Tuesday, 15 January 2013 12:54

Interview with a bully

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This is a fairly recent article and we didn’t want to rerun too many from this year, but this one really touched a chord. Sometimes it seems that every single person you talk to has some memory of being bullied at school. But you never hear from the other side. 

This, from March 2012, in its most brutally honest form, is the story of someone who WAS a bully.

Rolling Stone in February this year published an article that described a cluster of teen suicides at a school in America.

Evangelical Christians had created a strongly anti-gay climate and many, although not all, of the nine teen suicides in two years were related to homophobic bullying at school.

It’s a truly horrifying story, not just about the vilification of children struggling to deal with their sexuality, but also about the way teenagers can inflict torture on each other, torture so eviscerating that suicide seems the only way out.

One of the boys in the article, Justin, was 15 years old when he hung himself in his bedroom. His mother found him. A few years later, her other son, only 9 years old, tried to drown himself in the bath because he wanted to see his brother again. These are the people who pay the highest price for bullying and homophobia.

I was discussing the article on twitter and kicking around ideas of something we could do about bullying when I was contacted by Lisa*, who asked if I would be interested in talking to someone who was a bully at school, someone who could show the almost never-seen perspective — the other side.

This is what happened when we met.

We meet at a Pancake Parlour in an outer suburban shopping centre. Lisa is a slender woman in her early 50s, attractive, but she looks strained and exhausted. She’s clearly nervous, her hands are shaking and her voice trembles. We chat briefly, but she’s not here to make small talk, she has a story she wants to tell, so we cut the bullshit and get straight to it.

Tell me how it started.

“Jennifer and I were very close friends for a couple of years when we were in primary school. We were both socially awkward so it was a bond, we stuck together. Riding imaginary ponies together at lunchtime, that sort of thing.

“Then, I think we were in grade six, something happened. I honestly can’t remember what it was, but we had some kind of falling out. It was really trivial, but suddenly I hated her. I was so angry with her, I mean I really really hated her, but it was weird, it was based on just nothing.

“I can remember I almost got into trouble once, because I called her and her new friend dirty lesbians. I got called up to the teacher, a wonderful, strong woman I really admired and all I could think was that I couldn’t let her think bad things about me, so I said I didn’t know what lesbian meant and I didn’t mean it as a mean thing, that Jennifer had just taken it the wrong way. None of that was true, but she believed me. I was very good at lying back then.

“At primary school it wasn’t so bad; we each had a separate couple of friends who were not really part of the dominant group, so it was mostly just between the two of us.

“Then we all moved on to high school. There were three of us from our primary school that went to the same high school: me, one other girl and Jennifer. And that’s when it changed; I made her life a complete misery for the next three years.”

What changed?

“Part of it was that I was so desperate to be popular. In primary school I was the awkward kid with glasses who didn’t fit in, just like Jennifer, but somehow in high school I managed to reinvent myself.

I learned to fake this persona, from being a bookish, slightly weird kid, I transformed myself into something I knew would get approval. I dyed my hair blonde, I wore lots of make up and started acting like a complete bimbo, it was a desperate thing to do, but I was desperate to change myself, and Jennifer was one of the ways I did it.

I separated myself from being seen as a weirdo by making her into one.”

What did you do to her?

“It started with me, but it wasn’t just me. I got them all to torment her. It was all psychological, nothing physical, but it never let up. Every day, all day, anything she did, we’d belittle her for it. I don’t think the lesbian thing was overt all the time, but it was an undertone. I didn’t know if she actually was a lesbian, I don’t think so, but I guess it doesn’t matter.

“I was very clever about it, it was all hidden and most of the teachers had no clue about what was happening. She had a whole group focussing a whispering campaign on her, but I was the one in control of it, she knew that.

“I wasn’t so much doing it myself; I was getting others to do my dirty work while I sat quietly in the background, orchestrating it.

“I thought I was up in the stratosphere, sitting with all the popular girls, and any time she’d come into our sight it would start. It was everything about her, her family circumstances — I think there was someone with a disability in her family so we would laugh about that; we’d call her ugly, which is weird because looking back, she was unusual looking, but would have been quite beautiful if she wasn’t so hunched over and afraid all the time. And we did that to her.

“Every little thing she’d do, she’d come in to class and sit down and be a bit clumsy or something and I would look at my friends and we’d all roll our eyes and laugh. She was shy and would go bright red very easily and we’d laugh at that too.

“It was unrelenting. She was constantly walking on eggshells. Any time I was there she was visibly terrified, but there was nothing she could really point at and say ‘this is what they’re doing to me’. I was always just waiting to find some snide way to put her down.

“It sounds small and that kind of thing is quite hard for teachers to pin down, but it never stopped, every single thing she did we’d sneer at and comment on. If she ever said anything in class, which she almost never did, we’d giggle and there’d be this undercurrent of scorn throughout the class. I think every morning when she woke up she must have just dreaded coming to school.

“It wasn’t a conscious plan, I didn’t plot deliberately, I just hated her. I don’t think I had any insight at all, not into what I was thinking and certainly not about how it felt for her. I don’t know if that’s typical of that age group or something that was wrong with me but it wasn’t until I was an adult and looked back and realised, in horror, what I’d actually done to her.”

Did Jennifer have any friends of her own to support her?

“Very few, at times she would have one or two, we didn’t really care about them, but none of them ever confronted me. I was slippery as hell. You could never pin me down. I’d always have an excuse, or say ‘oh no I didn’t mean it like that, you’re always taking things the wrong way’, which was a complete lie.

“I almost think it would have been easier for her if I was punching her in the face, because there’s no hiding that. It’s awful, but at least she would have had acknowledgement of what was happening to her. Isn’t it terrible to think of violence as being the sunny alternative?

“I always wanted, if I was going to have children, to have boys, because I love the way boys settle these things. Obviously not all boys, and I know I’m generalising, but one good punch up in the playground would have saved years of misery. Maybe that’s silly, but it being out in the open would have made a difference, I couldn’t have talked my way out of it, because I was so good at doing that.”

Did any of the other kids ever express any discomfort with what was going on?

“My friends? No. They were thrilled to have someone to focus it all on. It was a very bitchy atmosphere; and I gave them a target to let it all out. It didn’t matter what she did, she could do nothing right, so we didn’t have to worry about anything we did wrong, because nothing could be as bad as her.

“That clique of beautiful girls I wanted so much to be a part of actually rather liked my nastiness, it created a bond where we could all get together and attack someone who was a bit different.

“I remember once she got in trouble because I came in from lunch one day and she’d got one of those art palette knives and jammed it in a crack in my desk. Somebody saw her do it, so she got in trouble. The teacher asked me why she would do such a thing and I convinced her that there was something wrong with Jennifer, that she had this weird problem with me and that I was totally innocent.

“I left the school at the end of year 9, and didn’t see her again until we had both finished school. We were at the same university, I was walking along with some friends and I saw her coming towards me. I saw her recognise me, she dropped all her books on the ground, then turned around and ran away. I never saw her again.

“That was the first time I realised that I had done such an awful lot of damage, and to somebody who had once been my closest friend too. The pain and confusion on her face, as she just flung her arms in the air, dropped everything and ran away at the sight of me… it was horrible.”

Have you ever thought of getting in contact with her to tell her that?

“I do sometimes really lose sleep over it. It was that day I saw her at uni, I wanted to run after her and say I’m sorry. I knew that if I ran after her she’d just run faster, but the fact that, after three years, that was her reaction to just the sight of me, was a horrible realisation. That was when it hit me. I was 18 then. I’d grown up a bit, my father had died and maybe I was a bit more open, a bit more mature. I hadn’t thought about her much in those years after I left her school, but boy have I thought about her since.

“I went though years of thinking that I must go and abase myself and apologise, but that was just trying to make me feel better and it would just bring it all back for her. I don’t deserve to feel better about it. I don’t know, maybe a big apology from me might have helped, but I think it’s more likely that it’s a selfish thing to do. What I would be saying to her is ‘make me feel better about what I did’ and she shouldn’t have to do that. I think I should bear that burden.

“I would love to think that I didn’t really have that much of an affect on her, that now she wouldn’t even remember me, but I don’t think that’s true. I think I had a devastating effect on her, on her ability to socialise and make friends and have a normal life. She was very vulnerable and I lashed out at her because I was just an angry person. I think I did harm her. Really, really harm her. I don’t think there’s anything I can do that could make up for that.”

Where did the anger come from?

She looks uncomfortable and has trouble answering.

Is that going too far, would you prefer not to talk about it?

“No, I’m fine, but it will come out sounding like an excuse and I don’t want to make excuses for what I did. But yes, I was very angry, I had a pretty rotten time at home and then I’d go to school and there she’d be....

“I found out later in life that I have a mental illness, I don’t know if I did then, I think then it was just this vague sort of anxiety and depression.

“If somebody had spotted what was going on for me and pulled me aside and said ‘what’s wrong, why are you doing this’ maybe we could have addressed some of the issues that drove me…although, no, that excuses what I did, and there were a lot of people who were having problems at home. Not all of them did what I did.”

Was there anyone at the school, like a counsellor or such, who was responsible for finding and helping with those things?

“I don’t think so, if they did I avoided them like the plague, and they certainly didn’t pick up on me. The one time when something did happen, when she left the knife in my desk and the teacher talked to me about it, the teacher seemed very willing to accept that it was her fault. She didn’t want to say ‘your behaviour is unacceptable and you’re a bully’, she was quite easy on me, I would say something like ‘Oh no, that’s just Jennifer, she’s always been a weirdo’, and push it all back on her, and the teacher seemed to want to accept that, she understood it, even liked it. I think that teacher, if she’d been our age would have been with us, been part of the group that enjoying this torture.

“There were lots of people who should have seen what was going on, but I was so subtle about it, it would have been hard to pin down. Thank god we didn’t have Facebook back then — I would have been even worse.

“I have a vague memory of her asking if she could be put in a different class so she could get away from me, but she was told that she just had to face up to it and deal with it. Attitudes have changed a lot. This was in 70s, the word bullying never really even came up then.

“Actually, I think ‘bullying’ is a trivialising word for what we did to her, it makes it sound like a couple of little kids having a fight in a playground. What I did was an orchestrated campaign of psychological warfare. Calling it bullying makes it sound nicer than it was, it’s not a strong enough word for it.”

What happened to Jennifer after you left the school, did things get better for her then?

“I think so. Everyone got more concerned about schoolwork as we got older and once I wasn’t there to concentrate that hatred on her, it just kind of fell away, people left her alone to get on with it. Maybe not immediately, it might have taken a while for it to fade out, that habit of doing these things to her, but yes it did stop. So she had a few relatively peaceful years until that day she saw me at uni.”

You obviously feel a lot of remorse now, has it been weighing on you all this time?

“Yes, well I’ve had an awful lot going on since then of course, but whenever I hear people discussing bullying I want to jump in and say you’ll never stop it until you realise why people do it.”

Why do you think they do it?

“I think there are probably two reasons. The first one is that there are some people who just enjoy causing pain, but I think that’s a very small percentage, the rest of people who bully, well I think you could start with looking at their home life.

“I would have been very resistant to counselling, but anyone who had interviewed my mother, my father and me in the same room would have realised that there was something serious going on there.”

Was that it, were you repeating behaviour you learned at home?

“No, it wasn’t the same as the behaviour I had at home, the abuse at home was physical and I was put down a lot, but it wasn’t that snide bitchiness that I became so adept at.

“But I felt so powerless, and then when everyone started following me with tormenting Jennifer, for the first time I got this feeling of power. And I didn’t have the slightest twinge of guilt or compunction about it until I was a good bit older.

“I think I was so focussed on myself there was just no room to see how much I was hurting her. I was so self-centred; I didn’t want to be aware of how I was behaving. I think I felt a bit out of control too.

“And of course it worked. I did become one of the popular girls because of it. Which says something.

“I was so desperate to be liked. And then I was and that felt really good. I was desperate for approval. And it’s horrible, but that’s why it continued for so long, because it worked. If one of that group of girls had turned to me and said ‘What you are doing is revolting. Stop it’, I would have turned on a dime. If popularity had been based on being nice I would have become the world’s kindest, nicest person. But no one was inclined to pull me up at all. Maybe they were afraid I would turn on them.

“No one ever said anything to me about it, not the teachers, not the kids, not even my mother, who must have had some idea because she knew Jennifer’s parents. Unless maybe, Jennifer never said anything to them. Certainly if she did, it never came back to me. But it would have been hard, because I never did anything physical and how do you go home and say ‘they all laughed at me because I dropped my pen’ and expect to be taken seriously?

“I have a daughter just finishing primary school now; it’s the same age I was when this started. I think that sort of thing does still goes on, but I wonder if having boys around makes a difference? I don’t know.

“I think it varies from school to school. They all have very different ways of dealing with it. My daughter has had to change schools a few times and some of them have very ineffective ways of dealing with bullying. She told me about how at one school, the kids were all going to find a particular kid after school to bash them up, and the school didn’t really worry about it because it wasn’t happening on school grounds. It still goes on. It’s like some schools think this is normal behaviour for kids and they should just let them work it out.”

What would have made a difference to the way you behaved at school?

“Well, I wasn’t stupid by any means, so maybe if someone had pulled me up I might have responded. But mostly, disapproval would have stopped me. If I’d just been on my own I would never have done it. If people had ostracised me for being a bitch — which they should have — I would never have done it. But they didn’t, they loved it. I still would have been a pretty screwed up kid, but maybe it wouldn’t have damaged Jennifer as well.

“I think that first time in primary school when I got away with calling her a dirty lesbian and I put on the big eyes and said ‘but I didn’t know what it meant’ and weaselled my way out of it, I realised I could get away with anything. I never got in trouble at school at all and I was a little horror. I was very manipulative.

“There were definitely other things going on for her too. Bullies don’t target someone who is all bright and confident.

“It’s so hard to explain the background without sounding like I’m making excuses, but I think it’s important to know where it comes from. I definitely was a bitch, but the reasons are important.

“I was an unwanted child, my mother never made a secret of that. She told me she never wanted children, that she’d have had an abortion if she’d realised she was pregnant in time. She’s quite open about the fact that she doesn’t understand empathy. She blames it on her mother, who was a really fierce old battleaxe. She tells me stories of her own childhood, in the 20s in the slums of London when she ran her own little gang, they would go and bash people and fight with other gangs. And I’m sure that if her mother was alive and could tell stores there’d be something similar. It really does carry down through generation after generation”

Did anyone every try to reach out to you and help you?

“No, not until I tried to suicide when I was 17, but it was hushed up, I was dismissed as being just a silly teenager, I didn’t really get any serious help until I was in my 30s.

“I was in a violent relationship. I ran one night and hitchhiked to the nearest domestic violence shelter, but it was full, so I ended up in a homeless women’s shelter nearby and was forced to have counselling there. That was the first time I got any kind of help, but it’s really hard to force someone into therapy, especially when you’re that old.”

What would you do if you thought your daughter was repeating your behaviour now?

“Oh, straight off to counselling, the whole family. People don’t just do that in a vacuum, there are always causes, except for that tiny percentage of sociopaths, there are reasons and if you address them early, you diffuse that pain before it hurts everyone else.

“You know how they have those stupid religious counsellors in schools now? If you could have a proper psychologist few hours a week in every school instead, that might actually make a difference. You need to get to them early, while they’re still young enough to help and before they’re old enough to do real damage to someone else.

“It’s easier to identify in boys, they’re the ones in primary school getting in trouble for hitting the other kids. It’s harder with girls, they’re more subtle. Maybe the Facebook thing does actually make it better because at least it’s there on screen to show people. Maybe if parents can see it instead of just hearing stories that don’t sound, on the surface, like they’re all that serious, they might be able to do more to help.

“The priority is always the victim, but you’re never going to stop bullying until you tackle the source of the problem. That nastiness comes from a feeling of powerlessness and trying to feel better by getting power over someone else. It was very cowardly, I was so good at avoiding taking responsibility for anything I was doing, or even thinking about what I was doing.

“There was this whole layer of deceit, I was telling myself it wasn’t me, it was her, there was something wrong with her and it all had to be her fault. If someone had forced me to talk about it maybe I would have seen the truth, but I don’t know. I was pretty messed up.

“Children who bully other children need to face up to what they feel and what is happening to their victims, they need to hear from other children, to have their peers say ‘stop that, it’s horrible’.

“It’s the insecure messed up people who are the bullies, but it’s the same people who are the victims. I think bullies and their victims have far more in common than anyone realises.”

“Bullying is discussed these days, which it wasn’t back then, and I think that’s better, but it still goes on and the solutions people talk about concentrate too much on adults stepping in. They’re not getting the kids themselves to understand that bullying is wrong and giving the other kids, the more secure confident ones who don’t need to be the bully or the victim, the skills to step in and show their disapproval. That would be much more effective than anything the teachers do.

“Maybe we just need to help the kids to take more responsibility for what’s happening instead of thinking that adults can step in and fix everything. Wouldn’t it be great if it really was that simple?”

I went to do this interview expecting to feel anger, disgust, or at best, pity. I certainly didn’t expect or want to feel any sympathy for her. To be fair, she utterly rejected the idea that she deserved any.

How can anyone have sympathy for a perpetrator of that kind of agony? But Lisa was right, the bullies and the victims have a lot in common. They’re all scared, scarred and insecure, They’re all damaged and powerless.

I did end up feeling sympathy for her and, much to my surprise, respect. It took enormous courage for her to talk to me, knowing I would take this out to the wider world. Very few people would be willing, or even able, to be as brutally honest as she was.

It was not an act of redemption; I don’t think she believes she deserves that. But she does believe that attempting to explain something that is rarely explained might make it easier to find a way to help people like her before they hurt someone else. I hope she’s right.

*Lisa and Jennifer are not their real names. I simply used the two most popular names for girls in 1970.

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Jane Gilmore

Jane Gilmore is the editor of The King's Tribune.

Follow Jane on Twitter: @JaneTribune

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