My life as a bully


We passed Paul's house each day on the walk to primary school. One day on a whim we knocked and invited him to join us. Once out of sight around the corner we proceeded to berate him, and to rough him up. Not my idea, but I went along. We thought it was such fun that we did it again the next day.

On the third day, his mother answered the door, and sent us on our way with a menacing reproach.

Later, there was Sean. Frequently our friend, constantly our fall-guy. Day trips to Ringwood Lake or into the city morphed into endless verbal assaults against hapless, loyal Sean. Far too easy to get sucked into the psychology of the group: our collective strength, his individual weakness.

Kids can be cruel. I'm ashamed to say I was.

Finally there was Travis. On a church camp we handcuffed him to a pole, poured soft drink in his lap, paraded about him in uproarious glee. Then quietly released him when he started to cry — a wailing sob that overran his brazen laughter. We'd thought it was a game. It wasn't. Never had been.

I had my bullies too. But if that explains my behaviour, it doesn't excuse it. It doesn't matter that I was not the ringleader. Whether sadistic shepherd or sheep, to these bullied boys I was simply a shit.

For the past two weeks I've served as a member of the TeleScope jury at Melbourne International Film Festival. This official capacity has at times been subsumed by powerful personal responses. Several films have again unearthed these distant but still guilt laden memories. Films that reflect upon the ways and reasons that children and adolescents exercise power over each other.

She Monkeys (Sweden) portrays teenage gymnast Emma's (Mathilda Paradeiser ) relationship with her teammate, Cassandra (Linda Molin ). In this competitive environment they are equally colleagues and opponents, and this tension expands beyond their sport and into their friendship in general.

The relationship is marked by seduction and sensuality and lashings of sadomasochism. But these things are more about power than sex. Ultimately the power games escalate to a point where both girls are damaged by them, either physically or morally.

Ideally, such hard lessons lead to the eventual discovery of compassion and forgiveness. She Monkeys ends before we see if this is the case with Emma and Cassandra.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers (Italy) could be a thematic sequel. It records the echoes of childhood trauma, including bullying, that continue to resonate in adulthood. It weaves together the present and the past to expose the lifelong effects of these traumas.

Mattia's (Luca Marinelli) suffering stems from his failure as a child to meet perceived expectations. His mother resents him and demands that he care for his autistic twin sister. This is a large burden for a young boy who is desperate to be accepted by peers who have their own expectations of behaviour. Mattia's temptation to be, for once, selfish, results in tragedy.

Throughout life Mattia is drawn to Alice (Alba Rohrwacher) , who is similarly damaged by parental and social expectations. She was a childhood skiing prodigy, but her potential was snuffed out after her taskmaster father cajoled her into practicing under perilous conditions.

As a teenager, now walking with a permanent limp, Alice is teased then befriended by a popular but troubled girl, who, like Cassandra in She Monkeys, coddles her with both sensuality and sadism. The friendship ends in humiliation for one, and moral degradation for the other.

As adults Mattia's and Alice's traumas draw them close while also keeping them apart. They are twin prime numbers, similar in their uniqueness, but destined never to touch. The past appears to be forever within and between them; its pain, permanent.

Childhood traumas are not easily overcome. Do Paul, Sean and Travis ever think about me, and wince? Do they have scars on their confidence roughly the size and shape of the barbs with which they were barraged, by me?

A post script. After Sean, but before Travis, there was Adam. He was smarter and more self-assured than any of us. I don't know if he suffered badly from our bullying, but if he did, it was in silence. And, remarkably, he remained a close friend.

I'm sure now that he saw through my cruel bravado to its source in fear and adolescent self-loathing. It was more than I deserved. I can only wish that I am capable of such grace. 

Names have been changed.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Kidzone, Inside Film and The Big Issue, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail. He is a member of the TeleScope jury at Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow Tim on Twitter 

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, She Monkeys, Solitude of Prime Numbers, Luca Marinelli, Alba Rohrwacher



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Existing comments

What a clever, self-effacing, reflective article. Thanks for the honesty.

Jen | 04 August 2011  

Thanks for the article Tim. I am sure it would resonate with many, as it did with me. We have are supporting the release of a short film called Cyber Sin, starring John Jarrett which will premier at WYD in August, which focuses on cyber bullying. Very powerful work. Released in oz in Semptember.I think cb is the single biggest adolescent well-being issue out there at the moment...Thanks again.

Mark Rix | 04 August 2011  

interesting article ......... i remember a high school re-union i attended a couple of years ago some 32 years on since we left high school ..... many of the guys there regretted the bullying they participated in and the embarrassment in meeting up with their
unfortunate victims ........

noel | 04 August 2011  

Dear Tim
Thank you for your honesty.
Yes your victims probably remember.Almost certainly they understand.Very possibly they understood at the time.

But leave the rest to God rather than reproaching yourself.

My son (now 22 and as I write this patiently entertaining his preschool nephew and niece) was bullied so badly at his very wonderful Catholic school that as a 14 year old he twice tried to jump from a veranda at the same school.

He later not only got on well with the boys concerned but also wrote very movingly of how he wanted to use his experience to help others.

He now aspires to be a high school teacher.
Grace is a river not a medicinal antidote.

Margaret | 04 August 2011  

I appreciated the self-awareness and quiet courage of this piece. It resonated with me too - partly as a Sean, partly as an Adam, partly as you. I was really touched by the last paragraph.

MBG | 04 August 2011  

Beautifully written Tim, thank you for such an honest reflection. Childhood is so fraught at times, whichever side of the battle of the day you're involved in.

Annette | 05 August 2011  

Dear Tim
Thanks for this. There's so little written about bullying that includes our own complicity in it, and perhaps that's why the 'solutions' offered are so ineffective. What you've written breaks open the moral defensiveness that's so counter-productive and puts it in the real world, as the responses show. Interesting.

Maddy Oliver | 05 August 2011  

Tim, I wonder how many ex-bullies turn out as gentle as you.

Mary | 05 August 2011  

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