By Victor D. Infante
In a lot of ways, it’s not surprising that around late 2010, in the wake of a rash of highly publicized suicides of youths who were bullied for being gay or for being perceived as being gay, there was a sort of pop culture reaction. It’s no great revelation that a great many of the people who are movie or rock stars now were, in all likelihood, once theater or band geeks … were sensitive or smart, artsy or nerdy … were the sort of people that were likely targets for bullying themselves.
Journalist-activist Dan Savage launched his It Gets Better Project, which featured videos of people from a great many walks of life, including a large number of celebrities, recounting their own tales of being bullied, and eventually overcoming their travails. On the whole, it’s a positive, even inspirational message. At about the same time, there were a number of pop songs released that spoke to the issue, including “Born this Way,” by Lady Gaga, “Firework,” by Katy Perry, and “Mean,” by Taylor Swift. While these songs had all the myriad strengths and weaknesses that come from being, well, pop songs, they were still, in the end, positive, inspirational messages.
Certainly, there were voices that doubted the sincerity of most of these pop icons chiming in on a cause du jour, but that’s an easily shrugged–off criticism. At worst, the songs and videos were innocuous. And while it’s impossible to know how many bullied youths any of these songs or any of the It Gets Better videos really reached in any substantive way, even saving a handful of lives makes them all worthwhile. Merely spreading the idea that these young lives deserved saving was worthwhile. Sometimes, you’re forced to live with small victories.
But — as is always the way — familiarity bred contempt, and what were, on the whole, well-intentioned pop phenomena became a cultural zeitgeist, and then a parody of itself. Pop songs played to ubiquity lost their inherent messages, and were reduced to background noise. The videos became Internet memes, regarded by most the same as LOL cats. Parodies of both the songs and the videos abounded, and what appeared to be lost in the cultural discussion were the actual youths themselves: the ones who had died. The ones who were still at risk. The ones who could still be saved. They moved from becoming people to becoming abstract concepts … and it is much easier to brush away abstract concepts. Abstract concepts don’t produce horror and outrage. Taking a face away from atrocity is how atrocity thrives.
The video below was made by a then 15-year-old girl named Amanda Todd:
By her own and other published accounts, the Canadian girl — then 12 years old — was goaded by a stranger online into exposing her breasts on a webcam. The stranger later blackmailed her, threatening to disseminate the photo if she didn’t give him a “show.” Two years later, the photo began circulating on the Internet.
Never mind that Todd was a child at the time, a victim of a predatory adult (one who would continue to torment her.) What happened afterward was an escalating spiral of teasing and bullying from her fellow students that exacerbated her sense of alienation and depression. The “slut shaming” lead to a suicide attempt, which became another thing for her peers to taunt her with. She fell into depression and drug & alcohol abuse. She became increasingly alienated and friendless, and thus ripe for more abuse. A sexual encounter with a boy led to another public episode of shaming, allegedly including verbal abuse from the boy himself. Friendless and alienated, and still being tormented on the Internet by a stranger, she made the above video as a plea for help. Mere weeks later, she hanged herself.
Again, she was 15.
Obviously, there are two distinct components to the story — her victimization by an adult predator, and the bullying she faced afterward. But that’s almost beside the point. Other children have taken their own lives in recent days in reaction to bullying alone. All that matters is she was a child, and she was desperately in need of help, and instead was treated regularly with cruelty.
Like a lot of people, I first learned this story when I read it on musician Amanda Palmer’s blog. Palmer had discovered the video by accident on the Web.
“i’m 36,” writes Palmer, “a weathered, war-torn musician, heavily schooled in zen and compassion and love for all beings.
“i have FANS. i have an ARMY of people i can go to for love and support, on and off line.
“and still … internet hatred pointed in my direction can TEAR ME APART. it did its work on me this past fall, while you all watched.
“what the FUCK must it be doing to teenagers who don’t have the support network?
“the worst i got in high school was ignored. occasionally yelled at in the hall.
“bitch. slut. druggie. lezzie. freak.
“it hurt, it always hurt. but i wore it like a badge of honor and repeated my standard teenage ‘THEY ARE NORMAL AND THEREFORE INFERIOR IN EVERY WAY’ mantra and kept walking down the hall.
“but when i got home, it was over. i could mull, but i couldn’t go on facebook to continue to get battered. i couldn’t google my own name to see what my score was on the great love-hate report-card in the sky. i could make and listen to music, read books, watch TV, and call my few friends on the phone and talk about nothing in particular until we got too bored to keep talking (or until someone in one of our families yelled at us for hogging the phone).
“i was, more or less, safe.
“i have no discipline, nowadays, when it comes to devices and the internet, and it terrifies me.
“(Her husband, novelist Neil Gaiman) and i actually talk about this sort of shit a lot and have become a little support group of two.
“mostly the support group consists of sternly saying ‘DON’T READ THE TROLLS!!!’ and ‘PUT DOWN THE COMPUTER AND COME TO BED!!’ to one another …. and so on.
‘it terrifies me more to imagine what i WOULD have been like if i’d grown up without ever knowing what it was like to be disconnected from everybody.
“to have a reprieve. from the good, the bad … from the story. at least i was formed off the grid. maybe i wouldn’t have made it. who knowwwwws.”
It was a moment of empathy from a cult-favorite musician, delivered in a casual blog style, but what happened next was remarkable. Several thousand comments, spread over the course of three blog posts, began to lay out and, for the most part, calmly discuss why Palmer’s post and Todd’s video touched them, laying out their own histories with bullying in the process.
Many posters shared thoughts on the bullying they encountered for being overweight, or being perceived as homosexual. Others talked more broadly, or simply expressed sympathy.
One poster talked about being bullied, and then about how, one day, her bully — a teenager named Austin — killed himself.
“I don’t know why or how,” says the poster. “I just know that we were all sat down in gym one day and told. I was shocked. This person, who I saw everyday, who said terrible things to me on a daily basis but never had a conversation with me, was gone. Forever. I didn’t say a word. I just went home that day and went to my room and cried all afternoon. I was trying to understand why this happened. That’s when I learned a very important lesson that most of us know very well. Most bullies are the way they are because of how they have been treated. They just don’t know any different. They don’t know how to deal with their emotions, so they lash out.
“Austin’s death broke my heart, but it made me open my eyes. What if I had tried to just talk to him? Would it have made any difference? Probably not. But at the end of the day, we’re all human. We’re all broken in a way, and we’re just trying to feel whole. I try to understand where people are coming from, even if they are being horrible to me.”
Another poster discussed how she used music to help herself cope with both abuse at home and bullying at school, and it seems striking how common it seems that the victims of bullying at school are also coping with some sort of larger trauma in their personal lives. It seems too consistent to be coincidental. It’s as though the children who are inclined toward bullying can sense the weakness in another child who’s dealing with serious problems, like blood in the water to a shark. Maybe, for some at least, it’s a spark of the pain they themselves are wrestling with, and the recognition is unbearable. It’s impossible to say.
“This touched my heart so deeply,” writes the poster. “From being abused/molested by my father from an early age until I was 13. Music was the only thing that gave me strength to do something about it. Tori Amos’s music did that for me, gave me the strength. The Music gave me strength to do something, to leave home, to stand up for myself. I told my father off, and I left home.”
And there are more. Thousands more. It’s overwhelming, actually, the sheer amount of loneliness and alienation that’s expressed in those comments, both from younger posters — a great deal of Palmer’s fans are adolescent girls, many of whom are LGBT — to adults reflecting on what they went through. And what’s surprising is how little of the commentary is negative, self-pitying or angry. It’s the sheer straightforwardness of the comments that make them both fascinating and heartbreaking.
While an indie rock musician’s blog might seem an odd place for such a discussion, it makes a certain amount sense. As Palmer herself notes in a later posts, she’s famous enough to have enough fans that read her blog already, and not so famous (say, Madonna-famous) that she can’t spend time communicating directly with her fan base. Many of her fans, who have faced these sorts of issues, take refuge from them in her music. There was an immense sense of permission that occurred when she invited her blog’s readers to discuss the subject. It was clear many of them needed to talk about some of what they’ve faced, and have had few opportunities to do so. Having a favorite artist listen to them? That opened up the flood gates
And honestly, it’s hard not to see myself in those comments, to look back at my own early adolescence, hiding myself in Dungeons & Dragons and the music of Rush. Or later, in my teenage years, finding my own outcast community in the late-night Rocky Horror Picture Show scene, or later the poetry scene. Hard not to remember the depression I faced as a youth, spiraling from my father’s death when I was young — a subject I’ve written about often — or wrestling with relative poverty in the generally affluent community in which I was raised. There was always a sense, at that time, that I was marked by something, like Cain. That I somehow deserved the teasing and flashes of unbidden violence I encountered in grade school and junior high.
In high school, as my life began to be filled by music and poetry, and the communities around those things, I encountered less and less torment at school. Maybe it was because I grew more confident as more of my life was centered away from school. Maybe it’s simply because I ceased to care. Whatever it was, the mark I imagined on my forehead seemed to disappear. Music and poetry filled the hole in my soul where all that self-loathing once lived, as Rush had begun to do before it. As the music of Amanda Palmer, and Tori Amos before her, does for the people in the comments section of Palmer’s blog.
Oh, but the terror of those days haunts you, doesn’t it? The way you wondered, when you went to grab a book from your junior high locker, if you’d be met with a random punch in the gut. Even if you put it aside, manage to live through it, there’s still a tiny voice whispering in your ear, reminding you how bad it used to be. And as the one commenter noted above, sometimes even the bullies themselves are living through that terror. It’s frightening how commonplace that loneliness seems, how it spreads like kudzu. And yet, it seems even more horrific there days. I was struck, recently, by an Associated Press story about how at a “high-school wrestling tournament in Denver last year, three upperclassmen cornered a 13-year-old boy on an empty school bus, bound him with duct tape and sodomized him with a pencil,” and how the truth of what happened coming out left the victim and his family ostracized by their whole town. It’s bad enough that a town would rally behind the aggressors in this scenario, but the fact that it’s somehow unsurprising is worse. And furthermore, it turns out the boys were “sons of Robert Harris, the wrestling coach, who was president of the school board. The victim’s father was the K-12 principal.
“After the principal reported the incident to police, townspeople forced him to resign. Students protested against the victim at school, put ‘Go to Hell’ stickers on his locker and wore T-shirts that supported the perpetrators. The attackers later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges, according to the Denver district attorney’s office.
“‘Nobody would help us,’ said the victim’s father, who asked not to be named to protect his son’s privacy. Bloomberg News doesn’t identify victims of sexual assault. ‘We contacted everybody and nobody would help us,’ he said.”
And therein lies the irony: While many people are quick to point out that children are cruel, and that this needs to be allowed for, the narrative above lays out a sickly culture that not only turned a blind eye to staggering levels of aggression, but also a protection of it, at the expense of the victim. The adults in the scenario become complicit in the assault and sexual abuse of a child. The aggressors are given a sense of permission.
And we wonder why this problem seems to be escalating at alarming rates? Why so many of today’s children, children who are given unprecedented levels of connectivity, seem to feel more alone than ever. The need to create cultural spaces of refuge seems more paramount than ever. Ultimately, that may be the single, most concrete thing that art can do in the wake of such horror: to hold up a mirror, to tell the victims that they are not alone.
Recently, a video of Shane Koyczan’s poem “To This Day” became an Internet sensation:
I’m not the only kid
who grew up this way
surrounded by people who used to say
that rhyme about sticks and stones
as if broken bones
hurt more than the names we got called
and we got called them all
so we grew up believing no one
would ever fall in love with us
that we’d be lonely forever
that we’d never meet someone
to make us feel like the sun
was something they built for us
in their tool shed
so broken heart strings bled the blues
as we tried to empty ourselves
so we would feel nothing
don’t tell me that hurts less than a broken bone
that an ingrown life
is something surgeons can cut away
At the time of this writing, that video has been viewed more than 9 million times, which tells me that his tale of being bullied speaks to an immense amount of people. There is an immense market for poems and song that speak to this sort of pain. From Shane Koyczan to Taylor Swift, to Rush and countless other artists, there are always artists looking to speak directly to these wounds, and many, many who need to listen. And as Palmer discovered, who need to be listened to.
Ironically, it’s the technology that puts these songs and poems in young people’s hands, that can bring someone to Koyczan’s poem or Palmer’s blog, is the same technology that’s used as a conduit to torment them. Machines are simply tools. They, in and of themselves, cannot assuage loneliness. Only reaching out a hand does that.
And already, we’ve slipped from talk of Amanda Todd, a real person with a face and a name and a pain that echoes loud and sharp months after her death, to talking about abstract concepts. Already, we’ve let the well-intended poems and songs become background noise.
It happens quickly, we’re so easily distracted.
We turn our attention, and already they’re gone.