By Mark Bernstein
Children can be cruel. Adults can be cruel. And I’m not talking about torture, or rape, or child abuse. I’m talking about everyday acts of cruelty which almost go unnoticed. I can remember most of the mean and cruel acts I have done in my life and those done to me, all with vivid detail.
It starts early. I remember at our little summer cottage an older boy (BC) took me under his wing and taught me cruelty. He schooled me in the art of fellatio and then used to make me give him blow jobs in the big white canvas tent between our cottages. While I did it he would tell me stories about girls he had made out with, or felt up, or fucked. After all these years I can still remember the name of one of the girls (CH) and the exotic image of her I had conjured up in my mind as I listened spellbound and a little frightened to his erotic tale. I was too dumb or vulnerable to ever question what I was being made to do.
One summer while bicycling on a country road near our cottages he and I met up with a teenage boy who seemed rather slow and had a large head. We used call him “blockhead”. Later of course I realize he had suffered from hydrocephalus (“water on the brain”) as an infant resulting in his large head and mild mental retardation.
Another summer we walked around with long metal nails which we would throw end over end like knives at frogs, trying to kill them where they sat. Fortunately our aim was very poor and I don’t remember ever hitting the mark, but the intent was there. We also had a bow and arrow and shot a crow that was attacking the nest of a robin in a haw tree in front of his cottage. But we killed the robin by mistake. We both cried. I guess BC wasn’t such a tough guy after all. I like to think that much of my bad behavior with him was due to huge influence from an older person but I guess I’ll never know. I have not seen him since I was about 14 but I have heard he became a police officer.
In public school there was an unattractive and rather slow girl from a poor family who amused us. She had a funny and unbecoming mannerism of scraping one of her oversized front teeth with the nail of her curled little finger. We used to walk around doing that and calling her “dumb H……” (we actually said her last name). I have thought of her often. To NH, if you’re reading this, I’m so sorry for being the insecure, pathetic little boy who apparently had to hurt you to feel better about himself.
I remember one of the first girls I had a crush on in public school (DB). She was quiet, gentle, ladylike, and beautiful. She was one of those girls who could walk almost without moving her legs. I loved her so much that my friends (supporting me I guess) and I used to throw stuff at her from a distance because we were such cowards. I guess it was the only way we knew of showing any feelings. One day one of our twigs cut her under the eye and the principal, who seemed seven feet tall and had eyes of steel, collected all of us together and verbally undressed us.
In high school I had a group of male friends who were apparently all as insecure and pathetic as I was. We played mean games on each other, usually using words as our weapons. I haven’t seen many of them since I left high school, wanting to put that part of my life behind me, but I did have a warm reunion with one of them a few years ago.
That same friend and I were beaten up for no reason while walking on the street in the evening as boys. We were about 13 and both small and our assailants were five or six big teenagers. Today it would have been called a swarming. They smoked, and smelled of liquor, and swore, and beat the living crap out of us. Fortunately we only got broken noses, black eyes, and loose teeth but I’ll never forget the feeling of helplessness, violation, and raw fear at being attacked for no reason.
In university one year I shared a slummy apartment with two other science geeks like me. One night we had a party and a poor social misfit we had invited left a Pink Floyd album on top of a radiator and it heated up and started to melt and was destroyed. I remember it was Pink Floyd because they’re one of my all-time favorite bands who I’ve seen live a bunch of times and own most of their CD’s. I can still remember blurting out in a loud voice to all and sundry: “Look at what R did”. He must have been mortified but I only thought about it that way sometime later. If you’re out there RS, I’m sorry. I was probably pretty wasted but that’s no excuse for gratuitous meanness.
After my B.Sc. degree I went to medical school and I don’t remember doing any cruel or mean acts since then. But I’m sure I’ve done them – I just don’t remember them. And I vividly remember some perpetrated on me. In the late 1970’s my first wife said something to me in a matter of fact way which I will always remember for how much it hurt me. And she was a gentle, kind person. I’m pretty sure it was an innocent moment of thoughtlessness. About 15 years ago I was at a Conference in a far away city and had a reunion with one of my dearest friends from medical school – we hadn’t seen each other in about 10 years. He said something cruel to me about a secret we shared in medical school – he said it as matter-of-factly as if he were talking about the weather. I guess he also meant no malice. But I was crushed and still remember the moment as if it was yesterday.
Why do we do these things to each other and why do I recall all these episodes so vividly? I do not feel I am unique in having been involved in these little acts and/or remembering them so clearly. And I challenge every reader to not remember at least one act of cruelty they did or was done to them that they would do anything to erase. I guess as we evolve we are mostly taught good values but feel the need to explore the dark side of our nature, or are too weak to fight the peer-pressure of others. Or maybe we simply feel better about ourselves by diminishing others. Or maybe we explore this behavior to learn firsthand how awful it is so we don’t make a lifelong pattern of it. I hope it’s the latter.
Mark Bernstein is a neurosurgeon at the Toronto Western Hospital and Professor of Surgery at the University of Toronto. He and his wife Lee (a native Los Angelina) have three daughters and two pet Labradors. He has written extensively in the medical literature for over 20 years and for the last few years has been trying his hand at non-medical writing. He is the world’s second worst saxophone player.