About a year ago, I friended a childhood bully of mine on Facebook. Jane, as I’ll refer to her, made my life hell all through my elementary school years. She constantly berated me about my looks, my disposition, my intelligence, and my interests. Nothing was off-limits. Suffice to say, I hadn’t had any contact with her in years until this recent social media solicitation. And I did it out of curiosity, perhaps even seeking some validation, comparing the quality of my life to her own. But what I found made me stop and think about how I view these bullies from my past.
There’s an archetypal-type story in recent history of the nerd takeover, wherein the young and socially-abused have overcome their early oppression to become the internet and media moguls running the show today. Because of their power, geek is now chic. All of us kids who used to hide in corners reading our comic books, playing D&D, and reenacting episodes of Star Trek, can now talk openly and proudly about our passions as a result. There’s even a wider audience appeal for all things nerd, thanks to phenomena such as Harry Potter.
We’re talking not even the revenge of the nerds, but the full takeover of the nerd. We have won–against the jock, the cool kid, and the mean girl.
A good example of this type of storyline being fostered and enacted can be found in geek-dreamboat Felicia Day’s dismal YouTube song, “I’m the one that’s cool,” in which she and her fellow Guild cast members dress up as high schoolers and endure all sorts of stereotyped abuse from the jocks and their ilk, only to each have individual moments of revelations of their own self-worth and prowess. Now, I’m all about claiming and owning one’s individual identity, but the issue with this myth of the nerd hero, is the bully becomes a one-dimensional adversary, some empty void of oppression. And in my mind for a long time that was how I looked back on my history as well.
For years I hated my childhood bullies. There were the girls in elementary school who laughed at my clothes and my knotted wild hair and told me what a failure I was at womanhood, how disgusting and low I was. I have blamed them for my inability to really see myself and my long history of self-image issues (blogged about here), along with a general lack of self-worth.They made me fearful and skeptical of other people and their intentions, and helped foster my identity as a loner.
And then there was my eighth grade bully who used to constantly harass me, telling me what a fat cow and massive nerd I was, how I would never amount to anything. At our end of year trip to the waterpark he followed me around–me in my first ever two piece swimsuit–and told me constantly how sick I made him and how much I made him want to vomit in my mouth. In my mind, there is direct causation between his abuse toward me and the beginning of my story with self-harm and disorderd eating.
I hated all these figures for a long time. They made me feel like an outsider, made me toughen up and repress my emotions as a method of coping and surviving social space as unscathed as possible.The pretty ones, the popular ones, the ones with the ability to speak unchecked were always the enemy and the root of all my problems. And this mindset is glorified in the myth of geek chic.
However, it’s not that simple.
That’s a thing I began to realize first in middle school. One of the worst of my childhood tormentors, I’ll call her Josephine, had started talking to me as a human being in middle school P.E. class. I’ll never know the exact reason why she did, but I managed that interaction with great trepidation. One day, she made an excuse to the P.E. teacher for not doing pushups because of a burn she got on her wrist cooking. I started talking about silly kitchen mishaps I had made, but she stopped me and turned to me, and confided about how she had actually had a fight with her aunt and while she was angry, she cut herself. She pulled back the bandage and showed me the prominent slice wound starting to scab over. I will never forget it. I hadn’t started abusing myself at that point and was confused and taken aback by what I saw. I didn’t get it really, but I knew it was about hurt, some deep and anxious sort of hurt I could never really access. And I began to think: maybe it’s not as simple as us versus them.
Later, in recent history, my mom told me that that girl’s mother was found chopped up in a dumpster while she was just a child. A fact I hadn’t known previously. It all started to coalesce in my mind. I’d have anger issues too if I were her.
As someone active in feminist and other social justice circles, I can say that we oftentimes forget that those on top are just as caught in whatever oppressive system as those on the bottom, that they are also witnessing and responding to social pressures–how to fit in, how to act under an ideal, how to deflect abuse by abusing others, how to channel the personal and the individual into a public space. And as children, we look to the adult world for how to behave, the necessary social structures for society to function. This is then replicated in a crude and usually harsh manner.
There’s been a lot of media coverage on bullying recently, with legitimate focus on the victims, but what about the bullies?
They’re attempting to replicate a social system they don’t quite understand with any number of motivations. Who knows what their home lives are like, or what it is they’ve witnessed or experienced. Bullies don’t come out of thin air. I must clarify that I in no way condone bullying or similar types of behavior and abuse, but I think they deserve a story too. They deserve more than some one-dimensional representation.
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, just south of Oakland. The area was mixed socioecomincally and racially. In my neighborhood alone, there was everything from first generation Americans from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands to black kids out of Oakland, from trailer trash kids to middle class kids with parents working in the tech industry. Everyone had a story that was so vastly different from everyone else’s. Looking back, I acknowledge that while I may been pushed down at the bottom of the social totem pole at school, overall I was in a position of privilege. I was one of the middle class kids. I had both parents and my parents made enough to support our family well. I was white, whereas many of my bullies were minorities around Oakland in the 80s, where there was vast discrimination and racial profiling due to gang violence and a highly prejudiced police force. A lot of these kids were dealing with a lot more in their lives than I possibly had awareness of or access to. Over the years, I’ve tried to become open to understanding and empathy.
So when I saw Jane on Facebook all these years later, I was very curious. The part of me that wanted validation was overwhelmed by a sense of humanity. I saw pictures of her, happy with her wife, and endless photos of their newborn son, interspersed with grumbles about money troubles and shout outs to friends. She was such a happy mother, overloading my feed with pictures of every little thing her son did. More importantly, I saw that she was a person, with a life complete and independent of my own. I looked back to not see a faceless bully, but a girl struggling with her sexuality and how to express it, trying to fit in and play the game of normality.
So I’ve forgiven her, along with all the rest of them. For taking out their anger on me, for enacting crude social structures that pushed me down, for preying on my blossoming social anxiety.
I forgive them for being human.
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You are amazing.
Erin. Thank you for posting this. When I was in eight grade I also had a bully and for years I had blamed him for many resulting problems in my life. This morning I found him on Facebook and after searching the subject of forgiving bullies, I found your article. It was just what I needed to hear. Wow. This has helped put thing into perspective for me. Thank you again!