Author Q&A: Jonathan Fast PhD

Author Q&A: Jonathan Fast PhD

Jonathan Fast, Wurztweiler School of Social Work - faculty headshots

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Beyond BullyingBuy the book

Boys Who Push

Boys Who Push

By Amy Ettinger

Art Boys Who PushShe likes the boys who push. Especially Paulie, the outcast. My daughter’s preschool teacher says Paulie and Julianna are drawn to one another like magnets. No matter how much she tries to keep them apart, they find each other. Sometimes it’s at the snack table or on the swings. Julianna gets too close or takes a toy Paulie wants and he retaliates.

Before school we practice saying, “STOP” as loud as we can. I pretend I’m Paulie and I push her hard on the shoulder. “Stop,” she whispers.

“LOUDER,” I say.

“Maybe I will tell Paulie he can’t come to my school anymore,” she says. A 4-year-old’s solution.

“There will always be people in life who try to push you around, who will try to test your boundaries. You have to learn how to stop them.”   (At these moments I wish the house was secretly bugged so someone else could hear my mother’s wisdom). Julianna doesn’t seem to pay attention.

I think, maybe naively, that if I teach Julianna to stand up for herself now, the lesson will be hard-wired into her for when it really matters. When she’s a teen and the other girls are trying pot and sneaking out to parties.

Mostly I’m concerned about this attraction to the rough-housers, the young sociopaths. Of course, we’re not supposed to call them that, but there’s one in every class.  Last year, it was Eric, the boy who threw a wooden block at a visiting puppy, smashed the caterpillars and wouldn’t share the trains. Julianna went over to the train table every morning ready to play.

Julianna’s grandma was also drawn to the outliers, the dreamers, the ones that nobody else wanted. She met my Dad at a dance for college graduates she attended with a friend from group therapy. Mom was in analysis for more than 15 years to deal with her painful shyness. And then she saw my Dad (who was not a college grad) but snuck in to the dance meet ambitious girls—disproving the motto that “men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.”

Dad didn’t care that Mom didn’t talk much. He talked enough for them both. He was rough around the edges, talking back to police officers who often pulled him over for speeding, and mouthing off to his bosses.  Not surprisingly, he was always getting fired.

Mom was a shy do-gooder, a Barnard graduate, who worked for a time with emotionally disturbed children in one of the country’s worst neighborhoods – Bedford, Stuyvesant.  She lived with her parents in their Brooklyn apartment until she was 21, in the shadow of her domineering mother.

She met Dad just as she was starting to find some independence. Dad was unselfconscious. He had an ego and an energy Mom craved.

When they fought, it was explosive. My brothers and I watching as they tore each other apart (often with words and sometimes with fists).

The worst moment in my parent’s marriage came when I was eight years old. My  brothers and I were in front of the TV, when we heard our parents bickering in the kitchen. My parent’s voices got louder, until we heard a thud.

The kitchen of our Silicon Valley home was divided from our living room by a bar-height counter where we ate all our meals. The three kids stood on the living room side of the counter. We saw Dad standing behind Mom in the kitchen, his hands wrapped around her throat. It was like watching two mimes acting out a fight. Neither made a sound.

Mom was trapped. Her stomach was pressed against the tiled counter. Dad’s body kept her from backing up or escaping to the side. Mom pulled at his fingers. They were strong and callused from years of building and tinkering. They didn’t budge.

Finally, Dad let go. Mom ran into the bedroom to call the police, who came a few minutes later. They took Dad out of the house in handcuffs, but released him a half-an-hour later after taking a statement from my mom, and asking my brothers and I to intervene when my parents’ fights got too out of control.

Mom went to talk to a lawyer, but my parents never divorced. They were married for almost 30 years. Dad mellowed a little, but his nature never really changed.

I learned from Mom’s bad choices, even though the odds were against me. Girls who witness their mother’s abuse have a higher rate of being battered as adults. When I was looking for a mate I picked the opposite of my father. My husband’s a pleaser, a shy writer, a kind and sometimes goofy man.  We laugh a lot, even when we argue.   I have always been proud of my choice, feeling like I side-stepped a potentially tragic inheritance.  It wasn’t until I had my daughter that I learned that legacies can skip a generation.

Intergenerational transmission of domestic violence sometimes happens without parents even realizing it. The memories I have of my parent’s relationship are wired in me—sometimes I don’t even know that they’re there until the smell of cigarette smoke transports me back to my childhood home. The memories are a part of me, whether I realize it or not, and that affects what kind of a mom I am to Julianna. Do I lose my cool, “flip my lid”?  Of course. And I have bursts of anger that frighten us both. Especially when she kicks me in frustration when I deny her a special treat or throws a shoe at her father in the heat of an argument.  But why I get and angry, and how I recover is important for both of us to understand.

The relationship between my husband and I is the most important model for Julianna to learn about a healthy pairing.  As one therapist told me: “No one takes a beating at age 20.” When Julianna sees Dan and me making calm, egalitarian decisions for difficult problems, it teaches her what’s normal. And when she sees us fight? Well, that’s important to. That she never sees our anger explode to scariness, that she sees us re-group.  We do our best, although we can argue with heat, with passion, like any married couple. And I tell myself it’s normal, although I have to admit that I have no idea what that is.

There is still so much violence against women, that as a parent raising girls it’s hard not to think about. More than a thousand women are killed each year in the United States in domestic violence. Thousands more are seriously injured.

We need to encourage our girls to have a strong voice, even if her nature is to be quiet.

Every day, Julianna reminds me more of my mom.  She is cautious and fearful, and often painfully shy. Their phobias are even the same: they both loathe dogs of any kind.   Sometimes I wonder if it’s the time they spend around one another. Mom’s been a once-a-week babysitter since Julianna was born. But I know that it’s more complicated. Julianna inherited her sense of humor, her intelligence, and her disposition.

I remind myself that Julianna is four, and that it’s too early to draw these conclusions.  Her preferences for many things change almost daily. One day she loves the slides, going down the steepest scariest one 30 times before I bribe her out of the park. The next day she refuses to even leave the house.  She experiments with different ways of interacting with the world, sometimes sulky, sometimes kind, sometimes an adventurer and the life of the party.

She is an only child, so she mostly learns about other kids at school. She has been sheltered, and so maybe her time with the troubled boys is teaching her what she doesn’t want in life. I hope that the lessons I go over with her each day will stick.

My husband and I half-joke about getting Paulie thrown out of preschool, but I know another ill-behaved boy would take his place(and Julianna would be the first to find him).

My inheritance is my hyper-vigilance, my desire to save my child from a danger (both internal and external) she may never face.  But, if she does face it I want her to be ready. I want her to be strong.

So, I repeat our daily lessons.  One morning she tells me her baby doll also goes to a school with a boy named Paulie who pushes. “She doesn’t say stop, and she doesn’t call for the teacher.”

“You both have to learn,” I tell her.

“Every time, you say stop or call for help you are teaching Paulie that he can’t push people,” I tell her. I can tell that the thought appeals to her. She already wants to be the fixer, the one who makes it all better.

As her mom, I have no such illusions. I cannot control her curiosity or attractions. How can I? I can’t even control my own.

But I can understand a little better about what makes me tick and why. How my parents’ bad marriage may or may have not affected who I am today. And who I am to my daughter, and how she is in the world.

And even as I remain vigilant to outside threats—the boys who use their bodies instead of the words—I have to remember that sometimes the scariest things of all are inside our selves.

Amy Ettinger writes for the New York Times, Huffington Post, New York Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle. She is currently writing a memoir about growing up in Silicon Valley. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA with her husband and four-year old daughter.

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