What I Learned About Bullies, And Their Parents, When I Wrote A Book On The Subject
Friday I'm going to this thing at the home of garden designer Robert Bellamy called "Light a Fire," some kind of dinner deal to make people more aware of the problem of bullying of gay kids and suicide. I do things like this because I'm a great guy and my wife makes me go. She has been a friend and admirer of Bellamy for years. Left to my own devices, I would never leave home. In fact, I would never even come downstairs.
As mentioned earlier this morning, Cece Cox and Lee Taft of Resources Center Dallas have a good piece today on The News's op-ed page about Dallas Independent School District's new anti-bullying policy, which will be voted on tonight by the board of trustees. They make the point that just having an official policy can improve the situation of gay kids and other targets of oppression. At least it shows that the institution is on their side, not the side of the bullies. Gay adults have terrible stories to tell about just the opposite experience as kids: their teachers and principals were on the side of the sex Nazis who beat them up.
Boy, do we have a long way to go.
But I have this personal reservation. Twelve years ago I wrote a book called Bully, which was later made into a movie directed by Larry Clark.
It's a true-crime book, and being its author makes me an expert on nothing except maybe how to write true-crime books. But I did spend three years on the damn thing, looking into the lives of a bunch of suburban Fort Lauderdale kids who murdered one of their best friends. Oh, by the way: In this case, the bully was the murder victim, and his victims, who were the killers, all went to the pen. In a bizarre subplot, the bully and his main victim made money by beating up gay men and dancing in a gay strip club, even though they were hetero.
I spent years struggling with book editors and movie development persons, all of whom had an average age of 22 and just got out of Vassar two days ago, who wanted me to explain the inner meaning of the twisted gay-bashing theme. I explained it the way I had learned in my years on the police beat: They behaved the way they did because they were screwed up assholes. None of my handlers liked that explanation.
My main take-away from all of that is that bullying by and of kids cannot be separated from the culture of their parents or from morality generally. I think Cox and Taft are saying sort of the same thing in their op-ed piece.
To do something about bullying, you have to take on multiple targets, some of which may seem contradictory. You have to address parents. That's really hard for schools, public and private, because school people always so unbelievably chicken about getting parents mad at them.
But you can't tell the kids that their behavior is their parents' responsibility. You have to get them to recognize that in bullying and violence they are embracing and becoming evil. Themselves. On their own. The parents don't go to the pen. The kids do.
And you have to address the chicken-hearted schools. One good thing about a bullying policy for schools is that you give the school something to worry about in terms of litigation if it fails to carry out that policy.
And then there is just the moral statement - the public signal that says, "We believe bullies suck."
The kids in Bully by the way, were raised in good schools and churches, got lots of ballet lessons and karate. They were mainstream suburban white kids.
When I was working on it, I dealt with a really smart Florida prosecutor (and some very good defense lawyers too). One day I was frustrated by this crap I was getting from the New York editors: They wanted me to find out that the kids turned into murderers because somebody had dropped them all on their heads when they were babies or they were raped by escaped Southerners and then forgot all about it.
Whenever I said, "I think the issues here are moral," I would get asked something like, "Are you a member of the Christian right?" I would get pissed off and say, "Not hardly, but don't secular liberals get to have morals too? Are we just stuck with Psych 101?"
Anyway, one day I called the prosecutor in Florida, and I said, "I know they all went to church and had normal homes, but do you think anybody ever went back over the Ten Commandments with these kids, just to make sure they hadn't skipped Sunday school that day?"
He said, "Why would anyone ever think they had to do that?"
Guess what. I think you have to do it. Somebody has to do a PowerPoint for them: "Good, Evil, and You, Pal."
I guess that's sort of what the DISD policy is attempting. The bottom line is that all of this discussion is a very good thing. You know, the civil rights movement really turned the corner in 1963 when the nation saw images on television of Birmingham Police Chief Bull Connor using fire hoses and dogs on children. I guess we have to see how evil affects children before we can grasp how it affects us all.
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