The Ghosts of My Bullies

David Vienna essays

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The two people who bullied me are dead and I’m no better off.

My first bully was my neighbor across the street. Our mothers’ friendship threw us together and, since I didn’t make friends that easily, he had to do for a time. Bossy, aggressive, demanding—his abuse toward me seemed more a matter of convenience than a direct dislike. He traveled through life hating everyone and, like a roadside mini-mart on a late night drive, I just happened to be there. And somehow, that made it worse.

He had dyslexia, which explained some of his frustration in school, which led to his nasty attitude toward others. The explanation came too late, however, to help his occasional run-ins with the law and earning the title of neighborhood bad guy.

My second bully was the son of a Girl Scout leader for the troop to which my sister belonged. My mother also served as a leader, so he and I often found ourselves the only male attendees on various camping trips. We were both far too young to appreciate the cliché ‘80s sex romp setup and, even if we’d noticed, we wouldn’t have known how to instigate it.

His father abused his mother and so he abused others. He tortured bugs, he owned a gun purchased illegally and he never saw me as anything other than a person to do his bidding—something I sometimes refused to do, which infuriated him to the point of violence. I had the good sense to jettison our “friendship,” but our paths crossed again at college. A mutual friend told me he’d mellowed out, picked up the guitar and found Jesus. I visited my former bully out of curiosity and during our conversation he angrily shoved me across the room for disagreeing with him about a band. If truly born again, he was recreated as the same Napoleonic asshole I knew as a child.

Already awkward and shy, their torment caused increased introversion and a greater sense of alienation. As I grew, I often thought of these two and, in my more mature moments, wondered if they ever realized the hurt they caused. In my less mature moments, I wished them harm for how they’d affected me, searing into my psyche uncertainty and shame lasting long beyond our years together.

My second bully fell from the roof of an abandoned building he was exploring. No longer would his neighbors enjoy his solo covers of “Roundabout” by Yes. I attended his funeral with the same friend who told me of his religious epiphany. My friend wept throughout the service. I felt nothing. Years later, my mother called me to tell me my first bully had a heart attack in his apartment. His gift for titty-twisters would never be shared again.

The universe, it seemed, had doled out some sort of extreme final justice. Yet, my insecurity remains. I still freeze up in crowds, I still feel hobbled when meeting new people, I still doubt my abilities and myself despite my victories.

To complicate matters, I learned my first bully had actually turned his life around so much that he ran a community center for children of low-income families. The kids loved him, they cried when he died. And thinking of those kids made me sad for them. And, briefly, for him.

Like my insecurities, my compassion, even for the vilest people, never went away. And maybe my bullies mistook that for weakness. Maybe that’s why they felt okay to treat me so badly. Now that my hairs are turning gray and I have kids who’ll undoubtedly run into a bully or two like I did, I know that my compassion couldn’t have saved me. But, I also know it’s the best part of me. It’s the part that allowed me to see a tormenter as a real person and, in a small way, mourn him without needing to forgive him.

So, the two people who bullied me in my childhood are dead and I’m no better off. But, I’m no worse either.

About the Author

David Vienna

Screenwriter and playwright David Vienna blogs about parenting issues at . He loves E.L.O., ’70s horror films, Philly cheese steaks and napping.

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