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As a child, I was an easy mark for playground torments: smart, insufferably rule-abiding, decidedly unpretty. The tormentor I remember most distinctly was not my first bully, nor my last, but his attacks would turn others into footnotes.
He was in my class for years. In class photos, his face is round and almost cherubic, but I remember it contorted in anger as he spat insults at me, telling me to shut up, flailing his hands against his chest and moaning—an approximation of what he said I sounded like. We were seated next to each other year after year, and when I finally complained about this arrangement, one of my teachers said that maybe I’d be “a good influence on him.”
It didn’t work. His mom was also my softball coach, driving me to and from practice when my single mother could not. Sitting in the back of his mother’s van after my team lost a softball game, he snapped, “It smells in here. Close your legs.” Reflexively, I did as he instructed. When his mother climbed into the driver’s seat, oblivious to what had happened, he was still doubled over with laughter. I was ten.
When I would return home after one of my bully’s taunts, tearful and broken down, I’d comfort myself with the idea that one day I would be happy and successful and my bully would not. I internalized the bromide used to soothe all bullied children of my generation—the universe would mete out some sort of karmic justice.
This idea is everywhere: Bully Biff Tannen waxes George McFly’s car at the end of Back to the Future, having been beaten into submission (literally) years earlier. In A Christmas Story, Ralphie finally snaps after years of torment and attacks Farkus, who is left tearful and bleeding. Regina George—the Machiavellian queen bee in Mean Girls—eventually relinquishes her bullying crown, but only after she’s publicly shamed twice and flattened by a bus. Find out the silent signs your child is being bullied.
Even today, the Internet is rife with stories of bullies getting their comeuppance, from viral videos of little kids fighting back to Reddit threads describing justice doled out against an antagonizer.
“It’s an age-old story—the idea of bullies getting theirs,” says Meghan Leahy, a licensed school counselor and parenting coach. “It’s a very human part of us that likes revenge.”
That seems only fair, right? After all, the bullies are the bad guys. According to a 2014 study that gathered data from more than 234,000 teenagers and children, victims of bullying are more than twice as likely to contemplate killing themselves as their nonbullied peers. Other studies have shown that people who are bullied are more likely to experience low self-esteem and anxiety, more inclined to abuse alcohol and drugs, and more likely to suffer from a host of physical ailments, such as headaches and sleep disturbances.
During the period when I was being bullied, my mother was dealing with her own abuse at the hands of a man with whom she’d been romantically involved for several years. He fluctuated between charming and volatile. He would yell, throw furniture and other objects, punch holes in the walls of our home, and tear doors off their hinges.
At the time, I’d never seen my mother’s boyfriend hit her, but my bully, who lived nearby, had seen him pull my mother from her vehicle and throw her to the ground. The next day at school, my bully told everyone within earshot the story. He laughed through his impersonation of her lying on the ground whimpering. Until that moment, I’d believed my mother when she told me that her bruised face was a result of “walking into a door.”
As the years passed, those promises of karmic justice given to me in childhood came true. I went to college on a full ride. I graduated with honors and became a professional writer. My mother finally extricated herself from her abusive relationship. Determined not to follow in her footsteps, I sought out soft-spoken men who never yelled. I met and married someone wonderful. Everything turned out better than I could have dared hope.
I occasionally searched for my bully online, determined to see my story to its promised end, to relish all the ways my life was better than his. In 2010, after years of finding nothing, I learned from a friend that my bully had been murdered in his home, not far from where we grew up. Consumed by the story, I pored over every news article I could find. He had been dealing pot and was killed in a robbery gone wrong. One of the murderers had been his childhood friend.
I read that he had anticipated an attack. His friends said he was so terrified in the weeks leading up to his murder that he’d slept with a hammer under his pillow. I was haunted by what I imagined his final moments were like, by how scared he must have been. I cried for the boy who had made me so miserable.
Now I had to wonder: What kind of fate would I have considered sufficient retribution? Would I have been satisfied if he had become merely unsuccessful or unhappy? What sentence are we comfortable bestowing upon a fifth grader for his crimes? What’s the statute of limitations for revenge?
I wanted my bully’s life to turn out rotten, but when it actually happened, it didn’t feel like justice had been served. It felt like I’d simply watched a building collapse in slow motion. The cracks in the foundation had started long ago.
In the past few years, our culture has started to see bullying as a serious problem, one whose victims need help, support, and protection. But if right-thinking people want to care about bullying as a social problem, we need to see some nuance. Look at every bully and his or her victim and you’ll often find two kids who need help, not just one. Read these heartwarming responses to bullies that will make you believe in humanity again.
As they grow up, bullies tend to have trouble keeping jobs, often have problems with alcohol and drugs, and are more likely to have criminal records. A large number of bullies are also victims of bullying.
The idea that bullies themselves might be more than one-dimensional villains is hard to swallow, especially for those of us who’ve dealt with them. I never could have imagined feeling empathy for the boy who made my life hell, or for any bully.
My bully ridiculed me for having a mother who was a victim of domestic violence. He was dead at 25. I think of his anger, his struggles in school, his unhinged rage, all at the tender age of 11. I look at the narrative we are so often told as children—that our lives will be wonderful and our bullies’ lives will not—and I see the error in thinking that a troubled child somehow deserves a terrible fate.
“Ignore him, and he’ll go away,” adults told me. In the end, they were right.
Next, make sure you know these warning signs that your child is the bully.