I Was Once a Bully
In a live chat, Prudie counsels an ex-bully now tormented by guilt.
Photograph by Teresa Castracane.
Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Emily Yoffe: Yesterday my husband and I got on one of the last planes out from San Francisco (where it was perfect) to D.C. Yes, we had to get back from vacation in time for the apocalypse! I hope my fellow Easterners ride this thing out safely.
Q. Confessions of a Bully: I was a bully in school. I'm not going to justify my behavior in any way. There are no words to describe how monstrous I was. There was one particular kid, "Gina," whom I bullied mercilessly. If I inflicted half as much physical assault in my adulthood as I did to her as a teen, I would be locked up for a very long time. After I became a parent at 19, my daughter experienced some minor bullying. I saw how tormented she was and realized the things I inflicted on my classmates were way worse. I made it a mission to track down the people I hurt and apologize. Due to social media, thankfully it wasn't too difficult. Almost everybody I managed to contact responded with forgiveness. But when I tried to get in touch with Gina, I discovered that she committed suicide in high school. I have very good reasons to believe that she switched schools because of me. I am torn up with guilt and haunted by my past actions. I have nightmares about what I did to her—it's like reverse PTSD where I remember the awful things I've done to others. I have her mother's email address but I haven't had the guts to contact her. Should I send her an email? What do I say? I know this sounds gutless but I'm also scared of any legal consequences I might face after I own up to my actions.
A: I hope every school administrator sees your letter and contemplates the ramifications of what bullying can do. Thank goodness we live in a time where this is taken seriously, but even so, vicious bullying still goes on and innocent kids are tormented. But there is a big dose of hope in your letter. You have recognized the horror of your actions, you make no excuse, you know you can't undo the harm you inflicted, but you have reached out to apologize to your victims. It is also moving to hear that most of them were able to forgive. Then there is Gina—my heart broke when I read of this girl's death by her own hand. I don't think you should contact her mother. This poor woman doesn't need to hear your voice, stories of what you did, or have to grapple with the question of forgiving you. But you need help moving on. I think you should look for a counselor who specializes in trauma—it will be an interesting exercise to try to heal someone who inflicted it and is now tormented by it. I also think you could get involved in an organization that fights bullying. Think how powerful it would be for you to go to schools and talk about the harm you did, the effects of your actions on others, and on yourself. You're right to be concerned with potential liability, so before you consider doing that, get the advice of an attorney. Working to make the world better and safer for kids is a gift you can give to your child and the people you hurt.
Dear Prudence: Saving Lolita
Q. Awkward Encounter: I was recently on an adult website and clicked on an amateur home video. I recognized the performers as my supervisor with her husband. I am hoping they both willingly put it online, but knowing how fiercely private she is, I doubt it. I know she had her personal laptop stolen a couple of years ago when a thief broke into her car and my guess is that he/she got a hold of this. The footage is grainy but someone who knows her well would instantly recognize her face (and the rest of her, I suppose). I feel compelled to alert her, but how? My supervisor is not the most rational person and I fear she might fire me because of the embarrassment and awkwardness. I thought of leaving an anonymous note but it seems cruel, because she'd be forever wondering which one of her co-workers, friends, neighbors, fellow parent at her child's school, etc. saw the clip. Should I tell her?
A: Seeing your "fiercely private" and "not the most rational" supervisor getting it on with her husband (thank goodness) on an amateur porn site is one of those things you can either find titillating or repulsive. But after you see it, then down the memory hole it should go. It may be that you are the only person who knows your boss who ever stumbles on this grainy video. If you're not, then leave it up to the next person in her life to alert her. And you're right, an anonymous note would be cruel and leave her wondering every time she had a conversation about the weather whether the person was actually thinking, "I've seen you naked!"
Q. Down Syndrome Daughter: Three months ago I gave birth to my first child, a daughter with Down Syndrome. My husband and I did not know prior to our daughter's birth that she would have Down Syndrome. I love my daughter so much, but since her birth I have been depressed and very sad, I think because of her extra chromosome. I am so thankful to have a healthy happy baby, but at the same time I feel this grief, and I feel terrible about how I feel. I tried to befriend the parents of children with Down Syndrome, but none of them shared my feelings. I don't know where to turn, because my husband adores our daughter and feels no sadness. Am I a terrible mother?
A: What you are describing is totally normal. Of course you love your daughter, and of course you are grieving for the more typical child you expected to have. Raising a child with disabilities presents challenges and it doesn't do any good to simply put a smiley face on what's ahead. It's too bad your support group has not been supportive. It could be that these days most people who have children with Down Syndrome knew beforehand, and so you are encountering people who come at this from a different perspective. Perhaps in the online community you can find more like-minded people who are struggling with this discovery and with whom you can have a more honest conversation. I am concerned that three months post-partum you are feeling significantly depressed. Please go back to your O.B. right away and describe your symptoms. Whatever the origin, post-partum depression is serious and fortunately treatable. Do not beat yourself up—you sound like a wonderful, self-aware mother. And be assured you are not alone.
Q. Broaching a Taboo Topic in a Public Form: When I was 19, I was raped while serving on active duty in the military and I subsequently got pregnant as result of the rape. Being on active duty isn't like other jobs, and being a single parent (the father was going to jail for rape and aggravated assault) in the military means deployments, odd work hours and 12-hour work days all while stationed thousands of miles from family members who could lend any support. Add that to the stress of a rape trial, and the trauma from the assault itself, and I chose to end the pregnancy. With all the talk about the military rape scandals, rape and abortion in politics these days, it's something that often comes up in casual conversation. I'm at a point where I can talk about the rape in public, but I'm not sure how to do so in a way that is appropriate. I want people to understand that these things happen, much more often that you think, and that they aren't some abstract political concept but things that happen to real people every day. I would like suggestions on how to do that without clearing the room before I make my point.