It: Bullies in our own minds.

I found It: Chapter Two substantially weaker than Chapter One and barely an improvement on the dopey 1990s TV miniseries. I suspect that the TV version will be fondly remembered as a campy artifact long after the glossier, better acted, but equally dumb big-screen retread has been forgotten.

I had a lot of questions coming out of the theatre – number one being what was that magic sewer clown actually trying to do, anyway? – but they’ve all been explored in depth elsewhere. So let’s scroll down to a less central but still interesting mystery: have these films’ creators ever encountered a bully in the real world?

***

I endured my fair share of bullying as a schoolkid, stood by while others were bullied, and indulged in a little bullying myself.

You may snort that, growing up in a middle-class town in the Canadian prairies, I never faced real bullying of the type that warps its survivors into worldly, battle-toughened souls like you. You’re probably right. But my small-town 1980s prairie childhood, while lacking in sewer clowns, was otherwise quite a bit like the small-town 1980s New England childhood depicted in It. So I feel I’m as qualified as anyone to comment on the plausibility of the bullying depicted therein.

What strikes me about the bullies I’ve met in the real world – as contrasted with the screaming, slavering psychos depicted in movies like It – is how jovial they usually are. I grant that there really are mentally unbalanced sadists who, like Henry Bowers, might like to carve their initials in a fat kid’s belly; but they’re rare – so rare that you’re unlikely to find more than one or two even in the biggest and roughest school. When they do turn up, they tend not to attract admiring entourages because – guess what – they’re scary and no fun to be around. Which means they quickly get ratted on and expelled, or clapped in juvenile detention.

Whereas the cool bully who makes bystanders laugh can go on terrorizing weirdos and outcasts indefinitely. The targets don’t resist, will even laugh along at their humiliation, because it’s not clear where the joshing ends and the cruelty starts. Witnesses and victims are made complicit in the abuse. And when the bully pushes too far he can always fall back on, “Don’t take it so serious, kid, I’m only messin’ around.”

***

Unlike It, Jonathan Lethem’s 2003 novel The Fortress of Solitude is set in a locale and an era that really are foreign to me. Yet it contains the most relatable depiction of juvenile bullying that I’ve encountered in a work of fiction.

jonathan lethem the fortress of solitude

The hero is Dylan, one of just three white kids (his flaky left-wing mother is proud to observe) attending a mostly black public school in a gentrifying part of Brooklyn in the 1970s. Dylan’s whiteness and wimpiness make him a target:

He might be yoked low, bent over, hugged to someone’s hip then spun on release like a human top, legs buckling, crossing at the ankles. Or from behind, never sure by whom once the headlock popped loose and three or four guys stood around, witnesses with hard eyes, shaking their heads at the sheer dumb luck of being white. It was routine as laughter. Yoking erupted spontaneously, a joke of fear, a piece of kidding.

He was dismissed from it as from an episode of light street theatre. “Nobody hurt you, man. It ain’t for real. You know we was just fooling with you, right?” They’d spring away, leave him tottering, hyperventilating, while they high-fived, more like amazed spectators than perpetrators. If Dylan choked or whined they were perplexed and slightly disappointed at the white boy’s too-ready hysteria. Dylan didn’t quite get it, hadn’t learned his role. On those occasions they’d pick up his books or hat and press them on him, tuck him back together. A ghost of fondness lived in a headlock’s shadow. Yoker and yokee had forged a funny compact.

You regularly promised your enemies that what you did together had no name.

***

Once, I believe it was in fourth grade, I was walking to school with a friend a year younger, and for no reason at all, besides the rare opportunity of dominating someone even weaker than me, I jumped on him and ground his face into the snow. He barely resisted. After a few moments I stood up, brushed myself off, and continued on my way. He trailed after me, red-faced and sniffling. I felt bad immediately but, as far as I can recall, never apologized to him.

That’s the one instance I can think of where I physically bullied anybody. But I fear there were other occasions where I took part in or even initiated the mental torture of other kids, which I’ve forgotten because it never occurred to me to file those offenses under the heading of “bullying”.

Some months ago, discussing Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, I shared this passage about a security officer in a Soviet prison who has no qualms about the brutality his job requires him to inflict on prisoners:

If Shikin had been told – though he never was – that he was an object of hatred because he maltreated people, he would have been genuinely indignant. He had never found pleasure in any form of cruelty or thought that it was an end in itself. It was true that there were such people: he had seen them on the stage and in films. But they were sadists who loved to torture people, and had lost all human feeling. In any case they were always White Guardists or Fascists. Apart from doing his duty, Shikin was concerned only to prevent people committing wrongful acts or thinking harmful thoughts.

We’re rarely bullies in our own minds. We’ve seen such people on the stage and in films: they’re pop-eyed psychos like Henry Bowers, tormenting harmless oddballs for no reason at all. Whereas we’re merely reluctant defenders of the social order, using mockery, threats, and (when absolutely necessary) a little roughness to scare sneaks and creeps and deviants back into line.

M.

Last year I mentioned my first meeting with a high school sociopath whose icebreaker was, “Are you a Jew?” In 2017 I reflected on how screenwriters can justify any implausible plot point with the mantra “Because. That. Happens.” And way back in 2010 I discussed Jonathan Lethem’s Girl In Landscape, a sci-fi reimagining of the John Wayne flick The Searchers.

Update, July 29, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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