Rebecca Elia's Blog

All about Feminine Health, Healing, and Greece

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Would You Intervene to Stop a Bully?

I was walking back from the farmer’s market today, trying not to think about a different farmer’s market, one that I had walked by a few days ago, 6700 miles away in Greece, when my daydream was interrupted by a disturbance from the middle of the street. Now this certainly got my attention, because, unlike Greece, it is rare to hear anyone shouting in my neighborhood.

There was a young man, probably in his upper 20’s, taunting and harassing an elderly man in the middle of the street. Traffic was stopped in both directions. Observing this outburst from the sidewalk was a group of half a dozen young men, roughly the same age as the bully. None of them came forward, but continued to watch. The bully became more inflated, was shouting something at the elderly man and dancing around him like a boxer trying to find his opponent’s weak spot. I started racing down the street with my cell phone in hand (Greek phone numbers dancing in my head), while trying to remember how to dial the police in the United States. I was a quarter of a block away when the situation escalated and the older man attempted to take a swing at the young bully. Only then did the half dozen male observers step in, en block. I could overhear them quietly telling the bully to, “Just get in the car and go.”

I, the only woman amongst the (sorry guys, weak) testosterone pack, called out, “Has anyone called the police yet?” One of the young men looked at me, apathetically, and said, “The police can’t stop a bully.” I replied, “He will continue to do this to others. If observers file reports against him, then the police can do something!”

I was appalled by his response. It was as if some unspoken code kept them from breaking up the confrontation. Didn’t any of them have elderly parents or grandparents? Didn’t any feel the least bit responsible for stopping such an incident? Certainly they seemed oblivious to the fact that people who harass, people who bully, are only one step away from violent behavior. Quite frequently, emotional abuse leads to physical abuse, and even if it does not, I know, too well, its equally damaging effects.

Another young man turned to me and quietly said, as if he didn’t want the other guys to hear, “Yes. The incident has been called in.” So, I proceeded up the street and was stopped by a female shopkeeper who asked me what had happened. I explained what I knew. I shared that I did not know what had precipitated the conflict, but that I was quite disturbed by the men’s lack of response. Her opinion was, “No one wants to get involved.” She also said that she had seen the woman in the car behind make a call on her cell phone.

What has happened to us that we are unwilling to step in? That we are so willing to claim no responsibility? What is this silent male code not to interfere, that trivializes and therefore accepts bullying, labeling the abuser as “just a bully?” What allowed these men to equate a call to the police as “weak” or labeling them as “tattletales?”

People, get the word out: bullying is abusive. Emotional abuse is as damaging as physical abuse, even when one does not lead to the other. We have become socially irresponsible to our elderly and to one another. The bully certainly did not exhibit any admirable masculine traits, but the group of male observers fell short, as well.

It’s a sad day when it takes a fifty-year old physically weak woman to step in.

This post may, at first, not seem relevant to the theme of feminine healing, so let me point out just two significant links. First, the acceptance of abuse and violence to others or to ourselves or, its opposite, too easily accepting the position of victim and the entitlement that goes with this, is a common state in our society and one that needs to change in order for all of us to heal.
Secondly, taking responsibility for ourselves and others, assigning worth to interdependence equal to the status of independence is another necessary change towards balance and healing, not only in our own society, but in our global world.

What do you think? In what ways have you been a bully to yourself or to others? When have you taken on the victim role? When have you left it behind? To what do you feel “entitled?” When have you valued interdependence as highly as independence? When have you stepped in, taken a stand, begun your path toward healing?


  1. I have been bullied many times throughout my life. Sometimes it has taken physical form, mostly it has come in the form of teasing or damaging lies. A few people have tried to ruin my reputation or get me fired, because they perceived me as odd or weak, or because I witnessed their mistakes and they didn't want witnesses.

    It's not the events themselves that bothered me, so much as realizing the sickness of soul that causes one person to be cruel to another. I have never gotten over this simple question: why? How do you get so far removed from your sense of self-respect to knowingly inflict suffering on another? It saddens me.

    Writing about these things is my way of flexing muscle in the face of bullies, or those who look the other way. Some distant relatives of mine didn't want me to write in my book that my great-grandfather raped my great-grandmother. He was her sister's 35-year-old husband; she was 14 and helping her sister with the children. The girl grew depressed, gave birth at 15 and died of TB at 17.

    Some relatives say that maybe she wanted it. I know more information to indicate he coerced her, but that doesn't matter. Here's all I only need to know: she was 14 and poor, he was 35 and had financial power over her family. She wasn't capable of consent. I don't care if she begged for it: this was rape, and abuse of power.

    His youngest children only knew their father when time had turned him into a sweet little old man. They admit he was a ladies' man, but don't think he would hurt a woman. They say 14 wasn't so young, because, "Things were different in those days." But even in the 1920's there were statutory rape laws. Even if there weren't, wrong doesn't change, only our awareness. For instance: "Things were different" back when slavery was legal... but owning another person was still wrong.

    This story only comprises a couple of sentences in my book. When I heard the objection of a few relatives, I added a sentence to say that some family members think the girl was only a victim of her own libido. I think seeing their point of view in writing only clarifies my point.

    That girl is long dead now, but she was a living human being once... and no one stood up for her. I may be too late, but better late than never. I'm standing up for her now, and I'm not backing down.

    Women may not have as much muscle as men, but our words have power to shed light on truth. It's harder for bullies to prevail when enough people turn a light on and stand watch. Keep writing, Rebecca.

  2. Cara,

    Thank you so much for your voice. Everyone needs to read this. And these words--your words, the same words of countless others--need to be spoken and written over and over again, until there isn't a single human being left on this earth that doesn't "get it."

    Bullying is wrong. Abuse is wrong. It is absolutely unacceptable and a criminal act.
    We need to end its trivialization and take a stand.

    I am crying, still.

  3. I received this comment from a reader who would like to remain anonymous, for obvious reasons. I wanted others to be able to read her comment:

    Hi Rebecca, how strange that I should read your piece regarding bullying, as my friend and myself were only discussing yesterday our feelings about our ex husbands. You see we were both abused by them, and the result of the discussion was that we were both able to divorce, however these two men got away with emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and they have probably gone on to abuse more women after us. Its a huge problem, and needs to be addressed on all levels, from schools to home and work life.