Starford recounts her year (at age 14) spent at a school in the bush where she lived in a house with 16 other girls. During her year, Starford experiences bullying (as both a receiver and an instigator) and uses her memoir as a means to explore how this ‘bad behaviour’ impacted her adult relationships.
“…what bothered me the most were all the gaps in the diary. So many things had been left out entirely – arguments, sadness, misbehaviour. On these pages I’d instead pasted in photographs from hikes, to make it look like something else had happened. What, I wondered, was I trying to forget?”
Much will be made of which school Starford attended (and therefore the identities of key characters in the book). I’m sure it wouldn’t be too difficult to find out but I think it’s irrelevant. Because this story about bullying is not exceptional. It is well written, it is easy-to-read but it is a common story and one that many people will identify with.
I’ve read a few reviews of this book where the reviewers have said that they found the bullying ‘astounding’, ‘shocking’ and ‘unbelievable’. Really?
Sadly, I don’t think Starford’s experience is unique, although it’s fair to say the setting is unusual. Bullying happens in every school and to think otherwise is incredibly naive. The crux of the issue is how bullying is managed (it reminds me of a discussion I had with someone a few years ago – this person happily told me that her child’s new school didn’t need a bullying policy because bullying wasn’t a problem. No policy? Wow. That’s not a school I’d send my child to).
So how is bullying dealt with in Bad Behaviour? To a certain extent it was ‘survival of the fittest’ which, when left to their own devices, ensured the poor behaviour was perpetuated. The remote setting also allowed for more creative punishments – overnight hikes and cross-country runs in the dark. The nitty-gritty of the bullying was somewhat amorphous – from the mild ‘dorm raid’ (which I imagine is standard boarding school shenanigans) to the distasteful shit-in-a-suitcase scene – individual incidents were despicable but again, not ‘startling’. More disturbing was the relentless undercurrent of mean-girl politics – girls of a certain age can get very good at excluding and including.
The book works hard to link what happened during Starford’s boarding school year to her experiences in relationships as an adult. Of course, there’s no perfect experiment to measure the effect of childhood experiences on adult decisions – in this case, I suspect Starford is still grappling with the linkages and as a result, her ruminations don’t feel fully-formed (or resolved) – I’m not sure that writing the book was the full cathartic experience she may have hoped for.
You can hear Starford speak about her experiences and Bad Behaviour here.
3/5 Thought provoking (and a superb pick for book groups).
It’s all about beef stews at the boarding house. My current favourite (and I may have mentioned it before) is Jamie Oliver’s Mexican Beef Chilli from Save with Jamie (thanks to The Quirk and the Cool for writing out the recipe…) – it’s so good that I’ve discarded other chilli recipes.