Friday, June 17, 2011

Nothing More Than a Bully

By Kristina Wright

I have been knocked unconscious once in my life. It was a one-punch knockout, too. I guess I have a glass jaw. Of course, I was in the fourth grade at the time, so maybe I could take a punch now. I'm not keen on finding out.

My tale begins with an older, bigger boy. He was in fifth grade, but he had failed at least one grade, maybe two, so he towered over me and outweighed me by a lot. Our altercation actually had nothing to do with me. I was a pretty quiet kid-- kept my head down, nose in a book, did well in school, had a few close friends-- no one really noticed me. Not even the playground bully.

So what provoked my knockout? Ahh... well, you see, I'm very loyal to my friends. Like, mama bear loyal. On that particular day, the mild-mannered fourth grader in me turned into a defender of the helpless, which happened to be my best friend. The bully crossed paths with my friend and knocked her lunch money out of her hand. She began to cry and I came charging. Of course, I failed to acknowledge I wasn't any better equipped to deal with the situation than she was, but that didn't stop me. With Denise crying, I went toe-to-toe and nose-to-chest with her bully. The conversation went something like this:

Me: That was mean! Pick up her money.
Bully: No! It's mine.
Me, picking up Denise's lunch money: Oh no, it's not!
Bully: Give it to me or you'll be sorry!
Me: You're nothing but a bully. I'm not afraid of you.

The next thing I remember, I was opening my eyes and staring at the blue sky. My first (and last) boxing match lasted one round and I never even got in one punch.

I wish I could tell you that was the last time I put myself at risk to help a friend. But regardless of how ill-advised it may be to fight (or attempt to fight) someone else's battles, I have returned again and again to the metaphorical ring, usually unrequested and often unneeded. Why? Because I despise bullies. I hate their tactics, I hate the way they get their way by brute force. I hate that they win only because they're bigger and meaner. The bullies of my youth gave way to the verbal bullies of adulthood. The ones who attack with words. The ones who don't fight fair because they only know how to fight dirty.

Earlier this week, I ran into another bully. One who had his sights set on a friend and didn't even know I existed until I provoked him. I won't mention his name here because I don't want him Googling himself just to sling his garbage at the OGG blog, but he responded to a column written by Alana Noel Voth at PANK. (You can read her thoughtful essay and follow the comment thread here: Dear Tracy Morgan.) I had intended only to comment in order to praise Alana's writing, but the previous commenter had me seeing red. He had written a personal attack on Alana, someone I like and admire, and rather than ignore it (as I probably should have), I responded.

In the end, I didn't do anything to deter this bully from further attacking my friend, I only served to draw attention to myself. Within hours, the bully had visited my blog, spent a total of 3 minutes and 22 seconds there and then sent me the following email:

you called me a misogynist, so I checked out your blog and thought I'd give you my impressions:

You can't construct three sentences that don't kill a reader's attention. Everything you write is intensely boring. Also, you write articles about sex toys and you call your writing erotica/romance/whatever. It's hack material, is what it is. Whenever someone has to struggle just to meet the merits of a genre, it means they're working without the necessary tool: talent.

It's time someone told you, you are a talentless hack.

This is not me being nasty, this is truth. You are incapable of capture a reader's attention and you'll never acquire that ability, because it's an innate one.

Warmest regards,


My first reaction was to respond with a correction: I hadn't called him a misogynist, I had referred to his attack as "misogynistic vitriol." I hate inaccuracies, don't you? But after reading his email again, complete with the header Subject: fan mail, I just laughed. How could I not? He spent less than four minutes on my blog and said "everything" I write is intensely boring. It's a ridiculous insult, not worthy of a response. He said I write sex toy reviews-- I did for awhile, years ago, but how is that relevant? He said I was a talentless hack. Possibly true, but certainly subjective since I have credits and editors to suggest otherwise.

So I ignored the bully's email. It seems I should expect another round of anger to be directed my way, as that is his MO, but it doesn't bother me. Not at all. I was offended he insulted my friend, a woman I admire and respect. I was horrified at the things he said to her in a public forum as if he has the right to publicly judge her life just because she published a column. I am still utterly indignant about the attack he inflicted on her. But me? Eh. Nothing he said about me (thus far) is more than a mild annoyance. A yapping puppy nipping at my ankles. Nothing more.

The theme for this week is "sympathy for the devil" and this experience, along with my lovely piece of "fan mail" made me flash back to that event in fourth grade and the reaction I had after the swelling had gone down in my face. I felt sorry for the boy who knocked me out. I still do. Face-to-face, he seemed like an intimidating creature, someone to be feared. In retrospect, even at that age, I saw him for what he was: an unhappy child no one really liked, not even the teachers. The child who stalked through the halls at school scowling at everyone and making other kids cower, but being laughed at behind his back for failing a grade, for being a foot taller than every other kid, for not fitting in, for not having the social skills to make friends. As an adult, I have even more sympathy for the boy who knocked me out with one punch-- he was a little boy, even if he was the biggest little boy in school, and the only way he could get anything from anyone was to take it. So sad.

And now I try to find sympathy for this bully who attacked my friend publicly and me in email. I could use this forum to rant and rail against a man who decided to offer his unsolicited opinion about me after maligning my friend. But I find I simply don't have enough anger or energy to go down that path and respond to such hostility with more of the same. I assume this man is an adult, though I don't know if he's 19 or 59. Regardless of his age, there is a childlike quality to his unprovoked anger; a lack of sophistication to his venomous attacks. He is lashing out at the world, fighting whatever his own personal demons might be and taking it out on others. He goes after those he perceives as intellectually inferior and physically weaker-- women writers. At the end of the day, the person he is most angry with (and likely hates the most) is himself.

Whether it's the talent he resents or the attention or the idea of women claiming their sexuality, or all three, he is enraged and can only be soothed by hurting someone else. He punches at the sensitive spots, attacking with broad generalities and shocking crudities, much like an adolescent boy swinging out to hit a smaller girl. Whatever he might be in real life, in this landscape he is a playground bully, nothing more. Nothing more. Could there be a sadder phrase?

Whatever anger I had at my initial introduction to his malevolent tirade has faded to little more than pity and embarrassment for him. I find myself hoping he's using a pseudonym, as surely his hateful antagonistic words will come back to haunt him if and when he ever buries his demons and comes to terms with his own issues. He is a little boy crying out for attention, for understanding, for... something. Love, maybe? A mother figure? Or maybe he's just a mean-spirited fellow in an unhappy job with a lonely life and he needs to make others feel as bad as he does. Whatever his issues, he's not to be taken any more seriously than the three year old who screams, "You are the meanest Mommy in the whole world!" because he didn't get a cookie before bedtime. He is ineffectual because he hides behind his words and maintains his anonymity while attacking those who are brave enough to put their name, their face and their credentials alongside their opinions and beliefs.

It's heart-wrenching, really. What makes a person like that? What makes one human being turn on another in such a senseless way, especially a stranger in a public forum? I've been pondering these questions all week and have no answers. So my sympathy goes out to one who is not a devil at all, but a damaged soul in need of more than he's ever likely to find on the internet.


  1. I love this post, Kristina. Intensely. I saw the comments of the commenter you mention on Alana's most recent column as well as an earlier one she wrote with him as the subject and actually found the level of vitriol I perceived in them a bit stunning. I agree with everything you say here about this commenter, and I truly admire and appreciate your perceiving and stating it here.

    (Also: "I hate inaccuracies, don't you?"

    Actually, yes! :))

    Thank you so much for this.

  2. I prefer to think of the commentators like that as pale, pasty-faced middle-aged men living in their mothers' basements. They type out their vitriol with one hand, while they use their other hand to convince themselves that this kind of expression proves they are "real men". But actual live women scare them too much, so they stay in the basement, taking out mom's garbage instead of paying rent, because their crappy McJobs don't pay enough for them to move out.
    Now don't you feel better already?

  3. Kris you're fantastic. I often despair at violence in the world, at cruelty, and wonder where it comes from and how it can be dealt with.

    You're quite right that it comes from pain, especially thwarted pain, and that the only response that breaks the cycle is compassion.

    If bullies eventually provoke compassion and thoughtfulness like your response, maybe we can even spare them a little gratitude ...

    : )

  4. Kris,

    Your essay here demonstrates everything right with humanity, as well as why you'll forever have my respect, not to mention my gratitude and admiration. Only a truly enlightened person could express sympathy for you know who. Thank you. Love you. A

  5. For all targets of bullies:
    My grandmother once said "Only a drowning man thinks that he can save himself by pulling another person under." You made that point eloquently, Kristina. He's a sad little man. That's all he'll ever have.

  6. Nikki said,
    "You're quite right that it comes from pain, especially thwarted pain, and that the only response that breaks the cycle is compassion."

    Exactly, Nikki. Beautifully stated. Thanks so much again for expressing what you did in this post, Kris.

  7. This column is moving, uplifting and brilliant on so many levels--the first and most obvious being it itself a refutation of the bully's absurd claims. (What writer can claim to enchant every reader on the planet in three sentences or less?) Writers with the courage to speak the truth about sexuality will always face bullies like this, and more subtle ones as well. It helps so much to have this compassionate, intelligent analysis to help make sense of it. Thank you!

  8. You all are making me blush. When I first saw this week's theme, I really had no idea what I would write about. Then this incident happened and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to put into words what I've always felt about those who bully others. Thank you for reinforcing that it was a good topic to write about!

  9. Best thing anyone ever said to me about a bully (in this case, a supervisor who eventually fired me): "Would you rather have her life, or yours?"

    Because no matter how hurt you are, you can still feel the "something wrong" in the bully's life--some sadness or anger or fear or whatever. You don't know what it is, but you can see it's there.

  10. I <3 you, Kristina.

    And you can quote me on that. Accurately, of course. :)

  11. I'm pondering what I've read over the last few days about the 'incident' on Alana's blog, the responses, the 'fan mail' Kristina received and now this compassionate, thoughtful response to it.

    I was bullied as a kid. Like you, K, I tried to take on a boy. They're stronger than we are, physically that is.

    Bullies hurt my children. In the beginning I went to parent/teacher meetings and asked why there was so much violence in the elementary school. The consensus was that it was not a particularly violent school. I disagreed.
    I suggested a breakfast program, might the bullies be poor and hungry?
    By the time my second child graduated from that school I no longer cared about why the bullies were the way they were.
    I went straight to the principal. I said, "I care about one kid in this school. My kid. You pull that rotten kid off her, now, or I'll take her out of the school and home school her myself. And I'll make sure the government knows why, municipal, provincial and federal."

    You said it all when you said they are like 2 year olds denied a treat. I see it all the time. It's intolerable. In fact I have a piece on this subject that I will go post on my blog RIGHT NOW.

    I feel no pity for them any more. Just disgust. "Smarten up. Grow up. Act like a human being. Don't hit women or children. Shut your pie hole, right now." You're a better human being than I am Kristina, but then, no one has bullied your kid(s) yet.

  12. Emerald ~ I wasn't aware that he'd gone after Alana before. I was informed that he's a "troll" after I posted my comment. The fact that he makes a habit of this and it's not just a one-time need to vent, is all the more sad to me. What a strange hobby.

  13. Madeline, I don't think I'm a better human being than anyone, truly. And you're right, my kids haven't been bullied yet. (Though Patrick has had two incidents with other more aggressive children that brought out the mama bear in me.) Honestly, I think my attitude toward bullies has softened because of motherhood-- these mean kids (regardless of age) are someone's babies. It's not that I won't still go toe-to-toe with a bully, I will. I just find it hard to feel more than pity for them.

  14. Nikki ~ You and I have discussed before how motherhood has changed us. I despair as well over the evilness that seems to exist in this world into which I've brought a child (and soon, two). I will teach them to protect themselves, but I will also teach them compassion. Because without compassion, I think we're all lost.

  15. Kathleen, that's very wise advice from your grandmother. And so, so true. Thanks for sharing.

  16. Fiona ~ Honestly, somebody else's misery doesn't make me feel better, even if that somebody is a bully. Those pasty-faced men-- the antisocial, the outsiders, the lonely, the disenfranchised-- are often the same ones who attack, rape and kill women because they feel so impotent in their lives. It's hard to feel good knowing someone's sad, pathetic life might lead to violence if he feels his voice isn't being heard.

  17. Alana ~ You are one of the bravest people I know and one of the most honest writers I've ever read. I would hate for anyone to silence your voice or make you question yourself. Don't change. Love you.

  18. Donna, thank you so much for your kind words. To have you call my writing "moving, uplifting and brilliant" is enough to carry me through a month of rejections, truly!

    And you're right-- women who are brave enough to write about sexuality will always be bullied by men who feel threatened by that sexuality. I hope one day that will change.

  19. Am sort of overwhelmed by all this. I read Alana's post right after she linked to it. I missed all the comment storm. Then read your piece today. You're both amazing women. I googled the guy and he's all over the place being hateful. While I believe in "free speech," whenever I hear this (or read) kind of angry-at-the-world-with-not-an-ounce-of-compassion spewing, I always wonder what horrendous hurts that has been birthed from. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

    I wondered what did your mom do when she'd heard you were knocked out?

  20. Thanks for your kind words, Erobintica. And yes, he does seem to get around. It's sad that he expends his energy this way.

    Actually, I got in trouble for starting the fight since I wasn't the one he was bullying. :-) I got two days of in-school suspension and was yelled at when I got home for not staying out of it. Heh. I didn't learn anything from that experience, obviously.

  21. A beautifully written, lovely, and most importantly compassionate column. It's wonderful to know people like you are in this world.

  22. Kristina, your post is eloquent & very timely. My first response to the "troll," considering what he said to Alana, is that he never recovered from discovering that his own mother had a sex life. (Maybe Mr. Troll figured out how he was conceived.) He might be one of the prudes that our guest blogger, Remittance Girl, has written about this week. I'm glad he can't silence you, Alana, or any of us. :)

  23. Kristina and Alana - you are my heroes! I would have just lost my shit, I swear.

    As for this troll - classic frustrated writer. Just absolutely classic. He sees women succeeding in a world he's failing in, and so has to try to bring them down as "bad mothers" and "talentless hacks".


  24. Jordan, thank you so very much for your kind words. I'm honored.

  25. Jean Roberta ~ Interesting theory! I think the sad part is that there are so many people who engage in this kind of antagonistic, malevolent behavior online that there is actually a name for them-- trolls. Really sad.

  26. "I would have just lost my shit, I swear."

    Charlotte, you make me laugh! Truly an accurate description of how I felt when I read what he posted in response to Alana's comment. I will admit it took me a couple of days to process it for what it was-- and I think writing this column definitely helped me put it into words.

  27. Jeez! I've been away in a remote province for the last twenty four hours, and look what I missed!

    Kristina, I'm only just getting to know you at better than a superficial level, but I love you already. Your post is both beautiful and wise. I know that if I suffered what happened to Alana, I'd be paralyzed by misery. Maybe now if it does happen (and given our very public rejection of the roles that some segments of society assign us, it may well), I'll try to remember this post.


  28. Oh, Lisabet! What a lovely thing to say. Thanks so much. The kindness I've been shown here makes it easier for me to be compassionate towards those who are unkind. :-)

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  30. You wrote: "He said I was a talentless hack. Possibly true..."

    I know that, as women, we have been acculturated to accept insults bravely and with modesty. I think it's high time we divested ourselves of that particular piece of social nicety.

    I have had the honour to share pages in an anthology with you, Kristina. 'Cutter' is one of the best-written, freshest, and most insightful short stories I've read in a long time.

    You may be many negative things, Kristina, which I will allow you to own publicly if you insist. But you are not a hack.

    And no politeness, nor civility, nor modesty should ever prompt you to allow for the fact that it's 'possibly true'.

    It's indisputably NOT true.

    Wonderful post, by the way.

  31. Oh wow, RG... I've never been so flattered to be chastised in all my life. :-) Thank you. I suppose I was trying to say (humbly, of course) that talent is subjective and there are certainly those who would think (and have said) that what I write is "hack fiction."

    Still... point taken and much appreciated!

    And thank you also for your kind words about "Cutter." It is still one of my favorite stories of all-time-- and one I'm quite proud of having written. :-)


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