It’s hard to tell a story about getting bullied well. Bully-stories are almost always told bitterly. Sometimes they can be funny, but it’s the kind of funny that sneaks up on you, like aFamily Guy joke, culminating in the punchline “… I deserved it, of course.” If you laugh, it’s only because you’re relieved. Telling a bully-story is a public negotiation with chaos and unresolved chaos is a burden to everyone. Freshman year of high school, when T pushed me down in a circle of his friends, stood on my chest, flashed the gun he had stuffed down the front of his cargo shorts, and told me he was going to shoot me if he saw me hanging around after his DECA meeting, it was a very chaotic time, not just for me, but for the teachers, school administrators, my friends waiting nearby, and the student-entrepreneur community at large.
Bullying resists metaphor and comparing it to almost anything usually obscures more than it illuminates. Yet getting bullied remains a lot of a people’s first explicitly political experience, their first brush with indifferent power. Am I projecting? Never mind how the bully feels, or that we have all been bullies ourselves at some point in our lives. Power appears hazy and vague to those who wield it. Meanwhile, I can recall every bloody-nose and humiliation from my youth with vivid, if not undistorted, detail. I remember watching T laugh, for instance, as he unbuttoned his pants to try and piss on me without losing the gun, can picture his one-dimpled smirk and the way he stuck out his tongue, concentrating. I never fought back and, instead, waited out these experiences in an attempted dissociative state. For a long time afterward, it bothered me that I never fought back. It still bothers me.
Another time: walking home after volunteering at a school canned food drive, three football players in someone’s mom’s SUV start following me. For half an hour, J, J, and W drive at five miles-per-hour just behind me, yell, laugh, and chuck cans of food at me as I walk down Vermont St. These are the kids adults trust, trust them enough to do things like drive the canned food to the homeless shelter. They mostly avoid hitting my head. W is the student body vice president at the time. I mention they are football players only because all three wear their jerseys and having the canned food you just finished raising thrown at you from an idling Ford Explorer feels different when the throwers wear a uniform.
Everything they tell you about bullies when you’re a kid turns out to be true and it changes nothing. Crying in the florescent-lit offices of my youth, the secretaries of the various authorities from whom I sought justice often offered me consolation, assuring me that my abusers were, themselves, very troubled young men. Everybody knows bullies come from abusive households and/or are over-compensating for some deep-seated insecurity sure to haunt each to his grave. I mean, obviously, right? Poor bullies. Now grown, your burdens appear no lighter; your court acquittals, executive bonuses, and enhanced interrogation techniques have clearly offered you little solace.
Some people worry that the Internet has made bullying a more common occurrence. It hasn’t, of course. How could it, when the sum total of bullying in the world, like the sum total ofwater or sexual energy, remains constant? I’m totally sure that, as soon as we all get psychic powers, a host of alarmist reports and White House conferences bemoaning the rise of psychic bullying will follow and everyone will shake their heads in slow, psychic dismay. Psychic bullying will also be a real thing. Like all bullying, it will totally suck.
Kurt Cobain successfully turned being the bullied kid into a substantial, transgressive, creative persona. Like any good feminist, he did this by sharing his truth. Gay or straight, everyone who’s ever been called “fag!” has something in common. It may not be the most important thing, but it’s a start. Keeping things in perspective is also important, though, as any real deconstruction of the bullied-kid-as-hero pretty quickly turns up more than a little hidden class and race privilege concealed in its brave, captivating tale of straight, white guy pain. Violence perpetrated by children against children turns from “bullying” into something called “crime” the second said violence leaves the set of a John Hughes movie and sharing your truth gets complicated when your personal experience has already been abstracted into an endemic, social ill.
The most popular corruption of the bully-story remains the corrective bully-reversal where, following a summarized period of abuse, the bullied-kid eventually wins the upper hand over her tormentor, wins it righteously, and then, in some way, savors this power. It is a narcotic story with much to offer, including conflict, pain, catharsis, cool violence, veiled sadism, and agreeing that you are obviously good. Purported bully-stories in books, TV, and movies almost always turn out to be bully-reversals in disguise; the only exceptions to this rule are Todd Solondz movies and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
Though (unusually?) free of physical violence, my childhood bully-reversal fantasies still fit this general mold. Basically, these consisted of me cut loose in a kind of public interrogation of any one of my now captive bullies, me slowly pacing the floor, calmly saying things like, “I just want to know why you did it, T? That’s all I want to know, me and everyone else gathered here today – why? It’s a simple question, really.” Between my devastating rhetorical prowess and the sea of gravely nodding faces constituting “everyone” before us, T never stood a chance and was always quickly reduced to desperate, tearful apologies. Now I just think it’s funny that my preferred childhood revenge fantasy was basically the last act of a Matlock episode. But you have to understand that I was heartbroken. I loved following the rules so much and it sucked so bad when the rules just suddenly didn’t work. I was also a very self-righteous little kid. I deserved it, of course ;)
Really, though, deep down, I just wanted my bullies to like me. Or love me. That would have been so great. Doesn’t everyone feel this way? Some other popular bully-story variations: the bully-with-the-heart-of-gold, the sexy-bully, the bully-who-turns-out-to-be-your-dad, the bully-with-a-thorn-in-his-paw, and the sexy-bully-who-turns-out-to-be-your-dad.
A bitter one: it’s the summer I’m twelve, sports-fitness camp, C and J grab my underwear from the pool-changing room and try to make me chase them for it. But that isn’t even the real story. Afterward, I walk sobbing in my bathing suit up to Mr. S’s office to tell on them, but find he’s busy on the phone. Mr. S is a grumpy, fat guy in a tracksuit, most likely some other kid’s scary dad. It is my policy to tell on everyone. Mr. S stops talking when he sees me and raises his hand to ask for a minute. I back out of his office, close the door behind me, and take a seat on the bench in the hall, a seat from which I’m surprised to find I can still hear Mr. S’s half of his phone conversation as clearly as if he’d been sitting next to me. There must have been a vent, thin walls or something. “Yeah,” I hear him say, “yeah, well I gotta go, faggy kid outside is crying again, I gotta deal with him. Uh huh, uh huh … ha, yeah, you know what I’m talking about.” He’s quiet for awhile, then, listening. He keeps listening. I can hear my swimsuit dripping onto the linoleum. He laughs. “Yeah, you know what I’m talking about.”