To bully, or to be bullied?
A story about how being abused makes you abusive
I was about 13 years old, grabbing myself a snack in the kitchen by cutting up an apple. Eager to get back to my book, I haphazardly threw the paring knife back in its holster after a rather untidy swipe across the dishrag, then headed back to the couch.
My brother, four years my senior, had been watching from around the corner, and would have none of it.
He beelined it to the paring knife, examined it with a fierce scowl, then swarmed in my direction.
“YOU need to go clean off that knife RIGHT NOW young lady,” he began, the veins in his neck bulging as he jutted his head deeper and deeper into my personal space.
“You can’t just throw dirty dishes back in the drawer, that’s NOT what we do around here. You need to go clean up after yourself RIGHT NOW.” By now, he was standing inches from me, nearly screaming.
But I knew better than to flinch. Without looking at him, I said, “knock off the bully routine, Jesse. It’s not your job to parent me. Go away.”
He stands there for a few seconds, confounded by my cool rebuff, before he gathers steam.
“Well SOMEONE’s got to parent you, because god forbid mom or dad ever punish their GOOD child, even though she’s a total slob who never cleans up after herself,” he says, his voice rising in pitch and volume. “Now GO CLEAN OFF THAT KNIFE RIGHT NOW!!!”
This time, not only is his screaming face an inch from my ear, but his hand is now on my arm, and he’s attempting to haul me off the couch and into the kitchen. His grip has the steely strength of a crazed animal.
“Get your fucking HANDS off me,” I tell him, throwing my elbow into his solar plexus as hard as I can. He looses his grip and grunts, and I grab my plate with two hands and hold it up as a weapon.
“I SWEAR TO GOD I’ll smash this over your head if you try to touch me again, you FUCKING asshole,” I scream at him. He continues to scream and stare daggers, but the thought of the thick ceramic plate smashing on his shaven head has created a protective barrier.
By this time, mom and dad have reluctantly both come out of their nests elsewhere in the house to the all too familiar sounds of me screaming for my brother to let go, get out, or go away — and the familiar sounds of his crazed, endless tantrum.
They try. First reasonable explanation, but this proves fruitless, as “my 13 year old sister didn’t thoroughly wash the paring knife before replacing it” is far from a reasonable explanation for what is currently taking place. But then we’re all used to it — there is NEVER a reasonable explanation for these daily episodes.
Next comes appeal to reason. “It’s not that big of a deal,” my mom pleads. “Maybe your sister acts ‘defiant’ to YOU because her dipshit brother is trying to act like her parent, which he is NOT,” dad says.
But these are of no avail, either. So, it’s all out war. Another three hour screaming match, concluded by my dad breaking an inconsequential household item and screaming punishment terms at Jesse until he’s finally spent enough to relent and stalk off, leaving the rest of us shellshocked.
It was my brother’s favorite game: find something to freak out about, get aggressive one-on-one, then bring in everyone for a shouting match. Then later, pretend like everything was normal, and lavish compliments on everyone.
One time, when I was 16 (and yes, my brother was still living at home at the age of 20), he decided I needed to be exorcised because of the romantic partner I had chosen (yes, truly), and proceeded to scream verses from Ecclesiastes at me at the top of his lungs, chasing me out of the house and all the way across our 40 acre property as he chanted verses in a mechanical, bloodless voice.
I can still close my eyes and see him towering over me, scream-chanting like one possessed.
Like any true bully, anything I ever did to challenge or stand up to my brother amped him up even more. My being four years his junior and no match for him physically never presented any barrier to his resorting to violence, if he felt my “rebellious” attitude called for it. The chicken wings that nearly broke my arm; the finger hold “demonstrations” that left my hands bruised; the full face slaps and bounces against the wall — for each of these he recieved my elbow to his stomach, or groin, or my nails across his face, or bruised forearm skin. Ending with me screaming for help at the top of my lungs, because exposure of his crimes was his only great fear.
I didn’t back down. I couldn’t — ever. Because I knew that every surrender I made would make him come on that much stronger the next time. And that was something I couldn’t afford. So I fought — hard. Constantly.
It was a few months after the woods chasing episode when I confronted dad alone in his workshop.
“Dad. This has got to stop, and you know it. He’s going to kill you and mom — either directly or through stress. You have to get him out.”
“Yeah,” he sighed with great grief, and a twinge of relief. “I know it. I just…keep hoping something will change.”
“Like what? Like he’ll suddenly decide that he’s NOT too good for a full time job? Like he’ll suddenly stop acting insane over random nothings? Dad — he is ABUSING us, all of us, and you know it. I’m really worried about you and mom. I can’t go to college and leave you two here with him like this. What the hell kind of retirement is that?”
It was like a light clicked on, when dad envisioned himself and my mom alone, facing my brother’s tantrums.
“No, you’re right,” he says with less heaviness and more resolve. “I’ve let it go on way too long. I just…thought maybe we could fix him.”
I snorted. “He’s a wolf, dad. He’ll always be a wolf. I’m sorry he’s like Tommy,” (my dad’s sociopathic half brother).
Dad laughed heavily, and shrugged.
“Well, that’s why we did it twice,” he said, looking at me with many emotions. “At least we got it right on the second try.”
Maybe you think this interaction is heartless, on my dad and my behalf. Maybe you think I’m exaggerating, or perhaps remembering events through a bitter filter. Or perhaps that I don’t understand the mental disorders or illnesses my brother was facing (as if that would change the impact of my experiences).
You’d be wrong on all counts — but certainly not alone. None of my friends or peers growing up believed me either, and whenever the subject of my brother was raised and I bristled, they figured I was just being mean. The “bratty little sister” label my brother had written stuck. At least, for a while.
Until they saw it for themselves.
One night a few friends came over and watched my brother slowly melt down over the four of us quietly talking one floor below him. (Note: this is the same person who would routinely bang boogie woogie music on the main floor piano past 1 am on a weeknight, regardless of the protests around him.) First it started with the fake nice talk, the way he talks to people when he’s trying to get them to do what he wants. When his audience was unmoved by his sweetly voiced demands, he became increasingly more agitated, resembling more and more the fit-throwing monster my parents and I knew so well.
Jesse never did reach his fever pitch that night, and ultimately gave up without an all out shouting match — but I knew this was only because having four nonfamily members witness his true form was too much exposure for him to risk.
Regardless, my friends sat there in shock.
“Oh my god Jorie,” Matt said. “You weren’t making it up, or even exaggerating, this whole time. That was…way worse than you described. Oh my god.”
“Yep,” was all I could say. “That was nothing.”
Gradually, more and more people began to pick up on his abusive behaviors through his thick veneer of charm, and people’s attitudes towards me shifted slightly, but noticably. Gone was the condescension, and in its place was a hushed sympathy — an extra mark of character for having the fortitude to exist in the same household as a violent narcissist, and still keeping my head up high. And a respect for my anger.
With all that nearly half my lifetime behind me, however, it’s impossible not to see the patterns of abuse still etched in my own behavior.
The deep, seething anger that’s triggered by what I perceive to be injustice — to bullying. The cold, calculating pursuit of vindication that rises in my dreams.
My readiness to shut you down, and out of my life permanently, and without remorse, if you betray or violate me and mine.
I’m always hunting for patterns of abuse. I can smell their trails like a bloodhound, and once I catch a scent, I want blood.
It’s likely one of the reasons I’ve always relished being an SEO, and communicator, and journalist, to be quite honest with myself. These skills give me agency. Leverage. Power. Power to curb abusive behavior using a weapon I’ve been sharpening my entire life: my words.
Don’t fuck me, my digital footprint might as well say, or I’ll fuck you.
But taken beyond the bounds of reason — or, rather, simply outside of the bounds of my understanding, as is wont to happen due to the fact that I’m a flawed human with a limited perspective — that tendency to lash out at percieved bullies can be quite dangerous.
I like to bully bullies, I always like to say. But who’s to define who the bullies are? What if my rapidly deduced INFJ intuitions are clogged by my own emotional static, and my judgement is off?
Then I’m just another bully. Just another shark in the dirty water.
An abusive cycle, it turns out, is an abusive cycle, no matter who “started” it.
It’s like my mom always said to her daycare kids when they were fighting:
“Ok, well what I want to know is: who’s going to end it?”