My husband and I rent movies each weekend, our mental vacation from our hectic week, a means of recuperation and rejuvenation provided by a healthy dose of Hollywood escapism. Some weekends, a raunchy comedy laced with a heady aroma of political incorrectness fits the bill, other weeks, a mindless action movie offers the perfect venue for a release of pent up aggression. This past weekend, we settled upon a romantic comedy and a documentary. We indulged in a meal of Taco Bell while we unwound to the unrealistic idealism of love as captured in our first flick. Feeling quite satisfied, and pacified, by images of a coquettish blonde damsel swept off her stilettos by a man with the perfect combination, of charm, wit, looks, and devotion set against a pristine Tuscan backdrop, we loaded our next selection into the Blu-ray player, mindless entertainment to soothe my tired soul.
The movie, Bully, a documentary that follows the lives of several adolescents and their families, captures the effects of bullying. I heard of the film, read headlines and testimonials on the internet proclaiming its powerful message, so I anticipated a moving ninety minutes, its effects lingering in my mind for a brief time before I filed it away in my memory along with other film excerpts I stored to pull out and quotes when the occasion called for such references. I never imagined the lasting impact this film created; it devastated me.
I sat mesmerized for the length of the movie as I bore witness to the dismantling of humanity splayed before me on the television screen. I watched parents weep over the suicides of their children, one boy only eleven, brutalized and victimized to the point where death appeared to be the only means of escape. I observed a young woman ostracized and humiliated by her community for her sexual orientation and a young girl serving time in a mental hospital after drawing a pistol on classmates on a school bus who refused to relent their torment of her, a little boy weep over the coffin of his best friend. These images penetrated my heart, ripped a hole clean into my soul. I could not comprehend the overwhelming sadness and despair these victims and their families endured. More importantly, I could not fathom why the authorities in any given situation, mostly school administrators, chose to shirk responsibility time and again, denying any culpability in the events that transpired against these children under their care.
Though all stories portrayed touched me on the most intimate level, one story in particular ran an iced finger of reality down my spine: the story of Alex, a thirteen year old boy in Iowa. Alex is different. Born prematurely, his features do not quite coincide with his body, every characteristic, awkward, gangly—odd. His language skills appeared halted as he struggled to express himself to others, even his parents. The camera followed him as he lurched through each day, trying to assimilate into a society not equipped for his individuality. In the film, Alex suffered horrific bullying at the hands of his classmates. They punched him, stabbed him with pencils, strangled him as he sat on the bus, pinned him under a seat and sat on him. The film makers, documenting these atrocities, showed the video segments to Alex's parents. These people, a simple middle class couple struggling to raise a special needs child along with the rest of their family, sought help from the school. The assistant principal placated them with assurances that they would "handle" the situation. She avoided, obscured, and dodged with ease, a track star running an obstacle course memorized from the countless times traveling the same path. This was not her first encounter with angry and frustrated parents seeking help for their bullied child. I watched as Alex's parents left the meeting, trudging through a rain soaked parking lot with a dazed look upon their faces as though slow to wake from tranquilization, no answers or results to help their brutalized son.
I wept; this boy, sad and alone, isolated from mainstream society, was my daughter. Like Alex, my Kamryn struggles with issues that keep her existing on the fray. While Alex's issues most likely stem from his premature birth, Kamy's form from her diseased mind. Chemical imbalances, misfiring neurons, a slip in chromosomal development, call it what you will, Kamy's brain functions on another plane, segregating her from the rest of the population. Make no mistake, I helped form the wall that separates her from the outside world: I home school her, provide the majority of her care, keep her safe, close by my side, under my vigilant eye. I consciously make the effort to keep her hidden away, for I do not want her to endure what I witnessed in this film. She exists under the shadow of her diagnoses; why cause her even more pain?
I know bullying exists. I encountered my own form of it when I was an adolescent. Overweight in high school, I endured relentless taunts about my full figure from boys at my school. They called me Drumsticks when I walked by due to my thick thighs, going so far as to make clucking sounds as they walked behind me. They placed notes in my locker suggesting I lose some weight if I ever wanted a boyfriend. I internalized my humiliation and sorrow. I refused to let them see how much their constant teasing belittled me. Instead, I turned to humor as a means to detract their attention from my pain. I made jokes about my weight before they had a chance, figuring I would beat them to the punch, thereby silencing their hurtful remarks. This took an incredible amount of strength and will. I suffered alone for many years before I broke free from their torment. Not every child is as fortunate; their fragile souls shatter into pieces with little force. The result, a culture of children who seek drugs, alcohol, self mutilation, or death, as means to an end. My experience pales in comparison to what children today endure just to survive another day.
Schools are a hostile environment, a war zone where boundary lines are drawn based upon homogeneity; difference is unacceptable. Children displaying any variance in appearance, behavior, or lifestyle, are branded, targeted by elitist groups that create a stronghold over the rest of the student population. Idealized for their athleticism, looks, and socioeconomic status, peers elevate them into a dominant role among the adolescent culture where they dole out punishment to those deemed unworthy to breathe the air they exhale.
The bullies in the movie reminded me of the Nazis, Romans, Egyptians, Huns, early American setters, the Ku Klux Clan, any faction of society throughout history who took it upon themselves to cast judgment upon others based solely on the differences existing between their group and the rest. Wars waged, civilizations laid to waste, innocence lost, the systematic removal of any trace of variance spans over the existence of humanity. We seek to destroy that which we do not understand, hostility born from ignorance laced with fear. We lose our identity in an effort to cleanse ourselves from any anomaly deemed unworthy, unclean, an abomination of nature, leaving ourselves with nothing more than ashes of our burned remains.
Those targeted for destruction, suffering through a misstep of fate, hide in shadows, hoping to live out their existence undetected by the authority. For children, this means a life of drifting through empty hallways, solitary games of tag on the playground, nights spent alone while others attend football games and homecoming dances, sharing whispered dreams with invisible friends, all in an effort to survive adolescence intact. I, too, keep my abnormal child away from the light. Lock the doors, seal the shutters, keep her tucked away from their self righteous gaze. For years, I felt this was my only means of protecting her, my last line of defense against a world set on dismantling her soul.
As her mother, I feel I have little choice; many do not accept her as God created her. Was it not that long ago that the mentally ill lived out their lives within the walls of mental institutions, spent their days dwelling in filth and squalor, exposed to cruel and inhumane "therapeutic" treatments in efforts to cure them of their diseases? What of their image in contemporary society, branded freaks, maniacs, social deviants worth little more than the shit clinging to the bottom of one's shoe? I swore my daughter would never know the tragedy of her destiny. I convinced myself, like so many other parents who grapple with how to keep their unique child safe from the cruelty of the outside world, that keeping her isolated was the only solution—until now.
At the culmination of Bully, parents of those children who committed suicide forged various organizations in an effort to speak out against bullying, thus ending the cycle of violence and devastation created by such behaviors. They broke through their pain so as to provide a voice for others still suffering, facing their demons with courage and strength. I sat for a moment contemplating the feeling surging through me—shame. I felt shame in my weakness, shame in my fear, shame in my unwillingness to shatter the silence entombing my daughter. In that moment, I realized I must do more. These families, though varied in background and lifestyles, found kinship in their circumstances. They unified under a common bond of emancipation, freeing children of all gender, ethnicities, classes, and religions from the bonds of subjugation at the hands of a culture unwilling to accept them in all of their unique splendor.
Staring at the credits scroll across my television, I experienced a light bulb moment. With a flick of the switch, reality tapped me on the shoulder and said, "What the hell are you doing?" A well founded question indeed: What was I doing? How was I making a difference, combating those who walk amongst us, bullying, brutalizing, tormenting the innocent: husbands who wave to neighbors before sealing themselves inside the crypt of violence created for their wives, prying eyes unable to penetrate the secrecy and denial that cloaks their home like a tangle of ancient vines, the girls' soccer coach who uses his authority to ply sexual favors from his young charges, the prom queen who steals the clothes of a classmate while she showers after gym class, leaving her naked and exposed to the barrage of ridicule from the popular sect, so many instances of dysfunction, intimidation, imbalances of power that perpetuate a system of oppression. The cries of thousands fall quiet, soundless under the roar of tyrants.
I write about my experiences with my Kamy. I renounce societal attempts to form a master race, a civilization absent any flavor or color. I purport my solidarity in my stand against the unheeded persecution of the lost, less fortunate, lonely, and scared. With fists raised high, I open my mouth and offer up a small cry of defiance, a mewl rather than a scream. My feeble voice falters under the bulge of my fear; it suffocates me. What do I fear? What keeps my daughter locked away? Why do I refuse to step from the shadows in search of illumination: comfort, safety, denial? Like the parents of the children in the film, I hope for a solution to fall into my lap. I pray for reprieve from my life, all while knowing such amnesty does not exist for me. I know what I should do, the right choice to make, yet my feet remain locked in place, encased in the cement boots that weigh me to the ground.
How can I expect change if I refuse to raise my voice? Am I not as a guilty as those who enact such abuse when I stay silent? I submitted to the hypocrisy long enough, nodding my head in approval with all who demonstrate the courage to rise above the darkness, unafraid to challenge the wrongs they witness, while I sit in the corner sitting on my hands, careful not to alert anyone to my presence. To make a difference, they must know I am here. What world do I leave for my children, how do I help Kamy, or all those like her, if I don't give my best, do all I can within my power, to bring about a revolution?
People make passing remarks about having an epiphany, a single moment of self awareness when one realizes the true purpose of their existence. I've endured many in my life. I liken them more to God slapping me in the face, demanding my attention: Wake up, Janna! Sometimes I respond, other times I choose not to listen. I plug my ears and shut my eyes, hope that He'll find someone else to bother. What I learned, however, is that we cannot escape our destiny, and epiphanies are nothing more than His reminder of our authentic selves. In spite of the difficulties I endure with a special needs child, fate selected me from a million other mothers, a lottery selection in which the winner inherits a lifetime of struggles. I cannot turn away from my responsibility, no matter how I fear what awaits me. If I have both the understanding and the capability to usher in change, if I can prevent one more innocent life from enduring unwarranted suffering and sorrow, who am I to say no?
An hour and a half reshaped my purpose. One movie opened my eyes. The stories of these families reminded me of who I am and what God intends of me. We cannot battle intolerance if we fear the sound of our own voice. It takes only one to start a revolution, to unite the masses, emancipate the forgotten. Others before me, brave souls fearless in the face of insurmountable adversity, forged a path for me to follow. It's my turn. Throw open my windows; let sunlight reach into the corners of my home long forgotten in my attempts to thwart its advances. Let my daughter walk among others, head held high, celebrating her individuality. Never let her, or any other different from the "norm," ever feel the crush of relentless torment against their chest, stealing their will to breathe. Inhale the possibility for a better tomorrow, remember those lost in the fight, and never—ever quit. Leave the light burning.
A momentary rupture to the vision:
the wavering limbs of a birch fashion
the fluttering hem of the deity’s garment,
the cooling cup of coffee the ocean the deity
waltzes across. This is enough—but sometimes
the deity’s heady ta-da coaxes the cherries
in our mental slot machine to line up, and
our brains summon flickering silver like
salmon spawning a river; the jury decides
in our favor, and we’re free to see, for now.
A flaw swells from the facets of a day, increasing
the day’s value; a freakish postage stamp mails
our envelope outside time; hairy, claw-like
magnolia buds bloom from bare branches;
and the deity pops up again like a girl from
a giant cake. O deity: you transfixing transgressor,
translating back and forth on the border
without a passport. Fleeing revolutions
of same-old simultaneous boredom and
boredom, we hoard epiphanies under the bed,
stuff them in jars and bury them in the backyard;
we cram our closet with sunrise; prop up our feet
and drink gallons of wow!; we visit the doctor
because all this is raising the blood’s levels of
c6h3(oh)2chohch2nhch3, the heart caught
in the deity’s hem and haw, the oh unfurling
from our chest like a bee from our cup of coffee,
an autochthonous greeting: there. Who saw it?
Janna Vought is the author of Evolution of Cocoons, the story of raising her mentally ill daughter, releasing this September.