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January 6, 2013 8:30 AM   Subscribe

"Jenni Greenwald, please commit suicide." In 1986, John Cook and some fellow eighth grade boys wrote an underground newspaper filled with bullying and racism, targeting other students and teachers in their school. He reflects on this, getting in touch with both his co-authors and victims, in Confessions of a Teenage Word Bully.
posted by Chanther (84 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Word bully"? Just plain bully.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 8:46 AM on January 6, 2013 [17 favorites]


80s Reddit is going ti be so pissed at him for doxing.

It was pre-digital, ink-and-paper cyberbullying.

Well, yeah, easy to point out that really that's just bullying, but really it is worth pointing out that though the tools change the general shitiness of the teen to pre-teen I'd remains the same.
posted by Artw at 8:47 AM on January 6, 2013


Or the pre-teen to teen Id.
posted by Artw at 8:56 AM on January 6, 2013


As someone who was bullied pretty badly for many years, if I got an apology like this, I would definitely accept it.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:58 AM on January 6, 2013 [8 favorites]


I considered posting this, but ultimately decided I couldn't bear it, and wanted to post something sweet instead.

I appreciate that this guy is apparently less awful than he was. But I've come to the conclusion that it's unfair, selfish, even cruel to offer specific bullying victims an apology years later, by name, out of nowhere -- because, in our culture, that is tantamount to asking forgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift, not a thing given in exchange. It's a tremendous thing to ask of someone you've wronged and then forgotten for years on end. Personally, I can recall some shameful things I did as a teenager, but I'm not going to FB and asking anyone for forgiveness, because I haven't earned it. My punishment is to have been that person, and to know it.

It was manly of him to apologize to his history teacher, though. She deserves some kind of medal for putting up with assloads of kids like him every year, most of whom will probably go through their whole lives thinking she was basically Malcolm X and had no business doing what she was doing.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:58 AM on January 6, 2013 [51 favorites]


I was hoping that this would be a bit more about redemption and a bit less about tiresome navel-gazing from another logorrheic person who doesn't know how to let high school go.

The overall effect is less like someone trying to make up for and understand a mess they made long ago so much as them trying to recreate the smell for us, as though bringing that back and admitting it stinks is enough.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:59 AM on January 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


Here's Charles Mudede's take on that very topic recently in the Stranger: Hard Candy and the Rape Crew.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 9:03 AM on January 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


I guess he gets some credit for apologizing (only 26 years late!), but the crowd in this story was made up of guys like this.
posted by dersins at 9:09 AM on January 6, 2013


He actually didn't use the names of his victims, except that teacher, who I assume said he could do so.
posted by jeather at 9:16 AM on January 6, 2013


That's one mean zine.
posted by codacorolla at 9:18 AM on January 6, 2013


Fuck! Obviously that should be, "That's one mean teen zine."
posted by codacorolla at 9:18 AM on January 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


Not to mention obscene.
posted by troika at 9:20 AM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Although the mode of delivery has changed, the bullying doesn't really change. I'd like to think that society has become less tolerant of it but we have a long long way to go.
posted by arcticseal at 9:20 AM on January 6, 2013


I think I might have missed something: Is the author just assuming that "Jenni" tried to commit suicide? As far as I can see, the only actual evidence of this that he presents is that she wrote to him:

"Curious, how did you all feel once the attempt to end me actually occurred?"

That doesn't imply suicide to me; in fact if I hadn't been reading it in the context of him talking about her attempted suicide, it would read like homicide to me. Not to say it's not compatible with the possibility of suicide, of course.
posted by Flunkie at 9:25 AM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


My bullies have made me a worse person: I fantasize sometimes about breaking one's fingers, because he was a saxophonist. But that kid is my age now, and maybe he's put down the saxophone, and there's no point in carrying that spite to my grave.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:28 AM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


And he grew up to become a writer for Gawker.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:46 AM on January 6, 2013 [18 favorites]


I think failing to apologize for being an asshole to someone because you're worried that they might feel pressure to forgive you is a pretty odd idea. Certainly you have no right to assume that someone will forgive you simple because you have apologized, and any suggestion in your apology that things are now o.k. between you and that the person you are apologizing to would be churlish to continue feeling hurt is simply a renewed form of bullying--but it is perfectly possible to offer a free and unconditional apology to someone that comes with no hint of quid pro quo. In the end we can only take care of our own end of things. If we owe someone an apology (and that, unlike forgiveness, IS a debt), then we should apologize to them. Whether or not they choose to forgive us is, of course, entirely up to them, and should have nothing to do with the fact of our apologizing.
posted by yoink at 9:49 AM on January 6, 2013 [37 favorites]


I've come to the conclusion that it's unfair, selfish, even cruel to offer specific bullying victims an apology years later, by name, out of nowhere -- because, in our culture, that is tantamount to asking forgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift, not a thing given in exchange.
Yeah, it's nice to think that at least some bullies grow up, look back on their actions and feel bad, but reaching out years later is really kind of a selfish act. You're basically buttonholing your former victim and saying "I didn't want to have feel bad about this by myself, so in case you've forgotten all that shitty stuff I did to you back in the day, let me remind you about it too. My bad!"
posted by usonian at 9:56 AM on January 6, 2013 [8 favorites]


On the other hand, it's practically a cliché that bullies, when confronted later in life by their victims, invariably say stuff like "wow, I don't remember that at all" or "oh, it wasn't so bad, we were just giving you a hard time, it was all in good fun." It's only because there's incontrovertible physical evidence in this case that the bully can't wave it all away.
posted by theodolite at 10:01 AM on January 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


After my suspension was over, I still had to attend detention after school for a few weeks. One day I was the only student there, and the teacher monitoring me told me, "Someone had to say something about Nancy Hylton's outfits."

That did not happen.
posted by anderjen at 10:09 AM on January 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


I recently was on the receiving end of an apology that while not technically about bullying, demonstrates how a well-intentioned apology can backfire. In my case, it was from a woman who was always publicly and shamelessly flirting with my then-boyfriend many years ago. When that boyfriend and I broke up, I understand that they got together. Not great, but not something I really worry or even think about today, 10 years later.

So out of the blue I get a FB message from her with an apology so intense yet vague that I now wonder if/suspect more happened between them than I was ever aware of. I consider this ex-boyfriend a dear friend now, and so her "apology" is forcing me to go through feelings of betrayal, hurt, anger, and eventually forgiveness 10 years after the fact. (Forgiveness because if anything did happen it was years ago; we've both moved on and I value his friendship.)

I think bullies apologizing to their victims years later could have similar consequences. As we see in this story, Jenni had forgotten the intensity of the bullying and it's clear that being reminded of it (even if she was warned before he sent the newsletter) has been hurtful for her. All so this guy can feel better about himself and write about it on Gawker.
posted by misskaz at 10:10 AM on January 6, 2013 [12 favorites]


I literally just got an email from a fellow I used to interact with on another forum apologizing for having been a jerk.

I have no memory of him being a jerk. Actually, I don't remember him at all. But obviously his previous behavior was bothering him, and I wrote back and said I appreciate the apology, and, in my past, I have had a history of being dismissive and sarcastic and unpleasant, and if I directed any of that at him, I am also sorry for that.

I guess, in my case, I didn't feel as though I had been buttonholed. And different people are going to have different reactions, and those reactions may be different based on what the experience was.

I guess, in my own case, there are things that I also want to be able to apologize for. And sometimes I don't realize they are something I should apologize for until well after the fact. But that doesn't mean an apology is not owed. And I'm not necessarily asking forgiveness, but instead to be able to say that I recognize that I hurt somebody else, and am genuinely sorry for it.

If I want to be able to apologize like this, I have to be open to other people apologizing to me whenever they get around to feeling bad about something. I suppose I find these years-later apologies especially meaningful, because they represent somebody realizing how far they have come, and not being able to stand something they did previously, and wanting to make a meaningful expression of that change. I really don't think this can happen without apology.

I suppose it is worth asking "If I bring this up, will I just hurt the person more?" But, for most things, you may be the only person who really remembers it. Or the person might remember and have forgiven you years earlier (this has been the case with phone calls I have gotten from people in 12-step programs.) Even then, it might be worth reaching out through a third party to see if the person is amenable. You'd be amazed at what people are capable of listening to when it comes with a sincere apology, and what people have been hoping they will get an apology for. It can be very depressing thinking, god, that person did something awful, which is bad enough, but they don't seem to be even aware of it.

I don't know. Even now, I still do a lot of things that I just do out of bad habits or thoughtlessness, and only later does it occur to me that I could and should have done better. And I still get hurt a lot, and have learned pretty well how to move on on my own, how to forgive people who have not actually apologized to me, just for the sake of not living in constant anger about wrongs I think were done to me.

But apologies mean something important. When offered sincerely, they mean that people want to change, and can change, and maybe have already changed for the better and want to mark that change. And I think that's really important and don't wish to discourage it, at least in my own life, which is also going to involve a lot of me apologizing to other people.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:13 AM on January 6, 2013 [15 favorites]


Perhaps it's just me, but I'd have felt that the apologies would have had more sincerity if they were kept private, rather than providing content fodder for another disposable blog article.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:23 AM on January 6, 2013 [38 favorites]


After my suspension was over, I still had to attend detention after school for a few weeks. One day I was the only student there, and the teacher monitoring me told me, "Someone had to say something about Nancy Hylton's outfits."

That did not happen.


As a teacher, I totally believe it might have happened. I don't condone it but you'd be amazed what teachers say to kids.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 10:26 AM on January 6, 2013 [20 favorites]


Honestly? i wish that someone could do something like this, and rather than having it dissected and fingers waggled at him because of behavior as a kid, we could all realize that yeah, sometimes people do grow and grow better as people over time, rejoice and leave it at that.
posted by sfts2 at 10:27 AM on January 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


And here I was thinking about the newspaper. I put one out with two friends my freshman year. Double sided, anonymous (well, as anonymous as we could make it- we were similarly busted within a day) but just fucking around, not bullying. The one of us who had a girlfriend wrote a spirited defense of making out in public spaces and I honestly can't remember what I wrote. That file died many computers ago.
posted by Hactar at 10:38 AM on January 6, 2013


There is something frightening about kids at this age. I narrowly avoided getting seriously and violently assaulted in Grade 8... The Rivers Edge could have taken place at my junior high school.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:40 AM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Honestly? i wish that someone could do something like this, and rather than having it dissected and fingers waggled at him because of behavior as a kid, we could all realize that yeah, sometimes people do grow and grow better as people over time, rejoice and leave it at that.

Yeah, I agree with this too. When I was in middle school there was a kid who told me every day to go kill myself. I don't know if he knew that I'd attempted suicide but when I complained about this to my equivalent of friends (who definitely knew I'd attempted suicide) they were all like "oh, he's just kidding, what's the big deal?". There was other stuff too; middle school was awful for me as it was for many people and I was miserable and depressed and lonely and full of despair.

And I'm not that person anymore; I'm a grown-up with new and exciting issues and that was all a long time ago. Yeah, I was bullied really badly and it was awful but I don't think about it much. I was miserable but I suspect everyone else was miserable too and I'm someone different now and, I'm sure, so is everyone else. I've grown and changed and it seems pretty likely that so have the other kids from my middle school. I think it would be great if we could acknowledge the apology (even if we don't want to accept it) and move on.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 10:43 AM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd have felt that the apologies would have had more sincerity if they were kept private, rather than providing content fodder for another disposable blog article.

That's the feeling I took away from it too. I hate reading these kinds of things and just knowing it's going to say "So and so lives in New York and writes for Gawker" or whatever at the end.
And felt sort of like he was doing the zine again, but recasting himself in a more sympathetic role.
posted by chococat at 10:44 AM on January 6, 2013 [10 favorites]


... whatever hazy sense of outlaw pride I had over that episode curdled into shame.

I'm having a hard time seeing much of a sense of shame in that article.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:13 AM on January 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


My mother still lets me know when the bullies of my childhood and adolescence are in the police blotter in my hometown. Many of them have served or are serving time.

Not all of them though.
posted by sciencegeek at 11:26 AM on January 6, 2013 [8 favorites]


When I was at school, there was a guy who used to sit behind me in one class and he would leave me alone for five to ten minutes and then jam a compass point into some part of my body, deep enough for it to bleed like fuck and make a mess of my clothes, which I would then try to hide from my mother until I could find an occasion to surreptitiously wash them in water so hot it would both fail to get the blood out but shrink the item of clothing in question. After about three such incidents my mother would notice that some of my shirts/trousers were missing and would accuse me of... god, I can't even remember. All I know is that it was my fault, and I'd get hit for it and shouted at, but it wouldn't be as bad as having a compass point repeatedly stabbed into me.

One time I was taking a piss and one of the sixth formers stood next to me, pissed on his hand and rubbed it in my face. Another time one of them shoved my head down an unflushed toilet and pissed over me. Then he kicked me in my barely-descended balls and left, laughing his head off. I remember thinking "I'm going to get into trouble for this", and I did. How do you explain to your parents why you stink of piss when the most important thing is that they don't suspect you're being bullied? I think I made up some wildly implausible yarn about falling into a puddle of dog piss. Anyway, it was my fault for being so weak and useless to allow that sort of thing to happen to me.

There was one time when they took the one guy in school who was more bullied than me, ceremoniously carried him over to what we used to call the incinerator (which was basically a chicken-wire cage filled with combustible trash) and tossed him on it while it was alight. His clothing caught fire and he received really bad burns on his legs and arse which he was too afraid to go and get treated. I remember thinking how lucky I was that this guy existed, because it meant they did it to him instead of me.

Mean words? Sorry. I'm never going to have too much sympathy for people who can't deal with a few mean words. This probably makes me as bad as a bully, or some such modern thin-skinned bollocks. Whatever. I've been called worse, and, mystifyingly, managed to shrug it off easily.
posted by Decani at 11:26 AM on January 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'd be really interested to know whose headline that is, because it's not helping the piece.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 11:29 AM on January 6, 2013


There is no redemption in recognizing that one was an ass.
posted by moonbiter at 11:29 AM on January 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm having a hard time seeing much of a sense of shame in that article.

Really? That's very different than the way I read the article, which is filled with public expressions of mortification. Aside from the quote you offered:

Ramming Speed was filled with gutter racism, written by me, that turns my stomach to think of today.

* * *

it was an act of brutal and indefensible bullying against children we knew to be vulnerable. It was wanton adolescent cruelty of the sort that routinely makes headlines today.

* * *

It is unspeakably mortifying to read 26 years later, as I recently did for the first time.

* * *

Her grace and class made me feel like more of an asshole.

* * *

I had black friends at the time. I can't imagine how I faced them.

* * *

the knowledge that we had cavalierly and publicly taunted someone who was actually hurting enough to want to harm themselves nearly knocked me over.

* * *

And I'm sorry.

It seems the biggest issue people have is that this apology happened both publicly and privately, that it was both personal and commercial, and perhaps that it was published on a site that is associated with a more adult form of bullying. Which is fair. Perhaps because I also am a journalist, it doesn't seem so odd to me, and, in fact, we journalists often think that what happens privately can be more impactful if it is also made publicly, and so I don't presume his intention were to brag or just make a dollar off the event.

I guess I have found in my own life that I never know precisely what form either sorrow or forgiveness takes, and I don't find it personally useful to wish that it had taken exactly the form I wanted it to take. I see no evidence of any ethical violations in this piece -- he clearly changed names when requested, which also strongly implies the people he spoke to knew he was writing the article.

There is no redemption in recognizing that one was an ass.

I am not sure what this means, but I do know there is no way to stop being an ass without both knowing you are one and thinking that's a problem.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:32 AM on January 6, 2013 [15 favorites]


Personally I think the whole thing is a work of fiction.
posted by Brocktoon at 11:39 AM on January 6, 2013


Personally I think the whole thing is a work of fiction.

What on earth makes you think that?
posted by Huck500 at 11:44 AM on January 6, 2013


"There was breakdancing in his past." I read that sentence and giggle.
posted by Nomyte at 11:44 AM on January 6, 2013


John Cook is the same writer who turned his recaps and reporting on the TV show Girls into one ad hominem attack after another. I get why he doesn't like the show and even why he doesn't like Lena Dunham (see my comment history about my own Girls ambivalence), but his Girls writing is just a refinement of the writing he excerpts in Ramming Speed. Pointlessly, relentlessly mean-spirited.
posted by to sir with millipedes at 11:45 AM on January 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


There are several things that bother me about this piece. Similar to what other people have stated, I wish that he did this in private.

But more than that, was he paid to write this? So he profited from writing his little paper before and is profiting from this again?

It sounds like he spent a lot of energy/time towards those activities, too.

I would hope that if he really felt sorry that he would donate time and money towards changing the world now and preventing (he can pick from the list, spreading racism, bullying, whatever).
posted by Wolfster at 11:51 AM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Which is fair. Perhaps because I also am a journalist, it doesn't seem so odd to me, and, in fact, we journalists often think that what happens privately can be more impactful if it is also made publicly, and so I don't presume his intention were to brag or just make a dollar off the event.

Yeah, I've worked in journalism as well. My experience is that this is just how we rationalize the need to feed the gaping maw that continuously needs feeding content. And so the impetus inevitably becomes less about 'how can I make amends for the terrible things I did in the past and show genuine contrition to the people that I hurt', and more 'how do I need to frame this story in order that it'll please my editor?'
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:00 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Indeed, one of the things he pulled out of Lena Dunham's book proposal to excoriate her for was that she remembered and wrote about the fact that she and her friends, as kids, called another girl a mean name. He also ripped her for having been in therapy and sort of oversharing -- in a book proposal, not a book -- and so forth.

Reading this piece and his Dunham stuff together is really, really an odd experience. Just don't know what to make of it at all.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 12:07 PM on January 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


To all my former bullies: If you actually get over being an asshole and feel sorry about it, that's nice. But don't contact me about it. I really just don't want to hear from you ever again. It's decades later, and why bring up all that shit for me when I don't have to put up with you now? Just go away and don't act like that again. Though if you teach your kids not to be a bully like you were, that'd be enough to make it up to me. Don't track me down on Facebook and talk to me now, that's all I ask.

My mother still lets me know when the bullies of my childhood and adolescence are in the police blotter in my hometown.

Heh heh heh. I really enjoyed the one moment where one of mine got arrested for burglary or something. Her mug shot was fantastic. Tammy Faye eyeliner and evil expression that The Smoking Gun would have loved.
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:09 PM on January 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


This comment by "Miz Jenkins" is a slightly different perspective, with supporting quotes. Not going to quote the comment here because I think you have to read her whole comment, with its quotes, to avoid reacting to it too shallowly.
posted by amtho at 12:10 PM on January 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think I think what yoink and Bunny Ultramod think.

Also:
I'm not a Christian, but I think there is both bad and evil in humans (evil here = doing the wrong because it is wrong).

As the linked piece Mei's lost sandle points us to points out, kids aren't finished people. I'd say: they contain multitudes...and some of the components aren't good. And even those who grow up to be good people later can be bad as kids. I think adults learn to sort through their mass of conflicting impulses and block or slowly kill off many of the bad ones. Kids and quasi-kids seem less good, in general, at killing or suppressing that stuff. Mix in with that that it can seem--or even be in some respects--a way of pushing back against the Man/ the System...and, well...I'm not at all sure that we should draw too many conclusions about who someone really is from what they did as a kid.

I'm a pretty good person, but I did some pretty bad things as a kid. And I don't really know why. I wasn't a deeply cruel kid. But I had roughly the self-control of the Hulk. I was a f*cking idiot.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 12:12 PM on January 6, 2013


John Cook is the same writer who turned his recaps and reporting on the TV show Girls into one ad hominem attack after another.

Oh man, it's that guy? Yeah, shitbag has still got the same job.
posted by Artw at 12:48 PM on January 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


This piece makes me pretty angry. I was never seriously bullied, lucky me, but I saw shit happen to other people that was terrifying. More terrifying was how helpless I was to stop it; teachers told me to butt out, and bullies would either cream me or ignore me if I defended anyone.

So no, I have no patience whatsoever for some late in life poormouth chestbeating I've Changed and I'm a Good Person now bullshit. You can't undo what you did and what you did was some bad shit. I don't give a fuck how bad it makes you feel now and how your sense of yourself as a good person is shaken. It will never feel as bad to you as to the kids you targeted. You can, quite frankly, go fuck yourself, sir.
posted by emjaybee at 12:56 PM on January 6, 2013 [11 favorites]


I kind of figured there would be a mixed reaction to this piece, and I'm sure I'm not going to be able to will anyone into thinking it was great, but this is what I liked about it:

While I generally roll my eyes at cheesy, corny platitudes of the "If just one person changes from this it was all worth it" variety, I do think there is value in someone publicly stating, as was done here, "I was a bully, I'm sure I had rationalizations in my head at the time that helped me justify my behavior but they were all bullshit excuses that don't hold up under scrutiny, the people who were the victims of my bullying did absolutely nothing to deserve their treatment, I am horrified and ashamed of my behavior and what it says about who I was as a person at this time and am sorry for any pain I caused my victims".

There is a strong and powerful, "There is no honor or pride in being a bully, only shame" message here that would be lost if, as many have suggested would have been a better option, the writer had done all of his self-flagellating in private.

As to the criticism that it is in poor taste that the writer may be profiting from this mea culpa, I don't know what the pay scale is for the typical Gawker writer, but something tells me this was not being written from the third story veranda of the writer's winter house in Beverly Hills.
posted by The Gooch at 1:05 PM on January 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


At my 20 year high school reunion, one of the nice maths-nerdy but popular guys came up to me and specifically apologised for the way he treated me at school.

I had never believed he had been anything other than a nice but peripheral classmate. We sat together in the top maths class from time to time. I was so confused and actually upset that he had seen me as some kind of victim that I didn't go to my 25th reunion last month.

I questioned my perception of my entire last years of school.... if Stewart was bullying me what else was going on that I wasn't getting and how much of a joke was I?

I wish he'd said nothing. The apology may have made him feel better, I still feel disquieted.
posted by taff at 1:07 PM on January 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


I enjoyed the irony that in their misguided effort to seem worldly and tough and punk-rock, these kids pushed Jenni to leave their boring suburban social scene and go join the DC punk scene for real. Way to go Jenni.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:13 PM on January 6, 2013 [16 favorites]


I suppose I was the only one who found it loathsome that he cast he and his friends in the movie of his life with the handsome "brat pack" stars of the time?

I suppose the story of "Jenni" was supposed to be "yay, go Jenni" but to me it was a "bootstraps" message to bullied kids: "See, we treated her horribly, but she turned out alright! She even had a great time!"

Plus a lot of "bullies are decent people, too...eventually." Many aren't, I'm not sure this guy is.
posted by maxwelton at 1:31 PM on January 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


taff, a similar thing happened to me last year. A Facebook friend, one of my high school classmates, commented on a picture of himself from the Halloween of my last year of high school, bringing the thread beneath it onto my news feed.

Five years before, the Facebook friend's girlfriend had said that the costume he was wearing made him look like me. The class valedictorian had replied: "So he looks like a pedophile?"

I had missed this conversation the first time it had come round.

Now, as far as I'd known, the valedictorian and his set were just another group of classmates. I'd had no reason to think they thought so little of me that I got no defense later in the thread. Reading the conversation made me remember every slight and every falsely friendly thing those people had ever said to me.

I wanted so badly to hurt the valedictorian that I was glad, for once, that I didn't have the physical strength to actually do it.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:38 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm always slightly horrified by these sorts of things that come out in bullying stories:

"After my suspension was over, I still had to attend detention after school for a few weeks. One day I was the only student there, and the teacher monitoring me told me, "Someone had to say something about Nancy Hylton's outfits."

Like when that little boy who ended up hanging himself after the kids bullied and hounded him endlessly, and even his teachers slyly encouraged it. You like to imagine that the adults on scene will do the right thing, and it's always unnerving to discover that some of those bully kids grow up to be bully adults (and that some of them continue their vendetta against kids they perceive as targets when they themselves are adults).
posted by thylacinthine at 1:53 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I used to think these: "I was a shit to you as a kid and now as an adult I am sorry" stories were sort of sweet because I am into apologies and forgiveness. But the comments in this thread have made me reconsider. You guys are right: admitting the wrongs so many years later can just rehash the hurt for the victim.

A bully apologised to me and I didn't really understand the feeling I was feeling after the apology. It brought up memories of other acts done by them that were not apologised for. I still have to deal with the person because they are a family member, and they still drop little bully bombs even as an adult which hurt and are hard to parse in the context of a so-called loving family. I think some bullies never grow out of the urge to bully, but they do get better at channeling it into their career and hiding it among their families.

They were acting out sexually (or at least we thought they were), and needed to be punished and celebrated for it.

And some things never change...
posted by Kerasia at 2:06 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


John Cook's piece gives the lie to the promises by the AV Club director who tells the nerds in the last episode of Freaks and Geeks that the bullies are the ones whose lives will plateau.

I don't know. I get a lot more "look how punk rock we were with our LaserWriter" from this piece than I do any remorse, real self-understanding or empathy.
posted by steinsaltz at 2:45 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's interesting how, in every mefite thread on bullying, there is always such a clear line between bullies and bullied. As if the moral clarity of adolescence clings like a remora to the feelings of shame, anger, frustration, resentment, sadness that make it through the years. The stirring conviction of the wronged.

I had the shit bullied out of me in school; but I have no easy conscience. I was vicious with my words, spoke calumny that drove people from our social group.

It's kind of like an historical bystander effect: we're convinced we were different, we might even believe most people are. But in truth, most people - including us - are not like that.

It doesn't make the bullying right of course, and obviously, one type of bullying is not necessarily equivalent to another, but I do think it's interesting how fast we are to think of excuses for our own actions - or forget them entirely - whilst holding a torch for those that wronged us.

How many people think they would emerge from a survey of their grade, with not a single person claiming your hurt them? I doff my hat to you friends, I have no such belief.
posted by smoke at 3:04 PM on January 6, 2013 [12 favorites]


This guy does see that what he did was wrong, but he is still quite in awe of what he did:
Proudly indecent,
***
a jaw-dropping feat of anti-authoritarianism that earned us the admiration of many students and even a few teachers, who marveled at our precocious ingenuity and entrepreneurialism
***
a self-deprecating (and simultaneously self-aggrandizing) tale of misspent youth
***
an act of defiance against a school administration we perceived as wanting
Also, describing himself as a "word-bully" kind of buries the lede there:
We broke into the apartment complex next to Steve's house
***
Armed with a BB gun, we shot at moving cars like snipers from the roof of my house

As for describing this as Cook saying "I am horrified and ashamed of my behavior", it sounds to me more like he is horrified and thrilled by it.
posted by benito.strauss at 3:05 PM on January 6, 2013 [9 favorites]


On the OP itself: Ironic, writing a piece about bullying in Gawker; typical navel-gazing journalist making themselves the centre of the story; he seems to revel in the extremity of his "badness"; I don't think apologies are always bad - I got one last year that matter a great deal to me and really did help me move on.
posted by smoke at 3:06 PM on January 6, 2013


This is the guy who wrote that nasty hit-piece about Lena Dunham's book deal? Uh, wasn't that post essentially the grown-up version of his bullying newspaper? Sure, Lena Dunham is no victim, but it had the same whiff of "taking a woman down a peg because you find her threatening to your manhood/talent." Ugh.

Put me down on the "please don't contact your bullying victims" camp. I was contacted a few years ago by a girl who bullied me in middle school, via facebook of course. She asked for my forgiveness and said she wanted to be friends and I just found the whole thing really unpleasant.

It's great that she's changed but, well, we all have. I really didn't like being cast back in that victim's role after all those years. Foolish pride, maybe, but really, why would I want to be friends with a person who I have nothing in common with besides the fact that she made my life hell for a good six months in the 7th grade?

Not that I'm blameless. There was one girl who was even less cool than me in the 5th grade and I was really horrible to her on a few occasions. I cringe thinking about it even now. I would really love to apologize and be forgiven, but that's a pretty selfish desire on my part.
posted by the essence of class and fanciness at 3:13 PM on January 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


I'm really surprised at peoples' reactions here. And a little disappointed.

Plus a lot of "bullies are decent people, too...eventually." Many aren't, I'm not sure this guy is.

Does anyone really think that there is a category called "bully" that some people fall into and other people don't? Because that's a bunch of BS. I can almost guarantee that you (yep, you, reading this) bullied someone once when you were younger. Someone you didn't want to sit at your table or come to your party. Maybe not as bad as what Cook did, but still.

There is someone out there from your youth who remembers you only as a person who was mean to them for no reason. Chew on that for a couple minutes.

Cook faced it, and faced it publicly (are we really criticizing a professional writer for writing about his experiences???). Most of us probably haven't even thought about the kids we were mean to in years.

I feel like a lot of peoples' reactions are knee-jerky because they don't like the idea that their childhood bully might have grown up into someone who doesn't like bullying. We like to think Big Nate who beat us up after school never finished high school and is in prison somewhere. Well, life's not so simple. I found this piece refreshing since it challenged me to think about the people from my own youth who might deserve an apology. Thanks, John.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 3:31 PM on January 6, 2013 [13 favorites]


The thing about retrograde apologies like this one is that the former bully gets to set the price of the pain that they inflicted. "So, all the shitty things I did to you are worth exactly one apology. I'm sorry! There, we're even now. You have no more reason to feel bad, and you can now start admiring me for the virtuous person I am." I'm not sure it works that way.

There's social pressure to accept apologies, and I think it really cheapens the ritual. Accepting an apology and extending forgiveness should be a bigger virtue than offering an apology. You took away power from your victims: the power to express themselves, the power to feel safe. What you owe them is similar: you owe them confidence, you owe them your self-esteem. It's theirs, you're just borrowing it.

Crowing from the rooftops about your apologizing skills is just another form of bullying. "See, I did all this bad stuff, and then I apologized and it's all totally all right now!"
posted by Nomyte at 3:32 PM on January 6, 2013 [10 favorites]


There's social pressure to accept apologies

Definitely. This is the other thing that really bothered me about my former bully asking my forgiveness: I wound up feeling a lot of pressure to respond in the "right" way. Honestly, In a weird way, it put her back in a position of power, because I was now on the spot to respond to her demand.

This set up a sort of lose-lose situation for me. I could email her back and tell her she was forgiven, which cost me little but I didn't really want to do, to be perfectly honest. I could email her back and tell her she wasn't forgiven, which would make me look petty and like I was still seeing myself as a victim, 15 years later. Or I could ignore her, which seems callous (or worst-case scenario, like I just can't face her).

I finally decided that I just didn't care that much about her and didn't want anything to do with her, and never responded. I'm still not sure if that was the right course (I think if it happened today I'd probably respond differently) but given all the potential options, it seemed the most dignified and least likely to cause any sort of drama. But of course now I feel like a tiny bit of a heel for not just giving her a cheap "don't worry about it."
posted by the essence of class and fanciness at 3:44 PM on January 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


And he grew up to become a writer for Gawker.

Heh. The last I heard about Cook, he was Gawker's Investigative Reporter, but left them to write for Yahoo's The Upshot in 2010, and then turned around and went back to Gawker just 6 months later. The quote from Andrew Golis about it at the time stuck in my head:
"John’s a brilliant reporter, but he decided that he prefers the license Gawker gave him to add his opinions into his reporting to the scale and credibility Yahoo! News could offer," Upshot editor Andrew Golis wrote on his personal blog this morning.
Golis is now a Senior Editor for PBS' Frontline. Cook is still at Gawker.

Anyway, Cook has been responding to the "Ramming Speed" article in the comments, including this:

"No, the writing is really terrible throughout. Utterly witless. Though a lot of people would say that prefigured my adult work fairly accurately. "
posted by zarq at 3:45 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


The feeling I always get from MeFi bullying threads is that most mefites went to a junior high with lots of bullying, followed by a high school with lots of bullying, followed by going on to college far away from their junior and senior high school bullies. This means that they've never been around to see their former bullies grow up.

I was fortunate, in that my junior high had a lot of bullying, but my senior high school had almost none. I don't know why that is (it wasn't like it had innovative anti-bullying programs or anything), but it meant that I got to see folks who used to bully me, or other kids, gradually mellow over the next four years, turning into, well, normal human beings. By graduation, there were quite a few former bullies who were friends with former bullieds. Not all, mind you. Some remained horrible people, and are now probably either in jail or vice presidents of companies. But the majority grew up.

I suspect that's the case in most places, just that people grow up in college or later. If you haven't seen the process, I suppose it's easy to assume that a bully in childhood is a bully for life, and if they aren't bullying in public, it must be because they're abusing their spouses or children, or harassing their coworkers, or the like. Plus, I'm sure it's morally settling. After all, if you hate a former bully's guts, it must be tough to reconcile the fact that you hate them with the fact that they might now be a perfectly nice, normal person. It's easier to assume they're still an asshole, in which it's ok to hate them.
posted by Bugbread at 3:48 PM on January 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


no regrets, coyote: I feel like a lot of peoples' reactions are knee-jerky because they don't like the idea that their childhood bully might have grown up into someone who doesn't like bullying.

Similar to what others have mentioned, I see this as ultimately just an attempt at self-absolution. In these folks' personal life-histories, in which they are the protagonists, they feel that they did bad things and need to redeem themselves. Perhaps they have changed, perhaps they have not. It does not matter. They seek out their former victims and ask forgiveness, and the victims are then forced to come back to the matter and make a choice whether or not to extend said forgiveness. It is, in a way, just another form of bullying—they drag these folks back into it, whether they want to revisit it or not, and apologize, with the unspoken undertone being "help me feel better about myself, or it is you who are now the bad person for not forgiving."

It is simply another imposition on the victims, another (often unwanted) intrusion on their victims' lives, just so that they can assuage their own view of self, or write an article, or whatever. And I find that form of egotism abhorrent, regardless of whether the erstwhile bully has grown up or not.
posted by moonbiter at 3:55 PM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Threads like this really piss me off, so I'm going to drop out before I start saying vicious things, but I can't refrain from saying that these:
I'm really surprised at peoples' reactions here. And a little disappointed.
are not the words of someone who wants to be forgiven. Like moonbiter describes so well, they are another twist of the screw.
posted by benito.strauss at 4:11 PM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


moonbiter: "It is, in a way, just another form of bullying—they drag these folks back into it, whether they want to revisit it or not, and apologize, with the unspoken undertone being "help me feel better about myself, or it is you who are now the bad person for not forgiving.""

I think that's begging the question. If one assumes that the person is still a bully, then asking for absolution is a form of bullying, because it's demanding absolution, and threatening guilt if the demand isn't met. But if you actually entertain the possibility that the person is genuinely repentant, then there's no reason to assume that apologizing is the same as begging for forgiveness, and casting the other person as a bad guy if they don't offer it.

I mean, I deal with this every day with my 6 year old and my 4 year old. When one hits the other, and it hurts, I make him apologize. If the person who was hurt wants to say "it's ok", then that's fine. If he doesn't, that's fine. Whenever the hitter/apologizer starts to demand that the other person say "it's ok", I repeat that "You don't apologize to make him forgive you, you apologize because you've done something bad and you feel bad about it. Whether or not he wants to forgive you has nothing to do with it." I'm a little surprised that so many people here have my kid's view of what apologies are.
posted by Bugbread at 4:21 PM on January 6, 2013 [13 favorites]


(That said, though, the idea that "apologizing may bring up lots of horrible memories, so sometimes it's best avoided" is one that makes sense. My disagreement is just with the "apologies = demanding absolution" idea.)
posted by Bugbread at 4:23 PM on January 6, 2013


Does anyone really think that there is a category called "bully" that some people fall into and other people don't? Because that's a bunch of BS. I can almost guarantee that you (yep, you, reading this) bullied someone once when you were younger.

I call bullshit on this. One of the defining characteristics of bullying is that it is a repeated behavior. Sure, many of us have done crap things to other people but I, and I am sure many others, did not do it repeatedly nor habitually. So if you were a bully (repeated harrassment of one of more people) don't try to mitigate your behavior by saying 'everybody did it'. No, only bullies did it.
posted by Kerasia at 4:33 PM on January 6, 2013 [10 favorites]


In terms of childhood bullies growing up: as I mentioned above, the worst of my former bullies really did end up badly - in and out of jail for various reasons. These were the kids who waited for me every day after school and knocked me off my bike as I went by, the kid who deliberately broke a few of my toes one day in gym class, ... you know, bullying that crossed the line from merely verbal/psychological to physical assault. I should mention that I'm female and the kids who crossed this line were all male.

The run of the mill bullies from both Junior High and High School (these are the ones whose bullying was verbal/psychological), I've gotten to reconnect with via Facebook and more recently at a high school reunion. They are, mostly, adults now and this has been immensely awesome to see. Some of them are really interesting people. I try to think of their offenses as being done while they were minors - the expectations of a minor are different than that of an adult.

The best thing that ever happened to me in terms of this history happened about ten years ago when I was visiting my hometown and one of the women who'd been in the popular girl category way back then saw me and just came up to me, hugged me and said, without preface, "High school sucked, didn't it" It wasn't an apology, it was a statement. And, for me, it was important to hear.
posted by sciencegeek at 4:36 PM on January 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


Bugbread: "If one assumes that the person is still a bully, then asking for absolution is a form of bullying, because it's demanding absolution"

Whoops, that should have read "If one assumes that the person is still a bully, then apologizing is a form of bullying, because it's demanding absolution". That's what I get for reworking sentences so often.
posted by Bugbread at 5:19 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was never bullied, but if I had been, and my ex-bully came up to me years later, hugged me, and said "High school sucked, didn't it", I'm pretty sure that my gut reaction would be "Get your fucking hands off of me". Maybe that's just because I'm just a petty person. And I'd like to think that I would act more gracious than my gut would tell me to act, and instead pretend to be pleasant and grant them the absolution that they're looking for. But nonetheless, my gut would be telling me to crush that fucker's hopes of friendliness.

I don't doubt that it was a good experience for you, and I don't doubt it would be a good experience for many people. But I think that different people react in different ways to the same thing, and that your ex-bully was, if sincere, taking quite a chance that doing that wouldn't just make it worse rather than better for you.
posted by Flunkie at 5:23 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I really don't recall any bullying in high school (I'm in Aus - we squash everyone from Year 7 to 12 in one school), after Year 7 or so, and it was mostly the kind of low key incessant mean girls stuff that can be characteristic of all girls schools. After that, it really seemed to me that for the most part, my classmates seemed to get along all right - not necessarily all friends, but colleagues. So my experience is that I was not (much) bullied, and didn't bully, either. I think it's a mistake to equate periodic nastiness (which is something I think everyone has done) with bullying. I don't think everyone is a bully, at all.

I once demanded an apology of someone who had joined in on a defamation session concerning me as an adult. I sent her a message saying, I felt we had a cordial altho not intimate relationship, I had done x and y things for you; and so your words hurt me very badly, and I think they were unjustified. She responded that she was sorry, and couldn't really recall why she'd been so unkind, but that she'd been given information she'd since found out was untrue. I did feel better. But I doubt I'd be at all receptive if a ghost from my past popped up to make themselves feel better by "apologising"!
posted by thylacinthine at 6:12 PM on January 6, 2013


The writer seems like an unrepentant asshole (if you're going to apologize, why not do it privately), but then again, it's Gawker.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:28 PM on January 6, 2013


So no, I have no patience whatsoever for some late in life poormouth chestbeating I've Changed and I'm a Good Person now bullshit. You can't undo what you did and what you did was some bad shit. I don't give a fuck how bad it makes you feel now and how your sense of yourself as a good person is shaken. It will never feel as bad to you as to the kids you targeted. You can, quite frankly, go fuck yourself, sir.

I was bullied pretty badly in Junior high. High school, not so much, because I had gotten savvier about avoiding them, but also I was 6'2" in the tenth grade, which helped.

Anyway, Junior high was a neverending stream of relentless brutality and bullshit. Among the lowest points was the day 3-4 of them gave me a swirlie, and got sent to the principals office soaking wet. The assistant principal told me that if I was just less geeky, this wouldn't happen. Maybe if tried harder to fit in. Maybe if I was more like the other kids....

At the time, I couldn't put my finger on why that was so much bullshit, but believe me, I do know.

Anyway, at my 10 year reunion, I was taking a leak and one of the kids - now grown up - who used to bully me came in to the restroom. We stood there, facing the urinal, pissing our brains out - and he said : "Hey man, I did some real stupid shit to you when we were kids, and I've always been really sorry I did that. I hope you're doing well, and I if I could go back and change it, I would. I feel really bad about it."

I finished taking my leak, and just said - "its cool man. Junior high was hard on everybody".

I was initially pissed at him, for dredging all that shit up - but the more I thought about it... Look - he was a kid. He didn't let me down. He didn't really know any better. The failure lay with those dipshit morons running the school who left us to fend for ourselves. They let all of us down. The teachers, the bus drivers, the administration - all of them turned a blind eye in that "kids will be kids" mentality.

So, ultimately - I forgave my bullies. They were failed, just as I was, by a school system and education policy that was pure 1800s bullshit.

Kids will be kids - but they might not ever become adults unless you show them how.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 6:55 PM on January 6, 2013 [24 favorites]


What I should have added earlier is that there are ways to apologize for victimizing others:

1. In person if possible
2. With no expectation that you will be/deserve to be pardoned. Your former victim owes you nothing, not even the time to hear your plea.
3. By doing what you can to make sure your kids don't do the same
4. Most important, by not making the story about you and your feelings, but about the effect on those you hurt.
posted by emjaybee at 7:13 PM on January 6, 2013


Please, let's not make it any more about this particular guy. Talking about him in particular is just short of tedious gossip. People here do have some interesting points about the principle of the thing, you know, as long as we don't all write about our success rate and send the results to Gawper.
posted by Nomyte at 8:14 PM on January 6, 2013


I call bullshit on this. One of the defining characteristics of bullying is that it is a repeated behavior. Sure, many of us have done crap things to other people but I, and I am sure many others, did not do it repeatedly nor habitually. So if you were a bully (repeated harrassment of one of more people) don't try to mitigate your behavior by saying 'everybody did it'. No, only bullies did it.

I'm sure there were people in school who didn't bully someone, but there are ton more people out there who are "bullies" by this definition than realize it; including people in this thread coming in to telling stories about how they were bullied.

I was bullied in school. Not a lot in high school, but plenty in elementary and middle school. Nothing that's worth describing in detail, but it happened. I was also a condescending asshole to everyone who I thought I was smarter than (most everyone). I said awful things to other kids, and I justified it by telling myself the story about how I was unpopular and bullied and people didn't like me so my cruelty was righteous and justified. Only it wasn't. I was just being an asshole, just like the people who bullied me.

Being bullied isn't the entirety of your school age identity. Neither is being a bully. The world is infinitely more complicated than that, and if you think your story happens to fit the mold you're probably wrong. Separating the world into bullies and bullied is a way of isolating yourself from the shitty behavior that basically everyone takes part in.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:27 AM on January 7, 2013 [9 favorites]


it's always unnerving to discover that some of those bully kids grow up to be bully adults (and that some of them continue their vendetta against kids they perceive as targets when they themselves are adults).

Teachers are all former students. And from my observation in being around them during much of my working life, is that they spend a lot of time living out their "revenge" for what happened to them in school. There is nothing more powerful in a classroom than a teacher. So if that teacher was a childhood bully, you'll sometimes see that bully acting out in the power position in the classroom. If they were once petty "popular" girls who was heavily invested in social drama, the grown-up teacher will often echo that behavior. I'm fascinated by the ones who have a history of having been picked on, though. Younger teachers tend to do their best to defuse bullying, to spy it out and squash it. But I've seen some grown-ups who were bullied as kids be more callous toward the bullied than they otherwise might--a sort of, I got through it and so should you so toughen up.

Teachers spend their adult lives watching these dramas from their childhoods play out in front of them, day in and day out. Not all of them manage to grow up and get perspective.
posted by RedEmma at 8:20 AM on January 7, 2013 [5 favorites]


Honestly? i wish that someone could do something like this, and rather than having it dissected and fingers waggled at him because of behavior as a kid, we could all realize that yeah, sometimes people do grow and grow better as people over time, rejoice and leave it at that.

Honestly? Fuck this guy. He turned his apology into an article. He didn't show how he was trying to end teen bullying. He didn't show that he learned anything. All he showed is how bad he feels. Which is great, guy, I can appreciate your feelings. Now, what are you going to do about it?
posted by disconnect at 11:05 AM on January 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


By that same token, disconnect, all you've shown is how you feel about this guy and the article. Which is great, guy, I can appreciate your feelings. But you haven't indicated what you're going to do about it. I wouldn't use the phrase "fuck this guy" to refer to your comment, though.

There are options other than "this guy is great" and "fuck this guy". If he headed up some amazing anti-bullying initiative, I'd say "this guy is great". If he reconnected with people he used to bully in order to continue bullying them, I'd say "fuck this guy". But just apologizing and writing an article? Merits neither.
posted by Bugbread at 2:32 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Teachers are all former students. And from my observation in being around them during much of my working life, is that they spend a lot of time living out their "revenge" for what happened to them in school. There is nothing more powerful in a classroom than a teacher. So if that teacher was a childhood bully, you'll sometimes see that bully acting out in the power position in the classroom. If they were once petty "popular" girls who was heavily invested in social drama, the grown-up teacher will often echo that behavior.

Getting my education degree was totally like going back to high school again. I remember doing my teaching practicum, all of the teachers (including one of my supervisors, who was kind of a jerk) talked about the great poker game they were going to have, but none of them ever invited me. Oh well.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:53 PM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Christ, what an asshole.

I had a underground newspaper in 1986 too but... thank god it wasn't like that.

I guess this guy wants a cookie for his confessional scab picking.

NO COOKIE from me.
posted by geeklizzard at 4:55 PM on January 7, 2013




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