An interview with my bully?
Oh, I think not.
Nearly 35 years have passed since I saw my bully in person, and if I saw her in another 35, it would be too soon.
“She’s turned nice,” someone told me about 20 years ago.
Yeah, right, I thought.
“She’s sheathed her claws a little,” another friend said, which seemed more possible than the idea of my bully having turned nice.
The girl who tormented me in junior high and high school didn’t have a nice bone in her body. She made fun of everything about me. Even then I enjoyed playing armchair psychologist, and I tried to find explanations for her behavior, but as an adolescent, it was all too easy to believe that the problem lay not with her but with me. I was inadequate. I was unattractive. I was socially awkward. I ran funny.
It was all true, but I hardly needed to have it reinforced by her constant taunting and snide comments—and her smirk. The girl never looked at me without smirking. Thinking about it 35 years later still makes me a little queasy.
“She wasn't just mean to you,” said the friend who claimed my bully had turned nice. “She was mean to everyone.”
That may have been true, too. She was the kind of person people befriended not because they liked her, but because they feared her. Either you were her friend or you were her target. I didn’t like her, and I didn’t want to be her friend. Consequently, I had a big metaphorical bull’s-eye painted on my back.
Bullying pushes my buttons, even when I’m not the target. Every time I see someone being rude to a waitress or a retail sales associate, my empathy for the person being bullied is so strong that I revert to my awkward, socially inept, unattractive, funny-running thirteen-year-old self: Stay still, don’t attract attention, pretend you’re dead, and it’ll stop.
Twenty minutes after the fact, I think of what I wish I’d said or done, and I tell myself that next time, I’ll be better prepared. Then next time comes, and I’m just as frozen as I was back in seventh grade.
This past summer, I was with a guest who was incredibly rude to a waitress at a chain restaurant. The guest was high-maintenance and had worn me out over the course of a two-day visit, so when she started in on the waitress, I huddled miserably inside myself, wanting her to stop, willing her to stop, and lacking the courage to confront her. Later, after I dropped her at her hotel, I returned to the restaurant and apologized to the waitress.
Why do I react as if the bullying is happening to me? Because it is. Bullying diminishes all of us. It’s about the strong running roughshod over the defenseless—because they can. It’s embarrassing to witness one person treating another this way.
According to Edmund Burke (possibly—there is some dispute over the attribution), “All that’s necessary is for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Regardless of who said it, I believe it. And I believe that every time a bully is allowed to indulge his or her basest instincts, evil triumphs.
What might I have said to the woman who was bullying the waitress? Maybe I could have handled the situation with humor: “Don't make me put you in time-out.” Or maybe I could have been more direct: “I know you've had a stressful day, but don’t take it out on the waitress.” Next time I hope I will have the wits and the guts to say something, to not just let it happen and later return to the scene of the crime with an apology for someone else’s behavior—as well as my own. What I was really apologizing for was the fact that I hadn’t stopped it; I hadn’t even tried.
What might I say to the woman, now 51 years old, who bullied me throughout junior high and high school? Over the years, a short, sweet “Go fuck yourself” has been tremendously tempting. But if I were to take a somewhat higher road, I might say, “I'm glad you weren’t my friend, and I’m glad I didn’t try to be yours. For one thing, I maintained some integrity. For another, if I’d fit in, I might still live in this hellhole backwater, so being a misfit actually kind of worked out for me, although it doesn’t excuse your behavior. For another, I’m a writer, and you gave me material, although I doubt you’ll recognize yourself. And, oh, yeah . . . go fuck yourself.” (It’s only a somewhat higher road. I’m a work in progress.)
What will I actually say to my bully? Not a damned word. But unfortunately, there will be a next time. Sometime, somewhere, someone will bully another person in my presence—and this time, I will speak up.