The Bully Book
Writer turns tormented childhood memories of being bullied into a book.
It all began in third grade — the tormenting, the name calling, the bullying — and only got worse as the years progressed. For Eric Kahn Gale, life in his Southfield elementary school was challenging and hard to forget.
“I remember the first day of fourth grade; the bullying happened immediately,” said Gale, who now lives in Chicago. “This guy, Jason, was the worst. He was very mean-spirited in the way he treated me. The bullying got more intense in fifth grade. The kids were always the same each year so the patterns of bullying grew and reinforced themselves over the years.”
Gale didn’t tell his parents that he was bullied; he was embarrassed. He felt like school was a dungeon, and his home was a safe haven.
“I didn’t want the bullying to affect my home life; I wanted to keep it separate,” Gale said. “I thought I should just accept the bullying because I thought it was normal; I thought this was who I was.
“My parents moved to [West Bloomfield] between fifth and sixth grade. I thought there was something wrong with me or there was something about me that kept drawing in all this negative attention. I thought this would happen to me at my new school. When I got there, no one treated me the way I was treated at my old school.
“After about a week at the new school, I noticed a few kids who were being bullied and tortured. I was relieved that this space was already occupied. I didn’t do anything to help these kids, but it stuck with me. It seemed like there might be a need for kids to target someone and make them feel low. This seemed to be the system of the school at the time, which is why I’ve always wanted to write about it. It’s a strange idea that there is a need to have someone that everyone just walks all over.”
Art Imitates Life
“It’s interesting; Eric has this experience in fifth grade but when he moved to a new school, he got involved in the theater program and just blossomed,” said his father, Allen Gale, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. “He got one of the leads in his first play; the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. Ever since then, he blossomed socially as a performer and as a person.”
When Gale was 24, he began writing The Bully Book, a middle-school mystery based on true events about a young boy named Eric Haskins, who is bullied by three of his classmates. Eventually, these three boys manage to get the whole class to turn against him by using a “bully book,” a puzzling guide that teaches students how to “make trouble without getting in trouble, rule the school and be the man” and how to strategically select the “Grunt” — “the loser of all losers.” Eric Haskins becomes obsessed with the bully book, going to great lengths to figure out why he is the chosen Grunt.
“A lot of the events in the book are based on things that happened to me when I was in elementary school,” said Gale, who invented the bully book as a literary device. “Every Monday, we had a substitute. The sub would give each person in the classroom a vocabulary word, and we would have to use it in a sentence. Every single kid in the class managed to create an insulting sentence about me using their vocabulary word.
“It was a traumatic experience and a difficult five weeks. I didn’t want to go to school. I was shocked that no one was stopping it or helping me. The substitute never said a word,” Gale added.
Gale didn’t like himself in elementary school, and the “hatred I had toward myself grew as people made fun of me,” he said.
“Groups of people in my class would chant mean things and yell at me. The word ‘gay’ was very prevalent in my elementary school at the time. My classmates would always call me gay. It was a stupid thing to call someone, and it never made sense to me why this word was used as an insult. I hated the way people used it,” Gale added.
In his first draft, Gale left out the fact that his classmates used the word gay as an insult. He thought writing about it would only reinforce the insult, which wasn’t what he wanted.
“When I wrote it out and read it without having the word gay in there it felt like the book didn’t have teeth,” Gale explained. “Even though I didn’t want to reinforce it, it was true, so I ended up putting it in the book because I wanted to tell the truth about what was happening to me at the time.”
Gale has Eric Haskins say to the bullies, “Stop calling people gay. I don’t even know why that’s an insult. There are real gay people in the world, you know, and there’s nothing wrong with them. Calling someone gay, like it’s a bad thing, is like calling someone a dentist — it doesn’t make any sense!”
“I heard the word gay for the rest of my life in school, and I feel like it needs to be confronted, not ignored. It’s a problem in today’s language,” Gale said.
For Gale, writing The Bully Book was cathartic. Before he wrote the book, he felt insecure around other people. He always thought it was hard to make friends and meet women. Seeing other people made him nervous, and his feeling of social anxiety often followed him wherever he went.
“I was carrying around with me all these insecurities from my childhood,” Gale said. “I felt like it held me back in a couple ways. Writing about them helped me work out my issues. Storytelling can transform something so negative and painful into something amazing. Writing about my childhood changed my life in terms of my career.”
Gale graduated from the University of Michigan in 2008 with a degree in film. In 2007, he won the Hopwood Drama Award and the Dennis McIntyre Award for Distinction in Undergraduate Playwriting for a play he wrote called Marlin and the Jaguar. He has a strong affinity for the arts; he started performing in plays when he was 11. When he was 14, he began writing plays of his own and was fascinated by it. To him, the feeling of writing is much more satisfying than acting.
“Writing seemed like a more integrative way to tell a story,” he said.
Gale is now a full-time writer. His most recent work, co-written with Nick and Matt Lang, is Twisted, a musical parody of Aladdin and Wicked, currently running in Chicago. The musical stars Darren Criss from TV’s Glee.
Earlier this year, Gale went on a seven-city book tour where he spoke about The Bully Book at bookstores and also at schools, which was his favorite part.
“The tour was a cool and intense experience for me,” he said. “I had never been to any of the cities I went to. My girlfriend came with me to a couple of the cities, and I met a ton of people.”
Currently, Gale is working to transform his play Marlin and the Jaguar, which is about a little boy who lives in a zoo, into a book. He hopes to have it published through his publishers, HarperCollins, next year.
Eric Kahn Gale will appear at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 11, at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield as part of the local authors’ presentations at Detroit’s annual Jewish Book Fair.
By Leslie Spector, JN Intern