Thanks, Steph, and thanks everyone for coming out this evening. (something about the weather or the roads). Nothing Everything Nothing is not a book I imagined myself writing. Most of my unfinished drafts are fantasy novels, or paranormal novels, or even science fiction, but not straight up realism like this one.
This past summer I went to visit my grandmother and she said, “I don’t want you to be too alarmed. Your cousin tried to overdose on her medication and she’s in the hospital, she’s going to be fine.” This cousin is also my goddaughter.
She wasn’t going to be fine. She was going to live, but I knew that she had a long road ahead of her, and I knew there was little, or nothing, I could do to help. I’m not a doctor, I’m not a psychologist or counselor, and I had no idea what to say to someone who was recovering from something like that. I’m socially awkward at the best of times! Seriously, getting up here to talk is not a problem, but stick me in a crowd at a cocktail party and I’m lost.
What I do know how to do is write. So I started this book. Originally I was aiming for about 30-40 K, the main character was named after my cousin and looked like my cousin, and the book was going to have a happy ending. All I wanted from this book was to have a girl my cousin could relate to and have her hit rock bottom and have her still find a happy ending. Because I wanted my cousin’s story to one day have a happy ending.
I think the first draft was 39K. I gave it to a friend of mine who I knew was well read, and familiar with depression and suicide and this is basically what he told me:
This book is too short, it feels like an outline. I want to know all about the characters, how they came to this point, you need to give yourself a bigger canvas and make this a novel.
I went over the draft and expanded, drawing up an outline of changes. It was about this time that two things happened. First, I changed the title, and the name of the main character. As the story evolved I knew this was becoming more than I’d intended, and it felt wrong to put my cousin through the things that Molly was going to go through. Second, Robin Williams committed suicide. Suddenly everyone was talking about living with depression and recovering from suicide and I had dozens of blogs and articles on the subject come across my Facebook newsfeed and my blog reader. I read all of them. I wanted this novel to be an accurate, and compassionate, look at something that affected thousands of people every year.
The revisions included the addition of over 2 dozen completely new, from scratch scenes. 18 of those were in a row and they were the hardest to write because they form the emotional core of the book. The entire hospital recovery sequence had to be reworked to reflect the new storyline and the information I had learned during my research. Dozens of other scenes needed little details, like names or dates or time references, changed to match the new storyline.
When all that was done it went back to my friend for another reading and he said,
It is kind of unusual that I hear depressed folks in books actual sound depressed. Molly captured that and the slow detailed build up will be familiar to anyone suffering this condition. The pace is actually a little depressing, you know its coming and you just want it over with. you made me feel not like I was reading about Molly.. you made me empathize with her, not an easy task. here you either become Molly and if not Molly herself you find yourself wanting to save her. I really wish you were a worse writer .. I usually have a list of NO’s and that’s all wrong
After that it was off to my grandmother, who has been editing school papers for 40 years, to be read over for typos. Then I went through with a fine tooth comb and fixed as much as I could, making one last big change – the sequence of scenes at the pool was second, and the sequence with Brandon was first, but I switched them. Then I started the publication process, with a little help from Marianne Curtis, and here it is.
The book deals a lot with cyber bullying, bullying in general, street harassment, sexual harassment, depression, suicide, and recovery. In the background it also touches on eating disorders, and the system of popularity.
There is a new movie out, or coming out shortly, titled DUFF. According to the trailer it stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend. The idea is that a group of pretty girls have one dumpy friend who makes them look better and acts as a go-between between the friends and their crushes. Who knew that Molly’s situation in Nothing Everything Nothing would get a catchy name and a movie? This exchange between Molly’s friends happens early in the book:
In Kirsten’s room they called up Julie, setting Kirsten’s cell to speaker phone and flopping on the bed.
“I don’t treat her badly,” Julie huffed as Kirsten told her about the conversation with Lance. “It’s just friendly banter. It’s not my fault that Molly can’t take a joke.”
“Well we know that,” Kirsten said, rolling her eyes. “What we don’t know is why Lance is interested in Molly. She can’t flirt, she’s not that pretty, she’s on the large side, she’s socially awkward …”
“I’m still wondering why you let her hang out with us this year,” Julie said. “You knew all that when you invited her to that hang-out in September. She’s only been trying to be friends with us since ninth grade, the needy little …”
“Julie, you can’t be popular if people don’t like you,” Kirsten said.
Julie sighed. “But couldn’t we find adoring fans that are actually interesting to be around?”
“That would be beside the point. They’re supposed to be interested in us, not the other way around. And the boys are supposed to be interested in us too.”
Amanda propped herself up on an elbow. “I think it’s sweet. Molly will be so happy to be the center of attention.”
Kirsten glared at Amanda until the girl blushed and looked away. “Well, if Lance wants to make Molly the center of attention so will we.”
“I thought we weren’t going to help Lance,” Amanda said, confused.
“What do you have in mind, Kirsten?” Julie said.
“Oh, nothing much, we’ll just pay attention to everything about Molly so that Lance sees just how awkward she is and will stop paying attention to her.”
“I don’t want to pay attention to Molly,” Julie snapped. “I don’t even like her being a part of the group.”
Kirsten rolled her eyes. “Then we’ll drift away from her over the summer. Until then, let’s make sure everyone knows she’s less than we are, and that we’re just so kind to make her a part of our group.”
I was bullied for many years, though my bullying was mild by any standard. My testimonial was included in Rae of Hope: Stories of Survivors, written by Marianne Curtis. It was launched last week and she has a few copies with her if you want to take a look.
My own desire to see an end to bullying shows up in my book through the character of Brandon, Molly’s childhood friend. He does a presentation on bullying in school. I want to share that passage with you as well but I need a break from talking, and you’re probably sick of listening to me.
My godfather, my Uncle Len, is here and will be reading the next selection. He used to read to us around the camp fire and I particularly remember his telling of Rikki Ticky Tavi from The Jungle Book when I was younger, and more recently, his ability to read George Carlin and have you hear George Carlin.
READING BY LEN G.
At first the camera bounced around, showing Brandon at the front of the room setting up his presentation board and organizing his paper. The camera quickly steadied and she heard the teacher’s voice ask, “Are you ready Brandon?”
“Yes, I’m ready.”
“Okay,” the teacher said. “Our final presentation is Brandon. Please give him your full attention.”
Brandon stood in front of a blank presentation board. Someone close to the camera snickered. Brandon took a deep breath and said, “I was going to do a presentation on drug usage but after recent events I changed my mind. I want to talk about teen suicide.
“Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24. People commit suicide for a variety of reasons.”
Molly sat staring at the screen as Brandon went on about factors and statistics and warning signs. Throughout his speech his presentation board remained blank.
“Bullying is also a prominent motivator behind teen suicides. Weight, appearances, race, sexuality, and odd or misunderstood hobbies or interests have all made teens targets for bullies. In the last ten years bullying has moved out of the hallways, change rooms, and cafeterias and into the digital world. Teens are teased via text message and over social media. Hate pages are put up online and receive thousands of hits every day. This form of bullying goes unchecked because schools cannot supervise or intervene and freedom of speech on the internet is often twisted to include bullying. Add to that a bully’s favourite defense ‘it was just a joke’ and it’s no wonder authorities are powerless to stop it.
“I would like to look at three cases where cyber bullying drove a teenager to suicide. In doing so I would like to show that this behaviour is not funny and should never be dismissed as a joke.
Finally Brandon half turned and stuck two pieces of paper to the board. Two teenage girls now smiled out at the class. “These girls are Amanda Todd and Megan Meier. They both committed suicide. Megan killed herself in 2006 after two fellow students, and a parent, created a fake MySpace account and befriended her online. After weeks of very pleasant exchanges this fake friend changed his tone and told Megan: “Everybody in O’Fallon knows who you are. You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a shitty rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you.” She hung herself that same day.
“Amanda was coaxed into revealing her body to an online friend. He then blackmailed her and tormented her online for three years. Using fake accounts on social media sites he turned everyone at her school against her. When she changed schools, and towns, he did it again. After three years of this continual abuse she killed herself.”
Molly was speechless; the class in the foreground of the video was not. There were murmurs and whispers until the teacher finally said, “That’s enough. Let’s let Brandon finish his presentation.”
Brandon placed a third photo on the presentation board. “This is Molly. She was in our class. Now she’s in the hospital. She attempted suicide, not because of a mental illness or a learning disorder, or because she used drugs. Like Amanda Todd and Megan Meier, she was pushed into suicide.”
The class erupted and the camera started shaking again. Over the talking and shouting of the students the teacher was saying, “Sit down, all of you. Sit down! Be quiet, please, and listen to the end of the presentation. Shut up and sit down or I’ll fail the whole class!”
Order was slow to return and the camera stabilized again.
“I’m not making this up,” Brandon said. “I’m not pointing fingers but I’m not making this up. I know most of you have heard some version of what happened but I am going to fill you in on the actual events. Molly’s boyfriend, Lance Maher, got angry when Molly refused to have sex with him. So, Lance posts pictures which Molly believed would remain private. And when she confronted him he insulted her and physically abused her – on school property. He blamed Molly.”
There were more mumbles from the crowd and someone even said, “It was her fault.”
“He posted a lie online, portraying Molly as, please excuse me language, as a slut. Molly attempted suicide in the face of these events.”
Chaos reigned. People stood from their chairs and shouted at Brandon. The camera shook and for a while pointed directly at the floor.
Molly held her breath as muddled noises poured from the speakers. Finally the noise quieted and the camera was righted.
Brandon took a deep breath before continuing. “In summary: bullying isn’t a joke, we can’t dismiss it. It is normal, ordinary teens who are the bullies, and the victims. Teens need to be held accountable for their words and actions, in school, on the streets, and online. If we are not, more of us will commit suicide. Are there any questions?”
“How can you prove any of that?”
“The cases of Amanda Todd and Megan Meier are public record. As for Molly, I have only told you what I witnessed myself or was able to confirm with her parents or the detective investigating the photos.”
“Are the cops really charging people?” This voice sounded panicked.
“Yes, for sexual harassment, soliciting a minor, and spreading child pornography.”
“What does soliciting mean?”
From behind the camera the teacher’s voice said, “Asking someone for something, in this case, sex.”
“You couldn’t have known why Lance was fighting with Molly,” said a male voice.
“I do, actually. I witnessed the fight in the hallway and turned a video of it over to Mr. Penner.”
This uproar was smaller, mainly from the boys in the class, and it sounded like they were all demanding why Brandon would do such a horrible thing to such a cool person.
“All right,” the teacher roared. “Everyone is going to sit down. Brandon’s presentation is over; I’m putting an end to the questions. Sit down and …”
The video cut out.
Besides the fact that he’s an amazing story teller, there’s another reason I asked Uncle Len to be here today, and that’s because I want to speak about resiliency. Resiliency is the ability to adapt to adversity, the ability to cope with stress, and the ability to ‘bounce back’ from traumatic situations. There are many ways we can help youth become resilient, but the first is to help them build connections with other people.
This includes friendships but it is more than that. Often youth who are the targets of bullying do not trust their peers. They need a network of adults.
It can be any adult – a parent, a teacher, a coach, a youth leader, a pastor or other religious leader, a relative, a neighbour. So long as the adult listens without judgement, believes what the teen is telling them, offers advice and advocacy, and respects the teens privacy by keeping private conversations private they are helping add to the resiliency of that teen.
I was very lucky. My parents had a happy and loving marriage. There was no abuse at home. If I had a problem I could talk to my parents, or my four grandparents, or my aunts and uncles. I got along well with most of my teachers at every school I attended. There was always someone to turn to. And at a young age I was told that if there was ever anything I needed to talk about that I couldn’t go to my parents with I was to go to my godparents. I never needed to go to them in confidence, but knowing that there was someone I could go to if I had a problem made me feel secure.
One story in Rae of Hope illustrated this quite clearly. Teachers would not help her, there was abuse in the home, so after being expelled she ran away. She ended up in foster care and people started listening to her. She says in her story that if even one teacher had stepped forward and said, “I believe you” things would have been very different for her. It was the presence of a few good adults that started the positive her life.
One of the signs that a person is in an abusive relationship is that the abuser slowly encourages, or even forces, the abused to cut ties to their friends and family, isolating them so the abuse will go unnoticed, and so the abused will have no one to turn to. This is breaking down someone’s resiliency and this happens to Molly throughout the book.
Repeatedly Lance tells her “Your mom won’t understand”, “Your mom doesn’t want you to have a boyfriend” “Your mom doesn’t want you to be thin/popular/happy”, and eventually “your mom hates you”.
He also tries to drive a wedge between Molly and her life-long friend, Brandon, using the same tactics. “He’s not cool, he’ll drag you down”, “He doesn’t understand, doesn’t want you to be happy or popular” “He’s jealous of you” “He’s not really your friend”.
Fortunately for Molly none of the people closest to her really abandon her and when she needs them they are there for her.
So far I have talked mostly about bullying because that is what I have the most experience with, but suicide is a very serious issue as well. Mental health issues, including clinical depression, are the leading cause of suicide with medication issues, bullying, and abuse being other factors.
Sadly I cannot find any statistics on suicide newer than 2011, most of the statistics date back to 2000. Youth, when the age brackets are added up, have the highest suicide numbers in Canada. In 2011, there were 3728 reported and confirmed cases of suicide, and this does not count those who attempted suicide but lived. Of those 528 were under the age of 25. 29 were under the age of 15.
528 is a big number and it’s hard to visualize.
It’s roughly 26 full hockey teams. To put that in perspective, there are 30 teams in the NHL. Now imagine 26 of those teams disappearing this year.
“528” is more than half the population of my high school the year I graduated.
“528” is roughly 18 classrooms of elementary school students. Which equals roughly two entire K-8 schools.
More youth kill themselves every year than there are MPs in Canadian Parliament.
And these statistics only measure children over the age of 10. Jenna Nikki, a mother in Carlyle Saskatchewan, caught her son trying to hang himself at the age of 9. She is still fighting with the school board to end the bullying that drove him to that point.
I have felt a strong connection to every bullying survivor whose story I have heard or read. On Tuesday that changed. I have made the shift from survivor to fighter. Not because I’ve been bullied recently – the worst thing I’ve faced lately is indifference – but because my son was bullied. Now I feel a connection to Jenna Nikki, and to Jetta’s mom, and to Leah Parsons.
So far, my son has faced mild teasing, but it is happening on a fairly regular basis from multiple children. Tuesday morning, my son got an award at the school assembly. The virtue they were studying this month was respect. On Tuesday, in addition to the teasing, his sandwich was taken from him by two boys in his class and deliberately dropped on the floor. Right now this is mild. Right now it is the beginning of a problem that may just go away.
But I do not want to find my son with a belt around his closet bar in four years’ time.
Currently a student at my old high school is being bullied because he was born with dwarfism and the school is failing him – they can’t stop it. While I hope this won’t be the case at my son’s school, it is the case at many schools, and has been for many years.
The school that expelled the rape victim instead of the harassers because it was easier, the public school that allows Christian students to bully non-believers because most of the teachers are also Christian, the school that suspended a terrified teenage girl because it must have been her fault that everyone tormented her, the school that told a parent “tell your daughter to suck it up, words never killed anyone”, these schools are failing their students.
In Nothing Everything Nothing Molly’s school also fails her. These two scenes take place after the bullying starts but before her first attempt.
The first time Molly’s mother, Joanna, goes to the school, the principal is adamant that they can do nothing about the cyber-bullying because it started in the evening, outside of school hours and off of school property. He also refuses to do more than speak with Lance about giving Molly alcohol on school property because there was no proof. He does agree to cooperate with any police investigation that might arise.
And later, after speaking with the police and starting a formal investigation, Joanna and Molly return to speak with Mr. Penner a second time:
Joanna and Molly didn’t have to wait at all when they walked into school Monday morning. Mr. Penner was waiting for them and ushered them straight in to his office. After a quick exchange of pleasantries Mr. Penner got down to business.
“We were contacted by a Detective Price this morning. He says he’s in charge of the investigation into the pictures.”
Joanna simply nodded. “Good. And what’s going to be done about the pictures already in circulation?”
Mr. Penner’s eyebrows came together as he frowned. “The police are handling Lance and the photos, are they not?”
“Of course they are. But are you doing anything to stop the spread of those pictures? Can you be one hundred percent certain that not a single one of your students is viewing or sending those pictures while on school property?”
“That’s not something we can control.”
“All right, thank you. You have a good day today, Molly. I’m going to the newspaper to see if any of the reporters want to write a story on a high school that protects pedophiles. It was nice seeing you again, Mr. Penner.” She looped her purse over her arm and stood.
Mr. Penner also rose. “Now wait just one minute! We are not protecting anybody. If students are caught with those pictures they will be dealt with.”
“How?” Joanna pressed.
“Their phones are confiscated until the end of the day, as per the Electronic Device Usage Policy.”
“That is the extent of our school policy.”
“You don’t report them to the police? You don’t inform their parents? What is it about Molly’s situation that makes this excusable?” Joanna’s voice was rising in volume and pitch as she spoke. “Do you think students in your school have the right to view them because Molly is sixteen and not twelve, or eight, or younger?”
“It’s nothing like that.”
Joanna sat again; her body angled forward, the perfect picture of attentiveness. “Then enlighten me. What would you do if it was the photo of a twelve year old rape victim?”
Mr. Penner cleared his throat. “We would call the parents and the police.”
“My daughter is a minor. She is being sexually harassed by a boy who is legally an adult. I assume you will do what is right in this situation.”
“Of course. Parents and police will be notified every time we find one of those photos on a phone belonging to one of our students.”
“Or staff members,” Joanna prompted.
“I resent that accusation.”
“I don’t care. This is my daughter’s reputation and future on the line. I want to know that you aren’t protecting anyone who is violating her privacy.”
“Should the unforgiveable circumstance arise, the police will be notified that a staff member is in possession of those photos.”
Molly looked from her mom to her principal and back again. She’d never seen her mom act like this before but it made speaking out a lot easier. “What about the boys who keep asking me for …er … favours?”
“You’ll have to report them,” Mr. Penner said.
“I don’t know their names. They just walk up to me at the bus loop. There are no teachers and I can’t come back in or I’ll miss my bus.”
“You’ll have to report them,” Mr. Penner repeated. “We can’t have a teacher shadow you everywhere, I’m sorry. How many times has this happened?”
“Twice,” Molly mumbled.
Mr. Penner glanced over at Joanna then said, “Tell us about every incident, even if you don’t know their names. We’ll keep a record. It will help us to know how many copies we’re looking for.”
“Thank-you,” Joanna said.
Up until now I have focused on the negative impacts of bullying, and failures of the system, but the book isn’t all negative, and neither is the journey of recovery. Many blogs spoke of good days, days when they would feel strong and almost normal, days when it was easy to pretend that there was nothing wrong. They also spoke of days when they could not even get out of bed and how these extremes were unpredictable.
During Molly’s recovery she has several moments of great strength. Her eight-year-old half-sister, Shannon, has a part in the school play. The performance takes place after Molly is released from the hospital and Molly agrees to go see it. This is her first time stepping out of the safety of her house since coming home from the hospital. That alone took great strength. But she is so impressed by her sister’s performance that she writes her sister a letter and slides it under her bedroom door.
“Shannon, I went to see your play this afternoon. You were amazing. You lit up the stage. You never forgot a line. I loved every minute you were on stage.
“I know I said some unforgivable things about you, and to you. I know I was mean to you. I know there are no excuses for how I acted. It was easier to hate you then feel guilty about hurting you. It was easier to blame you than to blame myself.
“You’re annoying sometimes, you really are. And sometimes I get angry at you. But today I was proud of you. Molly.”
After reading the letter Shannon bursts into Molly’s room and says “I don’t hate you either. You’re the best big sister in the world.”
Several weeks later, as Lance continues to harass her and Brandon she works up the courage to return to Lance everything he purchased for her while they were dating.
To everyone else Molly looked determined, single-minded, and strong. Inside Molly was shaking with terror and now that she was alone on Lance’s side step that terror was seeping through her brave façade.
She knocked again and took several deep breaths trying to slow her racing heart and steady her shaking hands.
Before she could talk herself around to running back to the car the door opened and all that separated Molly from Lance was a screen door.
He stared at her for a moment and then sneered. “Did you come back to pay up?”
“No. I came back to return something to you.”
The sneer dropped from his face and his eyes narrowed. “Return what?”
The closed screen door gave her courage and she dropped the bag on the step at her feet. “Everything you bought me is right here. And since I’m not in possession of it any more I don’t owe you anything.”
“I bought you food. I paid the taxes when you didn’t have enough money.”
“And I threw that shirt in the bag too. That’s twenty dollars you owe me for the shirt. Keep the shirt and the twenty and call it even.”
She stepped down onto the walkway.
“What am I supposed to do with a bag of clothes?”
“I don’t care,” she said without turning around. She forced herself to walk down the driveway when everything inside her was screaming at her to run before he came after her.
Lance doesn’t follow her and this isn’t the last time she encounters him. The next time doesn’t go as well and triggers a minor relapse. But this is the normal up-and-down of life after attempting suicide, or living with depression. Things that don’t bother you today will put you in tears tomorrow. Things that don’t scare you today will be so terrifying tomorrow that you will feel like running away, or cutting, or self-medicating. And then next day things might be better again, or worse yet. There is no real way to tell.
The book ends with an epilogue that takes place several years later when Molly finally graduates from high school. As her parents are leaving the dinner so she and Brandon can enjoy the party her mom sayd “We trust you. We are so proud of you, and we love you.” And the last line of the book is “And Molly believed them.”
There is a long road ahead of Molly. She still has scars, physical and emotional ones. Those scars will still cause her to have doubts and bad days. But she is finally in a position where she can see and believe in the love of those closest to her.
To my cousin, your story isn’t over.
To all teens and adults battling depression, you are not alone, your story isn’t over.
That is the end of my formal presentation. I would like to open things up to you for comments and questions about me and my writing, about the book, or about bullying, suicide, and other issues facing teens. I will try to answer everything as best I can.
If there are no other questions I’d like to thank my volunteers: Jon, John, Andy, Angil, Janet, Thea, Len, Steph, Sara and Larry, for their help with the event this evening. A big thank-you to our two sponsors, Modular Storage and Sobeys on Reenders. Thank-you Andy and Thea for your help with getting this book published, and thank-you to my aunt for the permission to use my cousin’s photo in the promotion of this book – it was nice to give Molly a face. A lot of people helped make this project possible and they are all thanked in a blog entry that will be published tomorrow morning.
I’m going to invite Stephanie back up here to help me with the door prize draw. As each ticket is drawn and announced the winner may come up to the table here and select their prize.
The prizes include a copy of Nothing Everything Nothing – if you’ve already purchased a copy we can refund your ten dollars, or you may keep both copies. This copy is special as it is the only one signed by me and by my cousin. There is also a signed copy of a collection of short fiction I self-published several years ago, and a collection of poetry I released at the same time. Only half a dozen copies were ever printed. There is a hard-cover coffee table edition of a poetry anthology in which I was featured with my poem bookmarked, and a collection of short fiction and poetry put out by a writing group I once participated in. Each book comes with a gift certificate to Modular Storage.