Confronting Abuse: The Power of Manipulation by Will Kenneth

Confronting Abuse: The Power of Manipulation

Confronting Abuse: The Power of Manipulation by Will Kenneth

Illustration by Simon Sotelo

When I was younger, I imagined one day I would be writing a book about my life, and this would have been everyone’s favorite chapter. The story has it all: drama, action, betrayal, awkward seventh grade crushes.

Now I don’t see it the same way. What was once a story about one of my greatest triumphs is just another unflattering example of how I was abused and never realized it until I reached my thirties.

The school principal asked me to not tell this story, and for the most part I’ve kept my word. I’ve only shared it in full a few times with close friends, but given that twenty years have passed, and given everything else I have learned about abuse since then, I decided that now is the right time to share it.

I’m no hero, and just because the story is told from my viewpoint doesn’t make me one. As a courtesy, I’ve changed the names of people involved, but the story is one hundred percent true.

A New Home

After my family left New York City in 1991, I attended a private school in Boca Raton, Fla., a city Jon Stewart once described on The Daily Show as “the sixth borough of New York,” owing to the city’s Jewish, New York expats.

Much of the city was also elderly and extremely wealthy.

(Once, I went to a classmate’s house where every home in the neighborhood was a mansion, and I don’t mean four-bedroom houses. When I say mansions, I mean monuments to spectacular wealth. When I arrived at his house, his was noticeably bigger than most of the others. My dad told me as we were leaving that this kid’s mom bragged they were going to take over the empty lot next door and in turn it into a garage for their car collection.)

Parents send their kids to private school for a ton of reasons: prestige, better education standards, white flight, convenience, safety (see white flight), better school rankings (see white flight again), expulsions from public school, and if boarding is available, it may be because their kids have behavioral problems.

When parents send their kids to private school, they expect their kids to come back safe—a little insulated and hopefully happier than in public programs. But domestic abuse crosses all races and social classes, and private school can only do so much to protect kids from other kids.

The Trial

In my seventh grade English class, we started reading a book called Summer of My German Soldier. The story is about a young girl who hides an escaped German World War II POW. (The POW said he disavowed Nazism, so let’s overlook that a ton of my peers were the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, and accept this as a strange detail that I’m having a hard time reconciling.)

To help us engage with the book, our teacher decided to host a mock trial for the young girl.

Playing the girl was a classmate I was crushing on pretty hard. Nancy was a new student that year. She was struggling to keep up with the grammar lessons, none of which were all that easy. Our teacher would sometimes ask me to help her, and I didn’t protest. I knew this was a great excuse to chat with her more. I was mostly too shy and scared to talk to her outside of class anyway. After all, what could a dork-ass, comic book-loving dweeb like me offer a cute girl like her?

I assumed nothing, but apparently our teacher thought we were great together, because I was assigned to play the Nazi. I was stoked. I was hoping the mock trial would give me a chance to talk to Nancy more.

Unfortunately, playing the prosecutor was Ben, an arrogant dickhead who acted like he was the coolest kid in school. Only he wasn’t, and a bunch of the other kids would shit talk him behind his back. He acted like he didn’t know it, though, but if he had, I’m sure he just acted the part to cope with his wounded ego.

He also teased me for years. I caught a lot of shit in grade school, and he wasn’t the worst bully I had. He was just the most obnoxious.

I acted out and struggled to manage my emotions for most of my youth, and that made me a big ol’ target. My dad would yell at me, “Boys don’t cry!” So, unsure of what to do, I cried more. Teaching me to manage my emotions was never a priority for him, but enforcing hypermasculine gender roles was. That was as much a cultural failure as it was his failure.

To other kids like Ben, my tears were like catnip. Ben hatched a plan to embarrass me in front of the class, and he got the rest of the other boys to jump in, too.

At Ben’s direction, they started drawing pictures of my face at different profiles. One from each side exaggerating my features, but mostly my haircut (which honestly was not great) and my ears (which didn’t stick out that much).

My friend Joe also jumped in. He joined the school in sixth grade, but we went to summer camp together long before then. We even went trick or treating together the year before. I couldn’t understand why he jumped in to help mock me, but I guess I was just used to people close to me being hurtful.

When I saw them all working on the portraits, I compartmentalized it. I knew they were going to tease me, but I brushed that off. I’ve been teased before about all that stuff. What could they do to hurt me that I haven’t seen yet?

When the mock trial started, Nancy sat at the front of the classroom facing the rest of us. I sat in the back.

Ben walked up to her and unfurled a spread of at least six different profiles of my face. He was grinning, proud of his accomplishment. “Is this the man you were hiding?”

The whole class broke out in laughter. The teacher laughed. Nancy laughed.

I sat there stone faced. I felt a single tear roll down my face, and I wiped it away.

One girl turned around to check on me. She was the only one who noticed, or seemed to care in that moment.

“Teacher, Will is crying,” she said.

Our teacher turned around to check on me, and didn’t see me crying. After all, I wasn’t actually crying. She turned back around to focus on the mock trial.

Confronting Abuse: The Power of Manipulation
I don’t know why the single tear rolled down my face. Maybe that tear was for the last straw, the one that broke the person I was before the mock trial. The kid who let bullies push him around died that day. I realized I was too timid to break the rules while the other kids never faced consequences.

Fuck the rules. I thought. I am going to destroy this kid, and I don’t care what happens next.

I blocked out the rest of the mock trial. I was too focused on how I was going to wipe Ben’s grin off his stupid fucking face. Was I going to slug him in class? Was I going to wait and punch him outside in the hallway?

I decided to wait until class let out, drop my backpack at my locker, shove Ben to get his attention, and then I was going to punch him right in the goddamn nose.

Only it didn’t work out that way. After dropping off my backpack, I found him showing off the photo spread to another kid, still grinning. He was so proud of himself, too.

“Look at his ears,” Ben said to another kid, while gesturing with his hands to the different pictures.

Without saying a word, I walked up to him and shoved him, but he didn’t stay on his feet. Watching him fall was like something out of a kung fu flick. He sailed through the air, likely propelled by the weight of his backpack. He fell back at least an entire foot or more. I couldn’t believe my own strength.

As Ben was picking himself off the ground, a crowd quickly encircled us. People starting chanting “Fight! Fight! Fight!” One kid jumped in between me and Ben, trying to incite us to get the fight started.

As I watched Ben try to put some distance between us, I could see tears welling up in his eyes. I don’t know if it was embarrassment from having dozens of kids watch him get bowled over, or shock and fear of me reacting decisively to his taunts.

As the crowd grew larger and louder, my rage subsided, and I realized I had done enough. I didn’t think I had anything more to gain by punching this kid out. I turned away from Ben, parted the circle of bloodthirsty middle schoolers, and walked to my final class of the day.

Unfortunately, I made a mistake. The fight wasn’t going to end because I walked away.

Retribution

After settling down in my homeroom for the day, I realized Ben may start something with me again in the hallway, so I hatched another plan. If I could walk behind the school buildings to get to my pickup spot in front of the principal’s office, I could avoid a second confrontation. Once I arrived, all I had to do was wait.

I was surprised by how easy it was to walk behind the building. Feeling cool, I decided to lean against a column, and after all, all that matters in middle school is being cool.

My friend Joe, the same one who helped Ben with the portraits, soon found me.

“Hey Will, what are you doing here?” he asked after approaching me.

“I’m waiting for my mom to pick me up in a few minutes.”

“Oh, okay,” he said as he turned around and walked away. I thought nothing of it at the time, until he came back with Ben in tow and then promptly left.

Unknown to me, Ben had been wandering the halls, telling everyone he was going to kick my ass. Only he had one problem: he couldn’t find me without help.

As I watched Ben walking up to me with his huge grin, I decided I was going to stand my ground and steeled myself for a fist fight. I chose to remain leaning against the column, which was a terrible defensive position, but I needed to show I was I unafraid. After all, I had embarrassed him once already, and I was feeling cool.

Confronting Abuse: The Power of Manipulation
I expected him to puff his chest and throw insults. What I didn’t expect was for him to start slapping me with a limp hand, like he was some kind of seventeenth century aristocrat with a powdered wig. He was treating me like I had just besmirched his family’s honor.

“Oh, Will,” he said. “You could never hurt me.”

“Okay, Ben. Whatever, dude,” I replied as he was striking me with limp slaps.

“You couldn’t hurt me if you tried,” he said, continuing his gentle, open-handed grazing of my face.

“Sure…” I said dismissively.

I was left confused. Like, how do I stay cool when somebody is slapping me in the face repeatedly? Was this dude for real? Do I hit him back? What do I do?

Eventually, Ben seemed satisfied with the slapping he gave me, and with his ego restored, he walked away.

The Talk

That night, I talked to my dad about what happened at school. He pulled me aside, and we walked into our garage, which doubled as his personal gym. I was surrounded by his karate equipment: multiple heavy bags, timers, gloves, and posters for local and famous pay-per-view boxing matches.

He needed all that stuff because he wouldn’t join any other karate schools after we moved to Florida. He said they were mostly daycare centers, and he boasted he was better/more knowledgeable than anyone else in town. He refused to become an instructor, because none of that would make him a better fighter. Though he said all of that to stroke his ego, it was also probably true. I know he used to fight in full contact karate tournaments similar to today’s MMA fights.

My dad knew how to hurt people, and he taught me the basics of how to fight as well: both classic taekwondo and some barred street fighting moves.

That night in the garage, he set down an ultimatum that I’ll never forget.

“I’m tired of hearing about you getting bullied,” he began, twisting my problem to be about him. His voice was seething with anger. “Tomorrow you’re going to hit that kid as soon as you see him, or you’re grounded.”

When my dad got like that, I couldn’t argue. He used his anger as a weapon to frighten and manipulate people, and he loved to brag that he could. Even though he never hit me, behind every word was the simmering possibility that he would fly off into a violent rage. He put me into an impossible position where I had no choice: I had to fight Ben. My own safety depended on it.

Consequences

The next morning my mom dropped me off at school. My first stop after swapping books at my locker was to read the school bulletin, where Ben quickly sidled up next to me. I glanced over to him, and he was smirking and giving me side eye. He was anything but subtle.

I didn’t know what he was up to, but I also wanted to avoid a fistfight.

I walked away and found an open bench near where I first knocked Ben over the day before. I climbed up and sat on the back of the bench with my feet resting on the seat, which seemed like a cool thing to do at the time, and after all, I had to be cool.

Joe found me again. This time he walked up to say hi.

“Hey Joe, why would you lead Ben right to me?” I asked while still sitting on the back of the bench. “You knew I was trying to avoid a fight.”

“I didn’t think what you did to him was fair,” Joe replied.

Before I could argue, Ben walked up and inserted himself into our conversation.

“Joe, you should have seen Will yesterday,” Ben said, still smirking. “He was begging me like, ‘Oh Ben, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me…’”

While Ben was speaking, my internal monologue was telling me “better get this over with.”

Before Ben could finish, I leapt off the bench and launched my right fist directly below Ben’s eye as hard as I could. He yelled in pain, and I shifted into a defensive stance leading with my right side. I launched a second right-hand punch for his nose and missed my target, landing under his right eye again.

Ben continued yelling in pain. He wasn’t fighting back. I knew that was enough, and I tried to end the fight by sweeping his leg and throwing him to the ground. The only problem was I didn’t have much experience pulling off that move, and Ben refused to go down. I couldn’t blame him. He couldn’t know my intent.

After several failed attempts, I let him go. Ben stayed on his feet, and for lack of a better idea, I launched two more punches from my right hand into Ben’s face, which I realized was much softer than the heavy bags I had access to at home.

Then, I heard shouting.

“Will Kenneth!” I turned to my left, and I saw my homeroom teacher alongside my first period teacher walking toward us from the opposite end of the hallway.

Even though I had time to get a few more hits in, I dropped my guard. Ben collapsed to the floor clutching his face, crying loudly. As he rolled onto his back, still clutching his face and crying, my face started stinging. “Did he slap me?” I wondered. I wasn’t sure.

I turned around and saw a glimpse of my classmates huddled together, stunned into silence and too shocked to move.

As soon as Ben could collect himself, my math teacher escorted us to the principal’s office.

I’m told I was beaming, but I honestly don’t remember. I was deep inside my own head, feeling a sense of accomplishment. I knew my dad would be proud.

(I also compulsively smile when people confide in me stories that deserve all of my empathy. It’s a weird and frustrating reflex that’s likely the result of years of abuse and not something I can fully control.)

After a brief wait, Ben and I walked into the principal’s office and sat down at the two chairs opposite his desk.

“Okay, what happened?” the principal asked right away.

“He hit me first,” I said while pointing at Ben.

“What?!” Ben and the principal exclaimed in unison.

I didn’t know the word at the time, but my attempt to reframe the conversation to benefit me was a form of gaslighting.

“You struck me in the face yesterday,” I said, knowing full well Ben was the one walking in with a giant welt under his eye right now.

“No, I didn’t.” Ben was incredulous.

“You hit me right here, yesterday, outside the principal’s office while I was waiting for my mom to pick me up.”

“Right here outside this office?” the principal asked

“Yes.”

“I barely touched you.” Ben said, still incredulous.

“You slapped me in the face, several times.”

“I barely slapped you.”

“Your hand connected with my face. That’s hitting me.”

“I barely touched you.” Ben reached over to demonstrate how he had slapped me, but I leaned back so his hand couldn’t connect. Like hell I was letting his hands near my face after the beating I just have him.

“Okay, enough,” the principal said. “Ben, why don’t you go to the nurse’s office and get some ice.”

After Ben left, the principal asked me to tell my side of the story. So I did, and I told him the whole unflattering truth. I told him about how Ben bullied me for years, about the portraits in class, how I shoved Ben in retaliation and then walked away, how I went out of my way to avoid a fight afterward, how I let Ben slap me, and how I walked away from Ben to avoid a confrontation again a few minutes earlier, and how I punched Ben four times.

I don’t remember if I said that my dad threatened to punish me if I didn’t fight. If I had, my dad would have denied it, just like he’s denied it and gaslighted me about it ever since. To him, the talk never happened.

I returned to my first period class, where a few others kids gave me approving nods. As the story spread throughout the school, I was bombarded by other kids asking me what happened.

I heard through a friend that a cabal of cool kids huddled together and agreed to be nicer to me. Whether that was out of respect or fear didn’t matter. I was grateful to be picked on less, even if I was frustrated it took a fist fight to earn respect.

I don’t recall how many meetings I had with the principal about what happened. I know I was told not to come to school the next day, and my dad insisted I go anyway, which I did. Disobeying my dad was not something I did in earnest until high school.

That morning as I read the school bulletin, one of the administrators who I had known for several years put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Will, the whole school supports you,” and walked away.

When you attend a small private school for seven years, when your older brother also attends and becomes co-president of the honor society, and when your mom volunteers, you develop relationships with people running the show. Eventually they get to know all the families, and they definitely knew mine. I’m not sure what they thought of Ben’s family, but I could probably guess they weren’t fans. I don’t know what happened behind the scenes, but I’m glad they had my back.

As I was waiting to start my first period class, the principal caught me on his way to meet with my parents.

“Will, I thought I told you to stay home,” he said.

“You did, but my dad told me to come here anyway.”

“All right. Can you come with me to my office?” So I followed him, and I was asked to wait with his receptionist while he spoke with my parents.

After they were done, I was brought in to meet with the principal again. He told me I was the first person to land a punch on another kid’s face since he started working here more than twenty years ago. He added that my suspension would be for two days, including that day, but I would be allowed to make up my work.

He also asked me to not discuss what happened or my punishment with people at school. I was grateful that he was empathetic and my punishment was lenient, so I agreed. He probably also did that to protect the school’s reputation. After all, what parent would send their kid to an elite private school that was unsafe?

On my way home from the meeting, I could tell that my mom didn’t approve of what I did. At the time, I didn’t understand. After all, I did exactly what my dad told me to do. I realize now she was probably afraid to disagree with him, too.

My dad, on the other hand, was disappointed with my technique. He said that I should have led with my left foot and used my left hand to start my attack, which would have allowed me to chamber my right hand and use torque and momentum to throw a stronger punch. Though he did tell me he was proud of me and took me out to my favorite restaurant.

I spent those two days doing schoolwork and chores around the house. I’d love to think I spent that time watching movies and playing PlayStation, but I don’t think I had that much fun.

Meanwhile, I heard Ben was being ridiculed in my absence. He came to school wearing makeup to hide the bruising, and when he walked into the locker room for gym, all the kids started chanting my name. I don’t know if he got any reprimands for the portraits or for slapping me in the face, and I don’t care. The embarrassment was enough punishment on its own. I get that our classmates relished what happened to Ben, but I wish they hadn’t laid into him when he was probably feeling so low.

When I returned to school, Ben and I had a final meeting with the principal. He asked us both to shake hands, and we begrudgingly did so.

We continued to share English class and avoided conflict for the rest of seventh and eighth grade. As we went off to high school, I never saw Ben and Joe again. Nancy and I went to the private school’s main campus for high school, but after exchanging a few letters during the summer, we stopped socializing. I never admitted my crush.

Identifying the Red Flags

My counselor tells me that I shouldn’t dwell on things I can’t change about the past. Focus on the future, and focus on what you can change going forward.

I can’t change what I did, and I can’t change how my dad abused me, but I can work to better understand what happened and what wasn’t okay.

Playing the wishing game and wondering if I could’ve stopped the bullying sooner isn’t going to help me now. (Sure, telling those shitheads to get fucked would have been great, especially if it meant getting a detention. (It’s not like detentions were a big deal. “Oh no, you’re going to make me sit in a room for thirty minutes.” Who cares! When you’re young, in school, and not working, all you have is time.))

I realize now that I was conditioned to be timid at a young age. My father never intended to reinforce my submissive behavior, but he always flew into a narcissistic rage if I challenged him. Despite encouraging me to throw punches throughout my entire childhood, my father taught me that the way to react to bullies was to do nothing at all. After all, he was the biggest bully I faced.

Realizing that my dad was intimidated me into taking an action I never would have on my own doesn’t shock me anymore, but knowing that his actions caused me to hurt another kid makes me feel terrible. Sure, Ben was being a massive dickhead, but he didn’t deserve getting punched in the face four times. Not having the emotional skill set to deal with his bullshit is not an excuse for what I did. For that, I am sorry.

Confronting Abuse: The Power of Manipulation
While pushing a child into a fight may be not be a common thing that abusers do, manipulation is one way that they try to keep control. Abusers will slowly chip away at your boundaries using threats and intimidation until they can get you to bend to their will. They can make you take actions that you would never do otherwise, like punching out other people, because they make you afraid of receiving more abuse or instill fear that they will leave you.

The abuse might not be obvious at first, and in some cases, it can be years before it starts. My dad’s intimidation only intensified as I started moving into my teenage years and started asserting myself.

As children, we’re completely dependent on our parents. We accept the situation we’re in as the way it is, and we might never know that other kids’ parents aren’t like that.

As an adult, I can’t turn back the clock, take everything I’ve learned out of counseling, and share it with my younger self. I have to look forward. I have a family and a daughter of my own now, and what I can do is learn to identify my toxic behaviors and not repeat them.

When people talk about their life goals, mine are simple: I want to foster a healthy relationship with my family. I want to be a father who allows my daughter to grow emotionally, to be independent, and to understand that it’s okay to say no. I want to have a relationship with my wife where we can be equals and trust each other. I want to keep that toxic shit out of my home. If I can accomplish that, then that’s all I ever needed to do.

Will Kenneth loves to attend The Fest every year. He lives in Jacksonville, Fla. ALL > Descendents. (Facebook | w o l f m a n w i l l [@] g m a i l)

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