You should go read this now: Michigan teen targeted in homecoming “prank” gets last laugh.
The Cliff’s Notes version: High school sophomore Whitney Kropp was voted homecoming princess as a cruel joke. She was understandably devastated. But young Whitney is made of tough stuff, and she decided to take her place on the homecoming court with her head held high, showing her classmates that she’s “not the joke” they thought she was.
I am so in awe of this 16 year old, who has more strength and maturity than many grown women. This story has stuck with me, played on a loop in my mind, for the last two days. So significant is it that I’m breaking what would seem to be the most basic rule of a humor blog – to write funny stuff – in order to talk about it in a very serious way.
Why does this story resonate with me so strongly? The obvious answer here would be, “I was bullied as a teen, too.” But that’s actually not true. Sure, I had my share of teenage unpleasantness. But bullied? No. I was fortunate (really fortunate, considering the mind-boggling number of obnoxious and self-centered behaviors I engaged in between the ages of 13 and 18) to graduate that phase of life largely unscathed. No, this story is important to me because I experienced something that’s not often covered by the media, not identified as a Social Issue We Need To Fix, but is absolutely critical to the conversation all the same.
I was bullied as an adult.
From the age of 19 until 31, I endured a merciless, unrelenting campaign of belittling, shaming, insulting, humiliating, manipulating, isolating and tormenting, at the hands of a relative. It ended only because I severed ties with that individual; unfortunately, this act ushered in a whole new era of problems, as it caused an entire family structure to essentially implode and left others feeling the pain of a choice that they saw (and still see) solely as me being selfish and too sensitive, and not as the last-ditch attempt at self-preservation that it really was.
We don’t talk a lot about bullying amongst adults. We’re supposed to be past that stage; I remember as a kid, crying to my mom when a friend would say something mean to me, and she would always respond, “Oh honey, when you’re a grown up, you’ll see that you just don’t care that much what other people think. I wish you wouldn’t let what other people say bother you.” Especially by the time we’re old enough to have children of our own, conventional wisdom says that we should be too self-assured to let other people get under our skin. Besides, the other grown ups are expected to be mature as well – too sophisticated to pick on others or play passive aggressive games or spread mean (false) rumors. We all age into this mythical vision of adulthood, and the cognitive dissonance that results from abundant evidence to the contrary is so astonishing, that we resolve it by pretending it doesn’t exist. Never mind that on any given day all you need to do is go to a sporting event (especially a children’s sporting event), parking lot, restaurant, grocery store, or pretty much anywhere that people tend to congregate in order to witness adults verbally and emotionally abusing each other. Not going out today? That’s fine; just log into Facebook, news outlets that allow reader comments, blogs that talk about anything even remotely controversial, or the message board or your choice. Abuse abounds, and the only real difference between teen bullying and adult bullying is that we say the former is unacceptable but of the latter we take pictures and screen shots to post to the crazy-insane-shit-people-do website of the day, and call it entertainment.
Taking the blinders off the reality of adult bullying is important, for a few reasons. Firstly – and the reason that I suspect has the most traction – is because it’s no coincidence that bullying amongst kids and teens is reaching epidemic levels, that it’s starting earlier, lasting longer, and happening at extremes that exceed even the worst cases we all remember from our own childhoods. And that reason is that children are learning it from their parents, and their grandparents, and their aunts and uncles and teachers and scout leaders and family friends, and all the other adults in their lives who are either being bullied, or are bullying, or are participating in a social structure that enables bullying. Which is to say, pretty much everyone.
It is beyond useless to try to “fix” the issue of childhood bullying in a social context in which adult bullying is evident even within the public discourse about how to make the bullies stop. Remember that old “war on drugs” PSA when the father caught his son smoking pot?
“Who taught you to do this stuff?”
“You, Dad! I learned it from watching you!”
Bullying is learned behavior, and our children learn it by watching us.
The second reason we need to start talking about adult bullying is so, so simple and yet so, so hard. We deserve better. None of us deserve to be bullied. The reason this is hard is because we don’t want to admit that, as adults, we are being, or have been, bullied. This post is one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. I’m a proud woman. The fact that I was bullied, and that I allowed it to go on so long, is humiliating. Admitting it publicly is a degree of vulnerability that makes me extremely uncomfortable. When the bullying was at it’s worst, I experienced deep despair and periods of self-loathing and depression from which I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to escape; remembering those times triggers something excruciatingly painful in me, and I really don’t want to talk about it.
But I think that’s precisely why I do need to talk about it.
Like most cases of bullying, mine occurred within a social structure that passively and, I believe, at times actively, encouraged the bully. At best, we were all trapped by the bully, and observers would turn a blind eye for reasons that I find almost understandable – not wanting to rock the boat, choosing to “believe the best” of the bully, following the path of least resistance. Because one of the very reasons I was easy to bully was because I did not make a fuss. I wanted to “take the high road” and not get other people involved. “This is between her and me,” I thought. “No need to drag anyone else in.” At the time, I had a very microcosmic view of bullying; I didn’t see it as a the group activity it really is. My bully was far less reserved, and to cross her was to invoke her wrath. It’s not surprising that given the choice between making oneself a target and pretending not to know what was happening, ignorance was a far more attractive option.
This takes place every day, is taking place right now, in families, clubs, organizations, neighborhoods, and every other social structure imaginable. We raise our children within in – they watch it, soak it in, take mental notes: “This is how you treat another person. This is how you respond when you’re irritated with someone. This is how you get what you want. This is how you make someone else do what you’d like them to.”
And then we wring our hands because, in spite of inspirational speeches and moral stories in books and TV programming, kids these days just can’t seem to innovate their way to a new model of interaction.
Here’s a thought: Let’s hold ourselves to at least as high a standard as we’re holding our kids. You know what stops bullies? A generally accepted intolerance of emotional and verbal abuse (even, and maybe especially, the passive aggressive kind). When we, as adults, get our shit together and begin demanding a higher level of respect and maturity in our interactions, that’s when change will begin. Only then.
It starts by talking about it. It’s uncomfortable and painful, but there is no shame in having been bullied. I invite anyone who would like to share their experience here to do so (with or without your name), and I declare the comments on this thread to be an abuse-free zone.
And then let’s all take responsibility, not only for ourselves, but for the many social circles we move in, to uphold a higher standard. One at a time. Just one person speaking up could have saved me from the years of self-loathing I experienced as a result of the ways my bully defined me and the people around me, by their inaction, agreed. Could that single person have stopped the bullying? Probably not. It takes more than one person to shift a social dynamic. But that one person could have let me know that it was not okay and that I wasn’t alone, that I didn’t deserve to be treated that way. Whitney Kropp turned the tables on her tormenters when a small number of people in her life let her know that they had her back. After years of being frozen into my abuse, it was with the support of a few dedicated and reassuring friends that I was able to cut ties with my bully, and those people helped sustain me through the fallout that resulted. One person is all it takes.
Who can you be that one person for?