Am I Bullied by the Past? Or Just by My Memories?
In the very early days of Facebook, back when people “poked” each other, I received two friend requests, both from women I’d originally met in Grade 8. Both sent me chatty messages, congratulating me on the arrival of my new baby, commiserating about the trials of integrating newborns into the emotional lives of their toddler siblings, and updating me on their whereabouts, relationships and careers over the previous 20 years.
The irony of their sweet messages wasn’t lost on me. In the eighth grade, I’d been the new kid, parachuted across the country from my tiny, all-girls, private-school class in Vancouver, British Columbia, to a public junior high in suburban Toronto. I was awkward, friendless, and scared, all of which was likely noted by the group of girls I half-fell in with. I spent that year in a state of watchfulness, arriving at school each morning wary about how my status in the group might have shifted overnight.
Toward the end of the year, an anonymous, handwritten note appeared in my art folder. The letter, written in a half-dozen or so different colors of ink and scripts, served to list my many and varied faults (I was conceited; I wore too much eyeliner), and to let me know that everyone in the class hated me.
Today, I remember what the letter looked like, but only a few, specific, scraps of what it actually said (“You should be shot and pissed on, and not in that order”; “Everyone is in on this”; and, on the outside of the note, “SWAB: Sealed with a Booger”). I remember huddling in the bathroom with my closest friend, a girl similarly on the outskirts, letting her read it. I remember crying in my bedroom later that evening, and also watching myself cry in the mirror, noting the way my excessive eyeliner smudged around my eyes in a little mask of grief, acting out my misery and helplessness for an audience of one. Later that evening, I burned the note in my backyard. You could do that then, when hate letters were still written on paper.
I remember the way that group of girls and their hangers-on confronted me during the school’s track and field day a few days (or was it weeks?) later, as we all waited for the long-distance runners to cross the finish line. (I remember that Kim Grootveld finished first; she always did.) I remember the way I stood there while they outed themselves as the authors of the letter, unapologetic and self-righteous. I remember the nervous giggling, the way only one girl spoke up against the group (“You don’t do that. You just don’t do that!” she said, patches of red flaming across her cheeks), the way I almost immediately regretted (and still regret) not punching the instigator — a tiny, pretty, girl with braces and permed hair — in the face.
I posted the interview on Facebook. You know what happened next. You know it in the way that my 14-year-old self knew, before unfolding it, exactly what that piece of paper with its “Sealed with a Booger” warning would say.
The two women who friended me on Facebook all these years later were part of that group. And as I read their messages and looked at pictures of their babies and husbands, I wondered at their gall, at the denial or the chutzpah or the obliviousness that allowed them to reach out, even though the last time they’d written to me it had been anonymously, in different-colored inks. Were they past it and assumed that I was, too? Were they embarrassed and decided not to bring it up? Was it simply that they didn’t remember?
I remembered. And, clearly, I wasn’t past it.
Still, I wrote back to both of them, chatted about babies and toddlers and careers. But — because I am a writer, and you don’t fuck with writers — I also wrote an essay about it all, in the form of an open letter to the two of them as stand-ins for that entire group of bullies. That essay, my open letter, was published, several years later, in a junior-high English textbook, a fact that pleased me to no end. It felt like the closing of a circle. My letter was both a long-overdue response to theirs to me in eighth grade and a meditation on the entire situation, on those two radically different forms of communication, two decades apart. I’d learned a lot in those intervening years, and the incident in Grade 8 had shaped my perspective and my career, given me more empathy and insight, become an asset rather than a liability. Maybe my words, my experiences, would help another 14-year-old girl who was being bullied. I read the essay at an event I’d been asked to organize at the feminist bookstore (this was in 2012, back when Canada still had feminist bookstores). To publicize the reading, my local public radio station interviewed me about the piece, and the incident.
And, of course, to promote the reading, I posted the interview on Facebook.
Of course I did.
You know what happened next. You know it in the way that my 14-year-old self knew, before unfolding it, exactly what that piece of paper with its “Sealed with a Booger” warning would say. You know, as I knew would likely be the case, that at least one of the two women would see the posting, and listen to my radio spot.
“I enjoyed listening to your interview,” one of them wrote to me in a private Facebook message. “I hope I wasn’t the bully… I really don’t remember much about junior high… but if it was me… I’m sorry!”
“So,” began my response to her, the one I had already begun to craft in my head, just in case, even before I recorded the interview, “I don’t remember ever writing an e-mail I feel more awkward about, but…”
What followed was a flurried, emotional, exchange. I thanked her for the apology, but said there really wasn’t much left to forgive. She dug out and looked through her old junior-high yearbooks (I had long ago recycled mine): I signed hers in eighth grade, she reported, and there was a picture of the two of us from Grade 9. She wanted to know if I would call her. She’d understand, she said, if I didn’t want to talk about things, but suggested that at the very least it might provide me with some interesting writing material — “and help alleviate this horrible feeling that I now have.”
Later that evening, she wrote again: “I’m still shocked and feel such empathy for you and how it has affected you… I have been crying for an hour and feel so bad that I was the one to cause you such pain during junior high school… I really don’t remember […] but wow … such shock because that is so not the person I am or the person I want my kids to be!!”
The intensity of her reaction struck me. On the one hand, I suppose it was what I wanted all along: the acknowledgment, the apology, the remorse. On the other, for all my you don’t fuck with writers bravado, I felt kind of bad. Yes, she had bullied me in eighth grade, participated in an unwarranted act of cruelty that scarred me deeply. But we were grown-ups now, parents. Maybe I could’ve cut her adolescent self some slack. I didn’t regret writing the essay — there would be very little art in the world if people didn’t write about pain and past trauma — but I began to wonder about the ethics of publicizing it without at least a cursory heads-up. “I realize I’ve dropped a bit of a bomb on you,” I wrote to her the next morning. “I’m sorry about that.”
The fact that she didn’t remember was in itself humbling, and slightly instructive. This thing I had carried around with me, this letter, the shot and pissed on and SWAB, this formative experience of my adolescent life: it was just a blip to someone else. There’s a theory that people stop developing emotionally at the point of their most significant trauma — was I doomed to be forever 14, staring into the mirror at my smudged eyeliner and wondering why I never fit in? Possibly more worrisome: was there a fortysomething woman out there who still had a sore spot from something cutting or cruel I said or did and no longer remembered?
“For what it’s worth, I don’t think of either of us as the same person as we were in eighth grade. I have my own stuff to answer to,” I wrote to her. “It was a strange time, adolescence. My memories are my own and mediated by so many things that only I’m aware of. And now they’ve collided with yours.”
More precisely, it seemed, my memories had collided with the absence of hers. “How could she not remember?” I asked another one of our junior-high classmates — that same girl with whom I had huddled in the school bathroom, who had witnessed so much of the dynamic. We were drinking sangria on a patio in Toronto, 30 years after the fact. I’d shown her the essay, told her about the exchange.
She sighed. “I have no idea.” Our own friendship had waned by the time we reached high school; we’d only recently reconnected as adults, and then only after acknowledging our mutual wariness around each other, as touchstones for that painful time. We agreed that the woman in question had never been one of the truly “mean girls” in junior high. If anything, she was a bystander, to use the terms now in vogue around bullying: if not entirely helpful, at least not explicitly antagonistic. Could I say much better about my own self at 13, 14, 15? Could I say the same about the version of me at summer camp in 1985 who had, say, thrown a razor at the girl in my cabin whose mom had never shown her how to shave her armpits? (Does that girl-now-woman remember that, today, every time she showers? Will I, now, too? Do I deserve to? Does she? For what it’s worth: Leanne, I’m sorry.)
And so, I let it go. I’d offered to have that phone conversation with my Facebook friend, but in the end she declined. “I feel much better […] and am quite secure in the person I am today and the positive energy and enthusiasm I give out to others around me,” she had ultimately written to me. “I’m fine about all this — don’t give it another thought.”
And yet, here I am, now the mother of a fourth-grader and a seventh-grader, giving it yet another thought.
Really, I thought I’d finally let it go, too; thought that I was done mining this particular vein of my adolescent psyche for material. But then the same woman I’d drunk sangria with on that patio sent me a link to Heavyweight, a podcast by Jonathan Goldstein in which — “like a therapist with a time machine” — he accompanies people on journeys back to particular, unresolved moments in their personal histories and attempts to address, or redress, those moments.
“You need to listen to this,” she said, of “Julia,” the particular episode she’d flagged: Julia was a woman about our age, today a successful writer. She, too, had been bullied by a group of girls in Grade 8 — in her case at a prestigious private school in Montreal. The girls who tortured her did things like remove her desk from their homeroom. They stared at her and took studious notes every time she scratched her nose or raised her hand in class. They created a book in which they listed all the things they hated about her. In the end, she’d finally switched schools in order to leave behind the abuse.
I am learning that memory is malleable. Yes, painful things happen, and they become part of our stories. And those stories shape who we are. There’s danger, though, in accepting those stories as gospel.
Over the course of the podcast, Julia tracks down and confronts the girls in her eighth-grade class to ask them what they remembered about that year, and one specific incident in particular. Over and over, the response is the same: Nothing. I’m sorry, but I really don’t remember. Only one other girl, who’d developed a lifelong eating disorder after her treatment by the same group, recalled the bullying, and then only vaguely. I listened, incredulous at both the similarities and the collective lack of memory. Were they lying? Had they suppressed it? Was this a thing? Was I simply part of a larger, Breakfast Club demographic, one of thousands of Ally Sheedy’s hashing and rehashing the cruelties of oblivious Molly Ringwalds?
Or, was there a different dynamic at stake? Like Julia’s classmates, my Facebook friend swore she didn’t remember. Could it be that maybe, my memories were flawed, too? I’d held on to the story for decades, but what in the way of evidence did I have? Even if I hadn’t burned it, the letter itself was anonymous. If I came across it now, suddenly, would I really recognize it? Or has it, as memories do, morphed from its original into a simulacrum, the story of it more alive than it ever was?
In my mind’s eye, the letter is hefty, pages and pages of insults. But really, if I try to sift through the layers and the years, it couldn’t have been more than a single, folded, page, eight or nine sentences, something thrown together at the end of Social Studies and before gym, passed around to whomever happened to be seated within an eight-desk radius. Yes, of course it was a deliberate act, but it was also random, spontaneous. Yes, my Facebook friend had been part of the group of girls I hung out with, fell in with. Yes, I’m nearly, fairly certain that she was part of that heightened group at track and field day, but I don’t know for sure.
And the more I think about it, the less I can say with any certainty that she had anything to do with writing the letter. The more I think about it, the more I go over and over the names — Bo, Celia, Kerry, Renée, Melissa,— of the girls who definitely, who must have, contributed, the more convinced I am that I was wrong about her involvement.
In other words, I think I forgot.
When I wrote my essay, I wanted to make sense of a particular moment in time, a moment that marked me in ways that I thought were indelible. Even at 14 — perhaps especially at 14 — I had some sense that The Letter was, would be, a formative experience, that I would return to it again and again as a touchstone, worrying its sore spot like a method actor searching for empathy, connection. The girl who cried, and also watched herself cry, became the teenager who did escape into acting classes; became the woman who, for better or for worse, became a professional teller of stories, who tattooed an image of a manual typewriter onto her right arm, mining charged memories (my mother’s death, breakups and new loves, the overwhelming sweetness and heartbreak of parenting) for material.
I have long thought of personal essays, expository writing, as a means of analysis, a way of teasing out what I think and understand, about the world around me. In my mid-40s, however, as I struggle to remember anyone’s name, nouns in general, the soccer schedule or when the tae kwon do demonstration is, I am learning that memory is malleable. Yes, painful things happen, and they become part of our stories. And those stories shape who we are.
There’s danger, though, in accepting those stories as gospel, in believing that they are tattooed, painful and permanent and unchanging, into our psyches and our souls.
And maybe that’s what I want today’s 14-year-olds to know: not simply that they will undoubtedly experience pain, not simply that they’re not alone in their struggles, not even that they may take comfort in knowing that the painful episodes that seem today to be seared into their very beings will lose their immediacy, become less painful over time. That they might even forget them.
I want to them understand, as I am only now beginning to, that our pain and our struggles are — almost immediately — open to interpretation. That there’s danger in letting a story solidify, in insisting to yourself and to others that it’s never open to alternative readings. We are not doomed, forever, to be the new girl, the loser, the popular one, the bully, or the bystander (or, in Breakfast Club parlance, the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess, or the criminal). The shifting truth doesn’t lie in the facts of precisely who was there, who said what, who participated and who stood by. Rather, it lies in what we do with that information, how we let it shape us; make us more or less compassionate, creative, humble, apologetic. It lies in being willing to reread, rewrite, and revisit those narratives — even if, in so doing, we’re no longer the heroes of our own stories.
Hi Susan —
I just read your wonderful essay. Your take on all of this is eerily similar to my own. I just wrote a book about it all. It’s coming out from Crown in May: And Then They Stopped Talking to Me: Making Sense of Middle School. I’m actually writing not to promote it, but just because I think you would enjoy it, given what you’ve written so well here. I really wish I had read this a few years ago and could have interviewed you for the book! Thanks so much for sharing your experience and also the mature thinking and re-thinking that ultimately came after.
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