Next week I have a book coming out that deals with the aftermath of, and healing from, bullying. This week I'll be running a three-parter on the topic of bullying. This is Part 2 of 3. You can read Part 1 here.
It took a long time for me to see the toll that peer abuse and bullying took on me. On her blog, Between Fact and Fiction (Feb. 8, 2012), Natalie Whipple
wrote that after being bullied, her default assumption is that people
won’t like her, “[o]r worse, they’ll be openly mean ...” It amazed her
when a friend of hers said, “I generally assume people like me until
I shared Natalie’s default assumption. But I only become aware gradually, over a period of years, that not being liked was my
default assumption, and that it did not necessarily reflect reality.
Before I began to question that assumption, I would think that any
whispers or giggles in my vicinity were about me, and that in any new
social situation, people would not want to get to know me. I finally
learned to question that assumption and act against it, but my natural
first impulse was, and sometimes still is, to expect rejection. It’s
This assumption formed partly because my abuse in
two states by three groups of kids seemed to prove my unworthiness, to
prove that I deserved mistreatment. But now I have a different
Now I think that after I had been through the
mill once, in middle school, my default role of victim and outcast was
in place. Bullies sensed that and acted upon it; I did not fight it
because I had learned to expect it; and the cycle became
self-perpetuating. In saying that, I’m not saying that I brought it on
myself. The fact that a person is an easy target does not make targeting
that person acceptable. This is one reason it drives me bananas when
people describe bullying in these terms: “She was bullied because she
was short/tall/fat/skinny/wore glasses/had scars/had a funny name/had a
different religion ...” People are not bullied because of who they are,
but because their bullies will not leave them alone. Bullies act out of
their own intolerance, insecurity, fear, ignorance, cruelty, or
That’s so important that I want to say it again:
People are responsible for their own actions.
I now think of my second and third situations as a continuation of a
pattern, the playing out of roles that had been set earlier. The first
situation, the one that began the cycle, was a sort of serial-bullying
scenario. The class ganged up against one person, then another. I was
the first victim, and I believe I was the target for the longest, and I
had more than one turn. But eventually there followed a series of
victims—even, very briefly, the original ringleader herself. Her turn
under fire gave me no satisfaction. Mostly I just felt that I could
never relax, that there was no such thing as “safe.” It was a poisonous
environment for all of us.
Where were the adults in all this? you
may ask. This was the era when bullying was seen as a natural part of
childhood, even a rite of passage. “Just ignore them” was the standard
advice I got. That did no good, although I did learn to keep a stony
face no matter what people said to me, and I learned not to cry in
public. A couple of teachers joined the bullying, making snide or
cutting remarks. Some adults tried to intervene, although they didn’t
see most of what went on, and they were fighting an unofficial code of
silence. My father drove me to school one year when bullying on the bus
became unbearable. He should not have had to do that. But it gave me
some relief; it was a concrete step that interrupted the abuse.
know now that there must have been kids who participated only
reluctantly, those who were understandably afraid to buck peer pressure.
There were many who were silent witnesses rather than active
participants. There was even a girl in junior high who stood up and
fought back. I now think that a lot of kids who witnessed bullying, or
participated in it, were actually troubled and scared by it. Scared not
the least because they knew it could happen to them, too.