Friday, March 22, 2013

Haunted at 17

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.

As 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.

I 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.

At 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.

*Although I always assumed that was an option in their minds. I never saw any indication that there was anything they considered "going too far."


  1. I've written and erased many words in this little comment box already. I have lots to say on this subject, but not here. Thanks for sharing and "baring" Jenn. I look forward to hearing your future thoughts on the subject.

  2. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself, Jenn. it's not easy revisiting a part of one's life the may have impacted your outlook on life.

    1. It has taken a while for me to want to discuss this, but the time has come.

  3. Wow, this makes me sad to hear you had to go through all that. Now that I have a daughter growing up, I fear she might go through bullying and exclusion and it scares me to death. I think it's really great you can talk about it here now.

    1. It's something we're much more aware of now, and less tolerant of, luckily!

  4. It takes a lot of courage to share what you shared here. I totally agree that the effects of being bullied or being treated unfairly can extend for years and years after the fact.

    The teacher who joined in on harassing you was a jerk. I also find it sad that an adult woman can let a group of young girls manipulate her behavior. But this sort of thing happens, unfortunately.

    I, like another commenter, have lots more to say on your post, but I'll just keep it short and say thank you for sharing this.

  5. Jennifer,

    First off, thank you for your kind words and for helping me celebrate the book release (I am so wildly thrilled that you liked the book!). And now this. This story. It's incredible, and sad, and brave, and beautiful—thank you for sharing it, and I love that you hinted there may be more coming soon... I can't wait to see what you're writing next to shine light on this.

    (As I promised everyone, if you'd like some 17 & GONW swag in thanks for being a part of the Haunted at 17 series, please email me your mailing address! nova[at]novaren[dot]com.)

    So honored by this post. Thank you.


    1. Thanks for inviting people to share their stories. In addition to being a great read, your book has opened a conversation.