How It Gets Better

I’ve gotten a lot of heat over the years for the things I say about bullying, because there’s not really an open entree to say everything I think at once, and it’s kind of a large subject. So when I was writing about this week’s episode of Pretty Little Liars, which is a pretty amazing show, I kind of let myself get pulled into a full-on discussion of the subject. 
Which is dumb, in some ways, because A) Writing one-third of an entire recap about an unrelated subject is not interesting to people who want to know what happened in the show, and B) Plenty of people who might want to think about that subject are not necessarily going to watch a show about Pretty Little Anything. So maybe I should have just put it here to begin with. Although from what I can tell, it’s doing okay in the middle of that recap. Maybe polarizing a little, but that’s to be expected. Anyway, they had a therapist lady in to talk to their high school about bullying, which struck me as funny because the whole show is a better conversation about bullying and cyberbullying than any grownup presentation could be, and this is what I wrote:
I think cyberbullying was invented mostly by moms. I mean, it’s obviously a thing, but it’s not a thing in a vacuum. A kid whose life is hell would be going through hell regardless of the Internet. So you take the victim mentality of a bullied kid’s mother, and you add the Internet superstition of everybody over thirty, and yes, it can seem like this huge monster that Boomers never had to deal with.
But to me, cyberbullying is a great model for all bullying, in that your response is completely your choice: It’s as real as the boogeyman, which can be pretty fucking real. But asking people gently to stop bullying is like asking them to recycle, or asking them to find obesity attractive suddenly, or asking teenagers to stop having sex so they don’t embarrass Jesus: Not only are you asking for something that’s never going to happen, but you’re putting the responsibility on the most unlikely possible people. Have the conversation and start your own army, instead of looking for validation from the shitty people who don’t want you anyway.
Anne: “So what, all this outreach and advocacy is for suckers?”
Jacob: “No. But the It Gets Better campaign is the closest possible answer. Not addressing the bullies who aren’t listening, but the kids who are so tied up in their own powerlessness and need that they don’t understand how much power they actually have. Explaining to them what options they have, in an untenable environment. Tools and strategies to beat the game.”
Anne: “It seems like you’re blaming the victim.”
Jacob: “Understand things as they are, operate within that framework, and there won’t be a victim to blame. The only worthwhile education you can give a kid at this point in life is how to deal with ugly realities, the way things actually work. Not whine at shitty kids with shitty parents who aren’t listening anyway. Stop outsourcing accountability for your own strength, or your kid’s, to gross people who don’t care anyway.”
Anne: “Okay, fine. What would you say to a person who was getting cyberbullied?”
Jacob: “Block the person. The Internet is not real, it’s a giant bathroom wall. Learn it early, live it forever.”

Anne: “What would you say to a person who was getting regular bullied?”

Jacob: “Beat the shit out of the person.”

Anne: “Really?”

Jacob: “No, not really. Maybe sometimes. I would say that everything is a transaction, and we’ve all forgotten that somewhere along the way. That if you’re going to be the kind of person who gets bullied, and you can’t handle it, you need to stop being that person.”
Anne: “Just completely give in to peer pressure.”
Jacob: “No. Understand that peer pressure doesn’t exist. Everybody has the right to feel less alone. Those people are out there and you have to find them. What works for therapy also works for real life, meaning that you have to tell the secrets before they can stop hurting you, or paralyzing you, and the biggest secret of all is your loneliness.”

Anne: “Sounds like selling out, possibly.”
Jacob: “Absolutely it is selling out. But you’re making deals every day of your life. If you don’t like the terms, change them. If that’s selling out, you have to ask yourself who you’re trying to impress.”
Anne: “But kids should be allowed to be themselves.”
Jacob: “Heck yeah they should. But they’re not. And they won’t ever be. And that won’t change, no matter how old you get, and at some point you’ll understand that ‘yourself’ doesn’t change, regardless of the deals you make. The stuff you’re getting harassed about is not essential to who you are. Bullies are educating you about the parts of yourself that don’t fit into the herd, they’re like the immune system for normality. But a virus doesn’t roll over and die, it mutates. It evolves.”
Anne: “Sounds like you had it pretty easy.”
Jacob: “Yeah, being the fat gay kid at a small-town Southern high school that was literally named for a Confederate General, that was a real fucking blast.”
Anne: “So you had it hard?”
Jacob: “Not really. I realized that high school is a fucking joke, that It Gets Better pretty quickly after that, and that my best defense was not asking for it. Not cosigning their bad trip. I think in some ways being gay made it easier to cut through the bullshit, because I’d found one true thing about myself that I could stand on, get my head above water, finally look around and see how silly and stupid everything else was.”
Anne: “You opted out.”
Jacob: “No, I made a deal. It cost me a lot. In other, better ways, I got a lot more in return. But yeah, once you’re on the outside of a game, the rules of the game make a whole lot more sense. It doesn’t get better. You get better. It was never in charge, and sitting back waiting for It to get better means It‘s going to suck as long as it possibly can, because It has no reason to change. It is doing fine no matter how miserable it’s making you.”

Anne: “So, what. The old Nobody Can Make You Feel Lousy Without Your Consent chestnut. You realize that when you say that, it just makes people feel worse, right?”
Jacob: “If you’re already buying in, sure. It’s not just a Roosevelt quote, although you could live your life by her wisdom and you’d turn out okay. But it’s true. The world is much, much bigger than high school. High school is the very last time in your entire life that you honestly cannot choose the people or the situations around you. I had pretentiousness on my side. Still do.”
Anne: “So what would you say to Emily, or Lucas, or Mikey?”
Jacob: “Lucas and Mikey are figuring it out. Actively working on this, which is why it looks so scary. They’re burning calories to get there, and don’t necessarily have all the tools or support to know that there’s even an endpoint. Emily, I would say that it sucks to have a ghost ninja after you [long story], but that caged-up awful feeling would probably be something you would feel anyway. Just like absolutely everybody else does.”
Anne: “Even bullies?”

Jacob: “Especially bullies. It’s amazing what you can learn once you stop looking at people as the enemy and start looking at them as people. These pressures are atmospheric, they are part of the basic gameboard, they are the burden of everybody. Bullies deal with the pressure by turning it on the weak; they’re quislings. Cyberbullies do it in the most pathetic possible way. Alison [the dead frenemy on the show] did it like a knife.”

Anne: “It’s sort of sacred ground to talk about this stuff, you know, when kids are actually dying.”
Jacob: “I get that, and yeah, that’s horrific. But it doesn’t change the facts, which is that puberty makes everybody crazy, and high school means putting all those crazy people in a room and making them fight. Why do you think The Hunger Games is so amazing?”
Anne: “That was political.”
Jacob: “It’s all political. It’s inherently political. If our culture didn’t have teenage girls and gay boys to carry all of our shit, we’d have to fight it out ourselves. It’s all the same story. Contending with social pressure while under the attack of insanity hormones is a crucible for the real world.”
Anne: “What about compassion?”
Jacob: “Compassion is all I’m talking about. Compassion for everybody. But it’s something you give, not something you can take. Certainly not something you beg for. Meanwhile you gotta go hardcore on the shit that you can personally fix.”

Anne: “So you’re saying the parents of bullied kids are doing it wrong?”
Jacob: “God no. I’m saying that everybody is doing the best they can already. The only thing we can do as parents — or as kids, as people — is get the tools to be less crazy, and stop trying to get everybody else to parent better. Because that’s never going to happen. Stop remembering your childhood as this golden age, like it wasn’t as fucking tawdry and scary as teenage life is now, and get in there with both hands. Have the conversation. Your responsibility is your own kid — your own life — and making sure they — or you — feel safe enough to go outside, or on the Internet, with the armor and weapons to stay alive.”
Anne: “You’re talking like it’s war.”
Jacob: “It is a fucking war. That’s what this entire show’s about.”

It’s also generally what I’m writing about, but there it is.


      5 thoughts on “How It Gets Better

      1. Jacob, thanks for putting that here. It saved me from putting it into a note, crediting your recap, explaining why it's in the recap, and then redirecting people to your blog. Now not only can I post this, but it also saves me from a whole bunch of copy/paste tap-dancing. ;-)

        Substantively, as a kiddo who was bullied both at home and at school, I couldn't agree more with your POV, and have essentially spent my 30s in therapy learning exactly those lessons. If only you'd written it sooner, I'd have saved thousands of dollars. Oh well. At least it'll help save on my son's therapy bills.


      2. I can not say enough how much I agree with pretty much everything you say here.
        I think this is the right approach for more parents/and kids to take.
        It is so easy to forget sometimes just how much control we do have, even as teenagers, and to let it all overwhelm us.
        Sitting on stone benches in the courtyard of that highschool hanging with you are some of the better memories of my actual highschool experience.
        Much love!


      3. Excellent post! I've loved your stuff since your Firefly recaps, back when it was Mighty Big TV and I totally agree with your point on “cyber bullying”. The internet has not created a problem. It's just a newer and faster way for bullies to torture the weaker kids. And it's a place for parents to lay the blame when they can't or, often times, won't help their children become stronger and more confident. Once you stand up to a bully he/she has no power over you. I know how hard it is, but just because its hard doesn't mean it isn't worth doing. And the rewards for becoming a stronger and more confident person are immeasurable.

        Bravo for standing up for your perspective even though its obviously gotten you a ton of crap.


      4. I completely agree. As a parent of three young children I think you're on the right track. The only way society as a whole can tackle the bullying problem is to get rid of the assholes. But society will always have assholes. You either A. Learn to play their game or B. Keep your head held high, learn that dignity comes from within and learn to live your life by your rules not theirs.

        This is brilliant only because it's 100% truth. “But it doesn't change the facts, which is that puberty makes everybody crazy, and high school means putting all those crazy people in a room and making them fight.” Great post!


      5. Okay so I wrote a long comment and it went all error systems on me. SO I'm gonna keep this one short. As I can. Maybe more succinctly too.

        This is the truth that can't be taught. You either get it, or won't sacrifice your ideals to at least acknowledge it.

        My mum chopped my hair off when I was seven. To an inch long. I had inch long hair from seven to fourteen. Why does this matter? Well, I was the girl who looked like a boy, and it taught me a lot. You learn to survive when neither girls nor boys accept you. I learnt to be who I was beyond labels and all that bull shit that happens with kids who are cruel and vicious and react violently to confusing stuff. Apparently I was confusing to a lot of people. Then at nine, my sister got bullied, and I stood up for her and learnt how to do it for myself. I got smarter. I got quick. When you are an outcast you observe. You adapt. You roll with the punches. We moved a lot too-so it wasn't a case of getting accepted by one group, it was get accepted, then start again. Over and over and over again. Deal with the same shit. The bullies changed faces but I remained the same, honing my skills. And I knew who I was in a way none of the kids my age knew who they were-because when you have no one to identify with, you identify with you or give up. I didn't want to give up. I knew change happened, I lived it. I knew people were transient. Places not fixed. Only me.

        Be you, and be smart, and no fucker can damage that. You are only bullet proof if you see yourself with 360 vision, and you can't learn that if you accept others skewed version of you and live it. Be the you that will get you through till you get to be that all the time. That is the win.

        I am glad of the weird childhood and endless hoops I had to jump through. Because I am not on a journey to myself in adulthood-my teens got me there already. If that makes sense.

        EE Cummings said-to be nobody but yourself, in a world which is doing its best day and night, to make you like everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle any human being can fight and never stop fighting.

        Sometimes you lose the odd battle but you can win the war.


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