There’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.