Bullies Are Monsters

When You See Bullies as Monsters

CNN Business tells us that Disney’s new robot was designed to look as lifelike as possible. To me, though, this robot still resembles a monster rather than a human being.

Some things never change, I suppose. The children who bullied me during my childhood looked very much the same way to me then as the latest Disney robot strikes me now: inhuman and maybe even demonic.

The Monsters Were Not What They Seemed

The bullies of my childhood certainly seemed to be monsters, from my perspective.

And yet, decades after the fact, several of these former bullies reached out to apologize to me.  That’s not necessarily something monsters would do.

They wanted to tell me their stories and explain why they had tormented me. They appeared to feel as haunted by the memories of those terrible times as I was, but for very different reasons.

These people weren’t asking me for absolution, nor were they defending their actions. They only wanted me to hear them out and, perhaps, to try to understand.

As someone who considers herself to be open-minded and empathetic, I was willing to listen. But I also had a more pragmatic reason.

l wanted to know why.

The Adult Who Listened and Learned

So I listened to (or, if they contacted me online, I read) their side of the story. For the first time, I recognized that the bullies of my childhood had very human reasons for hurting me.

I heard remorse in their words. I felt their pain, and it struck me as genuine, horrible, and inevitable.

And I reached the conclusion that none of these former bullies had delighted in hurting me, despite how it seemed at the time. There was something else going on of which I had been entirely unaware.

As a child, I automatically placed myself at the center of my own narrative. So, when bullies targeted me, I naturally thought my behavior, personality traits, and shortcomings were the reasons why.

I blamed myself.

At ages 11, 12, and 13, I didn’t realize that all children were at the center of their own universes. The idea that the people who manifested as monsters to me were fighting demons in their own worlds hadn’t occurred to me.

But talking about the past with those former bullies provided me with a broader perspective. I can see things differently now.

The children who had terrorized me were living out their own dramas while I was suffering through mine.  I never had even a single glimpse of their struggles. And, from what the former bullies eventually shared with me, their childhood horror shows made my own nightmare seem comparatively tame.

Here Was the Problem

I was a typical child with a stable nuclear family. We were secure in that we had shelter, food, love, and resources sufficient to meet our needs. My siblings and I also received unlimited support from a village of trustworthy and caring adults. Home was a safe place.

The circumstances of my life should have seemed unremarkable. However, in the deeply impoverished city where we lived, normality was rarer — and more coveted — than a pot of gold. Somehow — maybe, during school hours, I had indiscreetly talked about a movie I’d watched with my family or a holiday meal my grandmother had prepared — I caught the attention of kids who were stuck in a world devoid of such positive (if mundane) events.

Several of them — the ringleaders, as it turned out — had profoundly troubled home lives. They hadn’t received the nurturing from reliable adults that I’d taken for granted. In some cases, they couldn’t even count on having the essentials they needed to survive.

The disparity in our situations (if I lived in a Brady Bunch world, theirs was Dickensian) put a target on my back. I had naturally become the target of their existential rage, and my persistent silence and cowering in response to their aggression didn’t help.

They seemed inhuman to me at the time, but I must have struck them as belonging to an entirely different species, too. I looked at them and saw monsters. They looked at me and saw all of the things they couldn’t have. Their only possible response was to systematically try to destroy me.

What I Wish I’d Known Then

As an adult, I get it.  I can see now why I was on such a tragic collision course with the children who bullied me.

I wish I’d understood it then, too.

I wish it hadn’t taken me decades to find out that these children were in pain. I wish I had known, back then, that I wasn’t the only child in my circle who was suffering.

More than anything, I wish I had known how important it was to look the bullies in the eye and ask them why they were behaving as they were. It might have changed everything. I wish I’d seen that every child — even the most brutal bully — was a human being rather than a monster.


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