Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Tale of Two Bullies

Tonight's cocktail is a whiskey sour. My parents like whiskey sours, but they don't understand that mass-produced sour mix is an abomination before the LORD (it's right there in Leviticus). It's not that hard to squeeze a lemon and add sugar. Just shake the juice of 1/2 - 1 lemon (depending on how sour you like it), about 1/2 - 3/4 oz simple syrup (depending on how sweet you like it), and 1.5 oz whiskey (I used Knob Creek bourbon, because Knob) with ice, pour over ice in a rocks glass, and add a very small splash of soda water if you like. Isn't that better?

When I was in 9th grade, I was bullied. While girls can be cruel, my bullies were boys. Rich, white boys whose parents belonged to country clubs. Boys who are now men with business degrees and jobs and (at least in the case of one) a wife and sons. I've never written about this before because I feel silly admitting how much the experience affected me into adulthood. Also, it's not funny, and inappropriate humor is pretty much my #1 defense mechanism. Still, I need to get this story off my chest, so please bear with me. I promise I'll be funny next time.

I grew up extremely sheltered, and I was a book nerd, so I had no realistic expectations about how to deal with boys when I was 14. My dad, out of what I realize now was an extremely misguided sense of protectiveness, told me the only reason a boy would ever be interested in me was for sex, no matter what they said to the contrary. All I knew was that my father didn't seem that interested in what I thought, but there were boys who did, so I started seeking male attention early. I was lonely and craved validation badly, and I was willing to act out a little to get it, so long as that didn't interfere with my goal of getting the hell out of my parents' house as quickly as possible (i.e., no drugs, no risk of pregnancy). If I could go back and hug myself, I would. I would throw myself in front of a bus to protect my children from feeling the way I felt at that age.

In 9th grade, I transferred from the suffocating fake righteousness of my small private Christian school into a public junior high school. The first day at my new school, boys were crowding around me, asking questions, trying to sit near me, which was something I never experienced at my old school. It was incredibly flattering. Soon, I started dating one of the boys, who I'll call S. He was sarcastic, intelligent, and cute. We ate pizza and saw Karate Kid 2. He kissed me in the theater while Peter Cetera crooned. It was a brave new world.

At the same time, my home life was a shit show. My mom is bipolar, so sometimes she was fine, and sometimes the bottom fell out, and I never knew which it was going to be. My father was always angry. I withdrew as much as possible into schoolwork and books and church and my flute. Sometimes I tried to express some of this to S. Expecting him to understand or empathize was a huge mistake - it was like I hadn't spoken. As much as I was capable, I tried to be a good girlfriend - I listened to him, laughed at his jokes, reassured him when he thought he'd done badly on a test.

When we broke up, S started spreading rumors about me, following me around and taunting me about things I told him in confidence, doing everything possible to humiliate me. The other girls in our grade decided I was a slut based on what he said, so they wouldn't talk to me. Soon the verbal abuse turned physical - he would run up behind me and whap me across the back of the head as hard as he could. One day, we were stacking books in our math classroom - we had almost every single class together - and he took a book and hit me over the head with it so hard I literally saw stars.

One day, S's best friend, W, started being nice to me. It freaked me out at first, but it seemed so genuine, and I was so lonely and naive. W would call me at night and pass me notes during the day. He asked what I thought, and we shared jokes, and I really thought he liked me. One week, S was out sick, and W actually spoke to me in public and held my hand. We met at the mall and made out in a dark corner. I cringe now at how desperate I was for someone to like me. Of course soon after that, we broke up, and the abuse started again, times two. I assume they planned the whole thing.

All this time, I concealed everything from my parents. With my religious upbringing, I thought it was all my fault for having naughty impure thoughts, and after all, my father did warn me about boys. I made straight As and tried to keep it together. I tried dating boys who were big for our age - a football player and a hockey player. I wasn't actually attracted to them, but they would protect me. After each break up, the abuse from S and W would start again. They hit, kicked, chased, spit at, and threw things at me. They stole my stuff. They told me I was fat, ugly, and slutty. I went home with bruises and scrapes many days.

Thankfully, the girls in my grade started to feel sorry for me, and I eventually had a few friends who would stand up for me. The abuse didn't stop, but it tailed off, because S & W would usually only come after me if I was alone. One day, not long before the end of school, S came past my desk in English and hit me really hard when nobody was looking. Before I realized what had happened, I stood up and drove my fist as hard as I could into his stomach in a perfect uppercut. He gasped, looked like he might throw up, and staggered to his seat. A few people applauded. A few days later, W gave me a black eye - before, they'd never hit me in the face. When my father, a former Marine, saw it, he went ballistic. W is lucky that I talked my dad out of calling the police and having him arrested, and even luckier that I talked my dad out of going to his house to settle the score himself. It was arranged that W would apologize to me in front of an array of witnesses. He did, and the school year was over.

The next year, S went to a different high school, and I only saw him once after that, at a football game. W and I went to the same high school, but it was a big school, and we managed to have only one class together the whole time. I didn't tell many people what he had done to me. W was an athlete, an Eagle Scout, and a regular churchgoer. His high school girlfriend was a sweet girl, and I wondered if she experienced anything like what I did when they broke up.

That would have been the end of it, except that during my first weekend at college (30 miles from my hometown), I came home after my first official night out partying to find the bulletin board on my dorm room door defaced. It said, "I slapped you once, bitch, you thought you would be safe in college, but no." I asked around, and several people who'd gone to high school with S had seen him on campus that night, though he went to a different university. No confirmation on W, though I later learned he'd bragged to other people about being there, too. I made a statement to campus police, who called S and his mother to campus and banned him. It was awhile before I felt safe again, but I was so grateful that the campus police took me seriously and made it clear they were on my side.

That's the last I heard of either person, but over the years, they've still managed to haunt me occasionally. During anxious periods in my waking life, they've shown up in my dreams, jeering at me, following me, chasing me. I've faced them down, closing doors on them, hitting them, screaming at them, and on one memorable occasion, pushing them out of an airplane. Thankfully, as my overall level of don't-give-a-fuckness has increased, the appearances have almost ended, but their presence in my subconscience feels so violating.

Recently, two new blogger friends, Lisa Petty from Petty Thoughts and Ashley from Big Top Family, posted about their respective bullies, and I decided to do some Google stalking. It turns out S lives across the country and works as an executive for a food service company. That's all I could find. W lives in our home state and works for a drug company. He's also married with two young sons. I wonder how he treats his wife. I wonder how he is raising his sons to treat women. For all his church attendance (his current church is pastored by a college classmate of mine), I wonder if he ever repented for what he did to me. While I'm a sucker for the idea that everyone is capable of redemption, I doubt either of them have had any remorse. Chances are, if you torment someone for fun for a year when you're well past old enough to know better, and then hunt that person down 3 years later when you're an adult to threaten them, you're probably a sociopath.

I'm not sure what I thought I was going to accomplish by finding this information, and I'm struggling to determine what the takeaway is supposed to be. I can't wrap this piece up in a neat little package. They say living well is the best revenge, but that doesn't capture what I feel. I've had a good, albeit not trouble-free, life, but I can't ride off into the sunset and say all's well that ends well. What S and W did to me scarred me deeply. It wasn't boys-will-be-boys. It was a form of torture. They did what they did because they enjoyed exerting power through fear. It was sick and wrong, and they got away with it, and chances are, it wasn't the first or last time. It bothers me that people like them are out in the world.

So what do I do? I certainly have no desire to ever speak to either of these people again, yet I don't think it's healthy to hang on to resentment and anger. I think that like many shitty experiences in life, the only useful thing to do is to figure out the lessons and move on. So here goes.

  1. I know the signs of bullying, and if my kids come home with physical or emotional injuries they won't talk about, or if they withdraw into themselves, I will be on it like white on rice. 
  2. I have never done anything to deserve being mistreated, and I won't stand for it. 
  3. No desire for acceptance and love is worth foregoing my dignity and self respect. 
I wish I could say that I learned all these things right away, but it took years. The fact is, I was a setup for people to take advantage of me for decades. Although it took a special brand of asshole to do what those guys did, I experienced a lot of pain in all kinds of relationships from not having good boundaries, even on account of well-meaning people. While I should never have been bullied, I do think it taught me an important lesson about self respect, which I hope to instill in my children at a younger age. If I can make them impervious to manipulative shitheads, that can be my revenge.


  1. Damn, damn, damn!! Damn THEM, and DAMN, I am blown away by your misery and your bravery, despite all of that torture. You named me in your post, but I never had to endure something as consistently torturous, physically and emotionally too - because these were boys you at one time put your trust in! It's sick, and I'm pissed for you. Anger is my best defense so that's what I'm feeling right now. I admire you, Kathleen. You were a brave girl, and you are a brave woman. On a writing AND life perspective, this was riveting.

    1. I just wish my BlogU posse had been in my corner back then! Thanks, Ashley. It really helps to have other people validate that what these guys did was NOT normal, and that I did NOT do anything to deserve it.

  2. I think sharing your experiences can help others deal with their own painful memories. My older sister was cruelly and consistently bullied by boys in Jr HS and HS. She came home often crying and tended to take it out on me. But I was stronger than her, and tried to protect her. I hated those boys for what they did to her. The ringleader was literally the most "popular" boy in HS - NOT meaning the nicest, most well-liked. Rather, its the kid who's a bit outrageous and who everyone knows. He was such an asshole to my sister. He ultimately committed suicide, and the school went nuts, getting counselors, holding a service during school hours where folks could talk about him, etc. Strange, they didn't do the same thing for the "unpopular" girl who was struck by a car while delivering Christmas gifts. Hmm. Funny how that works. Needless to say, we did not grieve his loss. One of her tormentors reached out years later and apologized, and is a FB friend w/her. When you are targeted for cruelty, it just stays with you for the rest of your life. My sister married an emotionally abusive man. I occasionally am allowed in to provide support for her, but she then turns back to her marriage despite my offers of support. Kathleen, you are an amazing woman who is not in a negative, abusive relationship. You see what was done to you and are doing your best to make sure that your children don't grow up with the same constrictions that you did - and you're keeping a close eye on them all the same. To be honest, I think everyone has their scars from childhood, from a variety of sources. Most aren't as horrific as what you went through, however. You are an intelligent, warm, loving, fun and funny person, and I'm so glad that you shared this so that others can see that past pain does not have to define you. xo

    1. Thanks, Chris. I used to be really ashamed that I let this happen to me, but as I tell this story, I see how common it is. And while "some people are just assholes" is a lesson I find myself needing to teach my kids, I also want to give them tools for dealing with those people, a recognition that they don't deserve to be the targets of abuse, and more importantly, that they shouldn't tolerate that abuse when targeted at someone else. One of the key elements of the anti-bullying movement is the idea of nipping this stuff in the bud and creating a culture where bullying isn't allowed to thrive.

  3. Hi Kathleen. That was an painful but amazing read. I dealt with a lotta lotta bullying in High School; merely adjust the details and you put me right back in 1989. Same goes for the scars it left, and the understandable speculation on where the bullies are and how they live with themselves. (My favorite fantasy involved going up to their wife & kids and describing in vivid detail what their precious daddy did).

    I strongly believe that getting through it all made me a better person. Now, if I could flip a switch that could erase all of it, I'd probably flip it. However, I do think it made me acutely empathetic, and disgusted when I see abuse or injustice. I greatly reward people who treat me and others right, and keep mean people at a distance. I've been rewarded, you might say, with one of the kindest people on earth as a spouse (you know her), and the feeling that, re: the bullies, that I don't need to know how their life turned out, because I know that I won in the end.

    Tom from college (Jim's brother, Julia's husband)

    1. Hi, Tom! Thanks for reading. I feel the same way - I'd erase the abuse in an instant if I could, but at the same time I did grow from it. The bullies invariably have intense personal issues and/or psychological problems. Not that this justifies at all what they did, but in the end, they have to continue to deal with themselves, while you and I can move forward from that place and be happy. Hi to Julia and Jim!

  4. I found similarities in our lives. My mom is bipolar (and whole lot of other things) and my dad was similar like your dad. I was the oldest and only female child, I grew up without a female role model.
    I strived to leave the house too, I perceived living in hell to be honest. To my fortune I channelled it into a positive attitude and wanted to earn a degree. But the journey was bad.

    My mom bullied me. I endured sociopaths at work - 2 times. Anxiety developed gradually since I was 14 and until I left home, about 22 years old, I was in bad shape emotionally. I couldn't even speak without feeling all red and hot.
    I didn't learn how to stand up for myself, facing issues. I avoided them. While I never experienced physical violence, it was mostly emotional, it's not okay either. If I could, I'd hug my young self too.

    I'm happy to say I'm free. I've killed my demons. And I work hard every single day to make sure my kid is empowered as much as she can. I'll be the safety net, the security blanket, the backbone I never had in my family.

    1. Good for you, for struggling through and being a warrior for your child! And thank you for sharing your story. When you're a kid, and you're in the middle of a toxic situation, you feel so alone, like everyone else is normal, and you're left out in the cold. But so many people went through awful experiences growing up, and it's important to talk about it to heal and move on and protect the next generation.

  5. I can only hope that parents of today are more aware of this and also take care to instill the right values and behaviors in their kids. Even so, I know well-meaning parents whose kids still have issues. Not sure what the answer is. Thanks for this post bringing light to the issue.


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