Bullying can have a lifelong impact – just ask Biddy Weir
In this Anti-Bullying Week, Bangor author Lesley Allen reflects upon the real-life impact her novel The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir, a fictional-take on bullying and self-worth has had upon readers
THIS time last year, at the age of 53, my debut novel The Lonely Life Of Biddy Weir was published. Apart from the birth of my daughter 18 years previously, it was, hands down, the most exciting thing to happen in my life.
The timing of the release, just a week before National Anti-Bullying Week, was serendipitous as the novel tells the tale of a little girl, Biddy Weir, who is relentlessly bullied by another little girl, Alison Flemming, for five excruciating years – purely because she was 'different'.
In the past 12 months I've been lucky enough to participate in literary events, written guest blog posts and engaged with readers on social media, all of which has been a thrilling bonus of being published. Almost without exception, the first three questions I'm asked are "is Biddy really you?" (She isn't) "is Alison is someone you know?” (Not specifically, although Biddy and Alison are definitely hybrids of many people I've encountered over the years) and “Were you bullied yourself?" (I wasn't).
The next question is usually, "So why did you decide to write a novel about bullying?" and the honest answer is, I didn't. Not consciously, anyway. It was Biddy herself who drove me. When I finally began to write fiction – after many years of prolonged procrastination – one of the first short stories I penned concerned a girl who'd been badly bullied. It was rubbish, but the character kept gnawing away at me. So I took a closer look.
I could see from the outset that she was different: a bit odd, some might say. A loner for sure. She had no friends, and no mother, and a father who loved her but didn't know what to do with that love. So he shut it away. She definitely wasn't pretty – at least not in the conventional sense. Her hair was wild and unruly and her skin was pale and her clothes came from charity shops and never seemed to fit. Her name, Biddy, didn't help.
Biddy could draw, though. Brilliantly. But no-one noticed that because they were too fixated by her oddness. Then when a new girl, Alison, arrived at the school, she decided that Biddy was more than just different – she was a weirdo. A bloody weirdo, in fact – and for that, she must be punished. And that's how the story of Biddy Weir and her lonely, desolate, tormented life began.
So Biddy's story is not my story. I made it up. It turns out, though, it's a very familiar one to many people who have read the book. The book has struck a chord in a way I hadn't even considered during the writing of it, and the general reaction has humbled me beyond words.
I have had countless messages from readers relaying their own experiences of being bullied, and many of the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads have literally moved me to tears. Comments such as "I suffered from bullying at school and at 70 years old still remember the taunts".
Lots of readers have thanked me for writing about the subject in such a "vivid, honest, un-sugar-coated" . Some have even gone on to talk publicly and write about their own experiences of being bullied, citing Biddy as their inspiration for speaking out. And a few have confessed that they were the bully, and would be seeking out their victims to apologise for their actions.
I've had teachers, parents, doctors, counsellors and social workers tell me the book should be mandatory reading in all post-primary schools, and an essential learning tool for student teachers.
One of the most profound reviews of the book came from a mental health worker who has been in the profession for 25 years. They said: “It gives a real insight into how bullying works, how the victim feels and thinks. It gives the reader an insight into how bullies think and operate, how others are co-opted, and how difficult it can be for teachers to know what is happening". The book has also been endorsed by leading anti-bulling charity, The StandUp Foundation.
It may sound like I'm blowing my own trumpet here, but I promise you, I'm not. I'm blowing Biddy's. In this National Anti-Bullying Week, I hope the book can reach out to a few new readers, maybe helping some of them confront the bullies in their own lives, or put some ghosts to rest.
Above all, I hope that The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir can remind people that it's completely OK to be different, and that weirdness can be embraced. One of the most moving comments I've received so far came from a mother. "You've given my child and other ‘weirdos' a voice," she wrote, "and I'm really grateful".
As the slogan for this year's Anti-Bullying Campaign states, we're all equal, all different, all together.
:: Anti-Bullying Week is coordinated by the Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum and takes place from November 13-17 November 2017. For further information and support visit Endbullying.org.uk