Thursday, December 20, 2012

Trigger Warnings: Two Stories

Story one:

When I was in junior high school, sixth through eighth grades, I got beaten up or teased or mocked every day, or almost every day, or enough days so that every day when I woke up to get ready for school, my stomach was a lump of fear.  I was a skinny, homely kid with ill-fitting clothing, spotty social skills, a tendency to cry far too easily under pressure, and facial hair.

This last earned me special torment from other kids.  Some just asked questions, probably genuinely curious, like "Why do you have a mustache?  Is it because you have more boy juices than girl juices?"  Some yelled "Mustachio!" after me down the hallway.  This was in addition to garden-variety stealing of my books, my lunch, my purse.

The adults who witnessed all this did nothing.  I don't recall my tormenters ever being punished, although I was trapped in such a solipsistic hell that if they had been, I might not have noticed.  In any case, no one in any kind of authority ever asked me my side of any story, and when I complained to my parents about what was happening -- which I didn't do very often, because for complicated dysfunctional-family reasons I needed to protect them from worrying about me -- they told me that I just had to learn to defend myself.

Eventually, the bullying got so bad that other kids stuck up for me, which means you know it was bad.  But it took a few years for that to happen.  In the meantime, school was the terrifying misery I descended into every day to mine the good grades everyone expected of me, and that I expected of myself.

The kid I feared the most was a girl named Tasha.  We had French class together.  She was as skinny as I was and as bold as I was awkward.  She was sly, fast, scornful.  Every day she came up to me, pulled on my upper lip, and launched into a jeering commentary on my mustache.  The French teacher, to her credit, yelled at Tasha to stop it.  It never worked.  

I hated Tasha more than I've ever hated anyone.  I fell asleep every night, and woke up every morning, nursing furious fantasies about how I'd get back at her if . . . if what?  I didn't have the physical skills or coordination to fight, and I couldn't think of any way to make fun of her that would hurt her the way she kept hurting me.  My powerlessness filled me with rage.  

Later on, after the other kids had stuck up for me, I gained compassion for a lot of the other bullies, and they for me; while I was never friends with any of them, exactly, we established tentative mutual respect.  And now, as an adult, I shudder at what must have happened to Tasha to make her so mean.  But even now, it's difficult for me to see her as another child, as another little girl, and not as the mocking personification of any bit of contempt anyone had ever felt for me, or that I'd ever felt for myself.

Do I need to tell you that if I'd had access to guns, someone might very well be dead now?  


Story Two:

When I was nineteen, my father's second wife physically assaulted me.  She and my father were both alcoholic.  They were both smart, kind, funny people when they weren't drunk, but drinking brought out their dark sides, as it so often does, and even when they were sober, they brought out the worst in each other.

I won't bore you with the endless layers of craziness that led up to this particular evening.  The short version is that some months before, my father had confessed to having affairs, although he and my stepmother were trying to work things out.  This particular evening, he was sleeping off too much liquor in bed.  She had stayed up to drink some more and to ramble endlessly to me about her marital problems, none of which was unusual; at some point, she slid into blackout territory and no longer knew who I was.  

That had happened before too, but I'd always been able to remind her:  "I'm Susan.  It's okay; I'm Susan."  On this particular evening, it didn't work.  She became convinced that I was one of my father's mistresses, and started throwing stuff:  a brass lamp (I can still see its square base floating through the air towards my head, until time sped up again and I told myself to move and managed to get out of the way), a chair she knocked over.  She was very drunk and very clumsy.  I was very awake and much more coordinated than she was; I danced out of the way of her sallies and screamed for help.

Why didn't I just leave?  She was between me and the door.  Also between us and the door was the tiny kitchen.  We'd had porkchops for dinner that night.  We'd used steak knives.  I couldn't remember if all of them had been put away.  I was pretty sure that she wasn't rational enough to open a drawer to grab a knife, but I didn't know what she might do if she saw one sitting on the counter.  Also, the door had the requisite three locks -- this was New York City -- and I was shaking really hard, and I knew that if we were together in a small space and I was fumbling with locks while she came at me with a knife, I'd lose the advantage I had in the open.

So I screamed.  The neighbors did nothing.  My father slept on.  Finally she went into the bedroom and woke him up ("Get this woman out of our house!"), and he, disbelieving and bewildered ("That's Susan.  What are you doing?"), restrained her long enough for me to get safely out of the apartment.

Do I need to tell you that if she'd had access to guns, someone might very well be dead now?


As stories of violence go, these are chump change.  Millions of people endure worse every day.  I'm not telling these stories to make anyone feel sorry for me; on some very real level, these stories aren't about me at all.  They're about unpleasant situations that would have been incalculably worse if firearms had been involved.

I'm endlessly grateful that I didn't have a gun in seventh grade.  If I had, I hope I'd have had the sense just to try to scare Tasha, rather than to hurt her, but I don't know.  In any case, any such incident would have radically altered the course of my life -- and hers -- and I doubt that saying, "But the grown-ups told me I had to defend myself!" would have done either of us any good.

I'm endlessly grateful that my stepmother didn't have a gun when I was nineteen.  When she came out of her blackout the next morning -- by which time I was safe in my mother's house in New Jersey -- she was horrified at what she'd done.  How much more horrified would she have been if she'd shot me?   How much worse would everything have been for everyone in my family?

The lack of guns in these scenarios didn't prevent bad things from happening.  The violence -- and the violence was real in both cases, even without bullets -- still happened.  But guns would have made that violence, and its aftermath, infinitely worse.

Guns will not solve the problem of violence.  We need fewer guns, not more.


  1. Susan, I totally agree with you! Additionally I like the idea of getting rid of bullets designed to shatter on impact. If other countries can keep gun crimes low why can't the US? I'm afraid that someone may try to defend the jobs that munitions factories create. Sigh, even with the NRA's support I don't think banning guns will come easily. But if asked to vote on the issue I'll vote in favor of gun control and banning anything close to automatic, including semi.


  2. Anonymous9:22 AM

    Dear Susan,

    Thank you for sharing your stories and your wisdom. I'm so sorry you had such a tough childhood, and so glad you lived to grow up.

    I've been reading your hospital sonnets, and I love them.

    Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Blessed Epiphany to you,



  3. Thank you both! Jean, I'm glad you're enjoying the sonnets!

  4. Anonymous10:22 PM

    Agree with you on the need to lessen the desire for people to own guns, especially the AR-15; also that more needs to be done to address bullying as a cause of mental torment in youth.

    However, I've noticed that a large percentage of gun owners in this country, perhaps the majority, self-identify as devoutly Christian.

    As example: the boy who just killed his father, mother and three elementary school siblings in the Southwest. Strict Christian family according to news reports. Homeschooled, and thus kept away from views opposing those of his parents. The father also spent much of his time proselytizing strangers in grocery stores, attempting to force his religion on others.

    I can't help but wonder if religious fanaticism is dimming the ability of Americans to empathize with those who are different from themselves. Anyone who doesn't believe in and follow what their book tells them to do is suspect. Christianity is under constant revision in this country in order to establish "moral" grounds for hating and denigrating others, scientists, gays, liberals, Muslims, etc. It's become a development tool for intolerance. Witness the mass killings at the Sikh temple last year by another fanatic engaging in a "holy war."

    I always have to shake my head when I read forums where commenter after commenter claims that non-believers are immoral because they don't go to church. I consider myself a spiritual person, but I also doubt you need to believe a mythical savior from 2000 years ago is the "one true God," in order to understand right from wrong.

    Kids need to be given guidance as well as a choice beyond dogma and a rigid system of thinking where the Bible is God's word verbatim. It's an historical roman à clef put together by a committee long after the protagonist's death, which has been rewritten more than once by other committees whose members and the people they answered to had a strong stake in the book's reinterpretation. It has been used as a method of extending influence by those in power, as well as controlling the poor by telling them their sad lot in life is "God's will." Even if you approach the Bible from a purely intellectual standpoint, it's important to remember it was written by humans, who are by definition flawed, each with his own unique—and in the case of Christianity, primarily male—filter. You can call it a "living" book, but it's still a book based on what the people who wrote it wanted others to believe about "God" and, by association, their own personal holiness.

    Strong, secure, caring parenting is crucial for raising children who don't bully others or go on mass murder sprees. Children should be allowed an opportunity to develop and think beyond the laws this book of doctrinal fables lays down.

    Sorry, not meaning to disparage what you experienced as a child and how it relates to your beliefs. It sounds like you had a horrible time. It's just that when I came across your blog and this post, you struck a chord. What I believe, as an admittedly flawed and human individual, is that organized religion is a safety blanket at its best, a dangerous weapon at its worst.

    Much like the assault rifles so popular with Americans today.


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