Just after The Exorcist was released, I was jumped as I walked home from school. A couple of freaks, larger, older boys, came from around the back of the Circle K convenience store and taunted me about my letter jacket. When I didn’t react, they flicked their cigarette butts at me. (That was very popular at the time, a huge insult in Albuquerque teen culture, and you had to fight or be a pussy.) When I still didn’t react, they pelted me with soda cans and challenged me to fight; apparently, wearing a letter jacket earned a beating. Fight, flight, or freeze had kicked in. I wasn’t supposed to fight; it made Mom disappointed in me. On the other hand, I thought, maybe I should fight them both, as I imagined Dad would do. Remember, I wasn’t without throwdown experience. I’d had a couple of successful fistfights in junior high that were all about my rep. Violence and respect were closely linked where I came from. The problem was, after all the risks I took, my junior-high rep didn’t follow me to Eldorado—and certainly not home that last day of school before Christmas vacation.
I could’ve ditched the two older guys, of course. It would’ve been so dang easy. But something in me wouldn’t flee. Remember, I’d learned from Blanco the consequences of running from bullies; you just kept having to run. Besides, I couldn’t imagine Dad running away or me living with such blatant cowardice. So, indecisive, I froze, walking with feigned dignity, taking the shoves and kicks for another block, puffed myself up a couple of times, which only incited the freaks more, and my Mr. Miyagi never showed up. Finally, I peeled off down a side street, and they let me go. I wasn’t hurt, but I felt defeated and unable to escape myself. I was too ashamed to ask for help: my dad would just tell me to take it into the mesa; my mom would view it as some fault in my character and sequester me in my bedroom to know the Truth; my brother would be gleeful that I finally got what I had coming to me; and my sister was still only a little girl and would cry for me. But I didn’t want anyone’s pity. Alone with my problems, I isolated myself in my bedroom, dreaded the start of spring semester, and plotted what I’d do if I ran into the thugs again. As Dad and I were both males, I concluded that I should navigate adolescence his way. I wouldn’t accept the humiliation. The next time, I’d strike back and take the consequences, just as I had in junior high. Hard feelings, torn flesh, and Mom’s disappointment would be better than the humiliation I’d endured.
When second semester arrived, I shoved my Cub Scout pocketknife into my jeans. I wouldn’t forgive the freaks their trespasses. No brag, just fact.
Let’s imagine those thugs jumped me again. And let’s say I pulled out my blade and made them sorry. Now let’s say I was sent to Springer, New Mexico, to the juvenile detention facility. It wasn’t anything like a grade-school boy’s writing fantasy, but it would have made a good story if it’d actually happened anywhere other than in my imagination.
No, no, more like this: cornered in an empty classroom, I pulled out that pocketknife. But Ramon showed up with a couple of cholo buddies and sent the pendejosscurrying. The gap between freaks and jocks was bridged. Except that getting rescued wasn’t the answer; I knew even then that I had to rescue myself to reclaim my power. I wasn’t some damsel in distress.
I fingered that Cub Scout pocketknife. I had intent, which I understood by then, but I didn’t see any other way. I hid my fear and humiliation, remembered that it was every dog for himself, and armed myself.
The thugs must’ve gone to Manzano High, because they never showed up again.
At least I came to understand how a guy could behave weirdly when he was afraid, stressed, and bullied. How a guy could do things he thought he’d never do, act out of character, antisocially even, and get into trouble. How a boy could take on the chameleon color of a juvenile delinquent. “Sure, I made him run laps; he had a bad attitude,” his PE teacher might say if interviewed by the local TV station after a horrible knife attack at Eldorado High. Next, they might interview the kid’s elderly fifth-grade teacher. “He always seemed a bit angry and awkward,” she might say. “But don’t blame me, because I warned him what a tangled web he’d weave…”
Fear and anger build up when we keep them inside ourselves. My letter jacket wrapped up my ego and contained all my stress to near bursting. So, I see how a kid could suddenly come unraveled, and then society would be aghast that a quiet boy from a good home with loving parents was revealed to be a monster. It’s no wonder our prisons are full of people who view themselves as misunderstood and victimized, and our graveyards and the urns on our mantels are full of innocents who were nearby when the explosion came.
In my line of work, I frequently see clients act out of character. They feel a lot of pressure. When they go toward the thing they fear, they usually improve. But do they approach it alone and armed with a knife? I always assess the client’s support system. I think that going through life alone is probably the riskiest behavior, even riskier than carrying a knife. Life’s challenges are better approached with the help of nonjudgmental supporters who don’t target our vulnerability.
The helping professions are overrepresented in terms of childhood abuse. A history of family violence is the single greatest predictor of delinquency. Abused children either identify with the power or the pain. As a teenager, I wanted to identify with the power. Even though I knew whatI did, I didn’t know whyI did the things I did. I even knew that I made bad choices, but I thought they were choices forced upon me or necessary choices to connect me to a peer group for protection. Often kids who are bullied will grow up to be bullies themselves rather than remain victims. I didn’t wish to remain a victim, but I didn’t want to be a bully, either. The fact is I didn’t know what to do other than run headlong into each day and hope for the best. But I can tell you now, from the perspective of looking back over many decades, that bullies can grow not only into better human beings who would not purposefully hurt others but also into a more ironic existence: into someone who helps and sometimes even heals others.
One of the few things that I knew for certain was that I was alone and vulnerable and needed to hide my pain from others who’d exploit me. I compensated by performing better at distance running and acting tougher to keep others from aggressing against me or knowing who I truly was. I accepted the consequences of my defensiveness and acted as if I didn’t give a good hot damn.
However, we know that I most certainly did.