On Bullies and Writing

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Sometimes, a series of tiny events occurs and bits of narrative and memory burrow into my brain and I know that they somehow link together. Sometimes, the tiny events even occur in one day, so the links, though still tentative, align a little quicker and the growing chain wraps around and around, squeezing me until an essay or a story is pushed forth. This post is, I hope, the beginning of links coming together.

Sunday night, on our way upstairs to put S to bed, I caught my bare foot on a nail that had popped out of the floorboard. Our house is one hundred and forty years old, and one of its greatest glories is the honey-colored hardwood floors that stretch through the original rooms of the house. One of its many quirks is the way these floorboards swell and shrink with the seasons. The staircase is in the front entryway, where the floor has heaved into a small hill by the door, and the old square-headed nails often rise out of their holes like the automated gophers in a carnival game. Most of our socks have small holes in the bottoms. Now my right foot does, too.

Despite my minor injury, we had had an incredible day. A friend stayed with us, visiting from Nova Scotia. The weekend was filled with pizza and outdoor movies and ice cream and harbor-view dining. For our last day, we first visited a park in a nearby town and then headed back home to show Katie the boardwalk that runs along a chunk of our shoreline. Two places that seem unrelated save for the fact that they are close by, free, and beautiful.

What spun out from this last day is puzzling me.

Boothe Park is an expansive piece of property with rolling hills, an observatory, and the old Merritt Parkway tollbooths. There are tours of the Boothe homestead, and visitors also wander through the park’s smaller buildings– a working blacksmith, a clock tower, a miniature lighthouse. The property was owned and then donated by two altruistic brothers who lived there together for most of their lives, and who willed the entire estate (and a maintenance fund) to the town in 1949. Because their nineteenth-century house looks a little like ours I couldn’t help but compare the two— the large front porch, the narrow stairways, the remnants of the old dumbwaiter. Our tour guide walked us through the main house, revealing all of the peculiarities of these charitable brothers. The men were very religious, and patriotic, and had a tendency to hoard seemingly random objects. Curio cabinets on the main floor are crowded with seashells and taxidermy turtles, and an entire room on the second floor is filled entirely with baskets. Perusing these collections of eccentricities, I recalled the two brothers who own the house next door to us, who have also lived together all of their lives, who also claim to be devout Catholics, who are also hoarders, and who also fill their yard with eccentric knickknacks. However, our brothers-next-door show no signs of altruism, for they patrol our street like a couple of aging Skut Farkuses.

While exploring a barn filled with at least a dozen looms and lined with shelves piled high with torturous-looking devices once used for combing wool or stripping pork fat, my husband said aloud exactly what I had been thinking. That we were standing in a bizarre land of what-could-have-been, learning about brothers who lived to help their community, while we live next to brothers who live to haunt their community.

I held this paradox in my head. Mulled over it when we stopped for sandwiches and iced tea before heading to the beach, these ideas about two sets of brothers, dyads connected by genetics, two pairs of men with similar traits and peculiarities, seemingly parallel interests and beliefs, and yet starkly opposite relational skills. Perhaps it is strange to consider the similarities, since eight decades separate men that are, by all accounts, complete strangers. And yet, I wonder, how is it that some of us are motivated to be charitable, and others are driven to bully?

The beach was crowded and the sun was pelting, almost brutal, except that the breeze and the view were strong enough to make us forget. On our first pass down the boardwalk we walked by a man I instantly recognized because as a teenager, this man was part of a larger group of boys who ruthlessly teased me in high school. My throat tightened momentarily. I no longer live in my hometown, and yet I am not so far away that run-ins with old classmates are impossible. We walked by him on our way back too, and again my stomach turned and the boardwalk became the locker-lined hallways of my small-town high school. Twenty years separate me from that experience, and still my body viscerally responded as I walked past him.

That night, after I stepped on the nail, as I ran icy water over my foot and watched the blood turn pink as it mixed with water and flowed down the drain, I thought about bullies, and about being bullied. I put Manuka honey and a Band-Aid on my foot. Then I started researching genetics.

Some scientists have found an altruism gene, and others have pinned neurobiological markers to bullies. But this isn’t without complications, for how easy is it to shirk the blame for actions when they can be tied to biology? And nature does not discount nurture, for there are equally as many case studies suggesting that depravity might lead to bullying. Or that nurturing can curb violent tendencies. Can I explain the Boothe brother’s altruism and our neighbors’ bullying through this research?

What do I do with these nuggets that have wormed their way into my brain? What story am I to tell from this day of pasts and presents, of charity and chastising? Is this nature v. nurture debate they key, or at least a piece, to understanding the larger issues we face right now? Can we understand Trump and Trump-supporters the same way I am trying to understand the bullies of my youth or stifle the effects of the bullies of adulthood? Is it productive to think of bullies and their desire for domination and control as we push back against people who continually treat women, or people of color, or people with disabilities with derision? Would this be productive?

Or is this a story about human connection and disconnection? Is this series of events a storyline about the strange way a single day can transport you back in time, connecting homes, people, and experiences? Is this a story about bullies, or about what could have been, what was, and what is? Is this finally a way into the story I have been wanting write about our neighbors, whose antics have puzzled us for two years, and who have provided me with enough fodder for a thousand stories, but no framework through which I can share them?

There’s something happening here. I will keep writing it, molding it and submitting it as I push forward to my 100-rejections-in-a-year goal. I still need ninety-eight.