Elise Dembowski is not afraid of a little hard work. In fact, she embraces it. All her life, she’s taken on big, all-encompassing projects. When she was eight years old, she built her own dollhouse. When she was thirteen, she taught herself stop-motion animation. And when she’s fifteen, she embarks on the biggest, and most important, project of them all: becoming cool. Except she fails. Miserably. And everything falls to pieces.
Now, if possible, Elise’s social life is even worse than it was before. Until she stumbles into an underground dance club, and opens the door to a world she never knew existed. An inside-out world where, seemingly overnight, a previously uncool high school sophomore can become the hottest new DJ sensation. Elise finally has what she always wanted: acceptance, friendship, maybe even love. Until the real world threatens to steal it all away.
When I read Leila Sales beautiful novel – This Song Will Save Your Life I wrote a “review” that was more of a catharsis. Her book affected me on a level that even the best books so rarely do… and I felt compelled to write about a time in my life when I’d felt like Elise. If you’re curious, you can read what I wrote here. A few months later, I was contacted by Eli from Reality Lapse. Eli had seen my review and thought it would be a good idea to organise a discussion about bullying with Ms Sales.
So, here we are. Joined by the amazing Leila Sales, the three of us put together this interview/discussion on the subject of bullying and what can be done about it.
1) Why do you think kids bully other kids?
Leila: I think different kids have different reasons. Sometimes they’re trying to impress their friends, or make their friends laugh. Sometimes they’re trying to make themselves feel better by making somebody else feel worse. Sometimes they do it because they feel powerless, and hurting somebody else seems like a good way to make yourself feel like you have power.
Eli: Kids are mean. I think that a lot of it has to do with fitting in and more importantly, not standing out. At that age it’s hard to look at a group bullying someone else and do something. Even for those kids who do intervene, it’s scary. Especially today–people can just hide behind computer screens and feel like they can say whatever the heck they want. At that age, it’s hard to know what’s worth going for and even when I knew what other people were doing was wrong at times, it was still really hard for me for me to step in.
Emily: I think a lot of kids victimize others to avoid being the victim themselves. High School is a tough world and I think that being mean can work as something of a self-defense mechanism. In my experience, looking back, the vast majority of school bullies weren’t the popular and beautiful kids, but they managed to hide their insecurities by pointing out the flaws in others, including me.
2) How would you describe bullying or seeing someone else getting bullied?
Leila: I think it’s when somebody says or does something hurtful to somebody else, knowing that it’s hurtful, with the intention of hurting. They may claim “no offense,” but don’t believe it– they meant offense.
Eli: Physical things, they hurt. But cyberbullying–it’s always there. If you feel pain, you can mentally get over it. You can always fight another day, but when it really gets inside of you, it changes how you react to other people. Personally, I think cyber bullying is the worst. Sure, it can have something to do with what you physically look like. But think about it. For cyberbullying, you’re behind a computer screen. Your bully has the potential to imagine you any way they want. No bullying is easy. It’s not fine and it’s not okay. Bullying or seeing someone else getting bullied, especially someone close to you, can only really be described by me as gut-wrenching.
Emily: I believe that bullying is the act of repeatedly and intentionally trying to hurt someone else. It’s strange because whenever I used to see others being bullied, I would feel angry towards the bully; but when it was me being bullied, I always felt angry towards myself – I think blaming yourself is a major problem a lot of bullied kids face.
3) What do you wish you had known or had when you were being bullied?
Leila: I know this is a cliche to say at this point, but I wish I’d known that it really does get better– you grow up and you are more in control of your circumstances, and you get to meet more people who are similar to you. Most adults aren’t going to bother being jerks to you for no particular reason. And I wish I’d known that it wasn’t my fault– I didn’t “deserve” to be bullied because I was “doing something wrong.” Those are some of the main things that Elise realizes over the course of THIS SONG WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE.
Eli: If I had to say anything to the person I was when I first started seeing people bullied, I would say that no matter what, nothing will ever justify me not defending that kid. So I should just stop hesitating.
Emily: I wish I could have seen past the sphere that was the High School world. I can remember how it felt and it still makes my stomach feel sick sometimes when I dwell on it for too long. But High School feels like all there is when you’re a teenager; it’s really hard to imagine a world that exists outside of it, and a life beyond what you’ve grown accustomed to. It’s that old cliche – “it gets better” – but it does, it really does.
4) How do you deal with bullying?
Leila: Elise ultimately deals with bullying by finding her own self-respect. Other kids can and will still tell her that she’s a loser, she’s a weirdo, but their words no longer hold the same power over her because she knows, deep down, that they’re wrong. She doesn’t have to prove to them that they are wrong anymore, because she has proven it to herself.
Eli: Bullying is a really hard thing to see and deal with. I guess it really depends on the situation, but really what I want is just for no one else to get hurt from the situation and do what it takes to make that happen.
Emily: Honestly? I think the victim-blaming culture in society needs to change. We live in a world where rape victims’ clothing and behavior is scrutinized in the media and the 12-year-old title character in Lolita is labelled a seductress. I think it is deeply-ingrained in us to look for the fault in the victim and to assume that we’ve done something wrong if we become the victim of attack. Bullied kids are being taught to wonder what’s wrong with themselves, not to question whether the bully is wrong.
5) In your opinion, does bullying effect people even after it’s been stopped?
Leila: Absolutely. I edited a wonderful novel about this, Jennifer Hubbard’s UNTIL IT HURTS TO STOP. It’s about how bullying can leave marks on its victims years after the perpetrators have moved on. Anything that we say or do to other people can affect them in ways that we wouldn’t anticipate. And not just bullying: sometimes doing something nice for someone can also have an impact on that person much further in the future than you might imagine.
Eli: Yes. Even long after anything has happened, I still see one of my closest friends cower at the thought of meeting new people or stare into space, just thinking. If anything, it really is about bullying after it happens. When it first happens, it’s just hard on you because it’s a new change but you can eventually ignore it. But then it gets to the point where you can’t ignore it. And it starts to change you. When the bully feels more comfortable around you, that’s when everything really just gets worse. It’s a form of trauma, and lots of different things happen. Your grades drop and you stay up all night just wondering.
Emily: Without question. Unfortunately, I would say the effects of my experience lasted far longer than the bullying itself. The last of the bullying ended when I was 16 but it took me a long time to stop being suspicious of other people’s intentions. One characteristic of my bullying was that they would slyly tell me they liked my hair/shoes/etc. and then turn to their friends and laugh. I still sometimes find it difficult to accept compliments and constantly question the truth in them.
6) Why don’t kids tell others when they’re being bullied?
Leila: As I said with the first question, I think it depends on the kid and the circumstances. Some kids do tell. Other don’t tell because they’re ashamed of what’s happening to them, they think they’re bringing it on themselves somehow, and if they told an adult, that adult might say, “Well, if you just acted less weird and played more sports and tried a little harder to fit in, you wouldn’t have these problems.” Still others don’t tell because they don’t believe that anyone else has the power to fix the situation, or because they’ve been explicitly threatened not to tell anyone.
Eli: When my friend was bullied, no one helped her at her old school. No one told their friends or got teachers. They just looked and walked away. She didn’t make friends because she didn’t want the feeling that her friend had betrayed her. Her mom was busy with her brothers, and her dad was always there for her–but she never felt like he truly understood what she was going through. When she came to our school, it was so small that she liked it. Liked knowing that she wasn’t in the shadows. That people knew and couldn’t ignore it, even if they didn’t do anything about it. When I asked her why she didn’t tell an adult, she said she was afraid they wouldn’t do anything either, because the teachers in her other school saw everything–but didn’t do anything.
Emily: Mostly I think it’s because they either blame themselves or think nothing will change. I wrote about this latter feeling in my review. If you think that your bullying is directly linked to the person you are and caused by your own character flaws, you will also believe that no amount of involvement from parents or teachers can change this. You’re bullied because you’re weird? Well you’ll still be weird even if your parents call the school. You’re bullied because you’re fat? Well you’ll still be fat even if the teachers speak to the bullies.
7) Can people who haven’t been bullied understand bullying fully? What did Elise’s experience mean to you?
Leila: I hope that books like THIS SONG WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE can help people who haven’t had Elise’s exact experiences still understand what those experiences feel like on the inside. That’s what good fiction can do: help you experience empathy, help you see that other people’s life experiences might be very different from your own, but their feelings are every bit as real and consequential as yours.
Eli: It’s more effective if kids aren’t sympathetic. If you want to be friends with someone who’s being bullied, you need to truly want to be friends with that person and get to know them. To get a teacher doesn’t help. Bullies kiss up to teachers. I’m not saying don’t tell teachers about bullying, but those bullies need to understand. My point is, yes, people can understand certain aspects of bullying even if they haven’t been bullied–but very few can truly understand it. My hope is that outreach organizations, books, songs and celebrities who are against bullying or try to teach people about bullying will make it so that one day, people can understand.
Being honest here, seeing Elise’s experience was like seeing through the eyes of my friend who was bullied. She’s extremely talented, and when I first met her I didn’t understand a lot about her personality. When I finally got to know her, we began to trust each other–but I never knew exactly what she went through. To this day, she’ll space out for a while and I’ll learn later on about some detail to her experience.
Emily: I hope with better education and books like Leila Sales’ that they can start to. Bullying is something that can have a huge negative effect on a person for the rest of their life and it needs to be addressed early.
Elise’s experience was mine. I couldn’t believe how closely our stories resembled one another. I am no longer a bullied teenager, but a 22-year-old with good friends and interesting opportunities on the horizon… and still THIS SONG WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE took me back to all the pain and sadness of High School, whilst simultaneously reminding me how much it does get better and how far I’ve come from that. I’ve literally read thousands of books in my life, but I think this is the single book that affected me most.
8) Did any song in particular help save you?
Leila: Lots of different songs, at different points in my life. “Leave,” by Matchbox Twenty; “A Murder of One,” by the Counting Crows; “Someone Great,” by LCD Soundsystem… I could go on. Sometimes a song just hits you in the right way, and makes you realize you’re not the only one who feels this way.
Eli: A few, actually. Unwell by Matchbox 20. Someday and Her Diamonds by Rob Thomas. I Got You by Leona Lewis. Breakaway by Kelly Clarkson. Keep Holding On by Avril Lavigne.
Emily: So many. “Not a Pretty Girl” by Ani Difranco was a good one at a time when I didn’t feel so “pretty”. Also, “My Life” by Billy Joel and (a bit cliche but…) “You Learn” by Alanis Morissette.
9) What advice do you have to people out there who are being bullied today?
Leila: It’s really hard. There’s no one piece of advice I could give in a blog post that would make it all better. But I would tell them to just keep pulling through, because no matter how bleak it gets, it does eventually get better. I would tell them that they’re not the only ones experiencing this suffering, that a lot of really happy, successful adults were once victims of bullying. And I would advise them to remember what makes them special, and not to give anyone else the power to take that away.
Eli: You’re not alone. It’s not your fault that this is happening. It’s theirs. And try to get close to people. Make some friends. Don’t be afraid. Tell yourself every morning that today’s going to be better. I’m not saying things will be nice that day. But someday, the world’s going to change. So many things can happen in one day. Making friends and building up confidence is definitely a part of that. It does get better.
Emily: I would tell them that no matter how it may seem, it isn’t their fault and it does get better. I would tell them about the dark place I reached at a certain point in my life and all the wonderful things I wouldn’t have got to experience afterwards if I’d let that darkness consume me. I would tell them that the people who give them hell now won’t even be a blip on their radar in a few years time. Most of all, I think I’d tell them that everyone is weird and there is no “normal”. And that anyone who tries to make them feel otherwise is lying.
Thanks to Leila Sales and Eli @ Reality Lapse for taking part in this feature.
Leila Sales grew up outside of Boston, Massachusetts. She graduated from the University of Chicago in 2006. Now she lives in Brooklyn, New York, and works in the mostly glamorous world of children’s book publishing. Leila spends most of her time thinking about sleeping, kittens, dance parties, and stories that she wants to write.