I was bullied extensively between the ages of 11 and 16 or 17. For much of this time I almost permanently had bruises on both thighs and upper arms. Accompanying the physical abuse was ongoing taunting that undermined every aspect of my appearance, where I lived, my sexuality, and anything else that was the flavour of the moment. It was a truly horrible experience for which I could find neither explanation nor resolution, and which cast shadows over my life for years afterwards.
Bullying (at schools) is in and out of local newspapers on a regular basis. The most recent involved the perpetrator getting quite badly burnt as a result of the victim striking back by tossing a cup of very hot coffee over him.
Eleven years ago, when my alma mater was similarly in the news over a bullying incident, I was moved to writing a letter to the editor of The Cape Times, in which I said:
“Know that bullying is abuse, and that this extremely traumatic experience leaves deep scars in ones’ sense of self-worth, partially because the absence of a logical explanation for the cause of this abuse means that the abused takes on the responsibility (or guilt) for the abuse. When that point is reached, the abuse has come full circle, for the undermining of self continues even in the absence of direct action by the perpetrator. The abused walks through life expecting – like a cowering dog – to be struck at any point. Assertive response becomes paralysed.
“I grappled for years with the reasons why my peers should want to bully me. Not only did I not have an answer, but no-one seemed to be able to help me to prevent it from continuing. The lack of power implicit in being abused is amplified by not being able to do anything about it.”
Several years later my mother asked me a question which at the time struck me as being possibly the most insensitive thing any person had ever said to me. She asked me why I’d allowed myself to be bullied. There were many layers to my immediate emotional response, but the moment of clarity I reached after a little while was that I must have allowed the abuse because it confirmed whatever image I had of myself at the time.
I realise it’s perhaps wrong to cast a victim in the role of having ‘wished it upon himself’, but I do believe that self-image plays a very big role in these matters
However, this insight didn’t quite get me to the point of squaring the circle. That arose a few years later, in 2004, when I took part in our 20-year reunion activities. Anticipating meeting up with old classmates, much of the getting-bullied stuff rose to the surface of my consciousness. I toyed with the idea of distributing a message in which I brought to the bullies’ attention the hurt they had caused me. Eventually I did nothing, and just pitched up for the activities
As luck would have it, one of the old classmates in my four-ball at the weekend’s golf is now the housemaster of the same boarding house we were all in. We chatted about bullying, which enabled me to see that for kids it’s a kind of sport – an unfortunate one – to seek out those who are weaker and to pounce on them. It’s not nearly as personal as I had thought it was. Finally, the school these days operates a zero-tolerance attitude towards bullying, which is widely known amongst the pupils
The implication of this is that victims know that what’s happening to them is wrong, and that there are support structures in place. When I was getting bullied I didn’t feel I had anyone to turn to.
In the months afterwards I bumped into a couple of old classmates who had declined to take part in the reunion, because of their unhappiness about getting bullied (needless to say, I thought I had it much worse than they did). I had a sense that their feelings of bitterness about the entire episode have kept part of their beings forever trapped in that space.
The little boy I was in the late 70s and early 80s will never have the opportunity of striking back in such a way as to forever put a stop to the attacks of other boys. But I do have the opportunity of choosing to live without that umbra continuously bringing fear and weakness into my thoughts and deeds. Meeting up with everyone for the reunion helped me to release the negative feelings I’d carried with me into adulthood
My message to others who’ve been through similar experiences is that this is not a burden that needs to be carried by the victim for the rest of time. If you are a victim of abuse you’ve suffered more than enough already.