"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
No one person ever led the bullying I experienced as a child. When I try to remember that time in my life, I think of a mob of faces, and of the mercy I hoped for but never received.
I grew up as a fat girl in an unforgiving new money suburb. One time, I was going to play with a younger friend from my block when a group of girls surrounded us, some shoving me, some yelling “Moose!” (Moose was the nickname that plagued me throughout school, following me until I left for college.) The girl leading the mob, Stacy, had one year and at least four inches on me. Her golden good looks would’ve made her pretty if not for the furious expression she wore whenever she caught sight of me. I broke through the circle of screaming girls and ran till I got home. I never told anyone, though the violence frightened me.
I tried contacting Stacy, but she ignored my emails. I moved on to Delia, leader of the mean girls in my elementary school. Delia sometimes called me names, but generally stuck to catty mind games. One day in sixth grade, she walked up to my desk, looked deep into my eyes, and said I had “such a pretty face.” Then she shook her head sadly. She and her eighth grade boyfriend tried to convince me his friend had a crush on me. I weighed 250 pounds, so it was unlikely. I saw her at our 20th high school reunion this summer. She teaches grade school now and commended me on an essay I’d written about bullying for Salon.
“I used it as a reference when we were planning our anti-bulling strategy,” she told me, utterly without irony. A few weeks later, I asked her to discuss her role as one of my bullies, and she declined, saying she was sorry she couldn’t help. I tried other former bullies. None of them would talk. Finally, I posted a request on Facebook — and one person came forward.
Ryan is the younger brother of Brad, who originally coined my nickname, “Moose.” Ryan remembered how his brother led a group of boys shouting that name on the school bus every day. He offered to discuss his role in the bullying. When I finally spoke to him, for the first time in more than 20 years, the deep timbre of his voice came as a surprise.
“You sound like a grown-up now,” I said. He laughed, and said he thought the same thing about me.
As kids, Ryan and I alternated between playing together on our street with our neighbor, a younger boy named Ed, and enmity, as he joined his brother in calling me names on the school bus.
“Brad was my older brother, and that’s who sort of modeled for me,” Ryan explained. Their father, whom I remember as a cheerful presence at backyard barbecues, left the family when Ryan was 8 and Brad was 10. Ryan blamed his brother’s actions on their parents’ divorce and his father’s abandonment.
“I handled the divorce in different ways. Brad handled it with anger,” Ryan told me. I spoke to him via cellphone, sitting in my parked car in the rain. Ryan, who moved to Florida with his mother after high school, spent time working in a coal mine in Alabama before launching a career in interior design in Nashville. He left design for Baptist seminary, citing the torturous economy and the “rock ‘n’ roll” atmosphere of working for people in the music industry. I asked him about Brad. Brad was one of the bullies I reached out to, who had refused to speak to me, and I wanted to know why.
“Brad said he doesn’t really get it. He said, ‘I don’t really have to justify the actions of a 10-year-old.’” Ryan paused. We were both silent for a minute. “I know he has a repentant heart. I know he’s sensitive to it,” Ryan said. I felt resentment and anger at this. Not at Ryan, who had no obligation to me at all. He was a bully by default, a collaborator like so many other people I’d grown up with and mistaken for friends. No, I resented his brother. I felt like he owed me a conversation, that it’s the least he — and Delia, and Stacy — could do. I joked about this when I emailed them. “You owe me one,” I wrote. But no one owes anyone anything, and I doubt that any apology, no matter how sincere, would make me feel any better. There’s no undoing the past. They can’t take it back. But I had hoped some of them would regret the terrible impact their actions had on me.
The essay Delia mentioned came on the heels of the “It Gets Better” movement, columnist Dan Savage’s campaign to help prevent suicide among bullied teens. In that piece, I mentioned that the bullying made me consider suicide almost daily for about five years, starting when I was 12. And yet, Delia smiled at me at the reunion as she talked about the importance of anti-bullying campaigns. (We shared a moment later, when a drunken classmate told us that “sometimes racism is a good idea.” I said no, it really is not, and Delia nodded. “I have to agree with Rebecca on this one,” she said.)
Ryan didn’t apologize for his brother, but he did try to explain his behavior. He told me Brad used “that stupid name we used to call you” to look cool in front of the guys.
“Did it work?” I asked. I don’t know what made me ask Ryan that. Humor, equal parts defense mechanism and natural personality, always comes out when I’m tense or afraid. Ryan considered the question for a moment before answering.
“I think it did, in a sick, mean-kid kind of a way,” he said. “Kids idolize bullies. He’d celebrate that sometimes.” I asked Ryan if he remembered any adults doing anything to correct his or Brad’s behavior. He pondered this.
“There was Dottie, the curly-haired bus driver,” he recalled. “I don’t remember her doing anything, and a lot of the bullying happened on the bus.”
I don’t remember her intervening either. Ryan remembered his mother telling him and Brad not to tease me, but never punishing them for it. “I vividly remember you coming to our back door one day and knocking. I remember you telling my mom ‘The boys are making fun of me again,’ and my mom reacting in totally the wrong way. She said, ‘Not right now, Becky,’ and slammed the door in your face.” He wanted me to understand that his mother was a good person, a gentle woman despite that story. “She would sob in reaction to this,” he told me. He blamed the divorce again, telling me that his mother struggled to raise two boys alone and to keep the house. He also wondered why my mother didn’t “come after” him and his brother. I couldn’t answer that question.
My mother spoke to countless parents about their children bullying me. She worked three jobs to keep us in the suburb where other children tormented me and teachers did virtually nothing to stop it. The mistreatment came as a huge slap in the face to her — she and my father worked so hard so to live in a good neighborhood where her children would be safe, and the good suburban neighbors and teachers snatched that dream away from us without a second thought.
I asked Ryan if these experiences he seemed to remember as vividly as I do myself had any impact on how he approached bullying with the children in his life. He told me he mentored a 12-year-old boy at church who was teased for being effeminate. “If I had to diagnose it, I’d say it’s because he never had that male role model to teach him to stand up for himself,” Ryan explained. I thought about letting that go, but Dan Savage is the angel (and S/M devil) on my shoulder.
“Isn’t it wrong to put the onus on the kid?” I asked. “Shouldn’t he have a right to go to school and have an education and not be teased, no matter how different he might be?”
“He does have a right,” Ryan admitted. “No matter who you are, or how you act, no one has a right to pick on you,” he added.
Ryan asked me to forgive him. It was such a strange request. I accepted it as badly as I do compliments. I wanted to laugh it off, or make a self-deprecating remark, but Ryan’s earnestness prevented that. I never really harbored any great resentment toward Ryan. I knew he felt pressure to fit in, and that he idolized his brother. Nevertheless, I told Ryan I forgave him. Forgiveness is old-fashioned and strange to me, a remnant of the old days when couples courted and a cup of coffee cost a dime. I don’t know if my cynicism spoiled the concept for me, or if I simply lack the capacity to feel anything good about an ugly and damaging time in my life, but I came away from the conversation largely unchanged, though freshly reminded of old hurts.
Ryan said that our talk would give him a lot to think about. He also said that he recalled good things about our friendship, like the time we rode our bikes with Ed for curly fries one summer afternoon. I thought about that day — the wind on my face as I rode my old single-speed Huffy along a busy street, with my friends behind me. It was the highlight of my summer vacation. I felt a little sad at this memory, too. More of my childhood days should have been like that. Innocent, happy, full of friendship, good exercise and fried food.
I wanted to stop feeling so angry about things that happened such a long time ago. I wanted forgiveness to have the same restorative power for me that it did for Ryan. I wanted it to get better. My life today is full of good friendships and meaningful work. I know that it will continue to get better, because it’s already so much better than I ever imagined it could be when I rode the bus and faced mobs of bullies every day. But I wanted to stop feeling so angry all the time. Maybe, one day, I will.
Rebecca Golden, author of "Butterbabe: The True Adventures of a 40-Stone Outsider" (Random House UK), teaches and writes in Laramie, Wyoming, where she is a candidate for the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.More Rebecca Golden.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
Some adolescent scars linger well into adulthood. Interview With My Bully, our new essay series, hopes to provide some closure, and maybe even build some understanding and common ground between the picked-on and their young tormentors. Ever wonder what happened to the person who pushed you around in junior high?
Why not track him or her down -- and post your essay on Open Salon.