Warning: this post may be triggering.
Last year, I was approached by one of the magazines I freelance for to write an article on the Hermeler twins. If you’re not familiar with their story, Candice and Kristin are/were the 29-year-old Australian sisters who tried to take their lives on a Colorado gun range last year, shooting themselves simultaneously. Their attempt took Kristin’s life and left Candice in a critical condition.
Whether it was because they were twins or because they travelled half way across the world to do it, the Hermelers’ suicide pact seemed to capture the imaginations of people across Australia, the United States and the UK.
The first, and most widely reported, clue was the photocopy of a Time magazine cover relating to the 1999 Columbine shootings found in their luggage. A few days later, the family of one of the Columbine survivors stepped forward to say the twins had contacted them – by phone, and later sending letters – following the shootings to talk about bullying. Later still, it emerged that the Hermelers were carrying letters from the family of Dylan Klebold in their luggage as well, as well as from the family of one of those killed.
Two of Kristin’s letters to Columbine survivor Brooks Brown ended up online. In the first, she wrote about how she was “shattered” by the shootings, and how she had been “rejected, victimised and ostracised” in her life. In the second, she wrote: “It completely baffles me as to why anyone would hate someone when they don’t know them, it sickens me.”
Obviously, it’s impossible to know what drove the Hermelers to harm themselves that day. Candice has refused to provide any information about why they did it. But the sadness and depth of feeling in those letters was palpable. While the general vibe around this story seems to have been “But they’re upper middle class and blonde! How could they do this?”, the thing that kept jumping out at me was the extent to which childhood and teenage bullying can ripple and reverberate through people’s lives, well after the events themselves have passed. So that’s what I decided to write about.
The good news, I suppose, is that it doesn’t have to be bad news. Bullying – especially of the sustained, severe variety – can have all sorts of long term negative impacts, among them anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, eating disorders and suicide. It is, after all, a direct rejection of who you are as a person. Or it feels like it, at least.
But one of the psychologists I spoke to for the story, Lyn Worsley, said it could also have positive impacts in the long term. People who had been bullied as children and teenagers, she said, were often more socially aware – they were more likely to be attuned to social subtleties, and they often had great empathy for others. These traits, said Worsley, meant they often ended up being leaders in our society.
I’ve alluded here before to my own experiences of being bullied as a child, although these were long enough ago now that I barely remember them, and suspect they were probably little more than “no one wanted to play with me because I was a nerd”.
No doubt, they were nowhere near as severe as anything the Hermelers experienced. But writing this story, I did wonder if that early sense of rejection had contributed to the severe insecurity and sometimes destructive behaviour I engaged in as a young adult. I also wondered if they may have contributed to my almost excessive awareness of other people’s responses to my behaviour. I read moods like a weathervane… even if I don’t always interpret their sources correctly. (“That person seems slightly unhappy. It’s probably because of something I’ve done!”)
Lyn Worsley’s comments also seemed to connect to this post by Penelope Trunk, about “thinking outside the box”:
People who are truly weird spend lots of time trying to figure out how to fit in. Not fitting in is a luxury for in-the-box thinkers. (This is why, by the way, I think the popular kids in school do not make all the money after graduation. Generally, people get paid a lot because they’re different, but high school popularity rewards people who are the same.)
The thing about thinking out of the box is you have to know where the box is. People think my talent is thinking out of the box. But that’s not it—my talent is finding the box, defining it. I am great at studying the rules. I love rules. The rules are what the box is made of. So here’s a rule: it’s not out of the box if it’s not in the vicinity of the box.
It takes tremendous expertise in order to get out of the box. You have to have years thinking about the box, and watching people put things in, and then you have to have an idea that you recognize as fitting near the box but not in it. (Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, Outliers, says this process takes 10,000 hours.)”
Reading it, I wondered how my childhood – and even my early adulthood – experiences might have contributed to the kind of work I do now, as a journalist, blogger and slowly-but-will-get-there-someday book writer. Basically, I am paid to figure out and put into words why the world is the way it is – something I have perhaps become more attuned to because it didn’t come to me easily or automatically. My work is also about explaining why the way we tend to think the world operates is wrong, or at least not inevitable – something that you can only really do if what other people tell you is conventional wisdom doesn’t really fit for you.
Certainly, in researching my book, my favourite interviewees tend to be the ones for whom a “normal life” hasn’t come easily. Because these are the people who have had cause to think, and thus are bubbling over with thoughts and experiences to share.
I would even go so far as to argue that, the closer a person’s experiences lay to the cultural centre of gravity, the harder it is going to be for them to either think critically or to empathise. Because they haven’t really had personal cause to.
What do you think? Have you been bullied? How did it affect you, either positively or negatively?