Nova Ren Suma's latest book, 17 & GONE, launched this week. I was lucky enough to get my hands on an early copy. It's the story of a 17-year-old girl who is haunted by girls who disappeared at the age of 17, and it's vivid and compelling. I wish I could go into detail about why I admired the story's resolution, but that would get into spoilers. Just trust me--if you like dark and mysterious, check it out.
part of her launch week, she has invited bloggers to share their own
stories of what haunted them at the age of 17. She'll post all the links
on her blog on Monday, but
there's already quite a collection of posts over there, from such
writers as Libba Bray, Carrie Ryan, Nina LaCour, Gayle Forman, etc.
decided that I would go ahead and share mine, since this is a topic
I'll be talking about more in the coming months. And I suppose the
appropriateness of the word "haunt" is evident in the very amount of
time it has taken me to discuss this publicly.
I was bullied from
the ages of 11 to 13, although I prefer to call it peer abuse. It was
not about someone bigger and stronger threatening to beat me up for
lunch money. Mostly, it was about exclusion and insult. People banding
together for the sole purpose of punishing me: not physically*, but
systematically, deliberately, repeatedly. A favorite trick of theirs
will summarize the whole experience. On the way to middle school, there
was a path I had to walk down that had a steep incline on either side.
One group of girls would get to this path before I did and would walk in
front of me, filling the whole path so that I couldn't get around them.
They would then inch down the path, talking loudly about me, hacking
apart my appearance, my clothes, mocking everything I said and did in
microscopic detail. Had this only happened once or twice, I might not
remember it today. But the rest of the day, and the next morning, and
the days that followed, continued in kind.
One teacher tried to
stop it. Another teacher who witnessed some of it actually joined in
with a few snide remarks of her own, which nowadays makes me think that
even as an adult she was still trying to fit in with the cool kids, but
back then only increased my sense of isolation. As you might imagine,
all this made me extremely self-conscious. It made me
mistrustful--especially of other girls, because they were the
ringleaders (although boys would join in from time to time; there were
two boys in my junior high who were especially cruel). It taught me that
my natural role in any group was to be the victim, the outsider, the
butt of jokes, the recipient of any crap that the others cared to dish
out. And after the first group did this to me, it happened twice more,
with other groups. I grew to expect it.
Middle school and junior
high were the prime years for this abuse. By the time I was in high
school, it had pretty much stopped. But the damage lingered; my patterns
were set. Self-consciousness, distrust, and the expectation of being
unwanted and disliked were part of my mindset. They determined how I
related to others. Several unsavory patterns grew out of this: an
over-reliance on boyfriends in my college years, a reluctance to get
close to female friends for fear they would turn on me, an assumption
that new people did not want to meet me. At 17, these things haunted me
but I didn't know it. I acted in accordance with this script without
being aware it was a script.
It was only in my
mid-twenties that I began to realize these mental patterns were
assumptions, not facts. To see that I was still reacting to people as if
they were middle-school bullies. At 25, I began to work on these
issues, to undo the damage.
I am a very different person today.
Today, I do not put up with that sort of crap. Today, I have friendships
with women as well as men. Today, I know there is kindness and
generosity in people, as well as cruelty and pettiness.
But at 17, I didn't know it. At 17, I thought it was all behind me. I didn't see how much I still carried with me.
the time all this happened, bullying was viewed very differently from
the way it is today. It was seen as a rite of passage, an inevitable
part of childhood, no big deal. Even now that people are questioning
this view, now that our literature and our media are exploring the
immediate effects of bullying, I don't know that very much attention is
being paid to the aftereffects, the ripples that spread outward years
later. And it is the post-bullying years I especially want to shine a
light on, and I will be saying more about that in the coming months.
I always assumed that was an option in their minds. I never saw any
indication that there was anything they considered "going too far."