Make it Stop*

BullyingThere’s an old saying that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’ But the truth is that words are powerful enough to cause a great deal of damage. That’s how strong words are. And the thing about words is that even when the person who says hurtful things apologises sincerely, the words don’t go away. If you add to the terrible power of words physical threats, it’s easy to see why bullying can be so devastating. If you’ve ever been bullied, you know exactly what I mean. And the hurt that bullying causes isn’t a passing ‘childhood’ kind of thing. Again, if you’ve ever been bullied, you know exactly what I mean. Bullying leaves lasting scars in real life and we certainly see that in crime fiction too. I’m only going to mention a few examples because my guess is that you already get my point.

Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death features a bully (she is referred to as a ‘mental sadist’ here) Mrs. Boynton. She is the mother of Ginevra ‘Jinny,’ and the stepmother of Lennox, Carol and Raymond. Mrs. Boynton has ruled her family with tyranny and bullying and now, they are more or less cowed. The only member of the family who seems not to be intimidated by her is Lennox’s wife Nadine. When Mrs. Boynton decides to take her family on a sightseeing tour of the Middle East, it seems like a real chance for the family members to be able to live ‘like normal people.’ But what they soon find out is that Mrs. Boynton has her own reasons for taking this trip. When she suddenly dies during a visit to the ancient city of Petra, everyone thinks at first that she’s had heart failure. But Colonel Carbury isn’t entirely satisfied, so he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. It turns out that Mrs. Boynton’s murder has everything to do with her history as a bully, and in that sense one can’t help but feel sympathy for her killer. Throughout this story one sees the evidence of the lasting scars of bullying, even in adulthood.

Although Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black isn’t, strictly speaking, about bullying, we do see it in the novel. Seventeen-year-old Catherine Ross is killed shortly after New Year’s Day near the fictional town of Ravenswick, Shetland. Inspector Jimmy Perez is called in and begins to investigate. As he begins to find out more about Catherine’s life, he learns that she was a relative newcomer to the area. Catherine had a mind of her own and was not easily intimidated. But as Perez looks into the case, he finds out that like most schools, Catherine’s had its share of bullies. Their effect is clear even though the novel doesn’t describe scenes of bullying. Perez can identify in that sense with the victim. We learn in this novel that he came in for his share of bullying as a child. He was sent to a school where two boys in particular bullied him and made his life miserable. Then he was befriended and as he puts it, ‘saved his life.’ That memory complicates Perez’ investigation when that friend ends up being a suspect in Catherine Ross’ murder.

There’s also Simone van der Vlugt’s The Reunion, in which we meet Sabine Kroese. She’s recently begun a new job after recovering from a nervous breakdown. All goes well enough at first. Then Renée, a co-worker whom Sabine recruited and who has since been promoted, begins to make Sabine’s life increasingly difficult. This stirs up old feelings and memories for Sabine, who endured bullying in secondary school. At that time, she was very close to her best friend Isabel, until Isabel joined ‘the cool crowd.’ Then Isabel and her friends began to make Sabine the butt of their jokes and life got increasingly unbearable for her. One night, Isabel disappeared, and there’s never been a satisfactory explanation. Sabine herself has very little memory of what happened that night, but her experiences at her new job bring back those past events and gradually, she begins to recover her memory. As she does so, she comes to see that she may know the truth about what happened to Isabel. This novel shows as much as anything else that bullying happens in adulthood too.

Certainly we see that in Simon Lelic’s Rupture (A Thousand Cuts). One hot afternoon, recently-hired history teacher Samuel Szajkowski goes into a crowded auditorium at the school where he teaches and shoots a fellow teacher and three students. Then he turns the gun on himself. DI Lucia May is assigned to the case, where she’s expected to ‘rubber stamp’ the official explanation that Szajkowski just ‘snapped’ as the saying goes. But as May begins to interview colleagues, administrators and students, she slowly learns that this school nurtured a culture of bullying. May knows all too well what that sort of culture is like; her own workplace has a similar mindset and she has been the target of a fair amount of bullying. As her story and the story of what happened at the school seem to run parallel, we get a firsthand look at the terrible consequences of bullying.

And it does have terrible consequences. Just recently the news has been full of at least two cases in the U.S. of bullying that reached harrowing proportions and resulted in the suicide of the bullying victims. That’s also happened in Nova Scotia and I know it happens elsewhere. We can all think of examples we’ve read about, heard about or worse, seen.

I don’t think anyone would deny that bullying is a problem. The question is what to do about it. Oh, sure, donating money to anti-bullying activist groups is a good thing. And there are several groups that are working on this problem. That’s a good thing too.  But the real root of bullying is the culture that tolerates and condones it. Somehow, young people learn that they can bully and everything will be OK. Somehow, there’s a message that ‘it’s just one of those things that happen at school.’ But they can’t. It won’t. And it’s not.

One way that people get this message that bullying is OK is that others stand aside, for whatever reason, and do nothing when it happens.  Another way people get this message (at least in my opinion) is that young people see the adults in their lives treat one another in sometimes truly awful ways. No wonder they get the message that bullying works.

I know I can’t stop every instance of bullying. But I am going to do two things. I hope you’ll join me. First, I invite you to use your words to build people up. One can do that without gushing and it can make all the difference in the world. Somehow, bullies learn to say terrible things and tear people down. What if instead, the lesson they learned from the beginning was how to use words in a constructive way? The people who have the most to gain and the most to lose by following our example are watching us.

I also invite you to speak up when you see bullying. Please let’s not stand aside while it happens. OK, it’s hard. It can be scary. And it can feel awkward, even judgemental, to say something when we hear certain slurs. But walking away from a situation is not solving the problem. It contributes to the problem.  And it reinforces to the bullying victim that she or he is all alone. Let’s speak up when we hear slurs or see bullying. Let’s talk to our children and grandchildren about how wrong it is to make targets of other people. I think too many real-life people have paid too devastating a price for bullying. Please, folks, let’s do the things we can to make sure that the only stories we read about bullying are fictional.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Rise Against.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Simon Lelic, Simone van der Vlugt

30 responses to “Make it Stop*

  1. Bullying is very real and very sad. I started to home school my son after he told me he wished he was dead because of bullying at school.

    I read Raven’s Black last month and I think you’re right about bullying in that book. Although it’s not revealed until the end, it’s something that can cause a person to hate another enough to kill.

    • Clarissa – I’m so sorry to hear your son was bullied. It’s heart-rending, parents as well as children who are bullied. I think you did the right thing to take him seriously and not tell him to ‘toughen up and take it.’
      And as for Raven Black, I think Cleeves does a highly skilled job of weaving the concept of bullying throughout the novel so that the reader can see that it’s there, but is still surprised by what happens.

  2. A very worthy topic, Margot, and it is good to see how it can be highlighted in mysteries, to raise awareness, perhaps. Although bullying within a family setting is often less obvious, it can have long-term devastating results.

    • Tracy – Thank you – And you’re right about bullying within a family. It does happen although it doesn’t always make the news. And yes, it can have devastating results.

  3. I liked RUPTURE best for the way that it conveyed the sheer damage that such behaviour can create – a topic really worth debating – brava Margot.

    • Grazie, Sergio. I think Rupture handles the topic and addresses it about as well as any recent novel I’ve read. And it is an important topic I believe. One that we will pay the price for not addressing if we don’t.

  4. kathy d.

    This is such an important topic, and one that has to be dealt with in schools and by communities, as well as at home. Schools have to educate children that bullying — physical, verbal and emotion — is wrong and must stop. They have to take it seriously when it occurs — and immediately — and not let these incidents go.
    And there has to be zero-tolerance policy for bullying because of nationality, gender, sexual orientation, physical appearance, disability, etc., for every reason.
    Communities have to take this on, too.
    It’s a good topic for crime fiction, but must be dealt with in real life.
    How many children are turning their pain on themselves, which is horrendous?
    So schools must be hyper-vigilant and pro-active, as bullying often happens on school grounds.

    • Kathy – I think it’s very important issue too. Too much awful harm is done because of bullying. I think you’re right that schools have a very important role to play in making sure that bullying stops and is not tolerated. Parents and communities also have a responsibility for ensuring that bullying is not tolerated and more importantly, for ensuring that children are taught other means for working out differences. It will take a great deal of effort on a lot of people’s parts, but the stakes are very high.

  5. This is such an important topic, Margot. Thank you for addressing it. It’s hard to speak up when we see bullies at work, but we need to do it anyway.

    • Pat – Bullying is an important topic and you’re right that it happens at work too. It’s not just something that happens at school and that people stop doing as adults. That’s one reason we need to speak up when we see it at work. As you say, it’s hard, but it needs to be done.

  6. Fantastic post, Margot. And one that is so very timely. Bullying is a very real problem, and one that we do have to deal with both individually and collectively. My older son was the victim of bullying, and he couldn’t even articulate what was happening to me- all I could see was that something was holding back my lovely, empathetic son, and just getting to the root of it was tough. And what was toughest was working on him to restore his confidence in himself, and then teaching him how to speak up/ stand up if it happened again.
    But you are right, we can use our voice to collectively speak out against bullying.

    • Natasha – Thanks for the kind words. I’m sorry to hear that your son was bullied. How horrible for all of you. And how sad that he was so upset by it that he couldn’t even really tell you what was wrong. He is fortunate to have parents who believed him, listened to him and helped him deal with the problem. That must have been difficult. You have a very strong point; dealing with bullying will require both individual effort and working as a group. And it needs to be done.

  7. It is definitely an insidious part of our culture Margot and those books you mention do provide excellent examples of the impact when bullying is allowed to fester.

    Another book that tackles this subject in a way is Cath Staincliffe’s SPLIT SECOND – there’s a bullying incident on a bus which turns into horrible violence afterwards but what has stayed with me from the book is the story of the passenger who wanted to stand up to the bullies but was too afraid – her coming to grips with what she didn’t do and learning how to potentially be different if she should ever see such a thing again was really brilliantly depicted.

    • Bernadette – I’m very glad you mentioned Split Second; it’s a perfect example of what I had in mind when I wrote this post. It’s actually on its way to me and I’m looking forward to reading it. Your mention of it made me think a bit of Maura Cody, a former nun in Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage. She, too, was a witness to some things that she did nothing to stop, Her commitment to being different is what gets her involved in the cases Kerrigan describes in the novel. Thanks for reminding me of that.

  8. Dredging my memory isn’t there a bit in an AC novel (the ABC Murders) when one of the protagonists says “they’re just words”. As well as being hurtful they can also be meaningless which can be just as hurtful. Such as when someone says ‘I love you’ and doesn’t mean it. Plenty of food for a crime novel I think!

    • Sarah – Good memory! In The ABC Murders, if I recall it correctly, Megan Barnard (sister of one of the victims in this novel) says that when a group of people related to or friends with the victims gathers to discuss the cases. She makes an interesting point and Christie gives a very clever sort of double meaning to what she says. On the surface it seems to mean that everyone talking about the case won’t make a difference. But what she says has another meaning too…
      And you are absolutely right that real pain can come when words are empty. I love you is a great example. So are things like, Don’t worry, you can trust me, and a lot of other expressions. And yes, terrific ideas for crime plots!

  9. The arch bully in fiction must be Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca.
    Thinking of real life, there’s a horrible trend at the moment for Cyber bullying. Youngsters sometimes receive truly horrible texts from classmates. It’s difficult to get to the bottom of this.

    • Pauline – Oh, yes, indeed! Mrs. Danvers is a perfect example of a bully! So glad you filled in that gap I left. And you’re right about cyber-bullying. It’s truly frightening, not least because it goes beyond what happens during the actual school day. It’s awful and schools find it difficult to deal with it. There are so many issues around the school’s right to control what students do with their social networking ‘places.’ The Internet is a whole new and very scary context for bullying.

      • Not just for children either. I’ve seen adults being horribly bullied on forums – there seems to be something about the anonymity of the internet which encourages some people to behave in ways they wouldn’t dream of in ‘real life’.

        • Fiction Fan – You make a very important and well-taken point. We can all cite appalling examples of bullying among adults, especially online. As you say, when a commentator can remain anonymous or at least not face-to-face, this sometimes makes that person feel free to say anything, regardless of how hurtful and destructive. And that kind of behaviour is not at all conducive to healthy discussion of anything. It’s actually pretty frightening at times.

  10. Peter Reynard

    The book that comes to mind when I think of how words can hurt is Christie’s The Moving Finger, one of my favorite Ms. Marple stories. It’s not quite bullying but the feeling of powerlessness people face in the novel reminds me of how much words can hurt.

  11. I absolutely *hate* bullies. Worst personality type by far. Thanks for the reminder that we all need to stand up for those who fall victim and stop bullying when we see it.

  12. kathy d.

    Brrr. The thought of Mrs. Danvers sends shivers through my bones: What a well-played movie character can do.
    The point about dealing with bullying and teaching children how to deal with conflict better is crucial — in schools, at home and within communities.
    How many children are not taught this, and then become adults who bully verbally, emotionally and physically their spouses, children and others. And then domestic violence happens or abusive behavior to co-workers, neighbors, etc.That’s the stuff of crime fiction — and the evening news.
    Then there is what happens to victims of cruel behavior in life and books. Do they withdraw from people? Never stand up for themselves? Or commit a violent act out of deep rage at their treatment?
    This takes so much effort to combat.

    • Kathy – You’re right. Solving this problem is much more than just a matter of one conversation or one presentation at school. It starts with good examples for children. It continues to working as a group to teach kids how to settle conflicts productively. And you’re right; the effects of bullying last a lot longer than just the time the incident takes. Bullying can indeed create new bullies and that’s a very scary thought. That’s one reason that I think we as a society need to keep talking about it. We need to keep thinking about it and keep working on ways to address this problem.
      And you’re right about Mrs. Danvers, too. Judith Anderson did a remarkable job playing her on film…

  13. It’s a serious and important topic and you dealt with it very sensitively – and it is up to all of us to do something about it. Kudos Margot.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s