Author: Jeff Erno
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Pages: 158
Characters: Multiple (short story collection)
POV: Mostly first-person
Sub-Genre: Contemporary

Every day, all over the country, teenagers struggle with the realities of bullying. Tormented, ridiculed, and beaten—simply for being who they are—these teens face alienation, humiliation, and even the explicit assertion that they have somehow brought this upon themselves, that they should just blend in. Bullied is a series of short stories exploring the world of these teens from several different viewpoints: the victim, the bully, the gay bystander, the straight friend, the concerned parent.

Bullied by Jeff Erno is a good book to read, even an important one, but it isn’t easy. It is a collection of short stories about teen bullying, and as the subject matter suggests, there are some truly heart-wrenching tales of abuse, pain and tragedy included.

To Erno’s credit, though, this is not a depressing book. Despite the horrific portrayals of bullying and the painful aftermaths, a strong line of hope runs through the stories. People make mistakes and yes, the issue of teen suicide is addressed very directly as well (consider that a trigger warning), but characters also learn important lessons, become brave despite personal costs, and even overcome their biases.

If there is a unifying theme to Erno’s portrayals of teen bullies victims, it is in encapsulated in that last statement: overcoming biases. These are not simple stories about righteous, persecuted queer teens triumphing over hateful bigots. Instead, Erno delves in the far murkier waters of parental complacency, self-loathing, queers stereotyping other queers (and themselves), and the true meaning of friendship. As in real life, everyone involved — bullies, victims, enablers, parents, teachers — have many reasons for behaving the way they do, and there are no simple answers.

Most of the stories deal with various types of homophobia, from outright hatred to the more subtle “God loves you even though you are sinner” and the insidious “I’m not prejudiced against homosexuals, I just don’t want my child to be one.” Interestingly, Erno also takes on the issue of gays stereotyping each other, promoting intolerance out of fear of being labeled “sissy” or worse.

The anchor story of this collection is “Different.” It is arguably the most unabashedly tragic and gut-wrenching of the collection, but it is also my favorite. One of the leads is Richard Burch, an openly gay high school student who is popular despite that by dint of being handsome, a sports star, and a top student. He is also a bully. While Richard has a lot of privilege going on that he takes for granted, he can’t escape the haunting fear of being labeled a “sissy fag” and that is why he lashes out at the one person he should defend: effeminate and insecure Caiden, who is broken by Richard’s attack. The aftermath of Richard’s actions change the lives of many people around him, and serve as a wakeup call not just for him personally but the school and the community at large. No one in the story is perfect, and the characters are all wonderfully, if heartbreakingly, complex.

If I have one major complaint about the story, it is that I feel as if “Different” is the Cliff Notes version of a much longer and meatier novel. The characters outside of Richard and Caiden are all well drawn, but left pretty much as outlines. This is a story that needs more to it and I hope Erno considers expanding it.

There isn’t a bad story in this collection, and overall Erno’s solid writing skills make even a difficult subject matter like teen bullying and bigotry readable. It is refreshing to see such topics treated both realistically and hopefully, which is what really makes this collection worth owning and reading and sharing with others.

‘Bullied’ at Dreamspinner Press

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