We posed some questions for Jonathan about his new book Beyond Bullying. Here is what he had to say.
What inspired you to write Beyond Bullying?
In 2008 I wrote a book called, Ceremonial Violence, about the “epidemic” of school rampage shootings that occurred between 1974 and 1999 (the year of the Columbine high school shooting.) In the course of writing it, I realized that there was some commonality between cases that had eluded me and others who had written about these tragic events, but I was having trouble articulating it. It was very frustrating! Soon after publication, my research led me to the works of Tom Scheff, James Gilligan, Donald Nathanson and others who suggested that violence was the result of mismanaged shame. I realized that these school shootings were examples of children accumulating massive amounts of shame (mostly from bullying), which they were unable to manage because of problems in communicating. These ideas shaped the first, second and seventh chapter of Beyond Bullying. It took me about six years to turn them into a coherent theory. Once I had worked out the principles involved, I saw that I could also apply it to the scapegoating of vulnerable populations such as LGBTQ teens, Blacks, immigrants, and victims of domestic violence. Those became the subjects of the remaining chapters of my book.
What was the hardest part of writing the book?
The hardest part for me was writing about the LGBTQ teenagers who had committed suicide as a result of being bullied. For me there is nothing more tragic than parents losing an adolescent child to suicide. When I write about it, I try to ignore the grief and concentrate on the facts and the ideas I am trying to convey. But then, when I least expect it, the utter sadness of it hits me in the gut. Then I go talk about it with my wife, who is a minister and a wonderful therapist.
What was the greatest challenge bringing the book to market?
Of the 10 or so books I’ve written, this was the easiest to publish. Dana Bliss, the editor who acquired it, was extremely encouraging from the very start. It’s hard to publicize any book if you’re not a celebrity, but I am fortunate to have two terrific publicists, Bruce Bobbins, from DKC Public Relations, who works with Yeshiva University, where I teach, and Marlena Brown who is a publicist at OUP.
What do you wish the reader to take away after reading Beyond Bullying?
- Shame and status are two forbidden topics in our culture. This is no coincidence. They are closely related. Shame is what we experience when our membership in a group or community becomes tenuous, or when we try to enter a group of a higher status and fail. If we can recognize this process for what it is, it’s easier to understand what’s going on. Life becomes less fraught.
- If your kid is being viciously bullied and the school won’t do anything about it, put him or her in another school. If the bullying continues, home school. Someday they will thank you.
- Affirmative action isn’t a gift; it’s reparations for all the crap that blacks have had to endure over the past centuries. Support it.
- When your son or daughter announces that they are “trans,” that is the time for heaps of unquestioning, non-judgmental love and support on your part. As hard as it may be for you to accept it, it’s going to be that much harder for them. God bless Caitlyn Jenner.
What books have had the greatest influence on you?
Different books in different periods of my life. I’ve always loved Charles Dickens because his characters are incredibly entertaining, his language is beautiful and vivid, deals with social problems and advocates for the poor and downtrodden. I discovered Thomas Hardy while I was developing my theory of shame management. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Jude the Obscure all deal with unsuccessful attempts to improve the protagonist’s status in life, and managing the shame that results from the failure to do so.
How do you balance fatherhood and writing?
Actually, I stopped writing novels soon after my second son was born because I could no longer support my family on my meager advances. I haven’t written narrative fiction since then. I did work as a contract writer for Disney feature animation for two years, which was great fun. These days my children all support themselves, and are all successful in their chosen careers. My wife and I both have full time jobs, but my teaching schedule allows me time to write. And of course writing non-fiction is a very different activity from writing fiction.
What is your advice to mother parents who are writers?
It’s a difficult balancing act when your children are pre-school and it does not get much easier when they are in school. It’s not simply schlepping them from one activity to the next, it’s having the freedom to devote your thoughts completely to the project at hand. I grew up with a father who some consider a Great Writer (I am among them). He was often there, in the house with us, but his mind and formidable imagination were elsewhere. This was even the case when he was driving, which made being in a car with him at the wheel a terrifying experience.