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Pardon Me

My childhood bullying, and an attempt to atone for it

David Rakoff
September 23, 2009

When I heard that A. had changed his name, I wasn’t a bit surprised. With its faint whiff of geriatric mitteleuropa, it had marked him as the child of survivors: the green shoot risen from the ashes of the camps. We were all Jewish, the majority of us children of immigrants, but the differences that distinguished us were discernible to the trained eye. If someone had a name more suitable to a grandparent, wore a suit to the first day of school, or succeeded brilliantly, more often than not, he was a survivor’s kid. The Soviets, who flooded the school in the mid-’70s, had jarringly Christian names like Mary, played piano and violin, displayed an academic aptitude more inborn than sweated over and, when asked to bring in baby pictures, showed up with black and white snapshots, taken with ancient cameras, that looked eerily like photos of the rest of our parents from the 1930s.

So A. took a new name, according to my cousin—their boys played together—a foursquare North American moniker that could be shortened to one syllable, suitable for barking on the sports field, at a hockey rink, across a sea of office cubicles. It’s a typical assimilative immigrant trajectory, but I couldn’t help feeling partially responsible.

I learned this in autumn of 2003. The summer was over, and with it the heat-induced coma of the season. The weather had turned clear and cool, with air that “gave steel to one’s thoughts,” as the writer Leonard Michaels put it. As surely as the pomegranates find their way onto the grocery store shelves, my newly steeled thoughts inevitably turn to notions of guilt and forgiveness. That’s not entirely true. A. had been on my mind, on and off, for close to 30 years. I had tried to find him on more than one occasion, but the name change had left the trail cold. I mentioned casually to my cousin that I’d like to contact him, got an address, and sat down to write, my homemade version of slichot.

“The reason I’ve been trying to find is you is an embarrassing one for me, but something that has been tormenting me for many, many years. I was incredibly horrible to you the summer we were together. Defensive rationalizations—that I was a child, that I was filled with self-loathing—have never really washed with me, and I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to make things right and apologize to you. No kid deserves to be the object of cruelty, least of all you at that age. I remain deeply ashamed and deeply sorry. I have no doubt that you remember all too well what a complete asshole I was. Certainly, I’d never forget it. I’ve tried to grow up to be an adult who isn’t an asshole and as such, it has seemed vitally important to me for some time that I manage to reach you and apologize. I hope this letter serves as some small measure towards that goal.”

As I recall, he looked like an angel. (Why this misty “as I recall?” Three decades later and the wounds I inflicted still feel fresh. Enough with the coyness.) He looked like an angel; copper-haired, green-eyed, slender, freckled, with startlingly white skin and a long, almond-shaped face. And if being the object of undeserved cruelty and rancor had the counterbalancing effect of conferring virtue, then he would have been, in fact, an angel. His misfortune, like that of all victims, was finding himself lower on the pecking order than an insecure bully. I helped to make a stranger feel unwelcome and unsafe. Forgive the caginess. No one was killed. There were no elaborate hazing rituals, no forced nudity, no knives. It didn’t rise much above the level of summer camp teasing. I don’t want to go into specifics. I’m ashamed, for one, and I’m not trolling for absolution.

A woman I used to know, raised a Southern Baptist, once spoke about Sunday mornings in church, where every week, the same abusive husband would stand before the congregation and, wracked with weeping, confess that week’s lapse towards wickedness, plainly visible on the contused and purple face of his suffering wife. This public apology and self-flagellation were the necessary requirements for forgiveness granted by the congregation in the name of God Almighty. The man would leave church that day with his slate clean, and, presumably, his consciousness raised as to the intrinsic shitheadedness of battery. But there he would be the following Sunday—along with his wife, her bruises having been refreshed during the week—recriminating himself, tearful and begging pardon of his sins once again, which once again would be given. There was never a Sunday, in my acquaintance’s recollection, where he hadn’t beaten his wife and where he was not forgiven.

My friend Sophie tries to be my Baptist congregation, chalking it up to youth and stupidity. “If you didn’t suck at age 12, then you suck now. It’s that simple.” It’s nice of her to say so, especially since I knew Sophie at age 12, and she didn’t suck then and she certainly doesn’t suck now. But what I love and value about the days and customs of slichot is the rigor and required honesty. Neither one’s friends nor God get a vote. Only the injured party makes that decision. I’ve tried to imagine how it would feel to receive that letter. Time would accordion and that summer would no doubt come flooding back with an unpleasant freshness. A. would remember the callous, smart-ass ringleader, and feel mildly shocked to find himself no more inclined to grant clemency than he was as a boy. He might even feel angrier, being made to revisit such unpleasantness, and attendant to this anger, a warming blush of superiority, perhaps. A satisfaction that the writer should still be troubled. Here he was, after all, with a wife and child, having moved on, and here was I, fixated on events three decades prior. I had pointedly made sure to leave out of the letter any preening details that might indicate that, aside from this thorn of guilt, I had an otherwise rewarding life. Him thinking me a loser for still dwelling on something long-past seemed a necessary component of a right and proper apology.

But this is all conjecture. I never heard back from him. Probably he rightly surmised that it had nothing to do with him anymore. There would be little he could say at this point. Better to let me twist. Which I do.

David Rakoff is an essayist, a contributor to public radio’s This American Life, and the author Fraud, Don’t Get Too Comfortable, and Half Empty.