I have been sitting here for 20 minutes, too ashamed of my own memories to even begin to write. It’s easy enough to write about having been bullied. In first grade, every day while waiting for the bus after school, a sixth grade girl would gather her friends around me in a circle so that the playground attendant couldn’t see what was happening, and she would punch me once, viciously, in the solar plexus. Then they would all dissipate and I would be left in pain, already dreading the next day. And I would try not to cause any trouble about it all, and be nice to that girl, because she was really big and really scary, and maybe I was lucky that it was just one punch, and contained to just that moment in time, when I had another hour’s bus ride both mornings and evenings with her.
But it is much harder to remember, and to write about, the way my little brother took the emotional brunt of me trying to make sense of being targeted, how I turned from being a reliable source of warmth and care for him to being mean gratuitously, in order to “toughen him up,” because I couldn’t stand seeing his innocence as the vulnerability in myself that I blamed as the cause for my being targeted. I wanted to somehow save him from the incomprehensible horror that I was experiencing. I was six. He was three. We were both so tiny. It makes me weep hot, angry tears of mourning and impotent anger to even ask myself to write about this. And because my shame has been so great, and has prevented me from clear understanding, it was not until working on these paragraphs that I see that my bullying of my little brother has a clear link in time to me being bullied myself. In this moment, it seems like something I have always known, but that I lost the causal link in my self-blame.
I can write about the horrifying time when all the girls but two in my fifth grade class told me that they weren’t going to talk to me any more, and about how I lived out the rest of that year in social isolation. Thank god it was spring, and there weren’t that many months of school left. I was the target of bullying and it’s okay for me to talk about that. But I don’t mention that one of the two who didn’t bully me was a full-time social outcast who I only spoke to once during my entire grade school career. How did she even survive among us? Where were the adults? Why didn’t someone save her? Why didn’t someone save us?
And I almost never speak about the next year, when I and two girlfriends made a frenzied attack on a boy we all had a crush on and physically beat and harmed him, punching him, pulling his hair, terrifyingly turning into pitiless harpies, and leaving our regular personalities behind. These are the memories that leave me unable to say “I would never do that,” about crowd behavior, looting, rioting, or bullying. I don’t have any moral high ground to stand on.
But, at the same time, I need to take a stand against us as humans targeting other humans. And I need to take a stand for support for every one of us as we try to heal and transform our world. There are neurophysiological effects of peer bullying in childhood. I have mentioned before that we can now actually find the aftereffects of abuse in the structures of our brains, and peer bullying, like parental verbal abuse, reduces volume in the areas that help us interpret our social world, process our emotional responses, perceive meaning in language and self-express. Only peer bullying happens twice as much as parental verbal abuse, so it is more common and its aftereffects receive even less attention and validation than familial trauma.
We live in a world where we are starting to be able to track and isolate the aftereffects of our actions, and to begin to acknowledge the complexity of our social interactions. I believe bewilderment is still the most common response that we have to how to begin to take a stand, to take action, to do the education, interventions and support that need to happen to transform our world. And bewilderment is most often an aftereffect of trauma – our systems shut down in shock and horror and overwhelm. As we resolve our bewilderment, our lens becomes wider. We stop targeting individuals as worthy of blame, and paradoxically become capable of supporting them in change. The terrifying 11 year-old girl who punched me lived in a home with a terrifying father who beat his children. I harmed my brother to try to keep him from harm. The 5th grade girl who led the charge to exclude me lived in a family where the children were being sexually abused. I targeted a boy that I liked because I did not know how to like someone. We all needed support. Our families needed support. Both bullies and targets need to be held differently.
Our bullying of individuals lives on in larger human patterns of racism, ageism, sexism, and other –isms, moving through us into manifestations of hate crimes and genocide. It is always our unsupported left hemispheres, acting from its belief that people are just objects and don’t actually matter. We still have very little idea how to begin to transform systems, but in order to move forward, we each need to resolve our own bewilderment, and do our own healing, so that our brains are sharp and present and willing to take action to connect and to begin to shift and mitigate the harm that trauma does in our world. We need a combination of zero tolerance of bullying, from childhood through adulthood, and support for both sides of the conflict. We need to act personally, and be open to taking action to effect systemic change. And to do this, we need to be able to recognize the patterns of abuse and bullying.