Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Rebecca Starford
Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781743319574, March 2015, 272 pages, Paperback
It would be a rare person who got through high school without experiencing bullying. Sometimes it’s subtle – a bit of name calling or ostracising – and sometimes it can be brutal. In Rebecca Starford’s memoir Bad Behaviour, the bullying is brutal. Without giving too much away, the kind of bullying that Starford describes comes close to killing someone, and ends up causing both mental and physical injuries. The impact of this bullying on the lives of the fourteen year olds who both felt the brunt of it, and who participated in it, was dramatic.
The bulk of Bad Behaviour takes place during a year long outdoor experience camp as part of the prestigious private school, fictionalised as “Silver Creek”, that Starford attended as a scholarship recipient. The year was a critical time for Starford (as fourteen often is), coinciding with her own growing sense of sexuality coupled with the start of a serious estrangement from her mother and the loss of her grandmother. Stafford is assigned to the “Red House” group, which ends up being so bad that they become notorious– the worst of the bullying and misbehaviour driven by one charismatic girl named Portia. It would have been easy for Starford to lay the blame for the events of this year squarely on Portia, but Starford takes a measure of the blame for her complicity and desire to be liked over her desire to do the right thing, and for the weakness and fear she displays.
Thanks in part to the diary Starford kept during this time, Bad Behaviour is rich with detail and honesty, and it’s impossible not to feel similarly trapped, and drawn into these scenerios of not only meanness, but also deceit, fear, self-deprecation, bravado, and general misbehavior. I suspect few readers would be able to read this without feeling their own culpability on some scale, and the shifting scale between bully and bullied, and the underlying need (and adult neglect) that drives these behaviours.
Starford’s narrative moves between the present tense, in which she returns to the camp to research, and the past. The parallels between the two timeframes, and Starford’s ongoing struggles with the intensity of her friendships—before, during, and after the camp–become very clear in the way they continue to colour her life choices:
That’s what the girls are like: shadows. Ghosts. Always lurking at the edge of my memory, nudging like a boat tied loose to a jetty. I’m terrified of seeing them, of being confronted chased, not only at Silver Creek but anywhere. (250)
The writing is beautiful throughout, without ever over-shadowing the plot or narrative flow, which moves forward quickly. Starford remains non-judgmental, even towards those who caused her the greatest pain, including the many adults who clearly failed in their duty of care. Though she’s sympathetic to other characters, Starford doesn’t let herself off the hook. Every transgression, and there are many, is paid for in pain:
My mouth feels gluey, words like tissue stuck to the sides. I can’t look at her. I’m terrified that I’ve ruined our friendship and that fear makes me want to drop to the floor and howl. I remember how, when I was a kid, I climbed my parents’ antique wardrobe, hoping to find some treasure at the top. As I gripped that high ledge, there had been a split second when I felt the wardrobe tilt, just enough time to register profound regret, before the whole thing came crashing down on top of me. (152)
Despite young Starford’s culpability, her pain is so eloquently written, and so honestly and realistically presented, that it’s hard not to both sympathise and identify with her. Bad Behaviour is a fast, intense and consistently powerful read that goes to the heart of what it means to grow up in the modern world, and to struggle for self-actualisation.