“Sym­pa­thy for My Bully”



AS A CHILD, I WAS AN EASY MARK for play­ground tor­ments: smart, in­suf­fer­ably rule-abid­ing, de­cid­edly un­pretty. The tor­men­tor I re­mem­ber most distinctly was not my first bully, nor my last, but his at­tacks would turn oth­ers into foot­notes.

He was in my class for years. 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 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 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.”

It didn’t work. His mom was also my soft­ball coach, driv­ing me to and from prac­tice when my sin­gle mother could not. Sit­ting in the back of his mother’s 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, obliv­i­ous to what had hap­pened, he was still dou­bled over with laugh­ter. I was ten.

WHEN I WOULD re­turn home af­ter one of my bully’s taunts, tear­ful and bro­ken down, I’d com­fort 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: Bully 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.

Even to­day, 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.”

That seems only fair, right? Af­ter all, the bul­lies are the bad guys. 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 as their non­bul­lied peers. Other stud­ies have shown that peo­ple 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.


DUR­ING THE PE­RIOD when I was be­ing bul­lied, 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. He would yell, throw fur­ni­ture and other ob­jects, 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 seen him pull my mother from her ve­hi­cle and throw her to the ground. The next day at school, my bully told ev­ery­one within earshot the story. 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.”

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 fi­nally 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. 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 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 had be­come 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?

I wanted my bully’s life to turn out rot­ten, but when it ac­tu­ally hap­pened, it didn’t feel like jus­tice had been served. It felt like I’d sim­ply watched a build­ing col­lapse in slow mo­tion. The cracks in the foun­da­tion had started long ago.

In the past few years, our cul­ture has started to see bul­ly­ing as a se­ri­ous

prob­lem, one whose vic­tims need help, sup­port, and pro­tec­tion. But if right-think­ing peo­ple want to care about bul­ly­ing as a so­cial prob­lem, we need to see some nu­ance. Look at ev­ery bully and his or her vic­tim and you’ll of­ten find two kids who need help, not just one.

As they grow up, bul­lies tend to have trou­ble keep­ing jobs, of­ten have prob­lems with al­co­hol and drugs, and are more likely to have crim­i­nal records. A large num­ber of bul­lies are also vic­tims of bul­ly­ing.

The idea that bul­lies them­selves might be more than one-di­men­sional vil­lains is hard to swal­low, es­pe­cially for those of us who’ve dealt with them. I never could have imag­ined feel­ing em­pa­thy for the boy who made my life hell, or for any bully.

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.


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