Bullying is a theme which crops up often in my writing. For example, The Missing Activist tells the story of a conservative party activist who disappears in London after making a formal bullying complaint against a senior colleague. In The Killing of the Cherrywood MP, local constituents apply group pressure on their MP Huw Thomas. Both are terrorism thrillers, which also explore vengeance, political machinations, and cultural clashes.
Not all bullying leads to crime. And not all crimes involve bullying. But a strong link exists between them. And learning the reason people harass and abuse their peers can help explain why some go on to carry out acts of terror. However, there are degrees of bullying ranging from teasing to physical violence. For that reason, bullying is as complex a subject as it is insidious in daily life.
The killer questions
Is all bullying activity wrong? Or is it a survival or coping technique to protect us against bigger bullies? If we wear a wristband and speak up against it, will it stop? Or are we all then guilty of double standards, since nearly every aspect of competitive living involves some form of intimidation?
Group dynamics are part of daily life. Fitting in, getting along. Knowing our place. Who sets the rules? Whether it be an aggressive tone to a voice or a manipulative character who uses lightly veiled blackmail techniques, we’ve been there ourselves figuring out how to respond. Analysis of other people’s motives are part of normal life.
But bullying behaviour can be life threatening. In 2000, I set up a children’s anti-bullying charity campaigning against the excesses of bullying behaviour. And, as I found when I wrote a set of monologues from a victim’s view for school use, drama and fiction can help students empathise with someone else’s perspective. So reading and relating serves some purpose.
We see ourselves as victims
In one talk with an adult audience, I enacted a poll. A asked for a show of hands from those who were once victims of bullying. Another for those who’d been a bully. The outcome? Most people cast themselves in the victim role.
In many works of fiction, the antagonist is the fearsome bully and the hero, or protagonist the underdog who comes out best in the end. Or if the principal character turns tormentor and indulges in some physical brutality, then that’s OK. It wasn’t their fault.
Some of the authors below are writing for a YA audience. But the subject matter is for all ages.
Carrie by Stephen King
The subject of bullying crops up in many of Stephen King’s early books, but his best known is his very first. Carrie is the story of a misunderstood high school girl Carrie White, her extraordinary telekinetic powers, and her violent rampage of revenge at her treatment.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Written by a Japanese American novelist and published in 2013, this is the story of sixteen-year-old Nao who suffered aching loneliness because of her classmates’ bullying. She decides to take her own life, but before she does that, she plans to document the life of her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. Described as a beguiling story of our shared humanity and the search for home.
Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult
Written by the bestselling author of twenty-five internationally novels Nineteen Minutes examines a school shooting in a small town in the States. Lawyer Jordan McAfee finds himself defending a youth who desperately needs someone on his side, while intrepid detective Patrick DuCharme works with a primary witness: the daughter of the superior court judge assigned to the case. Picoult has some questions on her website relating to the bullying in the book.
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a strange package with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside, he discovers several cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker–his classmate and crush–who committed suicide two weeks earlier. Hannah’s voice tells him that there are thirteen reasons she decided to end her life. Clay is one of them. If he listens, he’ll find out why..
Hate List by Jennifer Brown
Another book about a school tragedy, aimed at the young adult audience, this book tells the story of the girlfriend of the perpetrator. Valerie Leftman is shot trying to stop her boyfriend Nick killing a classmate. She finds herself implicated in the shootings because of a list she helped create about people and things they hated. Val returns to school to complete her studies and confront her guilt. Written by a former humour columnist, the Kansas author has won a heap of awards for this book.
Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers
Regina Afton used to be a member of the Fearsome Fivesome, an all-girl clique both feared and revered by the students at Hallowell High. Now Regina’s been frozen out, and her ex-best friends are out for revenge. If Regina were guilty, it would be one thing, but the rumours are far from the terrifying truth, and the bullying is getting more intense by the day. Tensions grow and the abuse worsens, as the last days of senior year march toward an explosive conclusion in this dark new tale from the author of Cracked Up To Be. (less)
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick
Today is Leonard Peacock’s birthday. It is also the day he hides a gun in his backpack. Because today is the day he will kill his former best friend, and then himself, with his grandfather’s P-38 pistol. Beforehand he must say goodbye to those who matter to him most. Leonard slowly reveals his secrets as the hours tick by and the moment of truth approaches.
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