East Lansing — These were disturbing, frightening thoughts for a teenager. Especially one like Taryn McCutcheon, the smart, level-headed girl named high school basketball player of the year in West Virginia as a junior, who had committed a year earlier to play for Michigan State.
This kid in Parkersburg, W.Va., was going places — that was clear. But she was enduring a private hell, the target of bullying that carved away at her confidence and stripped her zest for life. McCutcheon became weary of being made fun of and dealing with rumors about her. She questioned herself and felt dehumanized. What had she done to deserve this, she wondered.
“I was so low that I really didn’t see my purpose in life,” McCutcheon said during a recent interview with The Detroit News. “I didn’t understand why I had to be there.”
She sunk even lower.
“There were actually times that I remember praying to God that he wouldn’t wake me up so that I wouldn’t have to do anything myself, because I knew it would hurt my family if I made my decision,” McCutcheon said, choking back her emotions. “I just remember praying at night thinking, ‘God, just do it for me.’”
McCutcheon, now a senior at Michigan State, is well-adjusted and happy, a leader on Suzy Merchant’s basketball team. The 5-foot-5 guard is one of two players in program history to score at least 1,000 points and have 500 assists during her career, the other being Spartans assistant Kristin Haynie. McCutcheon is closing in on Haynie’s assist record of 574. She also sits 22nd in career scoring as she moves up the list in her final season.
More importantly, she no longer questions her purpose in life. She knows what it is right now. McCutcheon recently appeared on a Spartans’ All-Access video where she first shared her story of bullying, the toll that took, and how she escaped it. Literally.
“If I’m on one of those banners, cool,” McCutcheon said, pointing toward the rafters in the Spartans’ practice facility. “If not, then I really hope I helped the people I have run into while being here and they remember the message I give them; and I hope I inspire some to be strong. Especially young women. It’s hard in school.
“I’m more than happy (my story) went out, but I think some people think it’s about me, and they’re like, ‘I’m sorry you went through that.’ That’s not the reason for me putting that out there. I’m putting that out there for the little girls watching it and saying, ‘Please stay strong through this.’ It’s not about my story. I’m telling you that you’re not the only one going through it."
‘Lift each other up’
McCutcheon has been overwhelmed by messages of support, but there has been more. Much more. Parents, grandparents, sisters and daughters looking for help and advice for a young loved one going through something similar. She’s trying to answer all of them, but in the midst of the Big Ten season and juggling academics — McCutcheon is majoring in genomics and molecular genetics — that has been difficult.
“It’s an important story to tell, and I’m proud of her for doing it,” Merchant said.
Merchant is a mother to two young sons. But like most coaches, she also becomes a parent of sorts to her players. Five years ago, she felt she needed to do something to help young girls navigate the difficulties of the early teen years, bullying, and confidence issues.
She pointed to April Bocian of Grove City, Pa., who committed suicide in 2015 before she even began her college career at Michigan State.
“How is that possible? You’re the vice president of your class, you’re a 3.8 student, you’re smart, you’re beautiful, you have 26 scholarship offers, and … what?” Merchant said.
Merchant, in Bocian’s honor, started the EmpowHER retreat for fourth- to ninth-grade girls. The one-day retreat this year on April 25 sold out in just a few hours and had to be capped at 500 kids. She has been asked to expand it to include younger girls and more of them. Among the retreat sessions this year are “Confidence is power” and building a community “with kindness.”
“I would tell you right now, today’s society, I’m gravely concerned for our young people, especially young girls,” Merchant said. “I just think that mean girl thing is alive and true and it’s very vicious. Kids already struggle with coping mechanisms as it is. The dynamic gets worse when you start adding the bullying or the meanness. Kids really struggle with that. All of us as parents are looking for ways to uplift our children, but I think it’s a harder time now to raise kids.
“Taryn is the end story, right? As terrible as it was, the reason we’re trying to do what we’re doing is we want to fix it while they’re young so they’re not like that to each other. Stop competing with each other. Lift each other up.”
Bullying is defined in many ways, and there are many types, according to researchers. It is an “unwanted aggressive behavior,” as written in StopBullying.gov, which compiles government data, and most bullying is verbal or social. In 2017, about 20% of students age 12 to 18 reported being bullied at school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, including 13% who said they were made fun of and 13% who said they were the subject of rumors. A higher percentage of girls (24%) than boys (17%) said they were bullied during the school year. Nearly 71% of high school students said they have witnessed bullying.
Social media, not surprisingly, has been a vehicle for bullying. Data has shown that 37% of kids between 12 and 17 have been bullied online, according to DoSomething.org, a not-for-profit working to help youths around the world.
McCutcheon said she was bullied for years and never felt like she belonged in Parkersburg. She spoke to her parents, Deana and Jason, about what she was experiencing, and they have always been supportive. She sought therapy and took anxiety medication. Initially, she responded to the bullying by being mean. But the more help she got, the more she listened and learned, she became better equipped to handle why some people bully.
“It would help if everybody was nice, right?” McCutcheon said. “It just doesn’t work that way. You don’t have to understand what’s going on in somebody else’s life or why they act the way they do. Your job is to be kind. That’s the biggest thing I took out of the experience. I’m grateful for it. It made me stronger, for sure.”
So strong that in late December 2015 she told her parents she needed to get out of her hometown. Immediately.
“There had been so many rumors and dramatic things about me, and this one specific time, someone had posted something about me on social media and I called my dad and I said, ‘Dad, I can’t do it anymore. I think it’s time to leave,’” she said. “We went back and packed my clothes in trash bags and threw them in the back of the truck and I was here (in East Lansing) that night. I didn’t look back. I didn’t consider anything else. I felt this load off me.”
She texted a reporter from the Charleston Gazette-Mail when the news broke Jan. 4, 2016. She wanted to make her departure from her school and team a “positive and say it was for personal reasons,” she was quoted as saying. “I don’t want to make it a big deal.”
Parkersburg South won its first game without McCutcheon, and the headline in the sports section of the Parkersburg News and Sentinel the next day read: “Taryn who?" in bold letters. That was jarring for her even though she was now starting her new life nearly 400 miles away in East Lansing.
Derek Taylor was a sports writer at the Charleston Daily Mail and covered high school sports in West Virginia but is now far removed from that world as a PhD candidate at SUNY at Buffalo specializing in early modern Britain. Taylor covered McCutcheon throughout her high school career in Parkersburg and was aware of the rumors spread about her. He did not want to repeat the stories he heard.
“Because I found them vile,” Taylor said during a telephone interview with The News.
Taylor said McCutcheon never once complained to him about what she was going through. In fact, every time he interviewed her after a game, she spoke first and mostly about her teammates and their contributions.
“The fact she was painted as this selfish, self-centered, ball-hungry, star-hungry (player) is absurd,” Taylor said. “It’s not the way it was.”
He described a toxic scene covering Parkersburg South in a state championship game. The mother of a player on McCutcheon’s team was sitting in the first row just behind the reporters and began yelling at McCutcheon during warmups. Taylor turned around and made a comment to her, then he said she began yelling at the reporters, calling them “idiots” for making McCutcheon the player of the year. A female reporter turned, looking aghast, and the mother threatened her with physical harm. That’s when Taylor summoned security.
“That was the environment in which Taryn was playing,” Taylor said. “That was the worst I ever saw it get. And I’m sure she dealt with far worse personally.”
Taylor covered sports in West Virginia for two decades and does not want to paint the state with a broad brush. In this isolated case of McCutcheon, he saw a town that resented her for wanting something different.
“I know very well how that town views high school sports,” he said. “A lot of the antagonism toward Taryn came from the fact her goals and her day-to-day operation did not fit with the traditional narrative of Parkersburg. God forbid somebody has a goal that takes them out of West Virginia.”
‘Best thing ever’
McCutcheon has always relied on her deep faith. It is what gave her the strength to endure the bullying and to finally leave Parkersburg.
“I’m a Christian,” she said. “I believe in God, and I honestly felt like there was something tying me there. I was like, ‘I want to move. I want to move,’ but God was like, ‘It’s not your time yet. Stay here, keep fighting.’ And I did.”
She tried to counter the bullying she experienced with kindness to others. McCutcheon would see someone sitting alone at school and sit down and talk.
“I would go befriend them and try to change their lives if I could,” she said. “Honestly, they changed mine. I started having friends that were genuine. I enjoyed it. I felt like I touched a lot of peoples’ lives and they touched mine. And that one day, I really felt like God was saying, ‘Your time is up, you can leave now.’ I can’t explain it.
“I was nervous people were thinking I was giving up. Or that things weren’t going my way, so I just left. I dealt with it for three and a half years. I pushed through, and I made that decision myself and my family helped me make that decision and I was out of there. When I left, I literally smiled the five and a half hours we were on the road. I was so happy listening to music. My dad was dancing, and my mom was dancing with me. It was the best thing ever.”
McCutcheon graduated that year from East Lansing High, and since her freshman year at Michigan State, she has listed East Lansing as her hometown on the Spartans’ roster. She has made one trip to Parkersburg for her friend’s prom and that’s been it. This is where her heart is now.
“She found a great home here in East Lansing, and here at Michigan State, she’s adored for a reason,” Merchant said. “She lives her life the same way as you watch her play — she’s all in. I can’t imagine growing up in a time like this, and to watch her come through it, she’s a real inspiration to so many kids.
“You can tell there’s a real need, and Taryn telling her story proves that. She had to leave a community she was raised in to get out of it and feel like herself again. Watching her through the years, her heart and the way she carries herself, it’s everything you’d ever want in a player, but her reach as a person is way more significant than any point she’ll score or record she’ll break here. That’s truly what’s important to her.
“When she came here, her freshman year she said to me, ‘Coach, I want to change the world. I can’t wait to start my journey here.’ And that’s who she is. Sharing her story is maybe the perfect way to make that come true.”