On Bullying and Being Failed

Have y’all seen the recent discussions on bullying?

People have made some astonishing contributions to the discussion: Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project*; Marianne of The Rotund’s amazing post It Gets Different; Seanan McGuire’s heartbreaking examination of her own experiences; Kate Harding’s post pointing out that kids and young adults who bully are not “good kids” and do not deserve the protection and excusing they often receive from adult defenders [fair warning: cursing].

Then there are the Broadway stars gathered for this song:

A lot of the discussion is pretty focused on American high schools, since that is the environment in which a number of highly publicised recent suicides have taken place, particularly of bullied gay and lesbian teens. (And also the environment in which a lot of the commentators have experience.)

But bullying happens everywhere, including New Zealand, and I have been mulling over what to say about my own experiences with people bullying me. That people bullied me is no secret. Here is an extract from my biography, which is publicly available on my website:

At that stage I wanted to be an astronaut, or possibly a dinosaur-hunting cowgirl, and not a writer. (I was a bit vague on the concept of extinction.) But around then then we moved to Otematata, a small town in the South Island, where I was bullied a lot, and made up many fascinating adventures that all revolved around me being awesome.

Of course, I am actually awesome, but I had some trouble believing it at the time, and many of my peers certainly did not believe so.

Imagine an adult man working in an office environment. Some of his peers, who are the same age, regularly mock his interests and hobbies. He is a very good worker, and is praised by the supervisor; this brings more ire from his colleagues. Occasionally they physically assault him – slaps or shoves, mostly. They assure him that if he doesn’t report this to the supervisor, they will be his friend. He feels isolated and wants friends, so he doesn’t report it, but this promise is always broken.

When he does report the abuse, it stops for a few days, and then begins again. Although the abusers are occasionally punished, they are never removed from the workplace. And while the man is never directly told that he is partly to blame for the harassment, he receives mixed messages. He is sometimes told by supervisors that he should ignore the abuse. At other times he is told that if he made more of an effort to be friendly towards his abusers, they would stop. Once he is told that if he stopped being so obviously proud of his prowess in the workplace, his work life would become much, much easier.

Most people can understand that a workplace that condones or fails to prevent this kind of harassment is clearly unsafe. The man’s colleagues are not ordinary people doing what ordinary people do; they are viciously pursuing a course of emotional and physical assault on someone they don’t like. A supervisor informed of this abuse would be negligent in not coming down like the hammer of Thor on the abusers and making it very clear that this behaviour was unacceptable, in this workplace, or anywhere at all.

For some reason, if the victim and the harassers are nine years old, all bets are off.

Bullying is awful. It ought to be totally unacceptable. But far too often, it is accepted. We allow vulnerable children to be placed in danger, emotional and physical, that adults, with all the resources and experience of adults, would find oppressive and intensely painful. Then we excuse it as “just kids” doing what “just kids” do.

Child bullies aren’t just kids. They are kids, who are bullies. They need to be stopped, not tolerated.

People bullied me, off and on, from when I was six until I was about sixteen, through two towns and four different schools. That is ten years of intermittent verbal, and rare physical, abuse. You bet it left a mark on my psyche. I often felt isolated and desperately lonely; I often cried from how terrible I felt. I never seriously contemplated suicide, but I did have suicidal fantasies, of the vengeful, “and THEN they’ll realise they shouldn’t be mean to me” type. At one point in my early teens, I plucked out all my lower eyelashes – it was very painful, which was kind of the point – and waited for someone to notice. They didn’t, so I told them, in what I now recognise as a typical cry for help. Of course, I just got teased more for doing something so weird.

Many years later, when we were all more mature and I was friendlier with a number of these people, they expressed regret that I hadn’t told them about how I’d felt earlier.

I had told them, of course. I’d asked, “Why are you mean to me?” And they said, “Because you make it so easy.”

Awesome acceptance of your own faults there, guys!

But I believed them, because after all, people had told me over and over that it was partly my fault; for being weird, for being proud of my own abilities (was I supposed to not notice them?), for caring about things they didn’t and vice versa. For being a victim.

The truth, of course, is that I was never even partly to blame. They did it to me, and they should not have, and they should have been stopped.

So if I do not hesitate to say that people bullied me, nor to describe the effects it had on me, why have I been hesitating over this post?

1) Like my experiences with sexual harassment – also not secret – I often have a completely erroneous feeling that the crimes perpetuated on me were not that bad. No one ever raped me; only groped me. No one ever broke my bones; only kicked me. No one ever spread disgusting lies about me behind my back (that I know of); only said cruel things to my face in an attempt to make me cry.

This is bullshit, of course. A crime does not become any less a crime because a crime visited upon someone else was more violent or repulsive. But the “other people have/had it so much worse” notion keeps going through my head at times like this, making me feel like my own experiences are somehow inauthentic or unhelpful.

2) When bullies target people at school, the victims are often told to report to teachers. Unfortunately, teachers, constrained by regulations or poorly thought out policy, lack of opportunity, lack of witnesses, or a lack of understanding, compassion or will, often fail those kids.

When I was eight, and living in a very small town, I was beaten up walking home from the shop with a bottle of milk. I wasn’t badly hurt – pushed around and kicked a few times while I curled up and cried. I told the kids that the school principal would get them to make them leave me alone. The principal, when informed of this bullying, said he couldn’t do anything about it because it hadn’t been during school time or on school grounds.

I once told a teacher that I’d had a dream that he’d hidden under the desk and seen exactly how badly I was being teased, and then he’d come out and punished the perpetrators so they wouldn’t do it again. He told me that he was sorry I was having a tough time, but if I just ignored the teasing, it’d get better.

In high school, when we were all pretty friendly in Year 13 (small class) some of the students who had teased me less when we were younger told me that when we’d all been at intermediate school together, a teacher had approached and asked them to be friends with me. I was humiliated at the thought that their past approaches had not been sincere, as I had assumed, but based on deception. The teacher had never told me he was taking this action.

In all three of these examples the teacher/principal is my dad.

I couldn’t see a way to make this post without saying that, and so I have hesitated. I love my parents very much. I think they did a fantastic job raising me in most respects – here I am, being awesome and as ethical as I know how, and a lot of the credit goes to the people who gave me my first ethical frameworks. Be kind. Be generous. Listen. I dedicated my first book to my best friend, for supporting the story from infancy, and to my parents, for doing the same for me. Because they are wonderfully supportive, and they love me, and are proud of me, and want me to be happy.

My dad is a wonderful man, and I think that if he knew that I thought he’d failed me as a student in need of protection, he’d be very hurt. I don’t want to hurt him, and it’s completely unnecessary to do so: He’s retired now, so it wouldn’t be a teaching moment for him or help other kids in pain. I don’t doubt that my dad looked out for me in a lot of little ways, and I blame the wider culture of bullying acceptance much more than I do him. He did try to help me, even with that awful plan of asking other kids to befriend me.

But even with him being the lovely man he is, and loving him as I do, I can still say that he messed it up sometimes. Even the people who love us can fail us.

The memories of being bullied are not so painful now; they just make me a little bit sad. But at the time, these were wounds I thought would never heal.

If I had been hurt more, if I had been depressed, if I had not had the outlets I did in books and drama, I might have decided to stop being a victim in the most permanent way possible.

I’m glad I didn’t. Here I am, being awesome! There is a lot of awesome to be, and I want lots and lots of time in which to be it.

And I want that for everyone, which is why I think bullying is hideous and inexcusable, why I am certain that bullying should not be tolerated under any circumstances, and why I want to give hope to those whom people are bullying.

If that’s you, please know this: You are not to blame. You are not the failure. You are being failed.

I am on your side, and I am so, so sorry.

Please, do whatever you can to keep yourself as safe as you can. The future awaits, and you can be awesome.

And if you are someone who is not being bullied, but wants to help, here are some things you can do:

– Stop using hurtful language, like “gay”, “retard”, “lame” etc. (It’ll take a while if you’re used to saying these words, but it’s never too early to start stopping.) When you can, object to those words being used in your presence. This kind of language, even when not directed at people, normalises the idea that being gay or having a disability is bad.

– Don’t tell fat jokes or Maori jokes, or any jokes where the humour is based in someone in an oppressed group to which you don’t belong being perceived as inferior (that is a LOT of jokes, because we have a sick culture, but you’ll cope). And try not to respond with laughter if someone who isn’t part of the group the jokes target – someone who isn’t entitled to meet pain with humour – tells them to you.

– Make your opinion on bullying clear, and when you can, refuse to tolerate or excuse it. You don’t have to like everyone you know. You don’t even have to be nice to them. But part of being the absolute baseline of a decent human being is not causing harm to them.

– Encourage anti-bullying programs in schools and communities. Donate your time and/or money to them. (The Alannah and Madeline Foundation Better Buddies program is a good choice for Australians.)

So there are some concrete actions you can undertake to help stop bullying. And hurrah for you! I am on your side also.

* I would LOVE Savage to recognise and own that his fatphobia and other issues are also propagating hate and contributing to the bullying of kids, including fat queer kids, and then, you know, stop doing it, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. As matters stand, however, I cannot deny the value of any attempt to give hope to bullied and potentially suicidal LGBTQ kids, however problematic the source.