Friday, Sep. 30, 2011

Searching for My High School Bully: A Confrontation 25 Years After

The only thought scarier than that of facing my childhood bully in the halls of Morrisville High School was that of facing him again 25 years later. We were meeting at my request. Why was I doing this? His imprint stayed with me years after the bruises faded. I needed some sort of resolution. I needed to know why he singled me out. Actually, I wasn't completely sure what I needed. But I needed to see him.

I had written Frankie a letter and, amazingly, he had agreed to the meeting. I traveled across two states to his current residence in Pennsylvania, about an hour west of where we grew up, just over the New Jersey border. There, in a maximum-security prison, he is serving a life sentence for killing a man who was gay. I am gay.

Before leaving for the prison, I packed my contact lenses as a contingency measure. You see, it turns out that at the State Correctional Institute at Graterford, visitors are not separated by bulletproof glass like in the movies. We would be meeting in a small room, the guard outside with his back to the door. I figured if Frankie jumped me, the eyeglasses were likely to be the first casualty. How, then, would I be able to see the road to make the long drive home? In advance of my visit, prison officials told me that brief hugs were permitted at the beginning and end of each visit. I wanted to tell them, "If you see what looks like a hug, summon the guards. Please!"

When I was finally brought to meet Frankie, I did not recognize him. He was always bigger than me, but he is now 350 lb. and, as I would discover, set a state prison record in power lifting. That made the thought of conflict even more frightening. But there would be no violence.

The rage that once contorted his teenage face had given way to a broad, if hesitant, smile. We shook hands and awkwardly made our way to our private booth to take our seats and make small talk, each feeling the other out in the manner of two old friends who had drifted apart and were now trying to rediscover common ground and recapture our rhythms. What finally broke the ice was my trademark lack of diplomacy. I just dove right in and asked if he was guilty of the crime for which he was imprisoned. "Oh, I did it," he said, shocking me with his forthrightness. He proceeded to open up about the crime and his life before and after.

When I finally confronted him with his crimes against me, he apologized profusely. But he had no memory of me, which I found stunning given the ferocity of his attacks. Only after four prison visits and an exchange of more than 50 letters did he finally recall a confrontation where he pinned some poor guy against the gym wall. I lit up. "That guy was me!" That proved to be a revelation to me. While Frankie's words and actions in high school had seemed intensely personal, it turns out they clearly were not. I was just a convenient target.

Frankie adamantly denies that homophobia was the reason he singled me out, despite his generous use of gay slurs at the time. "Have you considered there could have been lots of other reasons?" he told me. But he himself cannot pinpoint them. Perhaps I can. I am convinced that, in part, he identified with my pain. He was the victim of abuses as a child, of truly ugly stuff that makes my troubles look frivolous in comparison. He also — unsurprisingly — had his own insecurities. His actions toward me were perhaps the only way he could engage someone he sensed had troubles of his own. He knew I was gay even before I knew I was. And in the bumbling, cruel and confused language of adolescence, he was letting me know it.

There is no excusing the way he let it out, as taunts and threats — looking me in the eye and saying he was going to kill me, convincing me it wasn't merely a figure of speech, making me terrified to go to school each day. As a teen, I remember sometimes feeling so much pain that I would say to myself, I ought to be suicidal. Fortunately, that wasn't in my makeup. I think I'm too ornery. Perhaps I had more support than I admit to.

I was not all innocence myself. Nearly all of us have engaged in bullying to some extent, if in less obvious forms than pinning another kid against a gym wall. I'm not proud of it, but I have been a bully. As part of a group of nerdy kids in school, I taunted newcomers and outsiders, anyone with a weakness that I could pick to disguise my own. I certainly should have known better. I now know how to recognize the cowardice in bullying and to see valor in aligning myself with the bullied. What must be stigmatized is avoiding confrontation and scattering to safety instead of coming to the aid of the weak.

Now I know better, thanks in large part to this late-in-life gift, what has become a friendship with Frankie. He has helped me explore, depersonalize and put to rest my childhood trauma of being bullied. In the process, he has somehow transferred to me some of the extraordinary mental strength that has enabled him to survive behind bars.

No one helped Frankie when he needed it. And so he went on to cause mayhem in his family and, on one alcohol-sodden night, to murder a man. My mission is now to help the person who bullied me, who caused me years of grief. It's not lost on me that the balance of power between Frankie and me has shifted. Frankie has no possibility of parole. Because of the damage others did to him, he made a terrible mistake and is in prison till the day he dies. I'm powerless to change that. But I can be his friend and return the unexpected and precious favor he's granted me.

Guenther is head of executive communications at a large financial-services firm based in New York. He is writing a book on his experience with Frankie.