As part of our ongoing project to humanize bullies, and thereby remove some of their mythical, scary power, we’ve asked our staffers and their friends to write apology letters to people they’ve bullied. Here are those letters.
I’m sorry I made fun of you on the playground, Jennifer.
Each day at recess you carefully chose one of the balls the school offered for us to play with. You always chose a small one, and rather than play kickball or a game of catch, you cradled it tightly in your arms throughout the whole class break.
Your intense paleness and bright red hair, cropped boy-style, already made you stand out. With the addition of the ball, you completed your disregard for what my seven-year-old self understood to be social norms, and that drove me half-crazy. In my mind, you had to be stopped.
So I made fun of you, every single recess. I mimicked your lisp, and in a whiny baby voice asked if the ball was your baby. I never felt satisfied until you started to cry. I don’t know if this went on for weeks or months, but the recess monitor finally put a stop to it.
I know I didn’t like the feeling of standing out. I could read before I started school, and it made me feel freakish, not proud. I was also an only child in a community of big families, and an object of not-always-friendly curiosity for that reason too. I often wondered what was wrong with me. When I attacked you for being more unusual than me, for not seeming to share my shame in standing out, I was distracting my inner bully from picking on myself. I’m sorry.
I have to apologize to you for THE INCIDENT. You know of which I speak. As in, a series of terse emails I wrote you after you told me that you might have to back out of renting the apartment from me, because you’d become inexplicably afraid of the place, illogically convinced it was infested, or worse. It haunts me.
I say this only for context: As you know, I’m super short. In my formative years, I was absolutely, 1000% the person that got bullied. The first girl in class to be mercilessly teased for failing to meet the basic height requirements of a grade-schooler, who couldn’t do a pushup to save her life, who played basketball for three terrifying seasons without making a single basket, and what’s more, the first person in her class whose pointy little booblettes required management. On top of that, I had a maniacal best friend who was the very definition of a mean girl. She stopped talking to me for five months because I checked a book out from the library after she told me how it was the best book she ever read. “You’re such a stupid copycat baby,” she said. I was nine. Small wonder that I have tried for much of my life to cultivate a more steely reserve, an eat-or-be-eaten approach. This has sometimes manifested itself in snarky comments spoken aloud, or hastily typed. But the email sent to you was my darkest, most shameful hour. And I am coming clean.
I believe you’ve met my ex-boyfriend. Let me tell you: he is one of the best bullies I know. None are spared from his wrath. I used to think this was protection. I used to tell him he should be a bully for hire. Maybe now, after being bullied by him, I think a little bit differently. Why are we talking about him? Well, I didn’t write that email. He did. Oh, I read it. I signed my name to it, coward that I am. Then I hit send. Not even strong enough to defend myself, I employed a bully to do my bullying.
Why would I have done such a thing? The answer is simple: every bully has a bully. Someone whom they have to prove themselves to, who is examining how strong or weak they are. In the case of your email, had I relented and had you backed out of the apartment, I would have been bullied by my ex for being a pushover, or for not caring enough about moving in with him. Why would he have bullied me this way? Perhaps because he too had a bully he wanted to prove something to. Who knows? In any case, what transpired next was shameful and I think about it often with regret. Trust: I’ve even re-read our exchange and cringed about the shocking way I spoke to you.
I out myself here because, as you yourself must have surmised regarding “the incident,” I am feeble. Indeed all bullies are weak, feeble, cowardly. They shove when merely pushed because they have probably been shoved themselves. Make no mistake, all of us bullies have been bullied. By a friend, a sibling, a parent, or a significant other—and like the people we bully, we are frail. I cry at commercials, I hate The Notebook because it’s too emotionally terrifying for me, I fear I will die alone, and what is more, I’m only getting shorter and less boob-y by the day. Yet just as I know that I have the upper hand in life for having been bullied, I know that those I have bullied should rightfully feel the same about me. At the time of those emails, I was old enough to have known better. And you deserved more than a series of bitchy missives from me, who could have stood to let loose a bit more empathy in your time of trial. At the very least, you deserved a response coming from me, in my voice. And so I’d like to apologize to you.
We’re not even Facebook friends anymore, but sometimes I still visit your profile. We have similar tastes in music, which is something I wouldn’t have guessed. I’m sure if I met you today, we could be good friends.
Freshman year of high school was pretty awful for you, and that makes me feel like an asshole. I may not have been the one who broke into your locker and shoved cupcakes into the pockets of your uniform blazer before hanging it from a ceiling fan, but I didn’t stop it from happening. When the girls who were responsible told me what they had done, I said nothing in your defense. I even laughed a little bit.
When they spread rumors about you—that you smelled, that you wore too much perfume, that you were easy, that you were pregnant, that you brought alcohol to school, that you had had sex in the school bathrooms, that you were a prude, that you put on makeup in class, that you needed to wear more makeup, that you were ugly, that you couldn’t dance—I stayed quiet. I don’t know or care if any of those things were true; I just feel awful that I never told them to shut up.
I remember that my dad drove me to your house one day so we could hang out. We watched The Office and drank VitaminWater, and genuinely enjoyed ourselves. But then I found out that you liked the guy I had been infatuated with since the beginning of the year, and I hated it. I hated listening to you talk about your plans to get him to like you. I hated that I felt threatened by you.
So I did everything in my power to convince you that he hated you. I lied and manipulated. I told you that he had been the source of some of the nasty rumors about you. I don’t know, I probably told you that he thought your backpack was stupid.
My behavior was completely unjustifiable; attacking your self-esteem was easy, but the only purpose it served was to temporarily soothe my own anxieties about some manic-pixie dream bad boy. So, Jessica—I’m sorry. I sat back and allowed a group of mean girls to take advantage of your emotions, and then I did the same thing.
I feel like an idiot,
* This name has been changed.
I want to apologize for bullying you. It is the only time in my life I remember being so outwardly bullyish. I acted like I was in a bad cartoon, exhibited the kind of lame behavior you see on an episode of The Brady Bunch. That week at school I’d been the one cast out of “the group.” Shunned. You were unlucky enough to be the one that crossed my path when I was feeling down, and you seemed like a safe person to bully. I intuited that you wouldn’t fight back or hurt me. I figured I could get away with being a jerk. I was passing on the hurt caused to me by others. I was a victim who felt the need to victimize another.
But I’m not making excuses!! I need to take responsibility for my stupid behavior. To this day I carry with me the hurt and confused look you gave me, which asked: “Why are you doing this?’
I have no idea why I did this to you. I don’t blame you. You did nothing to provoke it.
Wait! Patty? Was your name Patty? All I remember is repeating your name over and over with a dumb rhyme, probably “Patty Fatty,” a taunt made all the more ridiculous by the fact that you were so slight and had pretty freckles and Ramona Quimby hair—that much I remember clearly. I couldn’t stop the mocking. I was like a monkey.
Patty (if that is indeed your name): I hope that, wherever you are in the world today, you’re happy. I truly apologize for what I did, I hope that you can understand and forgive me.
Dear Mom and Dad,
I am so sorry for treating you unkindly. I was wretched to you for the better part of five years, and you were the people who deserved it the least. I made mean remarks. I preyed on your vulnerabilities (especially unconscionable since your greatest weakness was your love and devotion to your children, a fact I cruelly exploited). I openly mocked you to my friends and blatantly disrespected you in front of other people on a regular basis.
In the years that have passed since that time, you’ve insisted I shouldn’t feel guilty, but I will always feel shame about the way I treated you. I can’t exactly explain myself, can only guess that I lashed out at you for loving me because I wasn’t sure how to love myself. When I was a teenager I felt overwhelmed by a sort of nebulous anguish that lived inside me (and still sometimes does) and rather than address it in a healthy or proactive way, I punished the two people who were the kindest to me, the most patient, the most forgiving. You loved me, and in response I treated you with contempt.
Now, I see that that the root of that contempt was fear. Fear that there was something wrong with me that couldn’t be fixed; fear that I didn’t deserve your love; fear that you were human and imperfect, and most frighteningly, mortal, a fact that meant that one day you’d die, and on that day I’d have to confront the most terrifying thing of all: living in a world without you in it.
And then Dad got sick, and those fears became inescapable and oppressive. I can only guess that I thought that if I alienated you deeply enough you’d reject me, and in turn save me from the unimaginable despair of losing you. (Logic, apparently, wasn’t my strong suit at the age of 15.) But you didn’t reject me. You took the humiliation and the abuse. You let me thrash and rage at you and still, you loved me. You let me figure it out on my own, something that I imagine was extremely difficult for you. I probably didn’t deserve the degree of kindness with which you treated me, but I needed it, desperately. You kept my head above water.
I hope that I’m able to do you justice as I continue to navigate my life. Your forgiveness humbles me. I’m so grateful that things have gotten better since those days. But I’ll never forget how I bullied and disrespected you. For that, I’m forever sorry.
You always thought we were friends, but we weren’t, and I’m sorry.
More than a month before you died, you reached out to me on Facebook. We hadn’t spoken in nearly a decade. Someone had sent you to the online writing project I’d been doing all year and you’d read some of it. You were proud of me, you wrote. You thought we were friends.
I was never a good friend to you.
People like to think that when push comes to literal shove—when someone is being bullied, beaten up, knocked around, or talked about—that they’d step up and say, “Hey guys, cut it out. Leave ’em alone.” We think we’d be the lone hero, imaginary cape flapping in the breeze, willing to lose our friends and popularity to do what’s right. Pin a medal on us for our efforts. It all seems so easy in the movies, or on Glee.
I don’t have a good excuse for how I treated you. I was young. I was the least popular and least attractive friend in a group of powerful girls. I was desperately clinging to the fact that they accepted me. I was nerdy. My “friends” routinely ridiculed me to my face for my frizzy hair, my penchant for quoting sci-fi films, my social awkwardness, and my love of writing. I was barely able to handle the sheer terror of struggling with my sexuality at a religious summer camp where I lived with these other girls. It took about seven years after attending that camp for me to come out, to myself, alone in my bedroom, and even then, it was too much.
All I wanted was to get by, to pass for normal and to be left alone. All I wanted was to fit in. I didn’t want to become you—you felt like a mirror the size of a Jumbotron reflecting all my own secret shame back at me.
You were also different, but you embraced it in a way I never did. You were confident about it. A cardinal sin among children.
Your physical difference manifested itself—you were disabled. You dared breach our popular-girl cabin with your weird prosthetic leg and your less-than-“perfect” aesthetic. You looked less than whole, but in our hearts, we were less than whole. You talked openly about your quirky interests—circus camp, acrobatics, guitar. You diminished our aloof cool by simply existing in our orbit. You had to be taken down.
And so I sat.
I sat on my bed and said nothing while they short-sheeted yours, dumping salt onto your comforter. I knew it would burn your aching stump. They sabotaged the inside of your prosthetic, too. I mocked you behind your back with them, because we all resented your “special privileges.”
I nodded when others called you a “bitch” for being so happy while so deformed. How dare you smile with a stump while we fretted and self-injured and cried over temporary pimples, bad haircuts, tweenage fat days? You reminded us how ugly we were inside. How dare you be happy.
Sometimes, you and I would talk. That’s how much of a coward I was: I pretended to be your friend to your smiling face and, as you probably suspected because you were smart, I participated in the bashing sessions the other girls would have about you. I didn’t even have enough strength to be a confrontational bully. I was scum.
Once, on a bench outside our cabin, you and I lingered after clean-up hour, talking—I don’t remember about what. I remember that I was anxious someone would see us, would think we were hanging out, would—god forbid—think we were friends.
A year ago you added me on Facebook, and wrote on my wall saying you were delighted to see an old acquaintance enjoying some success. You congratulated me on my career in writing.
According to Facebook, I waited almost a week to write back.
At 22 years old, I defaulted to being unsure if I should talk to you. I was worried people would think we were friends. Old habits.
I did write back eventually, friendly and warm. I called you “lady” as I sometimes affectionately do with female friends, told you it was nice to hear from you and asked you to update me on your life. You wrote that you were going to Atlanta to start a new job, that you were more than ready to get out of our hometown. You asked what was new with me. I didn’t respond.
A little more than a month after you wrote me, on New Year’s Eve, you died in a car accident that wasn’t your fault.
Facebook has these new, stupid “See Friendship” pages, and as I write this, I have mine and yours open in another tab. There’s no picture of us. We weren’t close. There’s only the back-and-forth comment exchange from a year ago.
I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed and this public record of what I’m capable of exists forever and you’re gone and there’s no way to fix it. I’m sorry.
“What’s new with you?” you’d asked. The question hangs there. Unanswered.
Nothing much is new with me, it seems. Nothing much, except I’m sorry.
I am sorry for my hurtful words. After a (child’s) lifetime of being bullied by you, when I was eight and you were 11, when I was stick thin and you began to grow chubby, I found a way to lash out. I discovered your Achilles’ heel, and it made me drunk with power. Running into rooms where you sat quietly watching TV, I would hiss the words I knew you hated most to hear. FAT BOY. Fat boy. Fat boy. Fat boy. Fat boy. As if I were trying to cast a spell, evoke an evil spirit. I wouldn’t stop yelling it until I provoked a reaction. I shamed you. Why on earth would I have wanted to do this? Why would I hurt you? Even though you were my brother and you made me pay for it, I loved you even then. And I knew you loved me. But we didn’t allow ourselves to show it, or maybe we didn’t know how. Instead we were cruel to each other. In my life I have earned many pet names, nicknames, from people who love me. But the name you so affectionately (in your own way) gave me when we were kids is still my favorite. Kid Whiz Kenizz. And in turn, I gave you the most scarring and hateful name I could muster. I’m sorry for that, and I love you.
K.W. Kenizz ♦
About the authors:
Lisa Prentice is an artist, vintage archivist, and wellness worker. She lives in Vancouver, BC.
Gaby Dunn is a writer, journalist, comedian and regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine. Her blog is 100interviews.com.
Taylor Brogan is a second-year political science major at the University of Chicago. She writes for inconnu magazine.
Allison lives in Los Angeles, where she writes grant proposals and music. She blogs here.
Nadiya (aka Kid Whiz Kenizz) is an actor/writer based in Vancouver, BC.
Sonja and Emily are on the Rookie staff.