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Sexting, Shame and Suicide

A shocking tale of sexual assault in the Digital Age

Sexting Shame & Suicide
Illustration by Jesse Lenz
September 17, 2013 2:20 PM ET

On the last day of her life, Audrie Pott walked through a crucible of teenage torment. A curvaceous sophomore at Saratoga High School, dressed in the cool-girl's uniform of a low-cut top and supershort skirt, she looked the same as always, but inside she was quivering with humiliation. In the week since school had started, girls had been giving her looks, and guys had congregated around phones, smirking. On Facebook, messages were pinging into her inbox, each one delivering another gut punch: "shit went down ahah jk i bet u already got enough ppl talking about it so ill keep it to myself haha. . . ."

"honestly like really no joke everyone knows. . . ."

"u were one horny mofo."

One Town's War on Gay Teens

An adult monitor handed her a dress-code violation – her skirt was too short – even though all the girls in her class dressed that way and monitors rarely objected. She cut what classes she could, blowing off chemistry for two days in a row, hoping to avoid confrontations with disapproving girlfriends. Then Kathy Atabakhsh, one of her best friends, tore into her on the school quad, accusing her of drinking, of forgetting who she was, of becoming a different person. "She had been, literally, the best person you could meet – always honest and trustworthy," Kathy says, recalling the episode almost a year later. "And I was so upset that she had changed. It was hard for her to hear that from a close friend." She remembers the last words she said to Audrie. "You need to come back to reality," Kathy told her.

At lunchtime, Audrie texted her mom at work: "Mom, please pick me up." Sheila Pott, a mortgage-loan officer, asked why and whether Audrie couldn't wait for her to finish a business meeting. Audrie was insistent, and then stopped answering texts.

When Sheila pulled up in her car later that Monday afternoon on September 10th, 2012, Audrie jumped in but remained silent on the short drive home. Sheila was used to her 15-year-old daughter's moods and stopped pressing her. When they got to their ranch-style home, where they had been living alone together since Sheila had split with her boyfriend the year before, Audrie retreated to her bedroom, with its Audrey Hepburn poster and silk-upholstered window seat. Around 20 minutes passed before Sheila decided to check on her daughter. She walked across the kitchen and down the long carpeted hall to the bathroom door adjoining Audrie's room. The door was locked. Audrie didn't answer. Sheila knocked and knocked again. Something about the silence pushed a panic button inside her. She grabbed the first thing she could find to jimmy the lock – the tiny metal rod at the end of her phone's earplug – and jammed it into the doorknob. Flinging the door open, she confronted a sight now permanently etched in her memory. In the pale-peach bathroom, with its shell-shaped sink, gold fixtures and narrow bathtub, her only child was dangling from a belt attached to the shower head, mascara streaking her face.

Sheila sprinted down the hall, back into the kitchen, grabbed a knife and cut her daughter down, trying to remember how to perform CPR while dialing 911. Paramedics arrived within a few minutes. They restarted Audrie's heart, but it was too late. The brown-eyed girl who loved horses, art and pranks would never breathe on her own again.

There was no note, nothing to explain why her popular and pretty daughter had done it. In the hospital, Sheila began retracing recent events, looking for some clue as to what could have pushed her daughter to take her own life. She thought about Audrie's strange silence on the day after a sleepover the weekend before. And she remembered the green ink she'd noticed around her daughter's cleavage, weird markings that Audrie had refused to explain.

Saratoga High School, with its country-club-worthy­quad, Olympic-size swimming pool and plush tennis courts, is one of those affluent California schools American teens recognize from movies and TV. Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, the school is home to high-achieving children of parents working at Apple, eBay, Netflix and other tech corporations headquartered within 50 miles. If the Saratoga Falcons did not regularly field a winning football team, there's consolation in the fact that each graduating class has propelled dozens of kids into Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Berkeley.

The summer before her death, Audrie had started to change, moving away from the kids she'd hung out with since middle school. She had started to drink a little and had dated a slightly older guy. When she drank, the self-consciousness that had afflicted her since junior high melted away. She loosened up. Sometimes, she loosened up a lot.

On Labor Day weekend of the new school year, Audrie's friend, let's call her "Sara" (many of the kids' names in this story have been changed to protect their identities), said her parents were away, leaving their white cottage-style house with its long green lawn in her care. Sara – 15, pretty, slim and blond – and Audrie had become close that summer and were exploring a new realm of boys, bottles and small parties, preferably at parent-free houses, that the Saratoga kids call "kickbacks."

That Sunday, Sara told her parents that she was going to be sleeping over at Audrie's, and Audrie told her mother that she'd be sleeping over at Sara's. When Sheila drove Audrie to Sara's, she assumed the girls would be spending the evening in their jammies in front of the television, or giggling over ice cream and Facebook. But Sara had already texted around a dozen friends to drop in for her kickback.

Eventually, 11 kids showed up, many of them to sip vodka and Gatorade cocktails. They all belonged to their class's popular clique, the girls dressed as provocatively as possible, even by the loose standards of California high schools. "See-through shorts and thongs pulled up, shorts pulled down," recalls an older girl. "That's what the 'cool girls' wore." The boys they hung out with favored a uniform locally dubbed "swagfag" – snapback hat, PacSun tank tops, knee-length chino shorts and Vans.

A few kids had brought some bottles of liquor – rum stolen from Safeway, vodka bought for them by an adult at a liquor store. They eventually guzzled a bottle of tequila that Sara's parents kept in their own cabinet. The mixer of choice was Gatorade, or downed straight. Audrie drank hardest of all.

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