In The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, I write about an incident when I was 14, on a trip with a group of kids from my school, in which they bullied me fairly traumatically, while the two adults in the hotel room when this was going on stepped over me, held down on the floor by the bullies, to get out. Since the book’s publication, I have heard from a woman who was on that trip as well, who was bullied by the same people in the same way, except even worse. She was 12 years old.
A reader wrote me privately to say:
What your story reminds me of is not only the power of the crowd and the targeting an individual but the power of the crowd to make others, who are not so inclined, follow along. It makes me question (and should do so for others) how I would have reacted had I been present. Would I have been brave enough to step in and try to stop it? Was my faith as a teenager strong enough to have supported me in doing so? Would I have been too cowed by those people, such that I wouldn’t have done anything or, even worse, joined in? I don’t know, and that worries me (and is what should worry others).
I can tell you that I know I doubt I would have had the courage to have stood up had I been a part of the popular crowd in that room, and had been watching as they held somebody weak down and abused them. I wouldn’t have started it, and I almost certainly wouldn’t have participated in it, but I am ashamed to say I surely would have stood quietly by while it happened.
I know this because I did once. There was a girl in my school who was not on the beach trip, but was bullied by these same people during the school year (as was I, after the trip). Except she got it far, far worse. Even to think today of the psychological and emotional cruelty she suffered back then shakes me up. I don’t know where she is now, but I am sure that when she thinks of our town, it is with deep pain and contempt, which is what she had thrown at her every day.
Once we were on a school bus waiting outside the school to depart for a field trip. I must have been 15 at the time; this girl was a year younger. The driver wasn’t yet on the bus. A boy from the girl’s class unwound a coat hanger, and came at the girl, who was sitting in her seat minding her business, and told her he was going to gouge her eye out with that hanger. I knew he wasn’t going to do it, and everybody knew he wasn’t going to do it. But he kept threatening her, and poking at her with the coat hanger. She tried to shield herself. The other boys were laughing with this bully. Nobody stood up for this poor girl.
I sat in the seat right behind her, sick over what I was watching, but too cowardly to stand up for her. I knew my place in the social hierarchy at that time, and lacked the courage to defend this girl.
Even today, over three decades later, I burn with shame when I think about how I sat there and let her suffer because I didn’t have the guts to do the right thing.
It’s interesting to think about how our childhoods form us. My experience with all that has made me fearful and contemptuous of the mob — a sentiment that informs my politics, and curbs my communitarian impulses — while at the same time distrustful of elites, because that particular mob was made up of social elites, mostly. You can see the internal contradictions here — a contradiction that my eventual recognition of the power of the same community to do great good for one of its own who suffers. I can’t say it often enough: life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived. Another reader wrote this past weekend, after finishing Little Way, that:
Family is a mysterious thing, like the nucleus of an atom, where the forces that hold it together are only slightly greater than the ones that could blow it apart.
This is true of community too, don’t you think?
I have come to understand that the ruin of my Catholic faith was, in a way, accomplished in that hotel room. For me, the adults walking out on me when I had been set on by the mob, and was begging them to help, was the template for my enraged, and eventually emotionally overwhelming, reaction to the Catholic bishops doing the same thing to Catholic children and their families who suffered at the hands of priests.
That, and my shameful memory of how I sat there on that school bus and didn’t lift a finger to help that poor girl who was being victimized by that bully and his guffawing pals. I could not be that person again.
Every Easter, when we do the Scripture readings in which the mob yells, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”, I have no doubt that I would have been right there among the crowd, had I been in Jerusalem. I hope I never forget that. Not all cowards are bullies, but all cowards are cowards.
(Say, I will be the guest on Jim Engster’s radio show on WRKF 89.3 FM, the Baton Rouge public radio station, today at 9 a.m. Central. Tune in if you’re in the listening area, or listen online to the livestream if you’re not.)