When I was 12, a boy taunted me as we stood alone in the locker room of a local swimming pool. I tried to ignore him and he grew impatient, put soap on a wet paper towel, walked over to me, and shoved it into my eye. I went ballistic, came at him, and took my first and only swing at anyone’s face. I connected with the tip of his nose, just grazing it. His eyes got really big; he turned and ran. Success, right? Alas, thereafter I suffered recurring nightmares in which I had to defend myself but my fists would swing wide and miss the target, or they’d be heavy as lead and I could barely move them.
At about the same age, I got into a tiff in school at lunch with another kid, and my hands were clenched, and he and I were about to go at it, but the boy’s vice principal came over and separated us just in time.
So I missed my chances, as a child, to get into a real fistfight. Then I grew older and came to the view that clever words, well spoken, would always win the day. I had a lot to learn.
For a time, I lived in a small apartment complex (just a few units) in Los Angeles, where one day a rather colorful gypsy of a Hollywood stage hand drove his lavishly painted, converted school bus into our alley and parked it below my bedroom window. He claimed he had permission from the building’s owner. Immediately he proceeded to live in his bus, make lots of noise, and behave like an all-around nuisance. Worse, he stored a large supply tank of natural gas inside the garage directly beneath my bedroom. Finally I walked down and spoke politely to him, suggesting that he really needed to move, and he responded by lecturing me harshly about how out-of-line I was. I became irate and laid into him verbally. He answered with an even stronger verbal counter-attack, and I was left sputtering, unwilling to back up my arguments with fists. Later he did move; apparently someone with more influence — or more willingness to threaten him — had gotten through. Or maybe he just grew bored. In either case, I’d found that my approach had given me no power over the situation.
Years ago, I worked on the road for a series of music concerts, and the wife of one of the musicians — I was unclear which one — would join us to help with retail sales at the concert halls. She and I got along fine — she was kind and thoughtful — and all went well the first year. The second year, I looked forward to working with her, but now she was cranky, difficult, sour, getting in the way, pushing me around. I finally became angry and gave her an efficient lambasting. She ran off to complain to her husband, who turned out to be the tall, imposing, stormy, angry owner/leader of one of the bands. Basically I had insulted the king’s wife. I was forced to grovel. Later I learned she’d been fighting cancer. No wonder she was short tempered.
Then my landlord decided to buy a pit bull, which he permitted to lunge and bark and snap at me and everyone else. I tried to reason with him, but he enjoyed being seen as a man who feared nothing, and a snarling canine — barely controlled, straining at the end of a leash — seemed to perk up his self-esteem. When alone in the yard, the dog proved friendly, but the moment his owner would appear, the dog would turn on me, barking and snarling. It was obvious what was going on. I protested strenuously; the owner took offense. After that it was all downhill, and soon I no longer lived at that location.
Over the years I kept hoping reason will prevail; I simply refused to believe that people who do these things have to do them and can’t be stopped.
Growing up, I’d been told bullies were cowards in disguise, and we should stand up to them so they’ll collapse and run away. Apparently, that advice was promoted by bored bullies.
I read a news item about research that showed that most high school bullying comes from students who are at the top of the social ladder. After being elected class officers, acts of bullying by those students goes up. It’s the strong ones who bully, not the weak.
And they’re well prepared to defend their behavior. When someone needs to push others around, they’ll do almost anything to protect that prerogative. And since they do it all the time and have lots of practice — while rest of us encounter their bad side only now and then — they have a natural advantage.
My lessons continued. This time, it was another man with a dog. Except the guy simply stood there while his pet lunged and barked, surging against the leash’s restraint, trying to get its teeth around my ankle. I was wiping down my car and tried to ignore them. The owner made no effort to pull the dog back. He simply stood there, passively, allowing this to go on and on — it must have lasted more than a minute — while politely I looked away. The owner seemed to be waiting for me to react, and when I didn’t, he moved off.
The next time we met, the dog charged me again, held back only by the length of its leash. And again, the owner did nothing to stop it. Upset, I spoke sharply to the dog, who backed off, and then I scolded the owner. He replied, “What’s your problem? She’s just a puppy!” The third time our paths crossed, I tried a more friendly approach, but the dog snapped at me as I walked past them on the sidewalk. The fourth time, as the dog lunged and barked, I ignored the pooch and strode right up to its owner, nose to nose, the way a baseball manager confronts an umpire. He was a big guy; I didn’t care. “Why don’t you just hit me?” I said, angrily. “C’mon! Take the first shot!” But he ignored my challenge; instead, he was full of “What’s your problem?” and “She’s just a puppy!” and “You’re obviously afraid of dogs.”
(Afraid of dogs? I had a childhood pooch that I adored, and ever since I’ve been a complete sucker for them.)
I was putting it all out there, but he had a resolve of iron. He’d done this before, apparently, and knew how to shut down the protests. He outplayed me, interrupting my accusations, denying all of them, and turning the dispute around so as to make me seem like the aggressor. Somehow I realized, dimly through my anger, that not only wasn’t he going to raise a hand against me, but that any violence initiated by me could be converted by him, in court, into evidence of his innocence and my guilt. A neighbor approached, and I tried to explain that the dog had lunged, not merely at me, but at a friend who had dropped by for a visit and had told me of the encounter. But the dog owner was quicker, smarter: while I fumed, frustrated and angry, he soon had the neighbor turned against me. Exhausted, shaking, finally I was too stunned to talk. They walked away, and I stood alone on the sidewalk, head hanging, humiliated. Nobody’d touched anyone, yet I’d been beaten as thoroughly as if he’d used his fists. I had stood up for myself and gotten bushwhacked for my efforts.
Lately, I’ve lost faith in the power of words. I’ve finally realized that some people simply have to misbehave, and they will protect ruthlessly their power to do so. Some people have dark depths that cannot be plumbed.
I had a strange dream. It was a repetitive one where the same event happens over and over. I dreamt I was a young woman living in an apartment complex, and every time I passed this one guy in the hallway, he’d touch my chest for a split second. First time, I didn’t quite understand: maybe it was something innocent that I’d misinterpreted. Next encounter, it happens again and I speak sharply to him but he says, “What’s your problem? I only brushed past you! These halls are narrow.” Third time, his hand is up as he approaches but I raise my arm to parry him, saying, “Back off!” and he stops and just looks at me, but as I pass he quickly grabs my butt. Fourth time, his hand snaps out early and fondles my chest, and I go postal, getting in his face, yelling, but he’s all “What’s your problem?!? Stop harassing me!” and the neighbors come out … and tell me to shut up.
I awoke in a sweat. First of all, in the dream I’m a woman? Then I lay there, idly wondering what I’d do if the dream had really happened. If I were to complain formally, he’d counterclaim I was being hostile to him for no reason. If I tried to explain without any physical evidence — photos, bruises, audiotape — everyone would conclude I was paranoid. If I made a physical stand against him, I could get injured and sued. If I decided to move out, I’d spend thousands of dollars and maybe end up in a less desirable place. And there’d always be the possibility of another bully at my new location. It was a problem that had to be solved yet had no solution.
In such situations, words have never worked for me. But I suppose physical fighting would have made things even worse. I get angry but have no weapons. I don’t fear bullies but I have no tactics. They know how to play me. I end up frustrated and helpless.
And the oddest thing is that, after several decades of life, I still haven’t been in a real fistfight.