Friday, May 11, 2012

On Bullying

Bullying is on my mind (and has been on my mind a lot) lately. My most recent novel, Grace, is, at its heart, a novel about bullying. Trevor, one of the main characters, is relentlessly and brutally bullied by two kids at his school. The novel is dedicated to eighteen boys who ultimately killed themselves after being bullied for either being gay (or perceived as gay) by their tormentors. As a mother, it's an issue I care about immensely. As a human being, it is behavior that mystifies and shames me.

And now, Mitt Romney. I cannot begin to express how much the latest revelations (accusations) and his subsequent dismissals and denials  infuriate me. I am usually a relatively private person when it comes to my politics, but something about all of this is bringing out the angry mama bear inside of me.

At a recent book club I was asked, point blank, if I was writing from experience when I wrote about Trevor. "Were you ever bullied?" the woman asked, with genuine interest and concern. I shrugged the question off and suggested that writers always draw from their experiences to a certain extent and said something to the effect that I had been teased (as all kids are teased) as a teenager. And then I went home and wondered why I felt this need to downplay and deny.

Bullies deny. Clearly, Mitt Romney is engaged in some fairly serious selectivity when it comes to his prep school day recollections. But what about the victims? The ones who survive anyway?

When I was in the eighth grade I went through a rapid transformation from one of the shortest kids in my class, to one of the tallest (without gaining a single pound). I also got braces and had to stop wearing my contact lenses because of an allergic reaction they were giving me. I also got the smart idea that it was time to cut my hair (which had always been long and curly...and my real pride when it came to how I looked). I was also a good student. The cumulative effect of all of this was that I went from being a cute kid to an awkward, homely, gangly, "brown-nosing" teenager. For a while, however, my confidence remained intact. I asked the most popular boy in school to the eighth grade graduation dance, and remarkably he agreed. But then, at the dance, he got up to go to the bathroom and never came back. The next day he asked my best girlfriend to "go" with him. And I was crushed.

My freshman year was abysmal. I was teased for having "poodle hair." I was pushed in the lunch line. During track practice someone stole my sweatpants and threw them up into a tree. Boys were unkind and girls were worse. It was only because parents who loved me and a strong core group of girlfriends who never abandoned me that I made it through that year. But there were times when I didn't think I would. The yearbook photo that year was the one you see below. (And, as though to add insult to injury, there was a flaw on the yearbook page which made it look like a worm had crawled across my face.)

8th Grade
9th Grade
Over time, I ditched the braces and glasses and grew my hair back out. My confidence returned. I even began to balk at my former self-- as though that girl (the one who felt such tremendous self-loathing) were someone else. I separated myself from the experience. What I didn't realize, however, during this awful time was how this year set me up for future relationships.

Because in college, I found myself a nice bully and dated him for nearly five years. While my exterior had a new paint job, I was a crumbling house inside. And he knew that. He knew how to find every weak support beam. Every broken step, every loose floorboard. It took a very long time before I was able to leave, and I know that even twenty years later, there are still cracks in the plaster.

I have never written about this. And I think it's because while bullies are able to forget their transgressions, victims of bullies simply wish they could. It was agonizing for me to scan and post this photo. A tiny part of me is still haunted by that year. It's easier to dismiss and deny for both perpetrators and victims. There is a tremendous amount of shame that comes along with being victimized by cruelty. And that shame seems never to go away.

Of course, I am a grown-up now. I have a healthy and happy marriage. I'm independent and confident. As they say, things do (always, always) get better. But I am also a mother of two young girls. And I am terrified for them. I know that while so much has changed, so much remains the same. Children are cruel creatures. And parents are often scared and ineffectual protectors. The effects of bullying can be immediate and tragic (resulting in suicide) or long-term and insidious. Shattered children sometimes become shattered adults. So what are we telling our children if we elect a man who dismisses bullying as "harmless"? And what are we telling ourselves?


Matthew Blake Williams said...

Thank you for your courage in revealing part of your own story. I pray it has the impact you hope for - it certainly impacts me.

T. Greenwood said...

Thank you so much.

Janet Dunphy-Brown said...

You have brought me to tears my dear. I always have and always will love you. You have never been anything but strong and beautiful and your strength inspires me. <3

T. Greenwood said...

Thank you, Janet. And all of that right back to you too. You've always loved me, worms and all.

Amy Sicard-Kutchukian said...

I'm sorry, I never realized you were bullied in school. I looked at you as the smart pretty popular girl that I longed to be. Thank you for sharing.

T. Greenwood said...

You're sweet, Amy :)

Amy Bora said...


Nobody could've said it better. I never knew you were bullied in high school.

So glad you had Janet and the others.