The Indelible Terror of the Cruelty of Children

Sixty years ago I was subjected to systematic verbal and physical abuse by a boy called Michael. I have never forgotten the fear I felt

Susan Hill

There was a small, friendly café among the shops near where we lived when I was growing up. It was called Edward’s, it was family-run and my mother liked to go there for coffee and a cake and sometimes for lunch. I liked it but once I had eaten I was bored so I used to ask if I could help. Being a waitress was a glamorous thing to a nine-year-old and I was allowed to bring out plates of toasted tea cakes or iced fancies. The owner’s son, Michael, three years older than me, always sulked and scowled at me if he was around when I was “waitressing” but one day, he asked if I would like to go out with him to buy sweets. My mother was quite happy-Michael was older, and sensible about crossing the road. 

But we did not go to the sweet shop. Instead, he pulled me roughly by the wrist into the side door of the café, and into the stock room. He turned on the light, locked the door, and pinned me to the wall. 

“I’ve got a warning for you,” he said. I was mystified and not really frightened because this was someone I knew and I did not fully understand him.

“I don’t like the way you behave when you come to the café. You’re getting a mite too cocky. I don’t like the way you make yourself at home and help at the tables. You don’t have any right to do that so I’m telling you not to do it again. If you ever do, there’s be trouble. Something bad will happen to you.” And to give me a sample of it, he picked up my hand, and gave my wrist a Chinese burn. It hurt. Then he took a matchbox off the shelf, lit one, blew it out and laid the hot end on my arm. It hurt.

“Now you know what else I’m going to say, don’t you? If you tell anyone about this, your Mum or your Dad or anyone at school, then I shall find out because I have ways, and it’ll be a lot worse than today. Right?”

My mouth was dry and my tongue stuck to the roof of it. I remember that all I could do was nod. So Michael pushed his fingers between my lips and forced them open.

“Now, say ‘Yes.'”

I suppose I must have done.

“Say ‘I swear.'”

That too.

“Now you can go but don’t forget now.”

He unlocked the stockroom door and was gone. I remember going back into the café, wondering if my mother had been worried but she was chatting to someone. What had felt like hours of torture was probably only a few minutes. She said, “Did you have a nice time playing with Michael?” 

The torment went on for two years, until my mother started to favour a different café. The physical violence I received at Michael’s hands was just enough to be very painful, never to be visible-the match burns were always on my upper arms beneath sleeves-but it was not this which was the worst of it. The worst was the fear and dread, the imaginings as I lay awake, and went about my school day, and ate and did my homework. There was an undertow of fear which made me sick and which I could never quite turn my mind from. What might he do next? His threats were vague but still terrifying. Once, my mother sent me to get something from the grocer’s shop next door to the café and Michael spotted me, waited, propelled me by gripping my arm in a vice, and got me into the store. He then simply put out the light, locked the door and went. I was in there for perhaps half an hour-not enough time for my mother to begin worrying, just enough for her to scold me for taking so long. Then, I had to invent more and more elaborate lies in order not to be sent to the grocer’s alone again. 

And so on and so on. And I never told a soul. In fact, I have never told anyone until now. Other things happened at school, people were mean and spiteful, said horrible things about the embarrassing hats my mother wore to sports day or my father’s funny moustache, but none of it was beyond bearing, all was what most children gave and took during the school day. I daresay I did my share and I have never thought of it as “bullying”. As a matter of fact, I have never thought of what Michael did as “bullying” and I still do not. What he did comes under the heading of unkindness or even cruelty and I think that it might all be taken more seriously if people did use those clear words. Verbal and physical threats and abuse, name-calling and fear-provoking, are unkind and cruel. It’s as simple as that.

I became aware of how cruel children can be to one another in fiction before I encountered it again in life, but in the late 1960s I went to write a book in a remote Dorset cottage. Two boys aged 11-the farmer’s grandson and a friend, came by most days and if they took the left-hand track were hidden from my cottage garden by a high hedge. It was a beautiful summer and I was often working at a table in the garden. I heard what they were saying to one another. Sometimes, it was innocent back-chat between them but then I detected an unpleasant tone in the voice of one boy. It took me little time to realise that he was a nasty, spiteful, unkind, mean, cruel child bullying his “friend” with threats and frightening stories. To my horror, I then learned that they were going to boarding school together the following autumn. What could I do or say? I remembered Michael so clearly and wanted to save this poor boy-who was small, thinner, fairer and very vulnerable-looking-from his thug of a companion. I waited until they went by the cottage one day and when I overheard something nasty, shouted out loudly. The boys fell silent. They did not take that track again and when I met the bully in the lane, he stared me out. 

I asked the adults if the boys got on all right together-how could I phrase it more strongly? They laughed and said they were “the best of chums”. The sound of their hearty, confident voices, the obtuseness of their reply, was so chilling that I could not get it out of my mind and the next day I made a few notes about parents and other adults who know absolutely nothing about their children and their lives, who cannot see what is happening and will never be told. I knew that if the bullied child had ever said a word his father would simply have laughed at him. 

The boys left and my notes became a novel, I’m the King of the Castle, which I wrote very quickly during what was left of that summer. It is based on the two young boys I had seen and heard on the farm, the cruelty of one, the misery of the other, and the obtuseness and selfishness of their parents. Forty years later, it is a set book for GCSE and is taught in many schools. It was not written for young people but they are the ones who respond to it best because although teenagers in 21st-century comprehensives are very different from prep school boys in the Sixties, the behaviour, the subject matter-the inner misery and fear, the cruelty and the need to stay silent, let alone the incomprehension of adults, are completely familiar to the young now, as then. I have occasionally visited school classes in which 14-year-olds are discussing the book-neither I nor the teacher needs to say anything, the pupils speak, argue and debate the issues among themselves. It is very gratifying to hear them and to know the novel strikes such a chord. 

But some parents, over the lifetime of the book, have objected both to the theme, and more, to the ending in which the bullied boy commits suicide. I have had letters telling me categorically that “of course this never happens”. But it does. It has gone on happening from time to time over the 40-odd years since I wrote the novel. It happened again recently, when a young girl killed herself because she could take no more cruelty and unkindness-or “cyber bullying”, an especially nasty form of it, which was unheard of when I wrote my book.

Has anything changed? Yes, on paper, as it were. There are organisations which provide phone lines for children to report all kinds of abuse, including bullying. There are numerous websites which supposedly give guidance-to children, parents, teachers-on how to spot a bully or a bullied person, how to prevent or stop it, how to speak out, what to say to school staff and family. I am in no way criticising any of them and certainly they are a step forward. Children need not find themselves stuck in the dark and terrible tunnel of fear and silence in which I found myself when I suffered cruelty at Michael’s hands. Parents and teachers are much more aware of the issue than they were and are nowadays prepared to try and help.

But I am afraid that the kind of sadistic person who takes pleasure in terrorising others, making them afraid, watching them squirm, threatening, taunting, finding new and more secret ways to hurt and go on hurting, is clever and cunning. Adults are no match for them. The fear of what will happen if a word is said-a very real fear of very real cruel deeds-still prevents victims from speaking out. It is exactly the same syndrome as in the adult criminal world-say anything and . . .

What possible help and advice can we give child victims of bullying? Is it any good at all reassuring them that a bully’s bark is always worse than his or her (a lot of the worst bullies are girls) bite, or saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me?” You have first to get the measure of your bully. Undoubtedly, most are “all mouth and no trousers”-most, but not every one. Some would have no hesitation in carrying out their threats, when pushed. And names and verbal abuse are sometimes the very worst things to endure. A quick thump may sort out a passing argument and even a Chinese burn does not hurt for long. But what can be said, to frighten, belittle, shame and make unhappy is almost without limit, and the words can be seared on a vulnerable young mind for life. I still remember many of the things Michael said to me. I still go hot at the mocking laughter directed at someone whose mother wore such hideously embarrassing hats. 

Elizabeth Bowen observed that “there is no end to the violations committed by children on children, quietly talking alone.” 

It is the “no end” that strikes a chill to the heart-no end to the violations, no end to the talking alone, no end to the urge some have to be cruel and unkind. And the reasons? There is no end to those either and reasons are not excuses. To understand all is not necessarily to forgive all. 

What is to be done? I think whatever it is must be done on an individual, a family, a person-to-person, adult-to-child level. Parents and teachers, older siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents, wise friends, doctors, priests . . . it is our business. We need to talk to children about being unkind and cruel, to anyone or any creature. Because it is wrong. Why is it wrong? Not because someone said so, but simply because it inflicts pain and unhappiness on another and pain and unhappiness are not good things to dole out, they are things to try and avoid and cure. It hurts, it is upsetting and it makes you feel small and miserable, to be told, “You are stupid and you smell.” So if someone says it, or something similar, to you, and you feel like that, you can understand why you should never do it yourself. It is unloving. 

Children can grasp things imaginatively. They play games which allow them to try out another person’s shoes. They can understand stories which have a moral about cruelty and unkindness. They are more intelligent and sensitive than we give them credit for, and I do not believe that all is lost if they reach their teenage years without having had all this explained to them carefully and sensitively. 

All sorts of things may help, there may be many different ways of tackling this plague of cruelty and unkindness, a.k.a. bullying, and every one is worth trying. Because no child should be made to suffer and go on suffering in silence and certainly no child should ever be driven to suicide, because nothing has been done.  

Doing nothing is not an option.

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