Saturday, March 6, 2021

My Experience with Girl on Girl Hate, Judgment, Bullying, and How Little Has Changed

 



When my editor read a rough draft of my most recent YA novel, JACK KEROUAC IS DEAD TO ME, before she bought it, when we knew it needed revisions, she asked me this question, "But what is it really about?"

Of course, it's obvious from the book jacket what it's about on the surface: an almost-sixteen year old girl, JL, who, abandoned emotionally and physically by her mother and father, respectively, and judged and ditched by her longtime bff, Aubrey, turns to an older boy, Max, who isn't all that great for her. 

It's about growing up, and being caught between childhood and womanhood, whatever either of those mean.

But what it's really about, when I was forced to dig a little deeper, is how girls and young women judge and abandon one another, how we tear each other down. How we make a hard misogynistic world even more difficult and painful for one another. It's about how often our choices are affected by that judgment -- or at least might be different, clearer, easier, if we made them with the support of other women.


What I realized was that, of all the books and characters I've written, JL was most like me, that I had had too many Aubreys in my life as a teen and young woman, and that I had turned to too many Max's, to help me feel whole again.

Since I wrote the book, I've thought more about this, my sureness deepening: We'd be so much more powerful if we'd just lift one another instead of tearing each other down.


Right? I mean, OBVIOUS. 


And yet.


I wrote this piece about that HERE ON MEDIUM -- you can find it on this blog, too -- asking the simple question: 


What If Girls Were Taught to Lift One Another Better From an Early Age?


But why would we need to teach it? Teach something that obvious?

Because we do.

And because all of it is taught, directly or indirectly: how we treat one another, what is acceptable and not, and more importantly, what would actually make us stronger as human beings. It's all taught, though some of it simply via modeling and osmosis. It's taught.

Anyway, that post has received more attention than most of the pieces I write here. I've received private messages thanking me for sharing about it and for speaking out. When I spoke about this at a conference in 2018 before the world shut down, a woman my age approached me at my signing table in tears. She was still feeling the pain her teen self felt when the other girls tore her down.


So here's one of my stories from high school, again. Note, I actually experienced three separate bullying situations in high school all at the hands of girls. The two others were ongoing threats of harm and physical violence, one carried out, one averted when the girl was forced, for other reasons, to leave school for a time and when she finally returned, I stood up for myself and shut her down. Those other two incidences are no less painful to recall, but this one, I share now, is closest to what JL experiences, so it's the one I choose to talk about here. Lucky for me, and unlike JL, I had good, skilled, hands on parents who did their best to build me up while this was going on.


I hope you will talk about this with your students, with your daughters and granddaughters. I hope you will talk about this in your classrooms.

We can do better. And it will make a difference.


-Gae 


When I was in high school, I didn’t think I was worthy. I didn't feel smart enough, talented enough, athletic enough, and most importantly to me at the time, I wasn’t pretty enough—despite parents who repeatedly tried to tell me I was.  

Because I felt so yucky on the inside, feeling good on the outside became essential. I obsessed over hair, clothes, make-up, the shape of my body. Having a boyfriend and “going out” became the measure of my worth.

My best friend, D, now, she was beautiful—I mean, Margot Robbie, Jennifer Lawrence, Bella Thorne beautiful—and had had multiple boyfriends by the time we became friends in 9th grade.

I, on the other hand, had never been kissed.

D and I were inseparable. And through our friendship, through her love for me, I began to gain confidence (even if I wasn’t gaining dating experience). It was a friendship that both bolstered and defined me. And, though I didn’t understand at the time, not only did she think I was beautiful, too, she envied me for other things: my intellect, my feigned confidence, and probably, mostly, my family life which was more stable and supportive of me than hers. Best of all, she truly didn’t seem to see the surface differences between us, how the boys we both loved only ever wanted her.

Even when they used me to get to her.

It is 1980 in Long Island, NY, and my braces have come off. Contact lenses replace my aviator glasses, and my body develops ample curves and swells, and—even though I’m not traditionally beautiful from the neck up—boys our age start to desire me more.

Think Jennifer Gray in Dirty Dancing*.

I was a dead ringer.

A good thing, right?

So, what happens when the boys

finally like you…

And, now, the girls don’t?

Take this event that dominoes in rapid succession in the beginning of eleventh grade:

Remember, I’m mostly devoid of any real self-confidence or experience in the romance department, but there’s a boy I’m crushing hard after, a boy we’ll simply call R.

Problem is, R is dating B seriously—like, they’re a long time “thing”—and, so he is obviously off limits (and way, way out of my league anyway). Important side note: R’s best friend is J, and he’s dating P, who is B’s best friend. It’s a close knit kind of a thing. They’re all a grade older than I am.

And, again, I have barely been kissed.

 

Understatement.

Hold on to those facts. ^^^ They will matter in a second.

So, it’s end of October, junior year, and there is a Halloween party at someone’s house on a Saturday night. I dress as a red devil in skin tight satin pants, a red satin shirt, and sparkly red horns I make myself and attach to a headband, and head to the party with my best friend. Funny now that I can’t recall what she was dressed as.

R is there. Swoon. J is there. Their girlfriends P and B are not there.

Music, cavorting, and underage drinking ensue. At some point R finds his way to my corner and begins to flirt with me. No, really. He flirts with me! My heart nearly explodes. Eventually, he gets around to trying to kiss me. I am buzzed, and 16, and pretty desperate for him to like me, which, apparently, he might. As he leans in for a kiss, I (somehow) muster the wherewithal to ask where B is, because as bad as I want him to kiss me, if they’re still dating, it isn’t the right thing.

 

“Don’t worry about her,” he tells me. “She won’t show up. She has a family thing.”

 

I push back. I walk away.

Somehow, I walk away.

I do the right thing.

Minutes go by. An hour. I can’t really breathe. I can’t help looking for R wherever he goes. But I keep my distance. I drink some more. I don’t let myself go anywhere near him.

Fast forward to… when? I don’t know. An hour? Two hours?

Someone is tapping my shoulder.

“J wants to see you outside.”

J is not R, but he’s cute. It must be the devil costume.

I head out to the backyard in the darkness.

I’m 16. I want a boyfriend so bad.

Hey, I say when I reach him. We chat a bit. Finally, I ask, Where’s P?

Oh, we broke up, he tells me.

We broke up.

J leans in and kisses me.

I let J kiss me.

I kiss J back.

He asks me if I want to “go out” and just like that we are a thing. A dating thing, but a fairly innocent dating thing, mind you.


Fast forward to Monday morning in the hall.

“Slut!”

 

“Whore!”

For the next several months, whenever I pass them in the hall, B and P call me a slut.

They accost me in the halls to call me a whore.

How dare you steal my boyfriend!

I try to explain. About R. About J. About how they were broken up. About how I’m a virgin. About how I tried to do the right thing.

I’m told to shut up.


I’m told I am bad.

I’m told I’m a whore.

For the entire school year, until they graduate: Slut! Whore! Piece of garbage!

This, against the backdrop of already being badly bullied by those other girls.


How do I survive it?

  1. My best friend, D, who knows me, and believes I am good. Thank god.

Fast forward to senior year.

To when the (new) guy I’m dating, E, D’s boyfriend’s best friend, breaks up with me and starts dating someone else and D starts spending time with her.

It’s okay. I buck up. Plus, I’m dating L now, the first real love of my life. I spend less and less time with D, who seems to have lost interest in me altogether, and more and more time with L.

It’s spring, senior year. L and I go to a movie, Officer and a Gentleman, and when the opening credits start to roll, I realize I badly need to pee.

I run to the bathroom, rush into a stall, pull down my pants and sit. Start to pee.

“Gae is such a loser," I hear. 

“Yeah, I never really liked her.” Two girls outside my stall, conversing.

How odd, I think, that they also know someone named Gae!

(I know, I know, but I did. That’s what I thought in that moment. That they were talking about a different girl named Gae).

Until I flushed and walked out.

And recognized my best friend, D, immediately.


My best friend, who had valued me,

promised me I was worthy,

was talking about how worthless I was.


It wasn’t until I was in my forties that I had female friends I would learn to trust again. To lean on, and rely on. To trust they loved me for me. And, still, they have disappointed me and broken my heart as recently as a few months ago, holding me to some standard, judging me, not willing to fix and forgive.

What is it about the fragility of female friendships? What is it about girls refusing to go easy on one another, lift each other up, and see the best in each other?

As the #MeToo movement sprang to life, I felt grateful to see women who had been harmed by men banding together to speak out, but what about the women who had harmed one another, done the tearing down?

What about the girls and women who continue to do the tearing down?

Now, when I visit middle schools and high schools, I talk about the girl-on-girl bullying I experienced, and how I was torn down and “assaulted” not only emotionally but physically. And when I finally get to the part where I say, “If you are a girl, and bully other girls, make judgments against them, call them names or worse… please don’t, please stop, please be kind, please hold one another up and understand,” I can’t help but see the eyes that dart to me, desperate and pleading, and the others, that dart so very quickly away.

As the author of books for tweens and teens, I am constantly exploring the complexities of female friendships, ones where girls rise to the occasion of loving one another—and where they do not, never more painfully than in my new novel, Jack Kerouac is Dead to Me.

For JL, my protagonist—and for all girls—I can’t help but ask, aren’t we worthy of the love of our girlfriends despite our bad decisions, despite our mistakes and flaws? Aren’t we worthy of leeway, of understanding, and of deep and abiding support?

I can’t help but wonder how different things might have been for JL if Aubrey had simply stood by her.

*Like Jennifer Gray, I got my nose done shortly after Dirty Dancing. Funnily enough, I never thought she was as beautiful after… if only we could see ourselves as we see others… 

**I feel it’s important to point out that even while it was happening, I knew D didn’t mean it (it didn’t make it any easier in the moment) and after a two year separation, she and I repaired our friendship in college and remain the absolute best of friends to this day.

 

 

1 comment:

  1. Your description of our high school is so accurate it made me nauseous. Thanks for speaking out through your books and otherwise. xo

    ReplyDelete