On school visits and author interviews, the question I get asked most is “what inspired you to write Seven Days”. And I always answer in the same way: “because of what I witnessed in schools. Because I saw what it was like for both the bully and the victim and I needed to tell their stories”.
I often use the example of a year nine student who I worked with. I had been trying to speak with her for weeks and seemed to be getting further away from an answer. Incidents had been happening at school that she had either incited or inflamed. It started with nasty comments said to a small number of girls, then there was the freezing out from groups and conversations. Finally, vicious rumours had been spread, escalating rapidly to stuff being posted on Snapchat and Facebook. Parents were involved. It was getting pretty nasty.
“It’s just banter,” she said, stony faced – daring me to challenge her.
Banter. A word so many of you will be familiar with. A word that still makes my stomach twist whenever I hear it. It’s like kicking someone hard in the groin and then claiming to be “messing around” with them. I got irritated. This girl was clever. She knew better than this.
I talked to her about the consequences of her actions, of the emotional damage bullying can cause, the fact that “banter” was not an excuse for ongoing verbal assaults and veiled threats. I threw everything at her, but she resisted me. She looked uninterested, bored. She saw her targets as weak and “pathetic” for grassing her up. She saw herself as the wronged person, as someone who just “said it as it was”. As far as she was concerned, her opinion mattered and she didn’t seem to care whether her attacks were justified or fair. I was hitting every brick wall she put up for me.
Then one day she started talking. Not about the bullying, but about other stuff in her life. She seemed more tired, more vulnerable somehow. She asked me how my poorly son was. She opened up a little about her own siblings. As she talked, it was like a valve opening – she told me about her sickly mum, her absent dad, her brother who could be violent sometimes.
I pictured her like a coke can that had been shaken so many times, she was bound to burst open. Anger and frustration has to go somewhere. Often we bottle it up, allowing the negativity to seep further inside us, becoming quieter, more fearful. But some of us get angry – we attack, we hurt, we strike out. I could see that my year nine girl was just as much a victim as those that she had been taunting. Having no way to cope with the sheer amount of rubbish going on her own life, she had chosen to target someone else. It was a good distraction technique. It stopped her focusing on her own problems for a while. It made her feel better, more in control, albeit if it was for only short period
In bullying cases, there are no clear cut answers. Bullies don’t bully because they are nasty, unfeeling humans; just as their targets are not pathetic, soft-centred cowards. We still need to break down the stigma that this word carries and address openly why someone would chose to target another.
I wrote Seven Days with this in mind, exploring some of the reasons why a teenager might chose to bully and detailing some of the pressures she was under.
This leads to the second most common question I get asked on visits or interviews, which is “were you ever bullied?”
And the answer is yes, I was. I was bullied quite badly and was too fearful to report it, too ashamed to speak about my experiences. Instead I found solace in books such as Carrie by Stephen King, Blubber by Judy Blume and William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies – they helped me escape into another “victim’s world”, to be with someone who understood what I was going through. Books helped me feel less isolated, less victimised. In these books, I was moved by the tortured and humiliated victims, by their emotional journeys.
In writing Seven Days I wanted to continue this important journey, the exploration of bullying and the impact it has on its target, especially the emotional pain. But I also wanted to question what the bully might be going through, to understand their worlds too, for this is an area that perhaps hasn’t been explored as much.
Bullying is never pleasant. It’s always harmful and very often there is a forgotten victim – the bully themselves.