For the fourth installment of our series attempting to make bullies less ABSTRACT and more HUMAN (i.e., more like what they actually are), we asked former bullies to confront their victims and have a conversation about what happened. Here are two of those conversations.
Stephanie and Kim
During my junior year of high school I bullied Kim, a girl who hung out in the same crowd as I did. A lot of the drama was triggered by Greg,* a boy I had dated who emotionally and sexually abused me and played mean “jokes” on Kim, too. Kim and I ended up working things out later that year and became friends, but I never felt like I’d fully apologized or resolved things with her. I asked her to talk to me about the situation. We did so over Facebook chat. Here’s how it went down:
STEPHANIE: We should probably start by talking about what we remember about what happened.
KIM: Sure. Would you be willing to start?
STEPHANIE: OK, so at the end of my sophomore year—your freshman year—there were all these rumors going around about me that I was a slut and a junkie. I was dating Greg at the time and he told me that you were the one spreading them. Acacia* had also heard from Greg that you had called her a slut. It hurt me horribly because I’d been bullied so often in junior high. So, the following year, she and I both started the really childish activity of screaming at the top of our lungs every time you entered a room. I also said a bunch of nasty shit about you in my zine because I thought you’d slut-shamed me. Of course, I then did the really un-feminist thing of talking about you having an eating disorder. It actually makes me sick. It’s probably the most awful, evil thing I’ve ever done. And I should add that you did not spread the rumors. Greg spread them, as we figured out when we finally TALKED.
KIM: I remember being so confused because you were the other girl I knew who was pretty into Riot Grrrl, but I wasn’t really experiencing empowering sisterhood.
STEPHANIE: Yeah, my behavior totally went against everything I learned from Riot Grrrl.
KIM: I remember it being really hard, but also sadly supporting the sense I had that all the things I feared were true were true: I did not have friends, people were talking about me behind my back, I was not loved.
STEPHANIE: I’m so ashamed of myself for making you feel that way, especially since I felt that way myself throughout the whole rumor ordeal and just so often in my life in general.
KIM: It also felt like I didn’t have any girlfriends. All of my close friends were boys, but not in a romantic sense.
STEPHANIE: Umm, you just described a lot of my life. Until I met Acacia, most of my girlfriends often turned on me. That was what was so messed up about all of this. We were so alike, but I took what a horrible boy said as gospel and treated you like I had always hated being treated and it prevented us from being as close as we could have been. I thought what I was doing was justified when I thought you called me a slut, which is crap on two levels. One, I should have just confronted you and said, “Hey, did you say this about me?” and two, even if you had, accusing you of having an eating disorder was not the way to deal with that.
KIM: It would have taken a lot of guts to confront me. Like, a ton of guts. So I understand why you didn’t do it. Part of what is so hard about being a teenage girl is confronting adult issues with childlike behavior. We don’t know how to deal with anything maturely. I mean, neither do most adults, but… We certainly weren’t taught this in school and I had a shitty relationship with my mom. We weren’t given the tools. It also shows how, sadly, Riot Grrrl as we knew it was much more about consumption and aesthetics and music and fashion than empowerment. Like you said, two things that we wanted to be radical about—sex and our bodies—were the sharpest weapons, the most vicious fights. ’Tis patriarchy, you know?
STEPHANIE: That is all definitely true and really sad. I was scared to confront you and ask about the rumors because—and here is the kicker—I wanted to be friends with you soooooo bad, but I kind of assumed you would hate me and I was too shy to actually try to interact much. Then when Greg said what he did, it was junior high all over again, so I thought I’m gonna be tough this time and tough meant treating you like shit. And I don’t think I entirely understood feminism and Riot Grrrl and patriarchy at the core because I was so hung up on my own self-esteem issues and jealousies that I really couldn’t be as empowered as I wanted to be.
KIM: We were so caught up in our own depression and self-shame. It’s the whole theory versus practice thing. The two weren’t really in sync so we were talking the talk, but not actually feeling it. It was so confusing! I really tried to “cure” my eating disorder by internalizing Nomy Lamm and all this other body-positive stuff I found. Listen Up! Voices From the Next Feminist Generation was my most dog-eared book in high school, but all it did was make me feel like an intellectual failure because I couldn’t change the way I felt.
STEPHANIE: Exactly. That was my most dog-eared book, too! And I felt the same way, but about cutting. And the rumors. So I just reacted. I was like, “Someone is calling me a slut and that someone must go down.” And probably, in the back of my mind, I thought Greg might be to blame, but it was easier to take you on. I did exactly what my past bullies did to me: chose someone who seemed like they might not fight back.
KIM: But that is so typical. I was remembering being bullied in elementary school when things were really, really bad. When I had the chance to pick on the few people lower on the totem pole than I was, I totally joined in because it was a chance to exert the power that is usually wielded against you. People who are bullied are more likely to bully because of that.
STEPHANIE: I agree.
KIM: Divide and conquer—it is easier to make women fight amongst themselves. Oldest trick in the book.
STEPHANIE: And that is totally what Greg did because he was so powerless. He did it to me and Acacia, too.
KIM: At the time, did you have a sense of why he did it? Or was he just being Machiavellian? Or was it just a really complicated underhanded way of being abusive?
STEPHANIE: God, I have pondered that for so long. I don’t know if he had the same fucked-up self-esteem issues as the rest of us or what. But it was definitely a part of the way he abused me. He was all about control. He did not want me to be friends with you so he told me all of these lies. The thing is, for some reason, after the relationship ended and I started to realize he was abusive, I kept believing them.
KIM: My longest ongoing nightmare is that all of my relationships—friends, lovers, even my parents and relatives—are revealed to be fake, orchestrated by everyone involved as a cruel joke on me. And I’m sure his bullshit influenced the building of that narrative.
STEPHANIE: I’m sure it is, too. I didn’t find out about what he had done to you before he and I started dating until you and I finally talked. I heard a little of it, but he was like “Kim couldn’t take a joke.” I think he had to demonize you to me because otherwise I might pull back and think, “Hey, this guy abused another woman, what might he do to me?”
KIM: He was right, though, I couldn’t take a joke. Too sensitive.
STEPHANIE: I was, too, and still am, but it doesn’t give people like him the right to do what he did.
KIM: It is all so sad. I feel like if I could communicate anything about bullying/feuds, etc., to teen girls now it would be A) that it ruins what could be good relationships, and wastes time on what could be fun, productive, exploratory times and B) that it has lasting effects. We’re in our 30s and while we’re able to look back at it and discuss it with wisdom, it definitely had lasting effects. Sometimes I really can’t believe that we made it though our teens and lived to tell the tale. It was vicious!
STEPHANIE: I would agree with both of those things. Especially when I look back and see all we had in common. We should have been best friends. But I took a rumor as a reason to bully you. And part of that may have been Greg’s fault, but I’m still responsible for what I did. I would add that this goes to show what bullies are: scared girls like me. Girls who are afraid of having no friends, who have lost control of their own lives, who are severely depressed, who take charge by hurting someone else.
KIM: Totally. And it’s also bullying yourself on some level, taking out your anger at yourself on someone who is not-quite-you, but pretty close.
STEPHANIE: Oh god, that is scary true. I don’t think I even made that connection.
KIM: What do you feel are the repercussions of this in your life today?
STEPHANIE: That’s a great question. I can answer it on a few levels. The short answer is that, deep down, I still feel like that scared girl. I’m still scared my friends will just disappear or that the people I love will turn on me. I’ve learned to stop, take a deep breath and actually ask instead of assume, though.
KIM: Confrontation is easier when you are fueled by righteous indignation!
STEPHANIE: Oh yeah. It was way easier to be indignant about being called a slut and lash out than to go up to you and ask if you had said anything about me. It was seriously brave of you to email me to tell me off after I wrote that zine article. To get back to the repercussions, I have to say that even though we had this conversation all those years ago—or some version of it—I honestly still wasn’t sure we were friends.
KIM: I am sure that I didn’t help with that impression. And this isn’t said with any anger, but you writing about my eating disorder was a fucked-up reinforcement.
STEPHANIE: I know and that’s why, like I said earlier, it is the worst thing I’ve ever done to anyone. And that’s why I wasn’t sure you’d forgiven me completely. And you don’t have to. But I am glad we can at least talk and so forth now.
KIM: Well, you peaked with that early and have gotten to enjoy being a better person as an adult!
STEPHANIE: Ha, I guess that is true! I’m trying, at least.
KIM: It’s funny, I’m actually a HUGE grudge-holder on behalf of other people, but not myself. I feel kind of bad that it has tugged at your heart as much as it has.
STEPHANIE: I am the same way in terms of grudges. And I think it tugged at my heart because I knew I hurt someone in such a nasty way. I hope that at least knowing how much it hurts me makes you know you are a valuable person. And thank you for not holding a grudge.
KIM: Thank you. Thank you for your apology, and for valuing me. Truly.
*Name has been changed.