Sometimes you just have to write…
A few weeks ago, I posted a reaction to a video of Shane Koyczan’s spoken word piece about bullying, called “To This Day.” My friend, Kate McIntyre, who has been a guest blogger here before, responded to my post in such a moving and relevant way that I asked her to write down her thoughts for a guest post:
Like Rachel, I watched the video of Shane Koyczan’s spoken word piece and was moved by it. I can get into his weepy groove; I feel myself to be one of the “graduates of the school of ‘we made it’”. Unlike Rachel, I didn’t come away wondering if I had a legitimate claim to the emotions the video stirred up. I knew I did. I was bullied. Yet, the piece also seemed emotionally overwrought, even manipulative, tugging hard on my damaged neural network to re-access the raw emotions of being the victim.
Now, I’ve tried to write this post several times, and each time I’ve gotten bogged down in the painful details of my own experience, as if I need to establish my own bona fides as a victim. I know that I was and that there are school records to prove it. I was a shrimpy kid with bad social skills and PTSD following a chaotic and sad early childhood. If other kids approached me with aggression, I would cry. I think we all know what happens to that kid. School and camp were hell, for long stretches, from age ten through high school.
It started at the end of fourth grade with a specific tormentor who cozied up and played nice one day, then engaged in silent punishment the next because “you know what you did”. This was a girl who got my entire fifth grade class to move their desks away from mine, even if only by a centimeter. On the one day I finally found a way to get the better of her, she took to stealing things from me.
Later, in middle school and at camp, came the claustrophobic circles of girls leaning in to ask me questions about my appearance and sexuality, knowing I was too ashamed and traumatized to answer. Later still, was the boy who touched me suddenly and inappropriately while other kids looked on in silence or laughter. The “you’re not as cool as we are; you can’t sit with us” phase of high school that Rachel described in her post was almost a relief to me in its lack of specificity. Yet, the effect of the bullying was long lasting: my innate reactions to stress, even now, are not those of a healthy person. I have damage that can be managed, but never repaired.
Rachel asked where we should draw the line between teasing and bullying. I see teasing as discrete acts of cruelty. Bullying is teasing that is persistent, escalating, and relentless. A bullying victim feels that there is no time or place to escape. I felt this way before the existence of social media, and I can only imagine how much worse it is now.
But discussing my experience at length makes this all about my pain, and I think that Rachel’s reaction, and the nearly 12 million views of the video, suggest a great many of us suffered similarly, and if so many of us suffered, where are the perpetrators? They must also be us, and that brings up an awful possibility. Perhaps the instigating cruelty is far less important than the emotional impact. Victimhood is subjective. I’m not saying kids weren’t truly cruel. I’m saying my response to their actions made the experience as horrible as it was and that there is the possibility that I had a similar effect on others.
So how do we address that subjectivity?
Let me propose a thought experiment.
Imagine there was a button that you could press and everyone who was cruel to you at school would remember and feel the consequences of their actions. Now that button comes with a reciprocal cost: by pressing the button you would remember and feel the impact of your own actions on others. Any cruelty you committed, no matter how petty and casual, even if you don’t remember it, even if it wasn’t meant as it was taken, would be weighed and felt by you in proportion to the impact it had on the victim.
Would you, under those conditions, press that button?
In my case the answer is no, and I have the evidence to prove it.
Right after I joined Facebook, my fifth grade bully asked to friend me. I was dumbstruck. Did she not remember any of it? Shaken, I actually described the situation to my small circle of Facebook friends and asked what I should do. One friend had had a similar experience, but chose to accept the friend request based on the sum total of the relationship. To him, the friendship that came before outweighed the bullying that came after. Another friend simply said “IGNORE”. I considered these answers, then clicked “ignore”, although I couldn’t sufficiently express the reason why I did so at the time.
In retrospect, I was a coward. It wasn’t that I was afraid of being bullied anymore. I’m not the traumatized child I once was, nor am I captive in the classroom, camp or school bus. No. My fears were twofold.
First, I was afraid of finding out that I had been just as hurtful. While I don’t think I reached her level of cruelty, I did bad things too. Not necessarily to her, but to other kids. I couldn’t press that button because I knew enough as an adult to believe that nothing happens in a vacuum. I may have been a primary victim, but the crime paid itself forward somehow. I may not have been a bully, but that does not mean I wasn’t cold, thoughtless, and mean at times.
The second much more insidious reason for my cowardice was that I was afraid of the damage to my hard-won sense of peace and achievement that would come from finding out that my former bully was happy and successful. I wanted my oppressor to have suffered for her want of kindness. I wanted cosmic justice. I wanted schadenfreude in spades. I knew, intellectually, that I couldn’t have that and, as a person striving to live ethically, shouldn’t want it. But I did. I wanted the benefit of pressing the button without the costs.
In the years since that event, by lurking around on Facebook, I have found some of my former bullies. They did go on to lead healthy, productive, successful lives, some seemingly more so than I. Learning that did take a bite of my self-confidence for a while, just not as large a bite as I feared. So maybe that’s a grown-up truth I had to face in order to close the book on a very difficult experience: that as much as my suffering cost me, it wasn’t that important to them. They went on living as humans do.
What can we do about that inequity? Accept its reality, then let it go.
Maybe now is the time, thirty years on, when I need to call time on my victimhood. It’s a hard thing to do; victimhood feels powerful, and the Youtube video that inspired this post feeds on that deeply seductive surge of righteous anger. I can still feel that surge, yet I can now see how regressive that emotion actually is. Accepting that my suffering didn’t mean much to anyone except me says dark things about human beings in general, but, after a certain point, this process of letting go is the only way of moving forward.
Kate McIntyre, Ph.D., is a writer and scientific editor living in the northern Netherlands. Her first book for children, De Knikkelares (in Dutch) is available for purchase at Bol.com, Amazon.co.uk, and in bookstores throughout the Netherlands.