I asked Beyond Blue Larry Parker to write a piece about bullying since he described his bullying with such detail in my interview of him. He elaborates here, on how bullying can stay with you for a lifetime. …
1. Bullies Alone Can’t Push You Around – You Have to Already Be Vulnerable
It was 1982. My parents had split up and were getting a divorce. My dad was halfway around the world for the Air Force and completely incommunicado, literally and figuratively. My mom had just met a new guy who she would later marry – and who decades later, would become my own torturer.
I just entered junior high school, where I was lost, in the hallways and otherwise. It’s enough to make a 13-year-old kid suicidal. And indeed, that’s what happened.
But the divorce itself was not what pushed me over the edge. It was a classmate named R., along with his friends.
R. came from the “right” side of town, unlike me. R. bragged about his scientific knowledge – I was more the writer. (In fact, I kept a journal to deal with my loneliness – big mistake, as you’ll see.) And frankly, in a school where many of the “cool” kids were Jewish, he reminded me in my then-Catholicism that I was not the “right” religion.
(He very ostentatiously said, “I’m only inviting you to my bar mitzvah because my mom says I have to. I’m going to make sure you’re miserable.” And – because my own mother said it was the ultimate breach of etiquette to turn down a bar mitzvah invitation – he certainly got the chance.)
There was more old-fashioned stuff, as well — getting pushed into lockers (in the hallway and the locker room), having gum put on my chair, having my book bag constantly stolen if I let it even a millimeter off my body, and of course, having my journal stolen, and having R. read entries as everyone gathered before class about the people named. What could possibly be more mortifying?
The fact remains, though, I wouldn’t have tried to commit suicide without the other factors – the absent father, the new and strange stepfather-to-be, my mother’s insistence on me being “the man in the house” doing all the chores even as I was barely getting by in school.
Oh, that and the fact that I didn’t tell my stressed-out mom – and that the teachers in school enabled it. “It’s just boys being boys,” they said. Teachers tend to take that attitude much less these days, thank goodness.
But in my case, I would have to do something drastic to convince the teachers.
2. Fight Back
There was a tragic car accident at the end of that school year where two of R.’s good friends were killed. So he backed off of me.
For a couple of weeks.
But through summer school (neither of us were failing, it was just glorified child care for our busy parents) and into the fall, the merciless teasing returned.
I finally told my mother about it. And she told me if the school wouldn’t do anything about it, I should fight back physically if need be. She wouldn’t punish me.
One day R. confronted me in front of the school as we were waiting to be let in from being dropped off by our buses. My mom’s words rang in my ear.
I slugged him.
Now, R. would later go on to be captain of the wrestling team in high school, so you can guess who “won” the fight. My glasses got twisted around and were only barely salvaged.
But it greatly impressed my classmates that I had finally stood up mentally and emotionally to R. And within a couple of weeks, they started to befriend me and not to believe R.’s injunctions that I was “scum.” I even got invited to (!) parties.
Oh, we were both suspended and given a serious talking to by the principal and teachers. Funny, though, after I finally got to explain my side of it back to the principal – who listened intently and seriously – R. never laid a finger or said a cross word to me the rest of the year.
Or maybe it was because, while I got a hero’s welcome from my mom and sister, R. was grounded for a month.
Hopefully, in other cases, a call to teachers (or legal authorities) can accomplish what my fists did. I don’t mean to advocate violence at all. But as Kenny Rogers sang in “Coward of the County,” “Sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man.”
3. Don’t Let Them Off the Canvas
For the next three years, R. begged forgiveness. For three years, I stubbornly refused. And, wow, did I ostentatiously snub R. at each and every opportunity. I went overboard with that, I admit. My classmates now swung back the other way as we entered high school – “C’mon, you don’t have to take what happened THAT seriously.”
But finally, the “we have so much in common, I was stupid in junior high” line from R. appealed to my Catholic sense of forgiveness.
We became friends of a sort – and he would end up having an even more destructive effect on my life later than he did in school.
Our “conversations,” whether in person or on the phone (and we got to visit and talk frequently through college and young adulthood), basically consisted of his “advice” to me that I was running my life the wrong way, and that he, a new guru of things called “e-mail” and “the Internet” (he is a multimillionaire today) could show me the error of my ways.
After I went to his 1992 wedding in Boston stag, he said it was “ridiculous” that I wasn’t even dating someone seriously. No coincidence that I placed a personal ad with his “suggestion” and ended up meeting “E.” – my one-day wife and later ex-wife.
R. and E. hit it off immediately. They were soon closer friends than I was with R., who again was constantly criticizing me and saying, “Your wife has all the right ideas, and you should shut up and listen to her.”
In fact, as we were getting divorced in 1999, R. and E. were ostentatiously finalizing a close business partnership, flying back and forth from Washington (where E. and I lived) to Boston (where R. lived). It was definitely a factor in my state of mind, already fragile with the divorce (and remember Rule #1 about other stressors) that people close to me were seemingly ganging up on me.
I ended up in a mental ward after another suicide attempt a couple of months later.
My mistake wasn’t forgiving R. and letting him back in my life. At least, not exactly.
There are lots of people, after all, who do stupid things in junior high school and high school and then, years later, are genuinely remorseful. You can and should forgive them.
But true bullies are different. They show antisocial tendencies immediately and constantly throughout their lives. And you can’t show predators weakness.
4. A Bully Is a Bully Is a Bully
Forget what happened to me in 7th grade. Think about the strangely passive reaction to his friends’ sudden, tragic deaths.
R. was a guy who wrote a story in 9th grade about being a photographer who won the Pulitzer Prize because, when his wife fell onto subway tracks, he took the picture of her gruesome death instead of saving her.
When, in 10th grade, I told R. angrily about my suicide attempt three years earlier, he would say to me, with an expression as serious as a heart attack, “I wish you were dead.” (Yes, this was in the middle of him asking me to be his friend again.)
There was his brother – who had developmental disabilities – who R. looked to as much as a failure as for (IMO) his inspiring attempts to build a life for himself.
Even E., when I finally told her the full extent of R.’s bullying over decades (and not just to me), broke off her partnership with him.
When I was less fragile emotionally, I decided to go back to Rule #2, to fight back and tell R. that I never wanted to talk to him again – and exactly why. (By e-mail, naturally.)
His response: “I don’t remember any of that.” The response used by totalitarians since time immemorial when accused of war crimes. (And he certainly remembered “that” years ago when he begged forgiveness.)
I haven’t spoken to him since. No coincidence that my mental health has slowly but surely stabilized over the last 8 years, I think.
When I tell people the story of my bizarre two-decade relationship with R., they say it has a literary quality to it – like Valjean and Javert from “Les Miserables,” or Mozart and Salieri from “Amadeus.” (Or, if you’re a TV buff, between Chuck Bartowski and Bryce Larkin in “Chuck.”) I think there’s something to that.
The last story I read of R. was in his local newspaper (of course, on the Internet). R. is also a bodybuilder (remember, he was a wrestler back in the day). The newspaper article told of how he had organized an intensive fitness class to “whip” (his quote) his wife and other women into shape after recent pregnancies because they gained too much weight or weren’t “snapping back” quickly enough.
A bully is a bully is a bully.
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