Mitt Romney’s bullying evoked a painful memory within John Manchester, as well as concern for the message we send by electing a bully as President.
I try to steer clear of politics on my blog. With all the political discussion raging online, I’m afraid all I have to contribute is heat, and not much light.
But the recent revelation that Mitt Romney was a bully in prep school—straddling a gay kid as he hacked off his long blond hair, and in another incident leading a blind man crashing into a door—has opened an old wound. This is a case where “The personal is political.”
First the personal. The same year—1965—that Romney was having his fun, I was the victim of bullies on several occasions in my first months at boarding school as a new sophomore. Here’s how I wrote about one incident in my memoir:
One of my first days at school I was looking for a friend from my hometown when I got lost. I wandered down a strange hall. A door flew open and a tall swarthy guy stormed out and ran into me. He glared at me, saying, “Get the fuck off my hall. I don’t ever want to see you here again.”
A few nights later I was awakened by my door slamming open. The swarthy guy headed a gang that leered down at me in bed. How he found out who I was, where I lived, I’ll never know. The guy said, “You stink. We’re giving you a shower.”
“Hey, I take a shower every day…” I didn’t stink. No, this was about that thing I’d heard of, where they hold you under water, alternately scalding and freezing you.
They grabbed me and I flailed like a madman. But five guys were too many. On our way out the door I grabbed my guitar and hugged it to my chest as they hustled me down the hall to the bathroom. My reasoning being that they might harm me but would not risk getting in trouble by wrecking my property.
I was right, because when they got me into the bathroom the leader of the gang fought with me over it: “Give me that guitar, douchebag!” Something popped in my left shoulder, with a searing pain, and he yanked it away. They dunked me in the water. To my relief it was only cold.
I didn’t know my shoulder had been permanently damaged. That guy had torn tendons that were still forming. A few years later the shoulder would begin dislocating, and still troubles me.
Now what Mitt Romney inflicted in cutting off a boy’s hair was arguably milder than what was done to me. That kid’s hair grew back. Then again, I wasn’t gay. I don’t imagine he ever forgot that incident. For my part, I remember that night in the showers every time my shoulder hurts, and three times a week as I do the same boring regimen of exercises to keep it from dislocating again. Behind my physical pain is a terrible feeling—that of having been deemed an outcast.
One of our deepest characteristics as humans is the need to belong to the group. It’s accompanied by a terror of being ostracized from it. That fear is atavistic, and existential. There was a time when being cast from your place around the campfire meant you would die—to starve, or be devoured by wild animals.
Romney’s fellow perpetrators—who unlike him, feel great remorse at the thing he claims not to remember doing—report that he was “incensed” by the gay kid’s long bleached hair. When I recall the face of my attacker, it was enraged. By what? The fact that I was the new kid in school? That I was the smallest in my dorm? Was it because my pants didn’t quite fit? Or was it that I didn’t own a pair of Bass Weejuns?
In order to comprehend this rage at someone you don’t know, who’s done nothing to you personally, you have to return to that campfire a thousand generations ago. Perhaps it was a matter of the small, the weak, the weird being their own existential threat to the community—bodies that couldn’t pull their weight with mouths no one could afford to feed. In that context that rage makes a kind of sense—a leader putting on a brave and angry face for a group terrified for their own survival.
We don’t live in caves any more. Legions of the small, the weak, the weird—or just new in school—survived bullying. They grew up to become assets to society.
The terrible thing is that atavistic impulses live in the victims of bullying as well as the perpetrators. We feel inside that we deserve it, that we have been rightfully punished for not being proper members of the group.
Gays have seen almost unimaginable progress since the 60s. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the victims of bullying. In 2003 another prestigious prep school—St. Paul’s—saw an incident in which a student was repeatedly sodomized by a gang wielding a hockey stick. What horrified me was how the parents and the school circled the wagons, defending the culprits, saying it was nothing, just “boys being boys.” Perhaps they were doing more than covering up a crime. Maybe they believe we as a society still need these rituals of ostrasization.
If Mitt Romney wins the election he will be the second Republican president in a row to have been a bully in his youth – George Bush burned pledges with cigarettes when he headed his college fraternity. And this is no coincidence. There are many voters who in these fearful times want a big guy as president who’s going to lead the charge to cast out everyone who’s not like “us” – the poor, the sick, immigrants, those with pants too short or the wrong shoes.
I honestly don’t care what motivates bullies—whether they’re throwbacks to the caveman, “boys being boys,” or plain psychopaths. I just want the bullying to stop.
Many outraged by Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky wondered what message it sent to the young. Some think it’s led to an acceptance of oral sex among teeagers. Maybe it has. It’s not a subject I much care about one way or the other.
I do care about having another president who’s a bully. I imagine all those young bullies out there looking up to President Romney and thinking—Hey, maybe if I cut that kid’s hair off, sodomize that kid with a baseball bat, dislocate a joint or two—really mess someone up—I might make the grade, grow up to be President of the United States!
The choice in November could not be clearer. There’s the man who risked the election by coming out in favor of gay marriage, a major step in welcoming a once shunned group into the circle around the campfire. Then there’s the guy who strapped the family dog to the car roof, who led a blind man into a door, who held down a screaming boy and cut off his hair, just because he was different. Just because he could.
John Manchester made a living as a composer for 30 years. Now he he writes for a numer of online publications, including Salon.com. His memoir of his father and the 1960s, Escaping the Giant, and his thriller You Can’t Write About Me can be previewed at johnkmanchester.com.
Photo Credits: AP, Gerald Herbert/AP