Recently, a tragic story emerged about a young teen from Staten Island, Danny Fitzpatrick, who was bullied and hounded by his classmates to the point where he felt he had no option but to commit suicide.* He left a letter you can read here. Unfortunately, this happens too much. Unfortunately too many adults pass judgement on these young suicides. That’s because we live in a hyper-masculine society. Many of us will call 13-year-old Danny a weakling. That says more about us than it does about him.
Here’s something I once wrote as a response to bullying.
We live in an atmosphere of shame. We are ashamed of everything that is real about us; ashamed of ourselves, of our relatives, of our incomes, of our accents, of our opinion, of our experience, just as we are ashamed of our naked skins.
— George Bernard Shaw
The whole fifth grade class was laughing at him… including me.
His father stumbled into the middle of a spelling test arguing loudly with our teacher. His clothes were ragged and he was unkempt. He was there to make a case for his son, Kevin, who sat next to me. Kevin and I were the smartest kids in the class. Kevin was painfully shy and no one really liked him to begin with, so now everybody, including me, was laughing at him because his father was obviously a dope fiend and he showed up in the middle of a spelling test totally out of his mind. He was nodding out even as he argued his son’s case.
I don’t remember all the details, but I remember the shame. I can still remember vividly the shame on Kevin’s face, the humiliation in the knowledge that now everyone knew his deadly secret — that his father was a “junkie.” I remember this because I remember my own shame too, and because I felt like a hypocrite.
It’s so easy to join the mob, so easy to feel a part of the crowd at the expense of someone else. The mob mentality has no mercy. Just look at most of today’s headlines and you’ll bear witness to what the mob mentality, or the very human tendency to create scapegoats, can create.
The fact was that I knew too well that shame. My own father was a drug addict, and I remember when all my friends encircled me one day while chanting, “Your father’s a junkie, your father’s a junkie.” And I remember how I felt so ashamed, so humiliated, and so angry. I couldn’t resolve the anger and shame I felt about my father because I loved him so much and all those feelings were too overwhelming — I didn’t know how to process all that. I just stood there in the middle of that circle tears of anger flowing until I lashed out at the first one to get close enough to me and I punched him in the nose. And that’s when the mob turned on me and I went home with a split lip and torn clothes.
Deep inside I hated my father for making me go through that, but I also adored him. He was so intelligent. I used to love to sit on his lap and put my ear to his chest and listen to the soft rumble of his voice as he taught me something or spoke. My father was like a God to me. And now I hated him and I hated myself for hating him because it felt so wrong.
I just didn’t know how to handle the inner conflict. I was too young. So I guess somewhere, somehow, I internalized all those conflicting feelings and became ashamed of myself for everything: for my father, for my feelings, for my inability to fix it.
My father was a great storyteller and on some days, he would gather all the kids on our block and entertain us with stories. I guess it was a testament to his storytelling gift that he could keep us transfixed on a Lower East Side stoop and you could hear a pin drop. I was raised in a neighborhood where drug addicts were a common part of the urban landscape. As children we would place bets on how far a junkie would nod. Some junkies would nod so far, bent over at the waist that you would swear they would tip over and fall. But they never did.
My father would nod off — a consequence of the influence of heroin — when he told my friends stories. At first, we would sit there for what would seem minutes because invariably there was a punch line, a lesson, or a resolution or moral to his stories. At first, my friends wouldn’t say anything, but then my father’s nodding got worse and one day while arguing over a game or a rule, as boys are won’t to do, it came out: the outspoken truth that my father was a “junkie.” It was a hard lesson to learn at such a tender age.
Yet I sat there and laughed at Kevin just like everyone else did and even at that young age (5th grade), I knew it was wrong. I knew that I was being a phony because I didn’t want to feel that shame anymore, I wanted to be like the others, so I joined in on the cruelty. In making Kevin the scapegoat, the rest of us were saved from confronting our own shame. And we all probably carried a lot of shame. We were all poor, living in run-down, rat-infested tenement buildings. Many of our families were on welfare, or had parents who were unemployed. We all wore hand-me-downs or clothes purchased at the Salvation Army. And in our shame, we sought release from that bondage. One of the ways was to scapegoat another, so that the crowd wouldn’t look too deeply at us.
I wanted to reach out to Kevin, but he refused, perhaps sensing something worse: that I pitied him. Eventually I told Kevin my secret and while we never became close friends, in the fifth grade we stuck it out together. I did so even though even talking to Kevin made me an outsider (again), but that was OK, because I think it was at that time I decided I would always be an outsider. I reasoned that no one could really know me if I was an outsider, so fuck them.
And in that way, I began to build a wall of protection that kept others out so no one could ever know me — a fortress of solitude like in the DC Superman comics.
Shame is a prison that breeds violence. It limits us and shreds our self-worth. Shame mandates that we keep our genuine self hidden and condemns us to be isolated us from the nurture and connection we crave and need as human beings. I don’t know for sure, if this was all the beginning, or the setting of the table for my own life, but the one thing I’m certain of is that our secrets kill us, as surely as cigarettes or drugs. Secrets kill because embedded in our secrets lies our shame.
If you notice I’m not that particular about who reads my madness, but I am particular about making someone — even a stranger — feel excluded because I know that feeling intimately. It has haunted me for most of my life. Not many people can successfully accuse me of lacking a sense of humor, but I abhor humor at the expense of another.
Even now, sometimes it’s easy for me to join in with the mob and feast on another’s soul so that I could feel better about myself. It’s the easiest thing because it trips that “you belong” mechanism. I’ve done it before and felt stupid after when the object of ridicule was kind to me. But really: how many of us are laughing or forming cliques, or creating scapegoats because we too have secrets? How many of us can say we’re not turning away from our own shame at some level? The better question is when will we as adults put a stop to all this? How many more have to die?
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…
For information about suicide prevention or to speak with someone confidentially, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. Both provide free, anonymous support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
A GoFundMe page has been set up in Daniel’s memory, and donations will go to funeral preparations and an “organization that fights bullying and encourages suicide awareness,” which the family has yet to determine.