On juxtaposition

This post made me realize why people who were the adults in my life when I was a kid don’t understand why I feel they blamed me for being bullied, for being sexually harrassed on the school bus, and for myriad other things that happened to me as a kid.

“We never said it was your fault,” they say. “We’re just trying to help. If that’s the message you take from it, that’s your problem, not ours.”

What they fail to realize is the effect of juxtaposition. When you put two different abstract things close together, that creates an implied compare and contrast. It’s used everywhere: In literature, in news articles, in scientific papers, and in daily conversation. If you’ve ever seen someone say, “If you do that like this, it works.” after you’ve tried and failed at something, you’ve experienced the effect of juxtaposition. Your way doesn’t work. This way does. Implied is that you’re doing it the wrong way.

Likewise, when they chose to talk about boundaries after I’d been sexually harrassed, or to talk about social interactions and how not to be so damn weird after I’d been bullied, the juxtaposition of the two things creates the implication that the bad thing was my fault.
Even if it wasn’t. Their protests that they were trying to help only further this implication because in a dispute, you in principle should try to resolve it by getting the person in the wrong to change their behavior, not by trying to get the innocent party to change theirs.*

Because of that, when they were trying to get me to change my behavior and refusing to even try to get the bullies to change theirs (“kids will be kids,” after all), I got the message that it’s okay to bully, and that I deserved the bullying for being so damn weird. And, by extension, I got the message that adults’ condemnations of bullying were just so much bullshit, and that adults were liars and untrustworthy, however nice they might seem.**

So, parents and mentoring adults of bullied kids: I’m not saying you can’t work social skills, but for the love of all that is good in this world, consider what you’re juxtaposing your advice with and the implications that creates. Working social skills after a kid makes a faux pas that hurts someone’s feelings? Fine. Working social skills after they were jumped and beaten up at school, came home in tears over teasing, or were rejected from a group of kids playing? Not fine.

Think about juxtaposition. Think about the message you’re sending.

*I get that this is not always the case – victim blaming is often a thing. But this is how adults teach conflict resolution to kids, and this is the social rule I had back then regarding conflict resolution – if the adults are yelling at/lecturing/coaching me over it, it’s my fault. A modified version of this rule still exists for me: If I’m the one getting yelled at/lectured at/coached, the person doing the yelling/lecturing/coaching thinks I’m at fault. Difference is that now my social rule makes allowance for the fact that they might be wrong.

**This was a common theme for me. When adults said one thing and then did another, I felt they were dishonest. As a kid, my view was very black-and-white on the issue. They say Y. They do X. X and Y are mutually exclusive. Therefore, they were lying about Y, was how my reasoning went. Now, I see that there are shades of grey – maybe they have no idea where to start with tackling bullying and think it’s easier to teach me to pass. Maybe they think they’re protecting me. Maybe they had no idea just how bad it was because everyone else was minimizing it. Who knows? I’ll say this: The pain, fear, and distrust these actions by the adults in my life instilled are very real, and lasting.

The downside of teaching kids to fit in

When I was a kid, I was taught that it’s my job to fit in.

I should try to play with other kids. I should be social and polite. I should play with Barbies, not with teenage mutant ninja turtles, and IĀ especially shouldn’t eschew socialization in favor of reading books or playing with my chemistry set. I shouldn’t talk like a book, and I shouldn’t monolog about cloud formations to the first person who mentions the weather. If I did, kids would make fun of me.

I believe, honestly, that the people who taught me these things did so in the hopes that they were doing me a favor. I believe, honestly, that these people remembered the weird kid in their classrooms growing up, and they didn’t want me to get bullied as horribly as they remember that kid getting bullied. So, I believe, honestly, that they had my best interest at heart.

Most of them, anyway. The jury’s still out on my third grade teacher. But that’s beside the point.

There is a problem with what these people taught me. Rather, there is a problem with the message they sent along with their teaching.

Because they always phrased it as, “Don’t ______, kids will make fun.” “Don’t _____, kids will think you’re weird.” “Don’t _____, you’ll get teased.” “Don’t ______, it makes you look strange.”

Do you understand? These people, in their good intentions, placed the onus on me to be accepted, rather than on the other kids not to be bullying jerks. Their “social skills advice” was just victim-blaming in a prettier package.

That’s the implicit messaging with advice phrased in such a way “If not X, then Y” implies that if Y isn’t happening, you’re doing something wrong. After all, if not X, then Y. So long as you follow the advice properly, they say, Y will happen.

Except it doesn’t. Because try as I might (and I did try. I tried and tried and tried until I burned out and couldn’t try anymore, then when I recovered, I’d start trying again), I can’t act normal enough to appear normal. You know those 80s flicks where the weirdo kid is given some lessons in makeup and hair and clothes and instantly becomes popular and everything is happily ever after and an Important Lesson is learned about how appearance defines your worth you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover? I think people who advise trying to fit in more think that those movies actually happen.

But they don’t. What really happens is that the weirdo kid wears the makeup and clothes but is still a weirdo, and the other kids laugh at their attempts at fitting in, and the teachers and parents tell them they just need to try harder. And harder. And harder. And nobody stops for a moment to think, “Hm, maybe we shouldn’t be putting pressure on this kid to fit in. Maybe we should be putting pressure on the other kids not to bully.”

Worse, nobody stops for a moment to think about the message they’re sending to the weirdo kid when they tell them they have to do items A1 through Z150 before they qualify for humane treatment.

Sibling bullying, pt 2: middle school

Trigger Warning: bullying, sibling bullying, victim blaming, sexual harassment, assault, etc.

Part 1 is here.

By the time we hit middle school, any semblance of “normal” sibling rivalry had long since passed. Avoiding conflicts with my sister dominated my day.

I’d have to wake up early, sneak into the bathroom before my sister woke (since the moment she woke, she’d monopolize it or throw a tantrum if I was in it when she wanted to be until my parents threatened to haul me out mid-shower just to shut her up, even if I’d only been in for ten minutes) to shower. If you’re wondering why I never showered at night, thank my parents for that – showering was a morning-only thing by their nonsensical rules. Then I’d wait with my bedroom light off until she was in the shower before I got changed, hoping she’d think I was still asleep and that she would be contentĀ  with “just” monopolizing the bathroom all morning then spreading it around school that I was dirty and didn’t shower. If I made the mistake of trying to change before she started her shower, she’d see my bedroom light was on and throw the door open so she could humiliate me in a state of undress.

You may ask why I didn’t get changed in the bathroom. The answer to that is that, thanks to my coordination problems, it would’ve required getting up an extra half hour early, and I was already getting up at 5AM to get a shower before her. Since she wouldn’t let me sleep until 10PM, getting up any earlier would’ve meant even more sleep deprivation, which I have never tolerated well. As for why I never told my parents about this, see the part of the previous post in this series re: punishment for being the victim. Also, my parents refused to give me the ability to lock my door, refused to respect my privacy (they would barge into my room at any hour without so much as a knock and then yell at me as if it was my fault when they found me changing), and routinely humiliated me in public for their own enjoyment (I’m not talking “give me a hug, teenager who doesn’t want to be seen with me,” I’m talking “loudly relay in graphic detail stories of me getting horrendously ill to anyone who would listen as retaliation for who-the-hell-knows-what” and “Threaten to strip me and spank me loudly in public well into my teen years on the rare occasions I stood up for myself at all”). I didn’t exactly feel confident that they were my allies in the fight for dignity and privacy.

In addition to the bullying I was receiving at home, my bullying at school was worsening during this time, too, and given the way my sister and the school bullies played into each other, I can’t talk about one without talking about the other. A kid at school, one of the popular crowd “befriended” me so that she could steal my diary and read it to the class. My sister, for her part, told this kid that I kept a diary and where I kept it. I’d been a regular journaler until then, but I stopped thereafter because I didn’t feel safe that my diary wouldn’t be stolen.

Shortly thereafter, another kid “befriended” me, and my parents started noticing expensive stuff missing whenever she came over to visit. My parents eventually caught her red-handed stealing something from us, and that was the end of that. My sister, for her part, painted the kid stealing stuff from them as if I was complicit and ensured I got punished for essentially not having the social skills to realize my “friend” was a thief. This was also when my parents started to view me as a liar: given my rage at a false accusation vs my sister’s charm and charisma, most adults sided with my sister’s charm and charisma. We couldn’t both be telling the truth in such a situation, so they assumed I was lying and my rage was just me putting on a show of innocence.

A third situation that happened was that a high school boy started sexually harassing and groping me on the schoolbus. The school refused to do anything except punish me for being a “tattletale” when I complained until a teacher hitched a ride on the bus to her place when her car was broken one day. She saw him harassing me and the school bus driver ignoring it and raised hell to the school over it. He was banned from the bus for a year.

My sister, who rode the same bus as me, tried to paint it as if I was leading the older kid on, but since the teacher made it very clear I told him to leave me alone repeatedly, she didn’t manage to get me in trouble for that. My parents did, however, lecture me about the importance of coming to them for stuff like that, which given their past conduct and my experiences with adults in general just came off to me as so much bullshit. From my point of view, they wanted to feel as if I could trust them with anything, without actually putting in the effort of making sure they were in fact that trustworthy. By this point, I viewed my parents as beings fundamentally uninterested in my welfare, who only cared about how good or bad I was making them look (since a lot of their lectures focused on reputation and appearances – I wasn’t supposed to “look like an [ableist slur]” or be embarrassing or what have you).

Kids on the bus retaliated by beating me up every day and his cousins at my school likewise would hit me, slam my head in a locker or otherwise hurt me whenever they passed me in the hall, as if it was my fault he’d been harassing and growing me. Even when the bullying happened right in front of a teacher looking right at me, the school did nothing, and the one time I complained about that, I was threatened with a suspension for “fighting” because having my head slammed in a locker and having other students pummel me as I lay dazed on the ground was fighting, apparently.

Being the at-face-value person I am, I entertained the notion that my parents were sincere about coming to them when people were hurting me, so I told them about the bullying. They responded by lecturing me about how to be less weird, how to fit in better, and that I should fight back and defend myself physically. I was still very small for my age at this point, and the other kids usually outnumbered me 5 to 1 or more, but my father responded to me pointing that out by telling me to quit making excuses and that I shouldn’t “let” anyone bully me.

That year, I started refusing to take the bus and instead walked the six kilometers to and from school. I spun it to my parents as wanting more exercise, since they were berating me for being overweight. This had the added benefit, for me, of getting me away from my sister for two hours a day. I would never ride the bus again. Nor, for that matter, would I ever tell an adult about anything bad going on in my life after that year. I’d received the message loud and clear: I was on my own, and I’d better make damn sure nothing came back to them in a way that they felt it would make them look bad.

The second resolution would come back to bite me in high school.