Confessions of a Childhood Bully
I rarely dared to hurt her physically, not because she was younger and painfully thin, but because what she lacked in strength she made up for in ferociousness. When she was a toddler, I'd impulsively slap or pinch her and keep walking -- until the time I felt her teeth sink into my back. From then on, I kept my distance.
Instead, I assaulted her with words, calling her a mistake, mutant, slob, loser. I glared at her across the dinner table, or pretended she wasn't there as I talked to my parents and brothers, everyone but her. I snorted in contempt when she brought up her achievements in kindergarten, and laughed when she shared a bad day. She stayed silent as our mother gave her meaningful looks, as if to say, "Remember what we talked about." Mom repeatedly ordered me to stop being nasty and leave her alone, to no avail. I was bursting with irrational hatred.
Now I read articles about bullying and cringe. Victims I have never met reopen decades-old memories of my little sister, my scapegoat. Together, their awful helplessness weighs me down like a load of bricks; it kicks me in the gut and knocks the air out of me. I fantasize about saving just one child from a bully, as if to wipe my own slate clean.
But my sympathy also extends, guiltily, to the perpetrators. I wonder if someone is insulting and domineering those kids, too, or if they have witnessed someone they love being tormented. Will anyone even think to investigate? I imagine staging an intervention and holding a mirror to a bully's seething insides. But after he faces the awful truth, then what? I've treated the symptom, not the disease. There's no happy ending to that scenario.
I know now that when I bullied my sister, I was fighting somebody else. She was an arbitrary enemy on whom I would practice my revenge. My real target was a babysitter, an adult relative who frequently abused me verbally. Although I stood up for myself and talked back, it had no effect.
My sister reacted to my tongue lashings the way I wished my harasser would've. Her silence was my reward. After I hurt her, I would feel energized and hopeful, like I could take on any threat. But in that moment of relief, a nagging voice whispered that my sister didn't deserve such treatment any more than I did. Unable to handle the guilt, I would quickly rationalize my behavior: "My sister made me feel like this. She did deserve it."
Today, we live on opposite coasts and see each other once a year or so. I shower her young daughter with gifts. I try to talk to my sister about the past and forge a closer relationship. Once or twice she's confided in me about weathering tough times as an adult, but it's been several years since we really connected. Her poker face reveals nothing to me of her feelings or opinions. Our mother says that's just the way she is.
I hope my mother is wrong. I want to believe my sister is guarded only around me. I can't bear to think she is aloof with strangers and close friends alike, and that I helped make her that way.
My sister enjoys watching her only child play tea party with her stuffed animals. At 5, my niece is happy and self-sufficient and fearless.
My sister turned out stronger than her bully. She treats others the way she should have been treated, not the way she was treated by me. I'm proud of her. And, I am truly sorry.
Jo Parente is the ParentDish nom de plume, a pen name, used by our editorial team when we want to spill our dirty little secrets but still keep our dignity, and families, intact.
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.