I’ve just emerged from a heartbreaking world created by author Jodi Picoult in her latest book, Nineteen Minutes. I can’t remember when I’ve last been so deeply affected by a novel, but I think it was another of Picoult’s books, The Pact. Both novels deal with teenagers in crisis, which, as a mother and high school teacher, is a subject near to my heart. But Nineteen Minutes ~ the story of a boy bullied physically and emotionally by his peers his entire life, a boy who finally takes control in a horrifying shooting spree at his high school~strikes extremely close to home for me, because the more I read about Peter Houghton, the young man at the heart of this compelling story, the more I was reminded of my own son.
It’s really hard for boys who don’t fit the mold, boys who would rather write stories or draw cartoons than play football or soccer, boys who don’t think stuffing people into lockers is funny,
boys who prefer hanging out at home watching Star Trek reruns to going to gambling and drinking at the casino. My son Brian, like Peter Houghton, was one of those boys who were “different.” And like Peter, he became a victim of kids who used emotional and physical abuse as a way to preserve their own misguided sense of superiority.
“Most of Peter’s childhood memories involved situations where was victimized by either other children or by adults whom he’d perceived as being able to help him, yet didn’t,” testified Peter’s psychiatrist. “He described everything from physical threats – Get out of my way or I’m going to punch your lights out; to physical actions-doing nothing more than walking down the hallway and being slammed up against the wall because he happened to get too close to someone walking past him; to emotional taunts – like being called homo or queer.” For Peter (and for Brian, too) the computer became a “safe haven.” It was “the vehicle he used to create a world that was comfortable for him, peopled by characters who appreciated him and whom he had control over, as he didn’t in real life,” explained Peter’s psychiatrist.
Brian was luckier than Peter in that he was physically forbidding – always tall and stocky, he was perfect quarterback material from a physical standpoint~which made him less vulnerable to physical abuse. But the emotional alienation was very real for him, especially during his high school years, and I watched him become increasingly withdrawn and angry. But, like Peter’s mother Lacy, I really had no idea how to help, or really, how dangerous this situation was. And the teacher’s at Brian’s school (just like at Peter’s) were of no help at all, and even insinuated that the kids doing the bullying were just “being normal kids,” and Brian needed to “stop being so sensitive.”
I’m ashamed to say that I bought into that philosophy for a while, and tried to “toughen him up,” as Lacy Houghton admitted to doing with her own son. It took an act of violence to really make me understand just how traumatized my son was ~ a moment when he lashed out in anger and fear, his hand forced through a window, slashing his wrist and severing nerves and tendons in two of his fingers. From that moment, I realized that this was a matter of life and death, and treated it accordingly. We started fighting back as a family, found a wonderful therapist, and Brian began to gain confidence in himself and learn ways to cope.
I can tell Brian’s story now because (unlike Peter Houghton’s story) it has a happy ending. He’s happily married, has a successful career, and functions very well in the world. But he keeps a wariness within him, a fear of people and situations where he might become vulnerable and prone to “attack.” That’s the legacy left from those years of exposure to mistreatment and ignorance.
If your child were being victimized by an adult, wouldn’t you immediately move heaven and earth to stop it, to protect them? Why treat abuse from other children any differently? Why allow children to indulge in behaviors that hurt someone else, and pass it off as childish pranks? If you do (as Jodi Picoult so eloquently yet painfully portrays in her book, and as I have seen firsthand in my own experience) the effects can be more devastating than you could ever imagine.