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Why Being Bullied Hurt Me More Than Being Sexually Assaulted

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Back in 2014, when I was working as a substitute teacher, a principal called me into her office. She wanted me to know that an incident I’d referred to as “bullying” was not bullying, and that what I’d seen did not fall into the category of persistent harassment that would require a school response. “Well, the entire class kept screaming at Fred and saying things like, “I hope you die, Fred, and…”

“That’s not bullying,” she told me. Then she said, “Fred might seem sweet, but he’s very manipulative. He provokes the other students.”

Part of me wanted to shoot back, “You’re right, let’s not do anything, let’s wait until Fred has PTSD.” Instead, I nodded my head and left her office. Then I quietly filed a bullying report.

This encounter reminded me of how easy it is for people in power to circumvent systems that are put in place to protect vulnerable people. Moreover, as a survivor of bullying, it struck me as tantamount to blaming a sexual abuse victim for an assault, and reminded me of a dichotomy I’d drawn in my own mind many times.

When I was 5, a neighbor molested me in the woods behind my house. This is certainly a terrible thing to happen to a 5-year-old, but I don’t remember most of that experience. I have a hazy memory of interacting with him and telling my parents, but other than that, the experience wasn’t really a part of my life growing up.

That is until it became a metaphor for the bullying I had experienced as a child around age 17. To my family’s horror, I began ruminating over the event over and over again in order to articulate why I felt so depressed all the time. In college, I wished there was a support group for survivors of bullying, but there wasn’t one, so I attended one for sexual assault victims instead. I concluded that if the bullying could not have caused my mental state, it must have been the assault. However, as an adult, I realized I was right the first time. It wasn’t the assault that was haunting me, it was the bullying I went through.

There are many reasons why those experiences were worse than the assault. First of all, I remember all of the extreme bullying very clearly. I remember the specific episodes, the words, the physical contact, the embarrassment, shock and confusion I felt. When I was assaulted, I didn’t understand what was happening. Moreover, there was no one nearby who could have stopped what happened. No adults stood by and watched while he did it, or told me afterwards that “a little sexual assault” was good for me. Hence, that experience didn’t make me feel betrayed by an authority figure.

Similarly, the experience with my neighbor happened once and then it was over. In contrast, I interacted with my bullies six hours a day at least five days a week. The bullying I went through happened at school, at church, during after school activities, and at camp in another state. I would be peeling an orange at lunchtime and another student would come over to my table to tell me that she hated me and the whole school hated me. I didn’t spend any time wondering what I did to make my neighbor molest me. In contrast, I remember wracking my brain for reasons why so many people hated me, and ways I could make it stop. Was I just “vulnerable” because of my cognitive disability? Where the other children sociopaths? Would it stop when I got older, as many adults assured me? I got my answer: no.

When I was molested, I was believed and supported. I also didn’t see my mother have to attempt to circumvent parents, school personnel and camp counselors who wouldn’t do anything about it, which is what happened in the course of the bullying. My parents and I loved each other more than anything, and I struggled to forgive the bureaucratic selfishness that subjected my family to that pain. You don’t need to be bullied to develop the accurate understanding of authority as bureaucratic and corrupt, but those experiences took away any doubts I might have had about that impression.

Those experiences were also fundamental in shaping my spiritual life and my perceptions of good and evil. For instance, in 1995 another girl was following me around incessantly, coldly calling me a “retard” and making death threats. I tried the old hat trick of ignoring her, but no matter how much I tried to focus on the trees or the ground instead of her voice, she kept at it. Finally, I faced her and demanded, “Why are you doing this to me?”

“Because it’s fun,” she said flatly. “It’s funny! And I like it.” In contrast to the scientific explanations for cruel behavior that predominate in contemporary society, that experience reified my existing belief in the demonic. The act of tormenting someone for one’s own gratification is evil. It was easier to imagine my sexual assailant as a confused and wounded soul who made a tragic mistake than it was to extend that same consideration to my bullies. The assault was a terrible thing, but I didn’t spend hours trying to understand it as a cross prepared for me at the foundation of the world, or see forgiving the perpetrator as a specific task Jesus exhorted me to accept. The assault also didn’t cause a memory of what I experienced as a crack in my Christian convictions when I finally broke down during an episode of bullying and screamed, “I hate you!”

Those kinds of experiences also had a formative impact on how I regard human nature, and what political positions I take as a result. Pretty much all of my disability rights activism has been influenced by them at one time or another. That isn’t inherently bad, but none of those distinct beliefs were forged by my molesting neighbor.

These experiences form the background of my belief that preventing bullying is a major social justice issue. I wish bullying was treated seriously enough for there to be support groups for survivors, so we could have a place to process our grief. Healing from bullying shouldn’t be a patchwork effort. Although school responses to bullying have evolved over the years, society still misunderstands and fails to address the seriousness of the experience. It remains too easy for people in authority to abuse loopholes and circumvent them, leaving students to go through the same pain my family and I experienced.

Children like my student Fred have a right to be protected from that abuse. No 9-year-old should have to be at risk of sitting in therapy when he’s 17, much less when he’s 32, trying to figure out why he feels so bad. As responsible citizens of a free society, we have the capacity to do better than that.

Getty image by Chameleon’s Eye.

Originally published: November 5, 2018
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