Support the news
Like what you read here? Sign up for our twice-weekly newsletter.
I hate bullies. But bullies and their jeering wingmen are becoming an everyday part of the American landscape. Whenever I go on social media or turn on my television I feel like I’m that bespectacled little kid from "A Christmas Story," being taunted by a yellow-toothed bully in a raccoon hat.
Bullies have always been admired and elevated in a fascist state. In "The Bicycle Runner: A Memoir of Love, Loyalty, and the Italian Resistance," G. Franco Romagnoli chronicles his life in 1930s Italy and writes, “To conform to the official mold, a Fascist boy had to be strong, courageous, a smart aleck and a bully.” In Romagnoli’s world at that time, “many were under the thumb of a few. The few unscrupulous, violent men who were in power ... [t]heir purpose, more than to convert, was to intimidate and humiliate.”
My mother left Italy in the 1930s to escape fascism and an arranged marriage to an old man who offered a dowry of adjoining land to her father’s farm. As a child, she marched for Il Duce in a Balilla uniform holding a baby doll, a symbol of the regime’s restriction of women to the role of breeders for the fascist state. My mother never talked about what it was like growing up under a strutting dictator. Newsreels of Benito Mussolini look cartoonish today, his over-sized chin jutting like the prow of a destroyer as he parodies a “manly” posture, dressed in military folderol, betasseled as a showgirl, barking out his demands to “Believe! Obey! Fight!"
Within days of her arrival to the United States, and with only a few words of English, my mother was soon sewing alongside other immigrants in Boston’s garment district, women who spoke a different language and who gave her a different name, one that made my mother’s “otherness” feel irreversible.
I don’t want to live in a place where bullies are elevated to the status of gods. But that has already happened.
But she was safe from an arranged marriage to an old man and the war that would devastate her homeland. My mother met and married my father and found love, too. They had a family and she cooked for his working class bar, Leone’s Café, until his untimely death at 50, leaving her widowed at 43 with three kids, no marketable skills outside of cooking and a tenuous grasp of the English language.
But Ma persevered in this country; it was her home, this place 7 miles outside of Boston where her Italian-American neighbors all emigrated from the same town in southern Italy. In her later years, she lived with my sister and her family in the same house, surrounded by her grandchildren, the bullies in her life a distant memory.
My first experience with bullies was with my nun teachers, who were masters in the art of humiliation. First graders who talked in class were paraded from room to room wearing baby hats, to be ridiculed by their classmates. Our bruises were invisible in view of actual thuggery, but the fear was pervasive and kids routinely peed their pants, ramping up the humiliation into a hellscape that seemed as eternal as the one we were threatened with every day.
In my adult life, there was a special education director bully who decreed that my quadriplegic son couldn’t have his basic civil rights to a free and inclusive public education, but that guy’s not the special ed director anymore. And my son, Jesse, became a straight-A student and a bully slayer by default.
This past November, I watched a video of a young man bullying cowed women on a plane, shouting the name of the winner of our recent presidential election as a threat to silence them. The women sat, heads bowed as if at a ritual shaming ceremony, and said nothing. I wondered if I would be silent, too, if I were on that plane. I remembered all the times I sat like a stone in first grade, disappearing into my seat, feeling powerless yet complicit as I watched my classmates groveling, dissolving into tears of shame as they were paraded before us like Chinese dissenters during the communist revolution. I was glad I wasn’t the one being punished, but by doing nothing I felt like I had somehow become the bullies' accomplice.
I don’t want to live in a place where bullies are elevated to the status of gods. But that has already happened. I wonder if my mother, who died 12 years ago, would recognize her adopted country today.
Of one thing I am certain: My mother could recognize a bully. And she felt compassion for people new to this country, as she once was. When our Italian-American neighbor of 50 years sold her house and three generations of a Muslim Pakistani family moved in, my mother was glad of a playmate the same age as her granddaughter and sympathetic to the little girl’s older brother, who came to her with his problems.
“I know what it’s like,” Ma said, “to feel alone where you don’t know nobody.” She plied the kids next door with food, and lied about her meatballs — “What pork? There’s no pork in there.” (Ma could be a bit of a bully herself about food.)
What would Ma think of the bully-in-chief? A memory flood of her slushy dialect fills my ears. Most of the words are unprintable, but the loudest is “gavone,” the dialect version of “cafone.” The word has nothing at all to do with power, or strength or humanity. Gavone describes a boor, a rude, lumbering beast who would knock over a small child or a grandmother to get to the food, then grunt inarticulately as he swallows everyone else’s portion. And, in fact, our president did just that recently, for all the world to see, as he shoved aside the prime minister of Montenegro, Dusko Markovic, to get to the front for a photo op, a move that was the definition of “gavone.”
Ma may have struggled with the English language, but that doesn't mean she wasn’t smart. She knew how to parse her bullyboys, even in dialect. And she knew a gavone when she saw one.
Marianne Leone's new book is "Ma Speaks Up: And A First Generation Daughter Talks Back."