breakdown,” Ms. Parsons said, admitting that she is a “mess” now, having been crying for days. She said her daughter never returned to her high school after the snapshot surfaced, just days after the alleged rape.
The online bullying began when she went to the police and the investigation started. It continued right up until she died. Her mother said she was receiving crude e-mails from boys and girls, who mocked her and called her a “slut.”
“I couldn’t believe that everyone turned their backs on her,” her mother said. The family moved her to Halifax, where she lived with her father after spending weeks in hospital. She went to a new school – but “her head was too messed up” and she couldn’t concentrate in class, says her uncle, Michael Parsons.
Recently, she decided to come back home. The day before her suicide attempt, Rehtaeh had been to see a new therapist and they seemed to click. Her mother thought her daughter’s life was improving.
Last Thursday, her mother said her daughter had an argument on the phone with a friend. “Little things set her off,” Ms. Parsons said.
Her daughter locked herself in the bathroom. Her mother had to break in. She and her boyfriend tried to revive Rehtaeh, as did paramedics.
On her Facebook page, Rehtaeh posted self-portraits accompanied by grim captions about death and dulling her pain with drugs. “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,” one post said.
Wayne MacKay, a Dalhousie University law professor, who led a Nova Scotia cyberbullying task force that was provoked by two high-profile teen suicides in the province, says that is the “kind of thing that can put somebody over the top.
“In her case there was the horrendous alleged rape, at least initially, but then cyberbullying on top of that. There seems to be quite a bit of evidence that it’s at least a contributing factor,” he said.
He advocates better education in schools, and more guidance counsellors, and puts some onus on the media for the way it presents the story – language used and how much detail is given.
“I don’t think it means we shouldn’t talk about it because for a long time suicide wasn’t talked about,” Prof. MacKay said. “But how we talk about it is quite significant.”
Rehtaeh’s mother, Leah, was not sure when her daughter’s funeral will be held. The family has donated her organs – Rehtaeh’s heart was sent Tuesday to Toronto to be transplanted.
With a report from The Canadian Press