Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Golden Oldies: In memory of Tyler Clementi

A new school year is about to begin, and with it I very much fear that we will see a new round of highly publicized bullying incidents. I am re-sharing this note I posted on Facebook last fall for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, there must not be any more Tyler Clementis. Period.

I also want to add a few things that I didn't say last year. The response to this note was overwhelming. It came from people I've known for a long time, as well as from more recent acquaintances, colleagues and students. It frequently brought tears to my eyes.

Then, in a bitter irony, several people later used it against me by accusing me of being a bully myself through my political comments on Facebook. This was one of the reasons I decided to take my most significant political writing here instead.

Someone who could make such a comparison, though, has no idea of what real bullying is. To underscore this point, let me confess that I didn't completely come clean last year about the results of my own experiences. I didn't really heal in college. In fact, things just got worse and worse for nearly a decade. I had internalized so much self-hatred as a result of being bullied and humiliated throughout school that hardly a day passed during that time when I didn't think about doing what Tyler Clementi did. At the most basic level, I simply didn't believe that I deserved to live.

Recovering from that wasn't a simple process, and it didn't happen automatically. It required a level of courage and determination that most people are never called upon to display, and a willingness to face down, acknowledge and fully own a level of pain that was literally capable of killing me. It also required something more intangible: the grace of God. The ongoing confrontation with the remnants of my brutal past has led me from the atheism of my upbringing to the deep faith of my mature adulthood.

So here's what a bully is. It's not someone who has strong opinions and expresses them. It's not someone who calls out his opponents for their hypocrisies. It's not someone who thinks that the absurdity of certain ideas and opinions held by others makes them occasionally laughable. It's someone who regards his victims as contemptible, and has no appreciation for their humanity. It's someone who seeks to destroy rather than to compromise. It's someone so trapped by insecurity and hatred that he instinctively lashes out at others while making no effort to understand them.

That said, here's my note on Tyler Clementi.

The real bullying started at a YMCA camp I attended for two weeks the summer after 5th grade. Prior to that I had been used to being mildly ridiculed by classmates who didn’t understand my shyness, lack of interest in sports, and general awkwardness. At that camp, though, the hitting, kicking and vicious verbal taunting began in earnest. Everywhere I went—and we slept in cabins with at least a dozen boys per room—I was brutalized physically and humiliated verbally. I have never been happier in my life when a two-week period was finally over.

Then in 6th grade I began to realize that the camp hadn’t been a fluke; it was a small foretaste of what my increasingly hormone-driven classmates had in store for me back at home. The sheer weight of that reality was confirmed when I moved on to 7th grade and junior high. Suddenly I was spending the day not just with the kids I had known all along, but with others who had never seen me before, and apparently pegged me immediately as someone to torment. For at least the next two years, my school days were a constant litany of unending physical brutality, loud and obnoxious verbal taunts, and indescribable, soul-crippling humiliation.

I remember, in particular, one time that two boys snuck up on me and put an electric cord around my neck. For the next minute or two, they literally held my life in their hands.

Where, you may wonder, were the school authorities during all this? The answer: willfully oblivious. All they noticed was that my grades had gone into the toilet—not surprising considering what I was having to cope with. I received many sober-faced lectures about how I was not living up to my potential, and they were so deeply disappointed in me. My attempts to assert myself were beaten back. When I decided to stand up for myself and run for student council president in 8th grade, the faculty blackballed me. When I begged for a bigger part in a theatrical production my English class was doing (I had been given a non-speaking part, no doubt because I was seen as too timid to speak), the teacher didn’t even give it a second’s thought before saying no.

By high school the physical abuse had largely stopped, but the verbal taunts continued. My only hope of escape was to make a clean start in college, and I deliberately applied only to colleges so far away that I was unlikely to know more than a handful of other people—who would, of course, be geeks like myself. College was the great hope, the great promise. I would finally be able to reinvent myself without having to answer to the habitual assumptions of those who had known me all my life. And although the transition was still rocky, it ultimately panned out. By my early 30s I no longer flinched instinctively at any sudden movement or noise in my vicinity. I now realize, of course, that what I was suffering from was post-traumatic stress disorder. At that time, there was no such diagnosis, and so there wasn’t really any help. Fortunately, though, I went to a good college, and it truly was different. I began to heal.

Rutgers is a good college too, which is why I was particularly disturbed at what happened there to Tyler Clementi. Tyler was a fellow musician, and of course he bore the added, incomparable burden of being gay. (Point of information: At no point in my life did anybody ever try to persuade me to “become” gay. At no point was I ever tempted. It’s not a choice.) I can only imagine the torment and humiliation he suffered in middle school and high school, and the amount of hope he must have invested in the expectation that college would be different. If he was at all like me, this had been the only sliver of hope he had been able to hold out that his life could ever improve, and he held onto it like the very promise of salvation. Thus, the shattering of that illusion—the realization that his college classmates were going to treat him exactly the same way he had been treated all his life so far—must have been as harsh as death. I understand that Tyler died when that happened, and not when he completed the process by jumping off the George Washington bridge.

I’m writing this because, like Ellen Degeneres, I can’t keep silent. When I watched her video last night (which I posted on my Facebook profile), I wept uncontrollably. I sincerely hope that this incident will prompt a national soul-searching on a truly significant level. We live in an age in which some of our most celebrated media personalities are bullies of the most blatant and horrendous kind; in which those who are in any way “different” are increasingly not just made fun of but demonized and legislated against; in which people are routinely “flamed” in electronic media by people they have never met but who seem eager to assume the worst about them.

Last week I finally got around to watching the Clint Eastwood film “Gran Torino.” It ends with an incredibly powerful scene in which Eastwood’s character offers himself as a sacrifice in order to save the Hmong boy he has befriended and his family from a vicious gang. If you’ve seen the film, you know that Walt Kowalski, whom Eastwood portrays, is not a likeable guy. What happens in the movie is worked out of him grudgingly, and he is driven by guilt over what he did in the Korean war more than 50 years earlier.

Tyler Clementi, by comparison, was a young innocent. His senseless death atoned for nothing. It’s the rest of us that need to search our souls: search them with all the brutal honesty we’ve got and not rest satisfied until we bring those wounds into the open so they begin, however tentatively, to heal. Time to get busy.

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