THE TIME OF TRIAL

This is a man’s, man’s, man’s, man’s world but it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a woman – James Brown.

In the Milgram experiment the experimenter (E) convinces the subject (“Teacher” T) to give what he believes are painful electric shocks to another subject, who is actually an actor (“Learner” L). Many subjects kept giving dangerous shocks despite pleas of mercy from the actors.

I was nine when the bullying began. l remember walking home from school followed by a gang of small boys. They hunted in a pack, laughing and shouting out names from a distance. Every afternoon I shut out their calls and kept going in the hope they’d get tired and try someone else. As I walked I told myself I wasn’t really there. Part of me felt that they had the upper hand – so if I fought and lost that would be shameful but if I beat them up then I’d be the bully. I was afraid that if I turned around they’d see my tears and call out even more and if I tried to catch them they’d dodge like flies, jeering at my clumsiness. And like those flies, they were dirty and demanding, and there was nothing I could do to shake them off.

So why did it happen?

At school I wanted to sit with the girls. They were clever and they listened; they were nicer, kinder and had quick hands and pretty hair. In the playground they ran fast, linked arms and called out strange words or mysterious numbers as they practised skipping or hopscotch. Everything about them seemed cleaner, more intelligently respectful and civilised. And if a boy challenged them they didn’t have to fight.

The boys soon found my weak spots. If they challenged or insulted me I was slow to catch on. There was a time delay while I tried to find an answer and my reply, when it came, wasn’t that clever. I gave myself away, blushing at rude things or pretending not to hear when one of them burped or swore. In me they recognised a quick, easy, guaranteed laugh and they enjoyed seeing how far they could push me.

In the 1951 Solomon Asch CONFORMITY EXPERIMENT, seven actors and one subject viewed a card with one line on it, then viewed another card with three lines labelled A, B and C. Only one of these lines was the same length as the first card. When, by prior agreement, the actors all claimed that a line of the wrong length was the same as the line on the first card, 75% of the subjects agreed at least once out of 12 trials.

I remember swimming lessons. Stripped down to my trunks and paraded with my classmates along the edge of a blue and white pool, I felt cold, exposed and inadequate. The swimming baths were large and echoey with nowhere to hide. Everyone could see me as I struggled alone and helpless at the shallow end pretending to swim while clinging onto my red rubber ring. Later, when I moved out to deeper water, I tried to please, bobbing up and down and calling excitedly. It was when our PE instructor told me to strike out and swim that I floundered, my mouth filled up, and I went under. Each week I was told loudly to SWIM and each week I struggled to the poolside, spluttering and thrashing in a parody of drowning. And every time I lost my nerve, my next attempt was blocked by my own fear of failure.

At ten I moved from London to Sheffield, where the bullying became more physical. Although I was tall for my age, some of the boys at my new school were taller and stronger than me. I was the outsider, and this time, instead of shouting from a distance, one of them decided to call me out in the playground. In the fight that followed he floored me in front of his admiring followers and punch-wrestled me to submission. I was anybody’s after that, the girl-boy who everyone took on and insulted, because kids with a ‘rep’ knew I wouldn’t answer back.

It was the silence inside me that gave them their power. I’d a sense of being watched and judged, I was no good at sport – a dodger at the back who couldn’t catch a ball – and I took myself ultra-seriously, but what made me a victim was my own shocked silence. I’d no self-possession, nothing to fall back on. I’d no snappy-catch answers and, as in sport, I couldn’t connect or act without thinking.

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Photo of a Iraqi prisoner attached to electrical shocking devices, at Abu Ghraib Prison 2003. Commentators have linked this behaviour by US Forces personnel with the findings of the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, led by psychology professor Philip G. Zimbardo,. Twent four students were carefully screened and randomly assigned into groups of prisoners and guards. The experiment had to be stopped on the 6th day when the prisoners were forced to endure cruel and dehumanizing abuse at the hands of their peers. The experiment showed, in Dr. Zimbardo’s words, how “ordinary college students could do terrible things.” These conclusions have been questioned by the 2002 BBC Prison Study. and skeptical author Brian Dunning who states: ‘Most of the Stanford guards did not exhibit any cruel or unusual behavior, often being friendly and doing favors for the prisoners…The statistical validity of the sample of participants, 24 male Stanford students of about the same age, has been called into question as being too small and restrictive to be generally applicable to the population at large’. But in all these cases abusive behaviour, driven by power differentials, did occur.

We moved again, this time to Northumberland and a boys’ grammar school where I was singled out by P. He was the class hard man: a dark hairy youth with a powerful jaw and penetrating eyes which he fixed on me like a boxer. He probed me with rude, gloating personal questions. I answered him back once and he challenged me to an after-school fight, which I at first accepted but then lost my nerve and sneaked off home. From then on, he insulted me at will, elbowing me to one side in queues and jabbing me with pens and scissors, calling me his worm. I didn’t dare say a word. His status rose as he reduced mine to nothing, and though I believe the teachers knew or at least suspected, they turned a blind eye.

What I experienced with P was the school of hard knocks where team sport was the measure of success and the staff were either indifferent or violent, using nicknames and beatings and slaps around the head. P was the outcome of their methods. As long as they could keep him in line then everyone else would kowtow.

What no one offered was a set of male values that mirrored what I’d seen amongst the girls. They smiled and held hands, enjoyed talk and fine motor skills and were physical in a way I admired and saw as self-possessed. Thinking of boys as boasters and fighters, and therefore lacking, I imagined girls to be deeper and more mature, or at least more experienced and wiser to the world.

School sign in Berea, Ohio.

I’d been measured and found wanting in a man’s world that kept me quiet. As Robert W Fuller says the boys were rankists, claiming special privileges, standing on the shoulders of others. But in the end, and maybe as a result of the bullying, I came to see that all boys are afraid and that fear shuts them up. What they and I needed was a different set of values, an open, authentic exchange between equals, talking about strengths and weaknesses and acknowledging feelings in a world that was nothing without the girls…

(This passage is an extract from my ‘Imaginary Autobiography’ Heaven’s Rage – more details below.)

ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:

  1. Heaven’s Rage is a memoir and a collection of lyrical essays. In brief: ‘Heaven’s Rage is an imaginative autobiography. Reporting on feelings people don’t usually own up to, Leslie Tate explores addiction, cross-dressing and the hidden sides of families. Writing lyrically, he brings together stories of bullying, childhood dreams, thwarted creativity and late-life illness, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
  2. Purple is a coming-of-age novel, a portrait of modern love and a family saga. Set in the North of England, it follows the story of shy ingénue Matthew Lavender living through the wildness of the 60s and his grandmother Mary, born into a traditional working-class family. Both are innocents who have to learn more about long-term love and commitment, earning their independence through a series of revealing and closely-observed relationships. Purple is the first part of the Lavender Blues trilogy. You can read more about/buy Purple here.
  3. Blue tells the story of Richard and Vanessa Lavender, who join a 90s feminist collective sharing childcare, political activism and open relationships. Boosted by their ‘wider network’ they take secondary partners, throw parties and observe the dance of relationships amongst their friends. But finding a balance between power and restraint, and handling shared love, proves difficult… Blue is the second part of the Lavender Blues trilogy. You can read more about/buy Blue here.

Next week I talk to Rick Cross, senior NASA media writer and winner of the Silver Snoopy award for his interviews with astronauts and his coverage of early spaceflight missions. Rick is also the author of short stories and the novel Times Squared, a licensed Dr Who spinoff.

8 thoughts on “THE TIME OF TRIAL”

  1. Bullying is awful and, sadly, I believe it to be on the increase in schools where liberal minded teachers are trialling new methods to stop it. Girls bully as well. I’ve seen firsthand the increase in bullying among girls. I have watched the standards of behaviour fall in society working in a school library over quite a long period. I genuinely believe that women monitor behaviour levels and standards and as they drop in women they also fall in men. I grew up in a society where men would monitor their language in front of women, and as that happened in the home the children copied. I cringe now when I hear women using language that would have made my dear old uncles blush.
    Bullying has life long effects. It can come from many directions. It is never acceptable but I fear it’s getting worse.
    I was bullied at school. Verbally, by girls.teachers would say it is character building. I was bullied at home by my mother again verbally ( I was a constant failure, I was born female) you never truly get over it.
    Now as an adult I fear that I am never truly acceptable. I always feel just out of everything. Never good enough, never confident.

    1. Yes, it is a very damaging experience. I was heartened to meet a female to male trans person in our local secondary school who has had no bullying at all – only supportive friends. He was lucky, of course. As someone who was bullied, I’ve found that talking and writing about it helps.

    2. I agree with Melita that girls. girlfriends, mothers…. were a good influence; swearing, drinking less than the boys etc. Once girls started rolling around drunk in the gutter as part of a night out, who was left to civilise? Luckily binge drinking is apparently on the wane.
      Girls have always bullied verbally, sneakily and when they add physical abuse as well we reach an all time low.
      On the home front words can be far more harmful than a smack.

  2. Oh Leslie, I’ve been dreading reading this one. The length of your martyrdom seems almost unbearable. Did you ever have suicidal thoughts? Did you manifest any behaviours of distress? Did anyone NOTICE or SEE ??? (the most crushing, insidious pain would have come from feeling invisible, abandoned, worthless).

    I was a victim of group bullying when I was 12. It lasted for a few months, I suppose, but felt like eternity. I told NO ONE, but had a few good friends who stuck by me and to this day, I feel profoundly grateful and also indebted to them. My silence was my greatest mistake. Why was it that I (we) could see no solution, Leslie? Perhaps, for you especially, there really was none.

    There were girls and boys involved in my case, but I’ve found that girls tend more to ostracize: hiding their aggressivity in numbers. They close ranks against their new mark. Their victim suffers the pain of exclusion–of shunning.

    Are your memories of these experiences still a painful burden? Or are they now securely housed in an interior safe zone? From which materials was that private innerspace erected? Which were the seeds that eventually grew into your love-affirming, inclusive and courageous adult self? It has to have been through your life experiences after those terrible years of childhood and adolescence. And yet, you still had to ‘come out’…

    I would never, ever want to go back to being 10, or 20 or any other younger age. We understood so little ; knew ourselves so much less; we had no tools.

    It took so long for our antennae to grow and function well enough to indicate what was true, what was love, what was worth pursuing; what was beautiful and valuable in us; who we were; why we should love ourselves as much as we loved those around us…

    Years ago, when my son Simon (one of my twin sons, who is gay) was in his early twenties, he and I watched a movie about a gay teen and of course, we got to the ugly and , it seems, unavoidable scene in the shower room of the school gym, when a group of bullying predators surround him and beat him. He, of course, closes up into silence, shrinks to the ground and is beaten. I have always seen Simon as beautiful and full of strength (and of course he had his twin brother’s unconditional presence and support), but on that day, I was hit by the realisation that of course, he must have experienced things like this (perhaps, hopefully, less ugly variations). And so, with tears welling up and terrified of what he would say, I asked him if he’d ever lived through something like this and he looked right at me and said: “Of course.” but then, just as steadily, he added: “But I never looked down, Mum, I always looked them straight in the eyes.”

    It is this strength that I mean…This sense of self, and of one’s own worth. How were you able to find it? (because clearly, you did, thank goodness).

    1. I do have fantasies of meeting the main bully P and talking to him. Things have changed and I’m a different person. I sometimes wonder how he turned out. I suppose one of the messages of the experiments I described under the pictures is that anyone can be a bully in the wrong social situation. But I believe we can all rise above it if we surround ourselves with a culture of respect for difference in other people.

      1. I met two of my intimidators/oppressors in adulthood. One quite early on, when I was a young mother and the other, when he turned up as one of my adult ed students (!).

        In the first instance, I was happy to meet her gaze and then go about my business of mothering my 3 year-old sons. I remember thinking: “Just let her see that you are a kind person and good mother.” She still had power over me, I suppose.

        The second time, it was after giving the class (I was replacing a sick teacher), and heading to my car, that it dawned on me that this grown man in his 50’s, who was also the director of the company (with his brothers), had been responsible for some of the worst pain I’ve ever felt.

        It was so strange. I felt no urge to say anything. I had no long-held message for him. I was content to know that we had both traveled a great distance.

  3. I read this post with great interest, Leslie. I do have this book but I haven’t managed to get very far with reading it as I read a lot to Michael and that take up a lot of my spare time. I am planning to read it when I go on holiday soon. Girls also bully, it is just different. Girls are verbal rather than physical and they say really nasty and cutting things to each other. Neither of my sons are sporty but, fortunately, we haven’t had any serious bullying with either of them, even though Greg is very academic and a big reader. The school he attends values these qualities and that seems to filter through to a lot of the boys there.

  4. “We are graduating members from the class of we made it, not the faded echoes of voices crying out names will never hurt me. Of course they did. But our lives will ever always continue to be a balancing act that has less to do with pain and more to do with beauty.”
    ― Shane L. Koyczan

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