Confronting a Bully: How the Kavanaugh hearing reopened high-school wounds
“You have to write this story.” My friend urged whilst slurping spaghetti over an Italian dinner last week, flecks of tomato sauce studded in his beard.
I had told this story a handful of times, at most, quietly amongst friends, but in recent years the story had dissipated from my repertoire. It just didn’t seem relevant, until now.
The US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing into allegations of sexual assault by Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh and his conduct as a teenager and during College has taken us all back to High School, and it has brought up a tidal wave of polarizing opinions. But it’s a sensitive thing isn’t it? Opinions. We’ve all got ‘em; and the past two weeks I’ve heard a lot of ‘em. It came up in conversation with my Uber Driver and again last week over a comforting Italian pasta meal, served with a side dish of even more uncomfortable conversation.
The trigger for me was that image seen reverberating around global media outlets of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford standing straight, right hand up, presenting herself to the Senate Committee. Seeing this image of Dr. Ford reopened a box that I had wrapped up in newspaper, tied up with a brown string bow, attached to a rock, and thrown out to sea, to sink forever into an emotional abyss.
It was 2011 and I was living in Bangkok, Thailand. During this time I had created a nice little landing for myself. I had a conversational grasp of Thai language, knew all the markets, back streets, and districts, and had a great apartment overlooking this congested, sweaty, hedonistic city. Given my activity, I had become somewhat of an unofficial Bangkok City Tour Guide.
Living in a city like Bangkok was great because I had more visitors than ever. Every friend or relative doing an obligatory 48-hour stopover contacted me and I was always shouted a free meal in exchange for my local tips and advice.
Whilst those coming to visit me were either family, close friends or vetted friends of friends, it therefore came to an unexpected surprise when an old High-School Facebook “friend” contacted me on Messenger. The (now archived Facebook) message, went a little something like this:
“Hi Leah! How are you? It’s been a long time. I’ve been travelling around Sth East Asia with my girlfriend — recently been in Vietnam and Laos and now on our way to Bangkok. Would be great to catch up with you if you are around! — Cheers mate, Nick”. [*his name is not really Nick]
Our High-School graduation was 12 years ago and I hadn’t seen or heard from Nick in about 10 years, but apparently we were “mates”. I stared at the computer screen.
“Nick. What. The. Fuck. Nick. Niiiiiiiiiiiiiick. Whatthefuckwhatthefuckwhatthefuck.”
I was partially intrigued. What did he look like? Had he changed? Was he still an asshole? And I started to fantasize that had we grown up, in our mature adulthood lives, that we could be friends. I mean that’s all I had ever wanted. The more I thought about it, the more I eased into the idea of reuniting. I was going to reconnect with my high-school bully and show him my best life. This was my ‘Muriel Moment’. Bangkok was my city now and he would be on my turf so what’s the worst that could happen?
I wrote back saying how great it was to hear from him (but repulsed by the word ‘mate’) and to see if Nick and his Scandinavian girlfriend would like to come over for drinks at my apartment, followed by a local dinner nearby.
I viscerally remember the knock on the door and my heart pumped a little faster. When I opened the door I was mildly disappointed. He hadn’t changed. He still looked like he was 16, but on this occasion, with a Hawaiian shirt, trekking sandals and a backpacker’s shadowy stubble. He was accompanied by a fresh faced, white haired Viking girlfriend.
It took 5 minutes to break the ice and move into a space of familiarity, so much so, that Nick’s girlfriend [*let’s call her Anna] started asking questions about our relationship. I diplomatically dodged these, settling on small talk of travel, Thailand and South East Asia. After a drink we headed to a nearby local eatery whilst I pointed out Thai spirit houses, street food vendors, whilst dodging stray dogs and pools of dirty rubbish water. We sat down at a corner table and I took the lead to order some foreigner-friendly Thai dishes whilst showing off my entry-level conversational Thai language skills. They seemed suitably impressed.
Nick and Anna sat side by side, whilst I sat across from them, continuing the trail of small talk.
“So… tell me again how you guys know each other” Anna interjected over her Pad Thai.
This time I stopped talking.
“I told you, we were mates in High School”. Nick stated, leaning back happily sucking on his Chang beer.
Now there’s a moment that happens in a nanosecond. It’s hard to explain because there’s no conscious thought, there’s no emotion, there’s just the act of doing. I leaned in further, open my mouth and blurted, “That’s not how I remember it Nick. We weren’t mates”.
Nick blinked, looking perplexed and scoffed. “Whaddaya talking about? We were mates!”
“No, that’s not how I remember it. Actually, you were kind of a bully.” I took a sip of wine and tried to remain calm before continuing, “You were a bully. You bullied me.” Nick started to look visibly upset and his body language changed to an upright stance.
“That’s how I remember it. You pushed me up against a wall behind the Theatre. You called me a fat bitch, a dyke…. Do you remember calling me a FAT BITCH Nick?”
Nick slumped back in his chair with a smirky grin.“ Geez you women really hold on to this shit don’t you?” he sniffed.
And there it was. Classic Nick. His behaviour was entitled, arrogant and offended. Yes, he was offended.
My memories rushed back and I was 16 years old at High School. I really liked Nick and I believed he liked me too, deep down. We took Drama together and there was a private moment where I thought he was going to kiss me, and instead of touching my face softly he grabbed my shoulders and pinned me up against the wall, kicking me and calling me a fat bitch. And yes, I was a heavy girl. It’s soul destroying when your crush rejects you, let alone torments you. He would continue, over the coming months to taunt me with peaks and troughs of friendship and flirtation, only to publicly shame me, calling out names in front of his pack of guy friends, picking on my most obvious insecurities. There was more of course (there always is) but it doesn’t concern this story. I am no stranger to being bullied by boys and my earliest memory is from the age of 5.
I mentally snapped back. “Nick, if I was ‘holding on to this stuff’ I never would have invited you here and welcomed you and your girlfriend for dinner.” My focus broke from Nick and I looked over to Anna who had been sitting quietly next to him. She had tears streaming down her face.
“Are you ok? Why are you crying?” I had forgotten there were 3 of us sitting at the table.
“He bullies me in the relationship. He calls me a bitch too”. And with those words she started to sob. I had forgotten about the woman sitting across from me.
Nick threw up his hands “You women, you’re all so bloody sensitive!! When I meant FAT BITCH I meant PHAT — like cool, and BITCH, as in girls, you know, women, but like cool you know, I’m not serious!” A cruel irony of sexual assault and harassment is that the traumas which frequently determine the trajectory of women’s lives are just as often unremarkable to the men who have inflicted them.
I was dumbfounded by the irony of it all, but proud for having taken the opportunity to speak up. My voice, my words had an effect on both of them that night. I left them both at the table feeling lighter than ever before and now my memories were just that, memories.
I’ve relived my adolescence during these past two weeks but I look back on it with wisdom and hindsight. I am not angry, nor am I upset. It is important to share stories of courage so that others can understand the shape and form it takes. The fact is, this behaviour of bullying and entitlement is systemic. What I learnt that night by confronting my bully was that my small voice had a big impact. We cannot continue to live thinking that our actions and words have no impact on the lives of others. Everything we do and say has a ripple effect. My voice gave rise to her voice. Had I not spoken out she may have continued to be bullied in that relationship; or worse. I believe that the young assholes in High School don’t change. They just grow up to be bigger assholes because it is a learned trait. We have to have the courage to speak up, to be brave and to continue this conversation, because we are all sitting at the table together.