As a child, I was an easy mark for playground torments: smart, insufferably rule-abiding, decidedly unpretty. The tormenter I remember most distinctly was not my first bully, nor my last, but his attacks would turn the others into footnotes.
He was in my class for years; his mom was my softball coach, driving me to and from practice when my single mother could not. In class photos his face is round and almost cherubic, but I remember it contorted in anger as he spat insults at me, telling me to shut the hell up, flailing his hands against his chest and moaning — an approximation of what he said I sounded like. We were seated next to each other in class, year after year, and when I finally complained about this arrangement, one of my teachers said that maybe I’d be “a good influence on him.”
My proximity to his mother did nothing to protect me. Sitting in the back of her van after my team lost a softball game, he snapped: “It smells in here. Close your legs.” Reflexively, I did as he instructed. When his mother climbed into the driver’s seat a few moments later, oblivious to what had happened, he was still doubled over with laughter. I was 10.
When I returned home, tearful and broken down, I comforted myself with the idea that one day, I would be happy and successful and my bully would not. I internalized the bromide used to soothe all bullied children of my generation — the universe would mete out some sort of karmic justice. This idea is everywhere: Biff Tannen waxes George McFly’s car at the end of “Back to the Future,” having been beaten into submission (literally) years earlier. In “A Christmas Story,” Ralphie finally snaps after years of torment and attacks Farkus, who is left tearful and bleeding. Regina George — the Machiavellian queen bee in “Mean Girls” — eventually relinquishes her bullying crown, but only after she’s publicly shamed (twice) and flattened by a bus.
Now, as an adult, looking at the fate that befell my bully — a perverse fulfillment of a childhood prophesy, one that left him dead at 25 — I realize how problematic and how ingrained that thinking is. In the past few years, our culture has started to see bullying as a serious problem, one whose victims need help, support and protection. As for the bullies? They’re the bad guys. Why they bully doesn’t matter, only that they get what they deserve in the end. But this paradigm only further stigmatizes children who often need help in their own right.
The idea of cosmic retribution for bullying feels just. “It’s a natural impulse,” writes Emily Bazelon in her book “Sticks and Stones,” which looks at the culture of bullying and its consequences. According to a 2014 study that gathered data from more than 234,000 teenagers and children, victims of bullying are more than twice as likely to contemplate killing themselves than their non-bullied peers. That number goes up considerably for LGBTQ teens, who are five times more likely to commit suicide than their straight counterparts. Studies have shown that individuals who are bullied are more likely to experience low self-esteem and anxiety, more inclined to abuse alcohol and drugs, and more likely to suffer from a host of physical ailments such as headaches and sleep disturbances.
We seem well prepared to discuss the stakes of bullying. Dan Savage, the journalist and gay rights activist, launched the It Gets Better Project in 2010 after a rash of suicides by teenagers who were bullied because they were gay or because their peers thought they were. The Obama administration established a Bullying Prevention Task Force, and by 2015, all 50 states had passed some form of school anti-bullying legislation. Celebrities from Justin Timberlake to Tyra Banks have shared their stories about being victims.
But the idea that bullies themselves might be more than one-dimensional villains is harder to swallow, especially for those of us who’ve dealt with them. “Who doesn’t want to wring the neck of the thug who punches a weaker kid in the face, or the mean girl who starts a hateful gossip thread on Facebook?” writes Bazelon. The Internet is rife with stories of bullies getting their comeuppance, from viral videos of little kids fighting back to Reddit threads describing justice doled out against an antagonizer. “It’s an age-old story — the idea of bullies getting theirs,” says Meghan Leahy, a licensed school counselor and parenting coach. “It’s a very human part of us that likes revenge.”
In this respect, we’re embodying one of the key characteristics of bullies — we’re acting without empathy, says Leahy, who has written about changing the way she looks at bullies. Nobody wants to extend sympathy to a tormenter. The trouble is, school and neighborhood bullies aren’t adults. They’re kids, and many are grappling with their own problems. In 2008, the Institute of Education in London published a report that found that bullies had higher levels of anger, depression, emotional disaffection, paranoia and suicidal behavior. Other studies have found that as they grow up, bullies tend to have more trouble keeping jobs, have more problems with alcohol and drugs, and are more likely to have criminal records. A large number of bullies are also victims of bullying, meaning they face some of the same pathologies that they induce in others.
“These kids have been told that they’re worthless, that they’re stupid. They’re dealing with trauma, and they don’t have the social skills to process it. Punishing them just makes it worse,” says Julietta Skoog, a school psychologist with Seattle Public Schools and co-founder of Sproutable, a company that creates video-based parenting tools. “It’s never just ‘I feel like being a jerk.’ ”
I never could have imagined feeling empathy for the boy who made my life hell, or for any bully. During that period, my mother was dealing with her own abuse, at the hands of a man with whom she’d been romantically involved for several years. He fluctuated between charming and volatile. When on one of his violent tirades, he would yell, throw objects and furniture, punch holes in the walls of our home and tear doors off their hinges.
At the time, I’d never seen my mother’s boyfriend hit her, but my bully, who lived nearby, had witnessed it. He saw him pull my mother from her vehicle and throw her to the ground. The next day at school, he told everyone within earshot the story of how my mother “got her ass beat.” He laughed through his impersonation of her, lying on the ground whimpering. Until that moment, I’d believed my mother when she told me that her bruised face was a result of “walking into a door.”
Even though it was the final year that my bully and I would share a class — he was held back, I moved on to the sixth grade, I gave up softball for soccer, and my last ties to him were severed — I continued to hate him.
As the years passed, those promises of karmic justice, given to me in childhood, came true. I went to college on a full ride. I graduated with honors and became a professional writer. My mother eventually extricated herself from her abusive relationship. Determined not to follow in her footsteps, I sought out soft-spoken men who never yelled. I met and married someone wonderful. Everything turned out better than I could have dared hope.
I occasionally searched for my bully online, determined to see my story to its promised end, to relish all the ways my life was better than his. A 2013 study found that bullying victims tended to be more successful than their antagonizers in adulthood: They made more money, had more friends and were far less likely to be convicted of a crime (though they still fared worse than those who had never been bullied).
In 2010, after years of finding nothing, I learned from a friend that my bully had been murdered in his home not far from where we grew up. Consumed by the story, I pored over every news article on his death I could find. He had been dealing pot and was killed in a robbery gone wrong. One of the murderers had been his childhood friend.
I read that he had anticipated an attack. His friends said he was so terrified in the weeks leading up to his murder that he’d slept with a hammer under his pillow. I was haunted by what I imagined his final moments were like, by how scared he must have been. I cried for the boy who had made me so miserable.
Now I had to wonder: What kind of fate would I have considered sufficient retribution? Would I have been satisfied if he was merely unsuccessful or unhappy? What sentence are we comfortable bestowing upon a fifth-grader for his crimes? What’s the statute of limitations for revenge?
Bazelon calls this a dangerous side of our newfound focus on bullying: When we think we know who the bullies are, the drive to condemn and punish spins out of control. I wanted my childhood bully’s life to turn out rotten, but when it actually happened, it didn’t feel like justice had been served. It simply felt like I’d watched a building collapse in slow motion. The cracks in the foundation started long ago.
If right-thinking people want to care about bullying as a social problem, we need to see some nuance. Look at every bully and their victim, and you’ll often find two kids who need help, not just one.
“Bullies are often the kids that are hard to love,” says Skoog. “That’s where the hard work is.”
My bully ridiculed me for having a mother who was a victim of domestic violence. He was dead at 25. I think of his anger, his struggles in school, his unhinged rage, all at the tender age of 11. I look at the narrative we are so often told as children — that our lives will be wonderful and our bullies’ lives will not, and I see the error in thinking that a troubled child somehow deserves a terrible fate. “Ignore him, and he’ll go away,” adults told me. In the end, they were right.