Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Bullying: The problem that never seems to go away, part 3

Next week I have a book coming out that deals with the aftermath of, and healing from, bullying. This week I'm running a three-parter on the topic of bullying. This is Part 3 of 3. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

In my experience, bullying peaked in the sixth to eighth grades, declining in high school (but never disappearing—there are bullies even in the adult world).

After high school, I did not dwell on the topic of bullying anymore, although it affected every relationship I had. My default assumption of not being liked was firmly entrenched. It colored the way I saw the world, the way I treated others, the way I expected to be treated. In her book Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, Rachel Simmons spoke to women whose mistreatment by their peers in girlhood stayed with them for decades, influencing relationships of all kinds. This rang very true to me.

It’s why, when I finally decided to write a book in which bullying was a major topic, I chose to come at it from that perspective. There has been a backlash against bullying in recent years; it is no longer seen as a necessary and natural part of childhood, something that just has to be accepted and endured. More and more people have been speaking up. There are books that discuss bullying from an inside, immediate perspective: how it affects people at the time, how it begins and how it ends.

But I wanted to address the aftermath, the lingering psychological damage. I wish it hadn’t taken me years to confront this part of myself, and I hope that maybe some people who read my book will receive relief sooner: to have the comfort of knowing they’re not alone, to challenge negative default assumptions, and to know they do not have to be victims forever.

I chose to write fiction, and I did not borrow literally from my life. The names, the characters, and the actions described in the book do not represent the facts of my own (or anyone else’s) real life. But the emotions and thought patterns are as authentic as I could make them, having lived them. The book is not only about bullying. It’s also about friendship, and romance, and hiking—all subjects dear to me. But underneath everything runs the challenge of a girl struggling to break free from victimhood, to be complete and happy, at home with herself and others.

Until It Hurts to Stop comes out September 12.
I also recommend Rachel Simmons's book if you're looking for nonfiction on the topic that focuses on bullying among girls.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Bullying: The problem that never seems to go away, part 2

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 proven otherwise.”

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 that ingrained.

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 interpretation.

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 whatever.

That’s so important that I want to say it again:

People are responsible for their own actions.

So 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.

I 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.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Bullying: the problem that never seems to go away

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. Here is Part 1.

A few years ago, when the anthology Dear Bully put out a call for submissions, I didn’t participate. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a story to tell: I did. I just I wasn’t ready to tell it then.

At least by then, I had accepted the idea that this was something that could be talked about, written about—even if not by me, not at that time. At least I sensed that it was something I would write about sooner or later. That in itself was progress, because very early on, the whole subject was wrapped in so much shame that I only hoped nobody would ever know.

For a while, I thought I was the only person it had happened to. Of course I’d seen kids mistreating other kids. I knew about individual bullies who might go after one person one day, a different person the next. But the systematic abuse of one kid by an entire classroom—and later, by other large groups—was, I thought, unique to me. And there had to be something wrong with me—especially since this happened in two different states and at the hands of three different groups of kids.

The worst of it ended with eighth grade, but my life became a quest to make sure not only that it never happened again, but that anyone who met me later would never know it had happened in the first place. Of course, since I didn’t know what had caused it, my quest to prevent it was crazy-making. I became very good at listening to people, at watching them for danger signs. One part of my writing that has always been praised is my ear for dialogue. I’m convinced that my ear for dialogue developed as a direct result of my obsessive attention to everything anyone ever said within my hearing. My mental repetition of their words and tone. My dissection of their statements for any sign of sarcasm, ridicule, or threat.

The first crack in my wall of secrecy came in the summer between tenth and eleventh grades. I had gotten into the writing program of a summer camp for the arts. Although the classes were rewarding, nothing I wrote there and nothing I learned about writing was as valuable as the social experience. For the first time, I found a welcoming community of kids my own age. For the first time, I felt I belonged in a group. (Although I had friends at my high school, some of my former tormentors also went to school there, and I never completely relaxed.)

One day during that summer, when the writing students were reading our work out loud to one another, I was shocked to hear a girl read her account of being bullied by her classmates. I no longer remember the details of her story; what struck me was that she was willing to talk about this in front of everybody. In doing so, she did not accept her bullies’ version of her; she was claiming the story. She did not have to keep her mouth shut about it because she had done nothing wrong.

I spoke to her after class, thanked her, told her a little of my own experience. To this day, I am grateful to her because she was the first person to show me another way of looking at the situation, and a way to express it. Not that I was ready to take that path then, even though she’d shown me the trailhead. It would take an unbelievable number of years before I could fully accept, and act upon, that knowledge.