Cyberbullying Unmasked: One Survivor’s Story

Cyberbullying Unmasked: One Survivor’s Story

Emily Torchiana had been hijacked. The cyberbullies had taken everything she was, everything she had, and dropped her off in a dark, lonely place. But in that place she found a powerful voice – and she’s using that voice to stand up to cyberbullies everywhere, and to show people like herself that they are not alone.

Emily has found her bully pulpit.

Emily Torchiana (All photos by Diana Deaver)

The boy in the corner is punching the wall. The girl in the hall is screaming obscenities. The body with the scars is running out of flesh. And the hate behind the crossed arms is growing homicidal. Nobody wants to be here.

It’s not exactly a dream destination, a place you strive to get to. But you don’t stumble upon places like this, either. There’s something that steers you here along the way.

And so, looking around at the other patients, at herself, Emily Torchiana can’t help but wonder: How did I get here?

She admitted: She didn’t feel safe. Traffic and trees smeared outside her mother’s 4Runner window as they barreled down the I-76 emergency lane, hazard lights confirming the crisis.

She knew: She was no longer in control. Medical scrubs and doctor’s jackets swarmed around her, pulling her away from her mother, sucking her into a tiny room, sticking her with needles and capturing her vitals. They identified her by code (she didn’t recognize it, but she could tell it wasn’t good).

She worried: She had nothing left. They stripped her of everything she knew – from her shoelaces and her bracelets to her clothes and her cell phone – in exchange for a thin cotton hospital gown that didn’t tie in the back.

Because she couldn’t be trusted with the strings. She couldn’t be trusted with her life. She couldn’t be left alone – not even to use the bathroom.

“Go right ahead,” the nurse said, nodding at the exposed toilet in the middle of the room. “We’ll be right here watching.”

 

Emily Torchiana had always loved an audience. She’d always been comfortable in front of a crowd – always assumed the people out there were as excited about her performance as she was.

“It never once occurred to Emily that she wasn’t at performance level for something,” laughs Emily’s father, Greg Torchiana, recalling Emily’s (“at least weekly”) performances. “Whatever she was into, there was always a show, and we were the built-in audience – and the stagehand or whatever else she needed.”

The Torchiana family is nothing if not supportive, though. They’d follow one another from basketball game to volleyball match and then back home to play backyard baseball, discuss the day around the dinner table and help each other with school projects. Emily’s shows were another opportunity for family bonding.

“Sitting through all the different shows and either laughing hysterically at the stuff she was doing or just trying not to laugh because she didn’t want us to – those are great memories,” says Greg, smiling. “She was the one of our kids who wanted to do everything and thought she could. Whatever it was, she poured herself into it.”

The four Torchiana children were spread out in age, with Emily third in the lineup. She was more like her brothers than her older sister – she’d take Pokémon and sports over Barbie dolls and makeup any day. She had conviction like her mom, determination like her father and confidence like no other.

“Out of the four kids, Emily was the one who never recognized there were boundaries to what anyone could do or become – she never saw any limit to what she could do. She never saw any limit to what anyone could do,” says Greg. “She thought everyone was as enthusiastic as she was – and as loving as she was. She really had the mindset of: ‘They’re going to treat me the way I treat them – why wouldn’t they?’”

 

They were saying she was a whore. That she didn’t have any friends. They told her to kill herself – that she should take her own life.

Emily sat in the Torchianas’ dark basement, completely alone but for this growing force that the family’s Windows desktop computer had become. She’d folded herself up in front of the screen’s glow and watched herself slowly be redefined.

Everything had changed since she started high school. It was hard enough for the self-proclaimed tomboy to leave all her friends and start at this all-girls school. But home felt lonely, too: Her older brother and sister were away at college, she had stopped hanging out with her younger brother and she was sharing her feelings with her mom less and less.

The enthusiastic, sensitive, athletic, determined, trusting, confident and Golden Rule–abiding girl had withered. Facing the computer monitor’s light, the old Emily barely cast a shadow.

“Facebook and this video chatting thing called OoVoo were new then, and it was really big, so that’s what we’d do – just talk to the webcam and then post the videos to each other’s Facebook walls,” recalls Emily. “It’s so weird, looking back, but at the time it was normal.”

Normal to post a video on a friend’s wall teasing that her school would beat his at the basketball game that night. Normal. Harmless. But, Emily understates: “It became bigger than that.”

That video led to another: a repost of the original with commentary deriding Emily, mocking what was nothing but a simple exchange between friends. It didn’t make sense, but neither did what followed: a fake Facebook profile meant not just to slander Emily’s character and torment her thoughts, but to dismantle her very identity.

“I was super confused,” she says: What is this? Who are these people? Why are all the posts about me, all the pictures about me, all the videos about me?

Whoever was behind it knew exactly what to say, playing into the teenager’s growing self-consciousness about her looks and body (“Do you ever brush your teeth?” “You’re so fat!”). And they attacked her values, too.

“They knew I was saving sex for marriage, but they continued saying that I was a whore and in everyone’s pants,” says Emily. “They were ripping apart something that has always been a big moral for me, and people were starting to believe what they were saying.”

As the Facebook profile grew, old friends from middle school turned their backs on her (“I can’t believe you became such a slut,” they texted). There were 10–20 posts a day and more than 1,000 followers by the time Emily was blocked from the page. But not having access to the page only made it worse. For three years, she was bombarded by even more hateful, more libelous Facebook messages, voicemails and texts – sometimes as many as 20 a day. Not to mention the constant (perhaps obsessive) tug at her curiosity: What are they saying about me now?

The digital torment had permeated real life. She couldn’t escape. The not knowing, the distrust, consumed her. Every day Emily sat among her classmates wondering which one had sent the last vicious message – which ones wanted her to die. Never mind who started the onslaught at this point: Who’s contributing to it? Continuing it? Aware of it? Silent about it?

No one asked her if she was OK, how she was doing, if she needed a friend. And, by the time she discovered who was originally responsible (four or so of her “best friends”), it was too late – she was already gone, isolated.

Emily had shut everyone out – shut herself off. And she was shutting down.

 

 

Emily’s not herself lately. She’s a teenage girl – a dramatic teenage girl. She’s always been so sensitive. Emily’s going through a phase. She doesn’t like her new school. She misses her old friends. Her best friend is dying of cancer.

Julia had a brain tumor the size of a grapefruit. One week Emily was confiding in her, the next she was visiting her in the hospital. (“Her symptoms went from zero to 100 in a days time,” Emily says.)

Still, Emily visited her friend every weekend. Every weekend, she wished it were her lying there instead of Julia. She’s fighting for her life, and I’m plotting to end mine.

“Emily was so sweet – she was her same self in that room every weekend, but then she would walk out in the hallway afterward, and it was like, oh my God, it just tore her heart out every single weekend,” says Greg. In retrospect: “It had all collided: My gosh, I have this friend that’s fighting for her life, and then there’s all these people that wish I wasn’t even here. We didn’t even know that side.”

All they knew was that Emily was moody, a little withdrawn. When she wasn’t upstairs in her room or downstairs in the basement, her eyes were on her phone and her headphones were on her ears. Nobody knew what was on her mind.

“We knew she wasn’t happy, but we attributed it to a thousand different things,” says Greg. “I think you rationalize things as parents because it makes more sense to you to put it into a category versus making it something unique.”

As Emily’s older brother Greg Torchiana Jr. puts it, “We had no background to base it on. We didn’t have the vocabulary for this.”

But there is a word for what Emily was experiencing: cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying: That’s how Emily Torchiana got to the point of wanting to die, of wanting to take her own life – of attempting suicide three times.

Cyberbullying: That’s how she got to the bathroom floor, passed out in her own vomit – bottles of painkillers emptied out around her.

Cyberbullying: That’s what led her to psychiatric hospitalization, to questioning her sanity, to wondering who she was.

And how do we get out of this place?

 

Read Emily Torchiana’s full story in the summer 2016 issue of College of Charleston Magazine.