Understanding Bullying


1. What is bullying? 

Bullying is basically an imbalance of power. Bullying behaviors can be perpetuated by a  person or by a group of people. Most often bullying is defined as an aggressive behavior intended to harm or disturb, with the ultimate goal being control or intimidation.

Bullying behaviors occur when someone who is more powerful attacks someone who is less powerful.

Attacks can be overt or covert, anything from physical (e.g. hitting) verbal (e.g. name calling or threats) or psychological (e.g. rumors, shunning or excluding.)

See also: When Words Kill: The Trauma of Bullying, my essay that appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

In Double Exposure we see examples of both overt and covert bullying. The book begins with a scene where Alyx is subjected to both verbally and physically bullied, which the reader comes to understand has been happening over time.

It’s also clear that Alyx has no confidence that reporting the problem to authorities will stop the behavior. Often young people who are bullied are afraid to report the problem because the behavior may go underground or even escalate.

2. What are effective strategies for dealing with bullies at school?

Parents and school administrators don’t always have effective strategies for dealing with bullies. It’s not uncommon to hear adults advise young people to: “Hit them back,” or  “Just ignore them,” or even ask, “What are you doing to provoke this?”

Unfortunately, sometimes those in authority dump the problem back on the person(s) being targeted. This sends an open invitation to the bully to continue such behavior, because nothing will be done to stop it. (See #12 below)

People who have been targeted say the most effective strategy is to keep reaching out to find help, if you hit a brick wall keep going, find someone else and keep talking about it. Most importantly, don’t isolate.

In Double Exposure, fortunately for Alyx, Sunshine (Alyx’s Mom) does take action. That’s the primary reason they move across the country, so Alyx can start over. Yet, in Alyx’s new home, even with a new identity, as a girl, Alyx must still deal with bullies. Only this time, the bullying is more psychological in nature.

3. What is mobbing?

Mobbing is when more than one person, or a group of people are involved in the bullying behaviors.

In Double Exposure, we see examples of mobbing behaviors. Mobbing can present a lot of psychological challenges to the person who has been targeted.

In the locker room scene in Chapter 26, someone secretly ties Alyx’s shoelace to the leg of the bench (Excerpt below #12), causing her to fall down on the hard cement floor. Immediately, we know from the laughter and the interaction between the other girls that this was probably Pepper’s idea, but of course, Pepper had someone else do her dirty work. See if you can figure out who?

4. Is mobbing like gang behavior? It can be. It shares the same groupthink mentality, but it can actually occur in any community or group of people.

In instances of covert mobbing, it can be extremely difficult to pin the blame on any one person. A hierarchy can be created where the top bully bullies someone a little less powerful, then that person goes on to bully someone less powerful.

This creates a toxic cycle, a sick system, a corrupted social structure and culture.

Anywhere you have groups of people, bullying behaviors can become so engrained within a social climate, whether it’s in a family, school, church or workplace, that that the toxic cycle can continue for years, harming everyone, including the bullies themselves. Both the victim and the bully need help.

In Double Exposure we see evidence that Pepper’s bullying behavior and the manipulations she tries to use with her brother, Peter, as well as her peers, do not actually get her what she wants. As with the example in the previous question, Pepper is sometimes successful in getting the other girls to do her bidding i.e. tying Alyx’s shoelace to the bench. (See excerpt from #12 below)

Ironically, by the end of the book, we learn more about the motives behind Pepper’s behavior. We see that Pepper has some of the same hopes and desires that Alyx seems to have: to fit in, to belong, to be accepted for who she is. Only Pepper is using her personal power in a destructive and non-productive way. Can you identify way that might be more effective?

5. What is overt bullying?

Generally, overt bullying is obvious to anyone who is observing it. Hitting is usually agreed by most people to be a form of overt bullying.

In Double Exposure, the book opens with Alyx taking a beating from a “senior, everyone calls Prickman” and his gang of Neanderthals. Any kind of physical or verbal abuse is a form of overt bullying.

6. What is covert bullying?

When it is hard to “prove” or “give evidence” of the bullying, it may be more covert or less difficult to identify, accept perhaps by the person who is being targeted.

Generally, the person being bullied knows they are being bullied, but they don’t always know what to do about it. The bullying can be more psychological in nature, such a group of kids who start laughing every time you walk by or when someone starts a rumor about you.

Many people who have been bullied say that covert and psychological bullying, such as shaming or shunning someone, hurts far more than being hit.

In Double Exposure, it seems that gender is a factor in how bullies bully. The boys in the story employ more overt forms of bullying such as beating Alyx up, and using words like “faggot,” to humiliate and denigrate. While the girls, led by Pepper Pitmani, who is jealous of Alyx’s prowess on the basketball court, is much more covert. In fact the reader, just like Alyx is not always sure who is perpetuating the meanness, such as when someone writes: “Creepy Dykes Need Not Apply” written in red marker next to Alyx’s name on the team roster. Do you think it was Pepper? Why or why not?

7. What is cyber bullying?

Any kind of bullying that happens online, generally through social media channels.

In Double Exposure, Alyx is very careful to erase her past life and she takes on a new last name. Alyx has a false sense of protection in her new identity, because she’s not currently participating in any online social media thanks to Prickman who smashed her phone.

The book illuminates the fact that no matter how careful we might be, the current use of social media has for all practical purposes made privacy a thing of the past. Moreover, it might be next to impossible to erase our past online. Especially since we now have technology that can actually read the shape of your face like fingerprints.

How might the fact that maintaining a sense of privacy affect both Alyx and Pepper?

8. Who can get bullied?

Anyone. Really? Yes. Even YOU? No matter who you are. No matter your race, religion, gender, age, sexuality, abilities, no matter where you live, who your parents are or aren’t, how much money you have or don’t have, how smart you are, whether you are a good athlete or whether you suck at sports.

None of this matters.

Ask anyone you know if they remember being bullied at least once in their life. Even if they were once a bully themselves, they will probably remember a name or two. You see bullies are not born. They are shaped and cultivated in a (often in a competitive) culture that for whatever reason refuses to see or correct power imbalances. This can be fueled by fear (of those who are different from us) or even a sense of moral righteousness.

Generally, people who are perceived as less powerful or different for any reason can be susceptible to bullying.

In Double Exposure, there is a scene in the end of the book when Pepper reveals her own confusion about her bullying behavior, mistakenly believing she is doing the “right thing,” that she’s not at fault, that it is “Alyx who has lied.”

If Alyx had been “out” about her past from the very beginning, do you think things would have turned out differently? How?

9. Are LGBTQI people more susceptible to bullying?

Yes, anyone who looks or acts differently can be at risk to be targeted by the bullying behaviors of others. Sometimes this can be an individual or an entire group of people based on differences such as gender, race, ability, culture, religion, or sexual identity.

Often others who observe the bullying are afraid to speak up or associate with the person being targeted, because they are afraid of being targeted themselves.

This then is how we can become part of the problem. We turn a blind eye and secretly believe we are not culpable until it happens to us or to someone we love.

Have you ever been afraid to stand up to a bully?

In Double Exposure, Alyx is an outcast of sorts, and it’s a fact that she has never felt “normal”; she has never felt like she “fits in.” And just like all of us Alyx simply wants to belong. But as Alyx’s Uncle Grizzly explains to her:

 “Well, it’s kind of like being fat” Grizzly starts, “People notice you and some of them stay away because they’re afraid. They’re afraid it’ll rub off on them. With you, Alex, it’s even harder. People sense something’s different, only they can’t figure out what. They don’t know, so the egg you on. Try to make you crack. It’s instinctive—a predator kind of thing. They’ve got to protect their species—it’s evolutionary, DNA hard wired. In all of us.”

10. Does bullying have a direct link to suicide?

Yes, most definitely. Young people who are bullied are twice as likely to commit suicide. It is estimated that this year alone close to 14 million kids will be bullied or cyber bullied, but more than half of those kids will not report it.

Over 160,000 of those kids will miss school this year due to fear of attack or intimidation by other students. Studies also estimate that one in five teens who are bullied or cyber bullied think about suicide. One in ten actually attempt suicide, and up to sixty percent of those young people who attempt or commit suicide identify as gay or differently gendered.

11. Why do bullies bully?

Believe it or not, most of the time it’s because they themselves feel powerless. Often bullies are insecure people who need to put someone else down in order to boost themselves up. Sometimes bullies lack the emotional maturity or even the capacity, due to mental illness or a history of abuse, to empathize with the person who is being harmed. They can’t put themselves in that person’s shoes.

Brain scans show that children who have been abused or traumatized, especially repeatedly, have areas of the brain that become “inactive” or “shut-down” especially in the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain that modulates emotions. (Additional discussion on mental illness and the affects of trauma on the brain will be made available using Ordinary Angels as a resource.)

Some people who bully have experienced so much pain in their lives that they’ve reached a “saturation” point where a part of them shuts down and their hearts begin to harden toward themselves as well as others.

To relieve their pain, fear or sense of unworthiness, a bully will then turn their wrath on those who are less powerful. It’s a complex counter-intuitive psychological response to suffering. Instead of creating more compassion, it becomes a way that people or groups of people distract themselves from, or try to “control,” their own pain. It may even be like an addiction, a way they numb out and relieve the pain.

In Double Exposure, we learn that Pepper Pitmani, must take some kind of medication to help “even out” her moods. By the end of the book, we see that Pepper basically wants the same things that Alyx wants: she wants to have friends and belong. The problem is Pepper’s going about it in the wrong way. Moreover her behaviors are not only harming others, but herself as well.

12. What should we do if we are being bullied or if we see it happening?

Bullying can happen anywhere, anytime to anyone. But most people identify home, school and workplaces as the central sites of bullying.

If you are being bullied, and you can do it safely, stand up for yourself by calmly telling the bully to stop, but don’t nit back with words or physically, you’ll only get caught up in their sick game. Don’t isolate. Tell someone. Track what’s going on, write it down asap; when, where, what time, what happened? Keep talking about what’s going on with someone you respect and trust. If it happens at school consider speaking with the guidance counselor or a Principal.

Find your people. If you identify as LGBT seek out online or community resources.

If you see someone getting bullied, again, if you can do it safely, stand up and calmly say “stop it.” If you perceive safety to be an issue get someone who can help. Often if a bystander steps in or announces that they are going to find help the bullying behavior will stop.

At the very least, let the person who is being bullied know they are not alone by naming the unacceptable behaviors and encourage them to seek help. No one deserves to be treated that way. Let them know what happened was wrong and honor their pain.

In Double Exposure, watch what happens after someone ties Alyx’s shoelace to the bench leg and she falls flat on her face slamming her knees on the cement floor:

                      Pepper, Shana, and the gang of juniors behind me burst out laughing.

                      Martha is furious. “God you guys that’s not funny!” She and Roslyn reach down to help me.

                      We didn’t do it,” Shana hollers back. “Don’t blame us!”

                      ”I’m trying not to cry.”

                      Roslyn’s angry, too. “Look at her (Alyx’s) knee!”

                      ”I’m going to tell coach,” Martha spouts, but Pepper blocks her way. Mary crosses her arms,

            joining Martha. “You can’t keep us in here for the whole second half.”

                       I shake my legs, rubbing my left knee, which took the brunt of the fall. Roslyn runs to get ice.  

                      ”Yeah, Pepper,” says Martha. “Coach’ll get suspicious.”

                       Suddenly Pepper turns on Shana, “Sometimes you carry a joke too far.”

                                                                      (Page 144)


National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)


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