While still reflecting on the issues raised in Odd Girl Out I decided to tackle Please Stop Laughing at Me…, publicist Jodee Blanco’s memoir detailing the hellish teasing, taunting, and bullying she suffered from elementary through high school.
Being a former victim of peer bullying myself, I expected to identify with Blanco right off the bat and I was surprised when I couldn’t. The Jodee Blanco described in the book is perfect. She gets good grades, she has a loving family that is financially well off, she volunteers her free time to help children with physical and developmental disabilites, and her teachers often send her to compete in national speech tournements where she is a frequent victor. She also has a strong moral compass which not only prevents her from giving in to peer pressure, but guides her to inform teachers and parents whenever she sees someone doing something wrong. The girl is an angel, and even though Blanco never explicitly says so, I suspect that is why her peers began to pick on her. She’s the very vision of a girl who, in today’s venacular, is “all that.”
As defined by Rachel Simmons in Odd Girl Out, a girl who is “all that” is considered “a show off, obnoxious, and full of herself.” Simmons herself notes that “the girl who thinks she’s all that is the girl who expresses or projects an aura of assertiveness and self-confidence,” both qualities that fall outside the typical boundaries of femininity.
Blanco definitely seems to possess all of the above qualities. She has a strong sense of self and she is not afraid to stand up for what she believes is right. By her own admission, her habit of taking the moral high ground and ignoring her attackers makes her come off as stuck up, like she thinks she’s better than everyone else. But Blanco’s incessant reminders of what a kind, sharp, and exceptional kid she was before the bullying, coupled with her three page “professional biography” at the back of the book in which she lists the many leadership roles she has taken in her job and the many celebrities she has worked with, more or less scream “Look at me! Look at me!” She comes off as a huge braggart, and as awful as this is for one loser to say of another, if I were thriteen again I don’t think I would want to be friends with her either. One of her bullies sums it up quite well on page 105 when she says, “Nobody wants to be around a saint with a big mouth.” As much as I wanted to embrace Blanco as a kindred spirit, I just could not identify with her in any meaningful way and that distanced me from the text.
Which isn’t to say Blanco deserved any of the abuse that was heaped upon her. On the contrary, I think shoving handfuls of snow down a girl’s throat until she chokes is excessive punishment for the crime of not being liked. Though Blanco may not be the kind of girl I’d want to weave friendship bracelets with I totally sympathize with her situation. That woman shouldered abuse far more damaging than I ever endured. Everyday kids spit on her in the hallways as she walked to class, they cornered her behind the school and beat the crap out of her, and passed threatening notes to her during class. On her final day of high school the cutest guy in school signed her yearbook “You’ll have to fuck yourself, we hate you, bitch.” Even her teachers got in on it. When Blanco tells her social studies teacher she thinks it is wrong of him to make fun of the school’s special education students in front of the class, he laughs and says “No wonder you’re such a loser.”
There was one aspect of being bullied that Rachel Simmons failed to mention in Odd Girl Out that Blanco dealt with head on: the willingness of a victimized child’s parents to believe there is something wrong with their kid. After testing out a number of schools and getting bullied at all of them Blanco’s parents take her to a psychiatrist, determined to find out why their daughter is “a misfit.” After the psychiatrist declares she is merely “overreacting” to and “overdramatizing” the abuse, Blanco writes “My parents had found the easy answer they were looking for.”
Unlike the many supportive and sympathetic mothers interviewed in Odd Girl Out, personal experience tells me the reaction of Blanco’s parents is far more typical of how parents react to bullying. Unable to offer protection from abuse that occurs at school, parents look to correct flaws in their child hoping that doing so will put an end to taunts and social isolation. I am very familiar with this tactic, my mother employed it throughout my high school years. Turning social rejection into a symptom of a larger psychological problem makes it seem controlable and absolves the school, the bullies, and the parents of all responsibility. Being told she was mentally ill did nothing more than give Blanco another reason to hate herself and another example of how she was different from her peers. By refusing to acknowledge and validate her perfectly normal feelings of loneliness and hurt, her parents and psychiatrist only rammed home Blanco’s realization that no one in her life could be trusted. I was pleased to see a subject so often ignored in the discussion of bullying and children’s mental health given a fair amount of coverage in this book.
The writing itself struck me as juvenile. Blanco’s rampant use of unnecessary dialogue and simplistic sentence structures resembled the kind of work you’d expect to read in a junior high school creative writing class. Whether this was purposeful or not (and I am willing to concede that given the subject matter it may have been a deliberate choice) it didn’t do anything to enhance the story. Blanco also has a penchant for writing completely non-sensical sentences. For example, on page 55 she ends a paragraph with the words, “I would never know how wrong I was.” (Well, if you’d never know then how can you say you were wrong?) And on 251 she writes, “That’s the last time I ever see the inside of my high school again.” (How can you see something for the last time…again?) I was so distracted by the weak use of language, half the time I found myself focusing more on presentation then on content.
So, all in all, what we have here is another mixed bag. On one hand, Blanco’s story is engaging and I was happy to see her discuss aspects of bullying that are not always addressed. On the other, the writing is under developed and at times distracting, and my own reaction to Blanco as an individual took me out of the story. I wasn’t enthralled by Please Stop Laughing at Me… but that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be.
(Note: This review ridiculously delayed thanks to a raging flare of Carpel Tunnel Syndrome, a week spent out of town, and a week battling the Cold From Hades.)
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