My Bully, The Anti Bullying Activist
It was October, during National Bullying Awareness month, when Brandon Flynn encouraged his 5.5 million Instagram followers to make something useful out of their bullying experiences. “This may blow up in my face,” he wrote, “But I was thinking… it’d be super cool to spread some art and love and positivity into the world. So, as a… celebration of this month and all that it offers in awareness, let’s celebrate those who’ve been brave enough to come out… those of us who have dealt with bullying. Post your own work. The only rules are that you keep it positive and tag me.”
Flynn is a star on 13 Reasons Why, the popular Netflix show about Hannah Baker, a high school student who kills herself and leaves behind a series of cassette tapes explaining “why” she did it. As we learn on the show, Flynn’s character, Justin Foley, hooks up with her in a park, and subsequently shows off a scantily clad photo of her to his jock friends. “A rumor based on a kiss ruined a memory that I hoped would be special,” Hannah says, bitterly, as she bends over her microphone. “In fact, it ruined just about everything as you’ll soon see.” In the aftermath, Justin — ever the caricatured bully — claims, “Hannah’s a drama queen who killed herself for attention.”
But in real life, Flynn was sanguine, and righteous. “Too many people in this world lack the balls to stand up for what is right!” he wrote in his coming out post. “Spreading awareness through social media is great,” he wrote in another.“But it’s just as important to back it up with action and conversation in the real world.”
13 Reasons Why inspired Flynn, in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, to open up about his own bullying story: “When I was in middle school, I dealt a lot with people not being cool with me being into acting… It was hard. It put me in a dark space of not wanting to be myself and trying to be what others wanted me to be.” His admission — that he was bullied for pursuing his dreams — made headlines.
On Halloween, I watched Flynn star in an anti-bullying PSA. It got over 3 million views on Facebook. Flynn argued that we all have an obligation to stand up to bullies. “We can stop this,” he says, frustrated. “We’re just choosing not to.” “It should be awkward,” Flynn says in the PSA, about calling out bullies. He’s right about that: This was my high school theater bully, after all, I was deciding to stand up too.
I first met Brandon freshman year. That first week of acting class, our teacher took us through an ensemble-building exercise: the human knot. Though all sixteen of us were basically strangers, we wove ourselves into one snowflake. Silently, we nodded and squinted at each other in subtle, sometimes indecipherable ways. When someone would finally open themselves up, we slid our heads and pushed elbows under each other’s armpits. In the foundations of trust we built in those classes, we tried to free ourselves from what often felt so constricting about high school — its judgements, its hierarchies.
Brandon waved at me to partner up in our first week of stagecraft, where we focused on everything from constructing scenery to rigging lights. He handed me goggles as we sawed plywood pieces for the theatrical backdrops we were supposed to build. We leveled the planks onto the main table for measuring and sawing. Bending down to pick up more plywood, I quipped, “I LOVE dropping down on my knees.” We laughed so hard together.
During the second week, Brandon sent me a play he wrote through AOL Instant Messenger, gushing, I’m so excited for you to read it! We were in the same group for our theater production workshop class. He’d spoofed Wicked: I was Glinda, the Good Witch of the East; he was Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. The joke was that, though they were sworn enemies, they were secretly in love. As I read his play in bed, I thought it needed some work. His jokes ran on forever; the gay revelation felt cliched. I typed him up detailed notes in red letters.
Some minutes later, he wrote back: What the fuck is this? I gulped, and, trembling, typed Sorry for 10 minutes. He’d logged off before he could read the first apology I sent. When he ushered others away from me the next day, I knew he probably didn’t want me at the group sleepover we’d planned before. But it was my first sleepover at a friend’s house, so I still went.
We rehearsed in the living room, staging the climatic kiss Glinda plants on Elphaba. The sleepover was immediately tense. He snapped angrily at me throughout the rehearsal. I wasn’t funny; my star-studded crown kept falling off my head. He’d throw his hands up in dramatic frustration, and leave with the girls who were there for minutes at a time. I wanted to bang on his chest. I also wanted to hang out on the bed and joke with him. We’d laugh again. Maybe later in the night, when our costumes were off, we’d practice kissing some more.
After rehearsal, Brandon quickly pulled the girls into a separate bedroom to gossip. I poked my head in. They were brewing tales about their auditions. They also debated which Seniors were talented and which ones sucked. I loved how it felt so exclusive. But when I tried to join in their bitchy repartee, Brandon shushed me. I sat by, silenced, while they cackled some more. I’m off to bed, I said, sniffling, playing it up. Brandon, massaging his temples, burst: Fine! He held out his arm, showing me the door. Just. Go. I turned back one last time, to see if the girls would follow me. They didn’t.
I was splayed along the couch, lying awake. After a few hours, I heard footsteps. I thought the girls were coming to apologize, or welcome me back in. But I felt a splash in my ears. And then I heard a devious whisper: Tickle him with a feather.
Play along was my instinct. I stiffened up like the Tin Man, trying to tell myself the water wasn’t real. Then, for a laugh, I swatted the air. Away fly, away. Brandon and the girls tiptoed off, giggling. I squeezed my eyes into the pillow, relieved that Brandon laughed.
A week later, I sat on the second floor hallway floor, glued to a text Brandon sent: The group wants to talk to you. “Theater freshman have their first year drama. You get over it,” one upperclassman said to me. So I rehearsed my apologies, the fluorescents above bathing me in white light.
The girls walked out of the stairwell, Brandon marching behind. You don’t do what you’re told, he erupted, his wavy hair loose along his hot blue eyes. I swallowed, fumbling for an apology, when he said, This group would be so much better without you. In a fit of fury, he berated me some more. I didn’t stand up; I froze. I deserved his punishment, I thought.
I tried to hold it together, but I choked up. I began to cry; I wanted everyone to see I was sorry. Why is he crying?! Brandon instead snapped. I turned to the two girls, hoping they’d help me. They wavered behind him, though, looking down on me. Brandon, exasperated, fled. The others followed him.
Years later, Brandon would advise others on what to say when you witness a bullying situation: “What you say shouldn’t be this big proclamation,” He says in his PSA. “Just say, ‘Stop,’ or ‘Don’t talk to people like that.’”
Sometimes, though, it’s hard to know what to say.
As we went on, Brandon continued being cold and mean to me, but at rare times oddly intimate, too. When he’d pull me in nonchalantly, I’d fall for it, because he was so enviable — his entitled ease, his asshole charm. I’d play coy, feigning dignity, unsure of how to bring up my ambivalent feelings. Ultimately, he’d retreat from me, expressing shame.
Near the end of sophomore year, I’d been passed over for our annual Student Playwright’s Festival — a competition where our teachers professionally staged the plays of deserving students. Replaying the words of one teacher about one winner, — “that kid is a fucking prodigy,” she’d said — I’d stumbled to the alumni board, scanning the headshots of actors and playwrights our school was proud of.
In our stagecraft class, I hung back silently, while Brandon and his friends were huddled by the main toolshop speaking amongst themselves. I wished they could hear what was happening inside my head. Are you okay? I imagined Brandon asking.
I acted busy, spying out from where, past the main sawing table, a bunch of flats were set off somewhere to the side. I could hide inside them. I knew they wouldn’t notice if I left. As I slid through the ribbed surfaces of the flats, I could still see the whole shop: the goggles on the main tables, which shielded us; the blueprints of deconstructed sets; the step ladders leaning along a ledge of plywood, which had yet to be repurposed for something.
I’d hoped my play being picked for the Playwright’s Festival would impress them. Brandon would have to speak to me, congratulate me. I’d admit I wrote my play for him. Is that weird? I’d wonder aloud. Kinda, he’d laugh. We’d be actual friends again. I wanted to be a playwright so badly. “Rejection is part of being an artist,” the teachers would tell us. Why wasn’t I strong enough to handle this?
I placed my head into my hands and sobbed to myself. A classmate saw through into the flats and climbed in with me. Why are you crying? I confessed from her lap how much I’d put into the play I wrote — and how the moment I didn’t see myself on the list, I wanted to congratulate one of Brandon’s best friends, the comedian playwright “prodigy” who’d gotten his play accepted.
You’re so naive, she snapped.
Everything you do and say is a joke to them. She said that whenever I left the room, Brandon joked about me to everyone else. Brandon would NEVER be your friend, she insisted. “They’re my friends,” I kept pleading, pressing my eyes into my knees, covering my ears.
I wished she could understand why she was wrong. Though he was dismissive of me, and rude to my face, I wanted to insist to her how, freshman year, he’d texted me. We had talks about cute boys. We exchanged naked photos. Only months before, he’d wanted more of me. “In the theatre, the slate is wiped clean all the time,” I remembered reading in a theater book, The Empty Stage. I saw every exchange as a sign we were okay.
Have fun with mine, he teased when he sent me his pics in return. But the day after he messaged me, he got hit with a horny hangover. Could you delete those? I shouldn’t have sent them to you. I did; they were blurry, anyway.
I remembered freshman year, when Brandon skipped every rehearsal for the play I’d written for theater production workshop. The day of the performance, he bent to his knees, and begged me for forgiveness. I’ll take off my clothes, he offered suggestively. It was for a scene we hadn’t yet figured out how to stage. I let him. He changed into the costume, wrapping his naked waist with my shawl. At the play’s end, he posed below the doorframe, and waving his mighty arms up, the shawl fell over his toes. He fabulously stuck his butt out. Everyone laughed when he darted out into the hallways.
That day, I pictured all the plays I could pen for him. How his spontaneity made my adolescently poetic play so much funnier. He’d be my muse.
I could make him say whatever I wanted.
Not much changed after I learned I was being mocked by Brandon and his group behind my back. Ours remained a confusing relationship, most painfully defined by his silent treatment. Once, I’d fantasized that his friendship would make New World the warm home I hoped it would be. I guess I repressed the truth in favor of other, more appealing narratives.
In freshman self-expression, Brandon once reviled another classmate for suggesting that theater had a diversity problem. You’re such a bitch! This is why nobody likes you, he yelled. “You’re a rude bully,” she’d yelled back, shaking with rage. I guess I wasn’t supposed to take his hallway blow-up personally?
I remember once, during sophomore voice class, Brandon sung the musical theater song, Mr Cellophane, casually and coolly, crooning about how everyone saw right through him. I went up onstage to perform this Rent song Out Tonight. I was trying to be funny, stretching my legs like Mrs. Robinson, singing boisterously. He was laughing in the front row. He hid his face in his hands, convulsing with his coughy cackle.
Brandon mocked other people when they performed, too — once a heavy-accented Latino kid bombing a Shakespeare Sonnet. Guys, Brandon’s a bully, the kid told some of us a few days later. I guess I wasn’t supposed to take the mockery personally either.
After hearing my acting dreams were Brandon’s and his friend’s jokes, I suppressed my resentments. I embarked on a hero’s quest to heal the bad in me instead. One lunch, I insisted to a classmate I had a sense of humor. Be brutally honest, I’d said. You’re always talking to yourself, she revealed with a raspy laugh. We all wondered if you were autistic!
Often before class, I’d pull back the black studio curtains that hid the floor-wide mirrors and wonder what repulsed Brandon about me most: My bony smile, my sharp nose, my neediness? My creaky stage presence? My cringe-worthy intensity? “Get out of your own head,” every single acting teacher had told me. But I was afraid of showing them what was in there.
Junior year, before the list for the Playwrights Festival appeared, he texted me, initiating another conversation. He was so nervous about his play not being picked. I was too. He shared something intimate with me — a secret, I thought, just between us. Our conversation went where it went. He talked about his hot, older hook-ups. Some Italian guy with hairy legs? It’s been so long, he said, his words making me tingle. I could blow you… I suggested. Really? he asked. Great!
The next day, during lunch, I stood outside my school, our school’s marquee, NEW WORLD SCHOOL OF THE ARTS, always hovering over me. My schoolmates — artists with chalky fingers, stiff shouldered musicians — bustled to lunch, potential friends passing me by. I was too turned on by the idea of lowering myself to Brandon.
Let’s forget the blowjob, I’d tell Brandon. Let’s lay out on the lawn instead. We’d kick our heels back, and passing a blunt under a bookbag, we’d come up with the most twisted inside-jokes you could imagine. There’d be no corny rehashing, no apologies: Nothing.
My phone vibrated 20 minutes later. He sent a long apology text. He wasn’t showing up. He got carried away and felt ashamed, he wrote. It felt strange — that this, of all things, was what he was apologizing for.
A year or so after this happened, it was time for our Senior Goodbyes: My theater school’s tradition, in which the graduating class whispers into each other’s ears what they hope for their futures. Brandon whispered in my ear, I hope you find a man that loves and respects you.
I want you to be a star, I whispered back. Never give up.
The next day, moved by his kindness, I handed him my yearbook. (He shrugged, It’s fine, when I offered to sign his.) I don’t know what I expected: Something bland, probably. But he intently focused on my yearbook, scribbling away. It shocked me when five minutes went by. What was taking so long? Was he writing a tribute for my talent? Would he remember me?
He handed me my yearbook. I flipped through the pages, enchanted, remembering what bound me to him for four years: our love for storytelling. Then, I saw what he’d written.
You asked me for something you’d never forget — So, … BLOW JOB! Sorry, words are all I have to give — Brandon Flynn
— — → PS May your life be filled with peace and tranquility
In September of 2016, I was interning in a Manhattan literary agent’s office, scouting out other people’s talent and potential, when I Googled “Brandon Flynn.” I saw he’d been cast in a new Netflix anti-bullying series, 13 Reasons Why. A big-shot agent represented him. When I dropped the privileged self-pity, I saw this was an opportunity: Perhaps, now, I could talk about Hannah and Justin’s story in 13 Reasons Why, and use it to open up about ours.
Sitting in my office, I sometimes imagined the scene: Meeting him at a rooftop bar, we’d reconcile. I guess you were just joking, I’d say evasively, shrugging the hurt off with a I’m-so-over-it wrist flick. I’m working on a new play, I’d lie, drunk off our old high school myths.
Thrilled, I emailed him — “I’m so incredibly proud of you! You’re killing it!” I wrote — and clicked SEND. Immediately, I was overcome with guilt. I came off so stalkery and obsessive, didn’t I? I knew why he wouldn’t respond. He wanted what I did: Reinvention, and a release from the past.
In April of 2017, the cast and creators of 13 Reasons Why spun Hannah’s storytelling tactics — the blameful way she exposed her bullies — into anti-bullying positivity. Netflix called upon Flynn to defend his show’s revenge fantasy element. “Certain fans… said watching our show saved their life,” Flynn said in a Hollywood Reporter interview. “It might be good that the [suicide’s] so graphic,” he opined about Hannah’s wrist-slitting scene, “because people are going to talk about it.”
Months later, I watched his anti-bullying PSA and clung to one phrase in particular: “Bullies should be embarrassed by what they’re doing.” I played out what would happen if I “stood up” to Flynn and shared my story so people would “talk about it.” Wouldn’t intentionally humiliating Flynn with a story make me the worse bully? Because he hadn’t reached out, I would shame him? Say sorry and be my friend, or you’ll be sorry.
In March of 2018, perhaps to offset the bad publicity the 13 Reasons Why alleged copycat suicides generated, Netflix released the results of a study they funded that focused on promoting their show’s net-positive outcomes. The results showed that 13 Reasons Why helped adolescents broach tough conversations with their classmates. “More than 50% of teenagers reached out to someone to apologize for how they had treated them,” the study said.
When the second season of 13 Reasons Why was released late in May 2018, an interviewer asked Flynn if he had any high school regrets. “In many ways, I wish I could go back and change a lot of the things I said to people, change how I dealt with certain situations,” He said. “It’s good that what we’re doing is a bit wrong,” he added about his show. “It keeps drawing people in.”
One week, while scrolling through Brandon’s more recent Instagram activist messages — like “Times up” and “I believe you” — I came across a photo where Brandon was showing off a semi-colon tattoo. He seemed to be reaching out his hand to me. “Be the author of your own story and allow your story to continue,” he wrote. “It could help others and change the world.”
I remembered how on the last day of high school theater, while everyone gradually went their separate ways, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Brandon.
“So… we’re over what happened between us freshman year, right?” he said, with a straight face.
I gave a casual shoulder shrug. “I don’t remember any of it,” I said, laughing to fill the silence.