By Rachel Simmons
Harcourt, 289 pp., $25
It's 1:58 p.m., sixth period, and Jenny's heart is starting to race. By 1:59 p.m., she's short of breath. Then, when the bell finally sounds, she's free to leave her classroom but not free of Brianna and Mackenzie, fellow seventh-graders and self-appointed queen bees at Mason Middle School in Wyoming. Brianna's the prettiest girl in class, Mackenzie's the best at sports, and together they head up a clique that's bent on making Jenny's life miserable. Why? Simple. Jenny's the new girl in town.
It started with a code name for Jenny -- "Harriet," as in "Harriet the Hairy Whore." Then the rumor that Jenny was out with boys in the woods behind the soccer field -- in other words, a slut. Then the secret club, with every girl in class (but two) a member: Hate Harriet the Hore Incorporated (HHHI). In the hallway, it's therefore "Hhhiiiiiii ..." to Jenny's face even as a body slam from behind knocks Jenny to her knees. At night, it's phone calls from Jenny to Brianna and Mackenzie, who swear to her they don't hate her guts. And at night, the pain, the embarrassment, and the dread send Jenny to sleep in tears. Not a single teacher intervenes on Jenny's behalf, because not a single teacher at Mason Middle is picking up on a bit of this. The thought of telling her parents only makes Jenny sick. Jenny, though, gets her revenge. In junior year of high school, she steals the boyfriend who took Brianna's virginity.
"I just had this feeling of victory," Jenny told author Rachel Simmons in the course of Simmons' groundbreaking research in Odd Girl Out. "I wanted to rub it in her face. I felt really good that I had hurt her back. It's vindictive and it's sad ... but to this day I hate this girl and I wanted to hurt her." "To this day" is 20 years later, and, according to Simmons, Jenny the 32-year-old said these words with "neither shame nor remorse, only the anger that still smolders."
Jenny is not alone. Based on Simmons' findings -- after interviews conducted in 10 schools in three areas of the country, across racial and socioeconomic lines, and with girls, parents, teachers, administrators, and adult women -- life's a battle for girls between 10 and 14, the ages when bullying peaks, and if it's so far rarely been discussed, you have the nature of that bullying to blame. Simmons' keyword "hidden" in her subtitle says it all.
"Our culture refuses girls access to open conflict," Simmons writes in her introduction, "and it forces their aggression into nonphysical, indirect, and covert forms. Girls use backbiting, exclusion, rumors, name-calling, and manipulation to inflict psychological pain on targeted victims. Unlike boys ... girls frequently attack within tightly knit networks of friends, making aggression harder to identify and intensifying the damage to victims."
"Damage" indeed to judge from the horror stories Simmons writes of here, and those stories are no "phase" or "rite of passage" girls go through and grow out of either. According to Simmons, however, the battle between bully and bullied has as its major culprit society -- a society that assigns women the role of caregivers, nurturers, and peacekeepers and bristles at the prospect of a girl who's "all that" -- assertive, self-confident, and independent, a girl who airs her grievances, settles a score, then gets on with her business.
What's a "nice" girl, a "good" girl to do, then, with her impulses toward anger when a "culture of indirection" is telling her outward anger's a no-no? Simple. Isolate your victim by craft, stealth, betrayal, the silent treatment, nonverbal gesturing (a raised eyebrow, a smirk, a fake smile, a body slam), and, the "girl gizmo" par excellence, Instant Messaging, whereby it's possible to keep a host of cybermessages going even as you're on the phone with other friends and at home with more friends bad-mouthing everybody. It's all about relationships, you see, so make relationships your weapon of choice, because if there's one thing girls don't want, it's to be left out. Girls (guys don't seem to figure in this) really hate that.
If you're the girl victimized, you can try your parents for help, and if your parents have Odd Girl Out on hand, they can learn from Simmons some useful language and practical advice on how and how not to steer you free of a bad situation. Teachers help too, but in Simmons' opinion they and school counselors have done a sorry job identifying and addressing a problem that's hourly under their very noses.
Or you can take the word of one sixth-grader, at an elementary school in a working-class town in northeast Mississippi, who told Simmons in no uncertain, but simple, terms: "If you have to act two different ways to be yourself, then your friends aren't your friends." Or, on the question of two-faced goody-two-shoes, this, from a fifth-grader, same school: "[Y]ou have something to say, say it to my face."
Odd girls out, out there everywhere, it won't kill you to follow suit. Guys do it all the time.