Help! A Girl I Once Bullied Committed Suicide.

Advice on manners and morals.
Oct. 29 2012 2:28 PM

I Was Once a Bully

In a live chat, Prudie counsels an ex-bully now tormented by guilt.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

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 prudence@slate.com.)

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.

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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.

A: I'm sorry you went through this ordeal and I totally understand your decision. Thank goodness you were able to make it. I just don't understand people who would impinge on this profoundly personal choice. I wonder how public you want to go. You could be a powerful spokeswoman for reproductive rights by contacting an organization and telling them you're willing to make your story public. Whether or not you would consider that, in your personal life it is up to you in any given situation whether to offer your story—do not feel obligated. However, if the conversation turns to "real rape" (how unbelievable this is where the national political discussion has taken us) feel free to speak up. You can say quietly and simply, "I was raped and was impregnanted as a result. My rapist is in jail and I decided not to continue the pregnancy. I just wanted you to know this is not an abstract debate, but it's about real people, unfortunately lots of them."

Q. Mother of Baby With DS: Just throwing this out there, but there's a popular blogger and author whose daughter was also unexpectedly born with DS. Her post about her daughter's birth is stunning in its honesty and emotion. The blog is "Enjoying the Small Things" and the author's name is Kelle Hampton (her book about her daughter's first couple years is called Bloom). I'd definitely recommend that this mom read at least the entry about the daughter's birth.

A: Thank you. That's why the chat is so wonderful—people who have just the right answer can weigh in.

Q. In-Laws’ Spending Habits: My husband and I have been helping my in-laws with grocery bills and giving them small amount of money as they are struggling financially. Through a few poor business decisions, they are now left going through the bankruptcy process and living off social security as their only income. Recently, it has come to my attention that my mother-in-law has made some rather large and expensive purchases and it has upset me, knowing that they have no plans for their future. Since I am supplying them with as much money as I can for little things, do I have a right to question their recent purchases?

A: Yes. If people are financially dependent on others, then their benefactors have a say in what happens to the money. You are seeing why these people are entering old age with nothing. I think your husband should contact the local social service agencies that deal with the elderly and see if any offer financial consulting services that are free or low cost. Your in-laws need to be on a budget. Then it's up to you and your husband to explain to them that everyone is struggling and that you two need to start saving now for your own retirement. You can say it's one thing to help with groceries, it's another to realize your money is being diverted into a wide-screen TV. Inform them that unless they can live within their means, you two are not going to enable their living outside it.

Q. Re: Down Syndrome Daughter: What the mom who has had the little girl with Down Syndrome is going through is perfectly normal. It's natural, when parents find out their child has a disability, to go through the stages of grief. Not only should this mom see her O.B. again, but also check with your state's Medicaid offices. If her child is not eligible for Medicaid, they can still help connect her with agencies that can provide support services. Children with Down can live very fulfilling and happy lives, but that starts with a parent armed with information and education about her child's condition, and there are service agencies that provide that. I wish this mom the best. Once she is through the grieving process (a counselor could help her with that, too) and reaches a point of acceptance, she can begin to work toward giving her sweet daughter the best life possible. Kids with Down are also some of the most affectionate people around, so she will really enjoy that aspect of her daughter's condition. She just has to get through the initial difficult stages.

A: More good advice, thanks, especially about seeing what government services are available to help this family.

Q. Workplace Harassment: I work in a small office of around 30 people. At 26, I'm the youngest female employee by about 10 years. The owner of our company is in his late 70s. He's rarely in the office, but shows up for a few weeks at a time to check on things. I dress appropriately for my age and in business casual attire. No cleavage, no tight, revealing clothes, and no short skirts. Despite being appropriately dressed, the owner still finds reasons to "check me out." He isn't subtle at all in his long up and down glances or his stares in the kitchen. One time he asked me if I worked out when I bent down to retrieve a box. Prudie, it makes me so uncomfortable! I don't know if I should speak up to someone about it, since he hasn't physically done anything to me. We don't have an H.R. department or really anyone who fits that role, so I'm not sure who I would talk to. Any suggestions on how to handle this old gawker with tact?

A: He's the owner, there's no H.R., he likes to gawk. I think you've got yourself a perfect storm here of having to put up with occasional unpleasantness. Fortunately he's not around often and he keeps his hands to himself. I am not defending this disgusting old coot, but I don't see a way to make this stop except leaving the company. When you interact with him be cordial and professional. If he asks questions that lead to conversations about your body cut them off. Boss: "Hey, do you work out?" You: "No. But I do have a lot of work, so please excuse me."

In a new approach, we’re publishing the chat transcript in shorter, more digestible pieces. You will still be getting all the questions and answers, and we may even publish bonus letters Prudie didn’t get to address during the chat hour. Check back tomorrow for another edition!

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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