Tease is a debut young adult novel about the consequences of bullying. It is the story of five teenagers charged with bullying another teen to the point where she commits suicide and has its basis in actual events, although it is not a retelling of the actual case in fictional form.
Sara Wharton, one of the accused teens, narrates the novel in first person present, using flashbacks to show the events leading up to the suicide of sixteen year old Emma. She also recounts the endless meetings with her lawyer and a therapist pending her trial. The most striking thing about Sara is her total disconnect from any responsibility in contributing to Emma’s pain. Rather, Sara feels that Emma’s suicide, and by extension, Emma, has ruined her life.
In the flashbacks, the reader sees learns that Sara’s best friend and co-defendant is Brielle, a classic “mean girl” with money, confidence, and attitude. Brielle is thoroughly unsympathetic and unlikeable, and she has Sara in thrall. Together, they ramp up an anti-Emma campaign that involves slut-shaming, cyberbullying, and intimidation, perpetuated by the complicity of most of the other students who contribute to the nasty posts, tweets, and too-loud comments that drive Emma into deep despair.
Sara now can’t go anywhere without people reacting to her anywhere from glaring at her to yelling at her. She can barely stand to read about the case on the Internet because the comments are so brutal. In short, she is experiencing the same behavior she dished out, and she can’t understand why. Is her public treatment over the top? Yes, it is, and the people who engage in it are behaving like bullies. Does she ever stop to think that Emma might not have understood why she was targeted? No, she does not.
As a first person narrator, Sara is unreliable. Everything is shaded through her experiences, and by the time she begins to comprehend just what has happened, it is difficult to trust her. It is too little, too late. Yes, she has problems too, but she is whiny and self-absorbed for most of the novel. She cannot comprehend why Emma’s mother would call the school to complain about her daughter’s treatment, and she cannot understand why Emma’s parents might seek restitution of some kind after her death. Sara thinks that because Emma “stole” her boyfriend, she is the victim, not Emma.
This disconnect is a huge flaw in the book. If Maciel intended to show the “other” side of the situation, she fails. The sheer nastiness of Sara and Brielle’s actions, even if mostly instigated by Brielle, seems to justify, not leaven, the accusations against them.
Another flaw in the book is that one never learns much about Emma or her motivations. Is she really “stealing” everyone’s boyfriend? Is she really sleeping with every guy in the school? These are the assumptions everyone makes, and no one ever gets to know her. Every so often, one of the characters would say “She was nice” but the reader does not learn why.
Clearly, no one intends for Emma to be driven to suicide, but we all know what road is paved with “good” intentions. Insecurity, low self esteem, thoughtlessness, being a “kid” are all explanations but they are not excuses for the behaviors heaped on Emma. While it is important to understand the psychology of those who bully, attempting to portray the bully as a victim equal to the target is difficult to accept. In this case, Sara has her life ahead of her. Emma’s is over.
While it is true that there are at least two sides to every story, in this scenario, it is not possible to balance one side with the other. Perhaps a more successful narrative would have been not from the point of view of the bully, but the perspective of the silent bystander who does not contribute to the bullying but also does nothing to stop it. Tease may be as edgy and shocking as the blurbs from other YA authors say, but it is hard to imagine for whom it is written.