There was a time I personally experienced the Bystander Effect. Keep reading. It’s a heckuva story.
Trigger warning: If you’ve been bullied, this piece may make you anxious.
My sophomore year of college, Jake and Wilbur lived in the same dorm as me, on the same floor.
Since they both sported buzz cuts the color of straw, some folks assumed they were brothers. I could see where they got that, but the two shared no DNA. They weren’t even from the same county.
Jake was taller, with eyes the color of cornflowers and lips that were always chapped and puffy like he’d been kissing someone for hours. As if.
Wilbur’s eyes looked like puddles. And the poor guy could’ve been the Before model for a Clearasil ad.
When Jake and Wilbur got bored, drunk, or both, they’d go out driving. In search of roadkill.
Jake kept a coat hanger in his truck for such times. Whenever they would spot a carcass, they’d pull over, hop out, and approach the mess with the hanger. And a camera.
Using the coat hanger—which they’d stretched out long—Wilbur’d lift the perished creature as best he could, and Jake would snap a picture.
The corkboard on their dorm room door wore a quilt of roadkill photos.
That’s why I renamed the guys, calling Jake Warped, and Wilbur Twisted. Pretty soon everyone in the dorm was using their new names. When I was around them though, I made sure to use their real names.
Just to be on the safe side. Lest I be featured on their dorm door.
One day, Warped and Twisted turned their attention to me.
I’m not sure if they did what they did because they liked me, or because they didn’t.
That particular day had nearly turned to night. Which makes sense. Nothing much bad ever happens when it’s light out.
In the dorm, as soon as I existed the elevator into our floor’s common area, there they were—Jake and Wilbur, Warped and Twisted—waiting. For me.
They weren’t in their usual attire: flannel shirts and Wrangler jeans. That day they both wore camo. Their eyes were weirder than usual, like the dancers’ in Michael Jackson’s Thriller video.
Without speaking, they positioned themselves on either side of me.
Each grabbing an arm, they dragged me over to a wooden chair and shoved me onto it.
With electrical tape, they secured my chest and arms, then my legs, to the chair.
Holding cans in front of their crotches, they sprayed me in the face with whipped cream.
When the cans made that screeching empty sound, the guys tossed them aside and produced bottles of beer from their back pockets. They shook the bottles hard, and then opened them. With their teeth.
As soon as the beers began to foam and spray, they pointed them in my direction, drenching my face, then the rest of me.
My flesh popped out in tiny hills as the icy wet penetrated my clothes.
Early on, I decided to be still.
Honestly, I didn’t believe I was in true danger. This was a public place, after all. My guess was Jake and Wilbur simply wanted to do a real good job of humiliating me.
If I yelled for help, it would draw a crowd. Exactly what they wanted. Definitely not what I wanted.
I had experience being still.
A decade back, I trained myself not to react when my older brothers tickle-tortured me. I’d will myself not to move or complain when they grabbed my arm and used my own hand to smack my face over and over. “Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself!”
Jake crouched to sweep his hands beneath the nearby couch. When he held up a string of Christmas lights, Wilbur’s chuckle sounded like a donkey with a corn cob stuck in its throat.
Walking in a circle, Jake wrapped me with the light strand. I pulled my lips in, focused on my knees.
As they pushed my chair across the room, I waited for the chair legs to get hung up on a carpet ripple or floor crack.
I pictured the chair rushing downward, imagined the loud thunk as my face encountered the floor.
Surely my nose would shatter, shooting blood everywhere.
Jake and Wilbur continued to inch me in the direction of their goal. Peeking from beneath whipped cream lashes, I realized we were headed for an electrical outlet.
My smashed nose concern was replaced by the threat of electrocution.
Oddly, I wondered if I’d smell like chicken.
As they rammed the plug into the socket, I held my breath.
Twinkle, twinkle! Sparkle, sparkle! Tiny points of light—red, yellow, and blue—rainbowed the room. Pounding one another on the back, the guys laughed their braying laugh.
I picked a spot on the ceiling and focused on it. Were they done yet?
They were not.
Both took a side of the chair’s back and began to shove me again, this time toward the elevator. My fractured nose fear returned with each start-stop, jerky lurch of the chair.
When the guys leaned down and in to grab the underside of the chair seat, I got a whiff of their breath: chili dogs with raw onions. Plus beer.
In the back of my throat, I tasted, then swallowed, bile. Don’t cry. Don’t throw up.
I shook my head to make my sopping hair hang like a drape over my face.
“Uh, uh, uh,” came out of Jake. On the third uh, they hoisted me higher and into the elevator. For a moment, they dangled me a foot off the floor, then they let go.
When I hit, my molars made a snapping sound.
While Wilbur kept his middle finger on the “open door” button, Jake produced the roadkill coat hanger from his back pocket and handed it to Wilbur. Stepping backward off the elevator, Jake reached into the side pocket of his cargo pants and pulled out his camera.
From behind my hair, I watched Jake’s eyes glitter.
“Raise her up.”
Wilbur pressed his foot against the elevator door to keep it open, then threaded the J of the coat hanger inside the belt loop of my Levis, the one beside the zipper. With both hands, he yanked upward.
I thought the crotch seam of my jeans would split me in two. The tape across my chest and around my legs held in such a way that the only place for my groin to go was forward.
Don’t cry. Do not cry.
Jake grinned, and I caught a rare glimpse of his big, corn-colored teeth. With blunt and clumsy fingers, he tried to tuck my hair behind my ears. “Say, cheese.”
Instead, I twisted my head as far to the right and down as possible. As the tendons bunched, I knew there’d be a crick in my neck the next day, but I didn’t care. All I wanted was away from the camera, away from his leer, away from his hideous breath.
Jake followed me with the lens. Flash!
Pointing under the chair, Wilbur snickered. “Looks like she wet herself.”
I wondered if I had, and then realized it was just beer.
Jake stepped inside the elevator as Wilbur leaned across me, his pointer finger rapid-pouncing all of the buttons: G-9.
On our way to the top level, the doors spread wide open at each floor.
Always the waiting people gawked.
Never did anyone help me.
Not even on the way back down when we stopped at each floor yet again.
As we descended, even more people gathered, all clambering close for a look, their eyes wide at my circumstance, their whispers, murmuring mosquitos.
“Again,” Jake said, his eyes a-fire. “Let’s do it again.”
The elevator buttons—G-9—lit up once more.
In my chair, I dropped my head lower and folded in my shoulders even more to make myself smaller. Less of a spectacle.
And I remained silent. Lamb led to the slaughter, no sound does it make, silent.
And that my friend, is a real-life example of the Bystander Effect. What would you have done?