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.


  1. This is a wonderful story to hear, and I'm really looking forward to your new book. I think in some other subjects, I have been the same way -- afraid to talk about things in public even though I have done nothing wrong.

    1. And then ultimately we get to the point described in Anais Nin's poem "Risk." :-)