Saturday, October 9, 2010

Her Victim: Where I Screwed Up

Yesterday I posted about my experience being bullied by my college roommate, Melisa. As I woke up this morning thinking about what I posted, it occurred to me that what I ought to add to that post is a critique of my own actions along the way. After all, nobody is going to look at a bullied kid and say, "You know, hon, you did a lot of things wrong." But I'm a writer. Critiquing is part of my business, and by talking about all the ways I facilitated my own bullying, hopefully I can give victims-- and their parents-- some insight into how to make it stop.

First, I was nice. Much too nice. In all the "let's all get along!" lessons I had learned in school along the way, nobody had mentioned that with certain people it's appropriate to look them in the eye and say, "You're an asshole." At least when I was a kid, the anti-bullying "advice" centered around "Just ignore them. Take the high road." It also focused on, incredibly, compassion for the bullies. "People act like that because inside they're very insecure." "You need to feel sorry for people like that because they were probably badly treated growing up." I even got a lot of this from my RA (and RD) when I went to them for help. They kept repeating how it was hard for Melisa to be away from her family for the first time and what an advantage I had because I had lived here all my life. This kind of thinking gives bullies a huge advantage. Think about it: even as they're dehumanizing you, you're being told to give them extra sympathy for their human frailties. If you're the victim of a bully and you happen to be reading this, I officially give you permission to have no compassion for that individual. You are excused from it. In singling you out for abuse, the bully has declared war. So rise to the challenge: now is not the time for the friendship skills you learned from "Sesame Street." Now is the time to call that spade a spade.

What I should have done-- and what any victim of bullying should do-- is to treat the abuse strictly, and dispassionately, as a legal and criminal issue. Under the law, I should have been protected from what happened to me. The biggest mistake I made was in not getting my resident director, Lisa, fired. In going to her, I felt that I was going for the "big guns" and that she would surely help me, and when she didn't, I felt I had exhausted my options. This could not have been less true. I should have known my rights well enough-- in this case, the UMCP's nondiscrimination policy-- to understand she was violating her terms of employment. I should have gone into the Resident Life offices, asked for the name of her supervisor, and demanded an appointment with that person. I should have called, or threatened to call, the ACLU and the Lambda Legal Defense Fund. At the very least, I should have made myself everybody's very big problem so they would be motivated to put my issues to rest.

I should have been whinier. I should have gone to the University Health Center and complained I was having panic attacks because of what I was dealing with at "home." Even if I hadn't had physical symptoms, I should have claimed I did-- sometimes that's what it takes to get people to take you seriously. If it had reached this point, I should have been willing to get on a bus and go far, far away, because it's much better to be a missing-person case than a dead-student case, and then you can guarantee someone will pay attention. Let me remind you: the goal, in the cases we're talking about here, is to survive the abuse. I'm not offering advice to the average person who's upset or being picked on a little bit. I'm talking about circumstances where the situation is intolerable and help is not forthcoming. People in that situation need to know: there is more than one way out. Sometimes, in issuing a cry for help, you just need to cry louder.

Finally, I should have scrounged together the perspective to see what a small, pithy little person Melisa was in the whole scheme of things. This gets back to Item #1, but here I'm not just talking about how I interacted with her-- I'm talking about how I thought about her, because I'm the one who let her have a throne up in my mind and she was glad to sit in it. I remember calling my mother in despair and panic after Lisa the Resident Director pulled her homophobe routine on me, telling my mom that this was the RD, the highest person I could go to, and even SHE was against me. In probably the best thing my mother has ever done for me since actually giving birth, she said, "Becky... she's nothing but some dinky little low-level campus employee making $30,000 a year. She doesn't know anything and nobody cares what she thinks." I was stunned by this, because in my mind I had apparently blown her up to being somewhere between the President and God. What my mother said was true, and having that perspective gave me comfort in a time when there was precious little of it. I should have applied similar thought to Melisa: to realize there was nothing special or exceptional about her at all. Not just in terms of her relationship to me, but in general. Her only "special power" was a particular skill for treating people badly.

There's a channel on YouTube called The It Gets Better Project, in which LGBT adults talk about how their lives have improved since their difficult youths. I haven't made a video, but my thoughts here are in the same vein. What happened with Melisa back then would never happen to me now. These days I would look at somebody like her and roll my eyes, knowing that small people sometimes come in big packages. If these blog posts made it back to her, it would surprise me not at all for her to pull out the same tired rhetoric about why I suck, why she's innocent, and-- in the way people like her do-- to enlist her friends to jump to her aid to put me down. I seriously doubt that a bully ever changes. That is exactly why the rest of us need to come armed with self-assurance and knowledge of our rights, so we can grow up to live good lives in spite of bullies like her. Because I'm here to tell you, it's a lot better on the other side.

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