Reflections on Boarding School and a Predictable Culture of Sanctioned Bullying as an outgrowth of Systemic Betrayal
“Shit Rolls Downhill”: “In military parlance it means anything crappy coming from the top of the chain of command will hit everyone down to the bottom. This includes dumbass decision making, disciplinary actions, or simply a superior taking his frustrations out on subordinates.”
The bullying and betrayal that is a hallmark of the privileged class has over centuries been bequeathed to the rest of the people, enveloping us all. ‘Trickle-down Economics’ was always nonsense; but shit rolling downhill is axiomatic. It’s all happened over such a long period of time that we have no idea how and why we got here or that anything is out of the ordinary. When, as a leader, you are able to betray your closest friends for your own ambitions, how difficult will it be to betray the people you represent, when betrayal is at the core of your being?
In March and May of this year, I attended a Boarding School Trauma Workshop in London. Fifteen British men and me. Apparently, I had been searching for my Brothers for my entire life. I found them. Discovering the Boarding School Trauma information was a liberation (maybe I wasn’t just a random angry asshole after all); meeting my workshop mates was a revelation because our experiences echoed in the room. Heads bobbed in unison at stories told. Eyes glistened over. Men who had hitherto been largely closed off from their emotions (other than anger) allowed in feelings, in some cases for the very first time.
We touched into the startling grace and familiar terror of our feelings. To be understood for the first time ever by those who know your score better than anyone else is quite something. With verification of what we faced and who we became, arrived the inevitable and official mourning – for what was taken from us, what is still withheld from us, what we have taken from others, and how we have engaged with the world, with our partners, with our families and with our communities. Devastating, humbling and cathartic.
Practically to a man, and totally understandably, our parents and siblings are having a lot of trouble with our explorations. Not surprising because our families, like so many of your families, are simply microcosms of the Rational Man Project at large, that is, each person dealing with their own personal and generational betrayal, trauma, avoidance, denial and revisionist history.
A few days after the first weekend, I aimlessly walked in London for six hours, heavy with the intense knowledge and feeling that had been unearthed in the workshop. I shudder at what some of my workshop brothers have endured – in school and in life. It’s almost too much to bear the thought. On my excursion, I happened into a Waterstone’s bookstore to pick up a book for my daughter (Founder, Tim Waterstone boarded at the age of six and has said of his experience, “It was a simply terrible place, though not all that unusual in those days… We were barely educated and barely fed; the food was totally repellent.” ) When I went to pay, the diffident chap behind the counter, maybe early 50s, British, noticed that another book had caught my eye. He asked if I had heard of it, A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara. I hadn’t. He had read it and thought it was brilliant. He said it follows the lives of four male friends in New York, though it delved further into one of their lives in particular. He said it was harrowing. I suggested that maybe I wasn’t quite in the mood for harrowing considering I had just attended a Boarding School Survivors workshop. An almost involuntary look of incredulity came over his face. Racing past his confusion, he then said, “Oh what happens to the character in the book is far worse than anything one would experience in boarding school.” It was fortunate that I was in a receptive mood. The old Bard might have torn him two new assholes. Mercifully, I shrugged and went on my way, though I noted that it was the second such incident of the day. Earlier in the day, I was on the phone with someone I knew, who comes from relative privilege. She didn’t know why I was in London. She was taken aback. Boarding School… Trauma? She had a distant bemusement which I believe I now understand and have compassion for. As with her, there was not an iota of maliciousness on the bookseller’s part. He, like most, including, ironically, many of those who have attended Boarding Schools, either don’t know or have forgotten. Forgotten out of necessity.
This last sentence will rankle some ex-boarders. I have no desire to question the sincerity of my fellow brothers and sisters who went to these schools at a young age, and who will insist that they had a jolly old time. In fact, they are undoubtedly being genuine because, in a way, they did have a ‘good’ time. The question is, what does a good time mean?
Guardian Journalist, George Monbiot, a champion of Environmental Protection and Social Justice and an ex-boarder, has for years spoken about his own experience and has called for a national conversation on the topic; labelling Boarding School as producing “acceptable cruelty” and “artificial orphans”. Here he makes a compelling case:
What is really interesting are the comments to Mr. Monbiot’s video. It appears that about half of the comments agree with Mr. Monbiot while the other half think he might just be a “libtard looking for a cause”. Some of the negative comments are revealing:
(1) “I boarded from the age of 8. I had a great time. Pillow fights, midnight feasts, always being with my best mates – way more fun than I would have had at home. Yeah, sometimes homesick. I cried when my parents dropped me off a few times, as did others. But it was such a great experience. Really I have no idea what he’s talking about. All my friends who boarded loved it. Maybe he went to a shit school? Maybe a queer teacher took a fancy to him? I’m confused by this whiney rant.”
(2) “Well… I think it’s just another system we have, there’s good and there’s bad. The endemic bullying that was a problem is maybe on its way out, certainly at my former school, they are certainly less closed off than they were. I think watching your own family being shot in front of you would be worse, and give you more problems later in life.”
(3) “Completely disagree! I went to boarding school when i was 7 years old and it was the best thing for me and I would recommend it to anyone and will send my kids to one too.”
(4) “What a load of tosh. I boarded from 8 as well and it actually helped me form relationships with those around me.”
(5) “What a load of old shit! I went to boarding school aged 11 onwards and I can tell you it was the best place in the world! DO NOT LISTEN TO THIS TOSSER.”
To the last comment a person responded with, “Wow totally disregarding other people’s emotions! This guy’s right! Boarding school is EVIL!!!” Notwithstanding the embellished language, he hits the nail on the head. Where is the empathy? It’s one thing to say that one had a good experience at Boarding School; it’s quite another to be so heartless, especially when one doesn’t know the details, which in some cases involve the rape of little boys.
In return for Mr. Monbiot and commenters sharing their experiences they are met with sarcasm and dismissiveness. Is this not “Acceptable Cruelty”? Is this bullying not the very thing so many ex-boarders are thoroughly familiar with?
Some observations on what the commenters have said:
(1) The crying and homesickness was trauma that has been relegated to the emotional dustbin. Also, he is confused by the ‘whiney rant’, even as he suggests the very reasons why someone might not have liked Boarding
(2) Comparison is often a left-brained reductive process that nullifies feelings. Should we not feel badly or have any feelings because someone else out in the world is seemingly suffering more than we are? A neglected or abused child, regardless of station or global positioning, does not have this frame of reference, nor is it relevant, except in the case of exonerating ourselves from feeling badly for ourselves and others. This kind of comparison promotes the tragedy of self-betrayal and betrayal of others.
(3) How can we ‘completely disagree’ with someone who has clearly had a different experience, unless we are unable to listen and empathize?
(4&5) Same as the third comment, with a kick to the liver.
But again, I say that it’s not the bully’s fault, per se. Yes, now that they are adults they should be responsible for their behaviour. But when it’s all you’ve ever known, from home and/or at school, when it was “eat or be eaten” and they did what any of us would have done if we were up for it, if we could muster the perverse courage required to protect ourselves; we would lash out at others. That’s what I did. After a year of taking it, once I turned seven, a switch flipped in me and I became a bully. And a bully I remained until, at the age of 43, the endless delving I did finally brought me to the information about Boarding School Syndrome.
The bully has lost the bulk of his power. He’s increasingly running on fumes now. But he’s still very much there, waiting to pounce when I feel afraid and insecure; like the commenters who are so uncaring. Their worldview is threatened, the one that says our normalized system of bullying is well… normal; that it’s inevitable. It’s so acceptable that we don’t even notice it. It’s not that we can’t, we just don’t know – or more accurately, feel – that there is another option. The other option is to look within and that is terrifying. Hence, the cutting defensiveness. The adult bully unconsciously seeks to provide cover for their long-term bullying ways by suggesting that Boarding School was just wonderful. In many cases, they actually believe it. It is not a lie. It has to be true, otherwise they might have to look in the mirror and understand that maybe they thought it was all good because they made it ‘good’ for themselves at the expense of others.
I’d be interested to know what percentage of the ex-boarders who, in the face of direct and heartbreaking evidence to the contrary, callously proclaim the over-arching munificence of boarding school, are bullies. It’s an awful position to be in: to have victimized others in order to save ourselves; to survive. I know this feeling first hand. When you’re young and that happens, it’s incredibly difficult to work your way out of it. Most young bullies do not manage to break down the wall, and some of them become our leaders.
To the unprivileged masses, like the bookseller, impressed as many are by the veneer of privilege, Boarding School equates with advantage. The glossy veneer makes the regular folk think that the rich don’t have the same problems they do; and if they do, their riches mitigate against the pain. Hence, the privileged don’t deserve any compassion or pity.
To the affluent, the bullying-privileged have no patience for the whining-privileged who can’t pull their weight. The bully did what was required. In fact, they sacrificed themselves to the game; they accepted the role of the bad guy. So, ‘fuck off’ to the wankers who couldn’t, and still can’t, figure it out.
Regarding some who claim that Boarding School was just fine, there are a large contingent of attendees, including bullies and victims, whose home life very much mirrored their school life: some combination of aloof or angry father, with un-maternal or voiceless mother. The result is a wide range of RMP children of all classes who are sent out into the RMP world and find themselves in familiar surroundings. Boarding School, however, introduces a special variable into the equation; an aspect that brings the dissonance of our society into sharp relief. Namely, the abandoning of children.
The Boarding School Industry in all Anglo locales (Britain, The United States, Canada and Australia) insist that things are different now than twenty or thirty or a hundred years ago, and according to their RMP perspective, they assuredly believe that to be the case, especially since they are thriving. When you look at the consistency of the messaging that appears on all of the countries’ industry websites, you might be led to believe that it’s all just a blast; smiles and great times all around.
The British Boarding School Association came up with #iloveboarding. They have a promo video which paints an intensely one-dimensional and ebullient picture of boarding. In the video, a Boarding School Association spokesperson says,
“Good modern British boarding is no longer sending your children away to Boarding School, it’s an option so that families have flexibility. It’s place where children can go and be safe.”
As within the rest of our RMP culture, euphemistic language blends in to such a degree that it is no longer identified as euphemistic. You’re no longer “sending your children away”, you are promoting flexibility for your family. As for being “safe”, are we to believe that the sexual abuse of children, which has been going on for centuries in Britain, especially in Boarding Schools, is no longer an issue, especially as Operation Hydrant cannot keep up with the complaints?
There is a lot of talk of community in the video. One headmaster says that Boarding School is a place that will, “still have that parental, that family, that community feel”. A headmistress says that “boarding has re-invented itself and it’s come back to life thinking that actually what it’s like for the young people who benefit from a community experience.” More euphemism as the boarding community is presented as effortlessly replacing parents, family and our home community, or at least coming in a close second.
The Canadian Boarding School Association (CAIS) says: “The boarding experience gives students and parents the gift of time – less time spent in the car and more time focusing on education, extra-curricular activities and character development.” We are living in bizarro world when the “gift of time” means spending no time with your parents and family. Boarding School frees the parents from their jobs as… parents. “Less time in the car” for everybody. Less time altogether. Actually, no time together, other than the occasional visit.
There is no doubt that placing children within the confines of the ultimate RMP training ground of Boarding School sets them up for financial and/or political success – but the cost is, and for centuries has been, largely hidden from view. One of these costs is the normalised and voluntary abdication of the role of parents, which, regardless of the purported benefits of Boarding School, necessarily involves an inherent neglect – despite the familiar rationalizations used to justify passing off the raising of one’s child to an institution. In fact, wouldn’t it be negligence to not give your child such an advantage? For the privileged, out of touch as they often are with their own disowned trauma and betrayal, the costs are easily outweighed by the knowledge and contacts their children will accrue in Boarding School. Their trauma was not acknowledged when they were growing up, and neither will their children’s.
The unconsciously ignored costs eventually produce debilitating long-term consequences for many ex-boarders, who are emotionally unprepared to deal with hollowness that often accompanies a materially successful life; hence, avoidance, denial and addiction. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, personally and professionally, the culture is beset with endemic failure that is fueled by this initial and continuing abandonment and betrayal. Love, community and spirit are so undermined as to seem frivolous and naive. Centuries of programming have us believe that this sacrifice is normal; the price of admission for success the world.
No one is expecting the industry to market itself in any way other than being a positive experience but it’s clear that many children have had, and continue to have, an awful time boarding; though as has already been discussed, few children end up sharing their trauma with anyone. Meanwhile, a good number of our power-brokers are still being produced in these schools all around the world. Certainly, improvements have been made but in real terms these are superficial changes that have not, and cannot, address the fundamental issue of depriving children of their parents and homes. Recently, one 15 year old Boarding School attendee sums up her experience thusly: “It is a truly amazing place. And I hate it.” All the vaunted improvements, bells and whistles, the amazing facilities and glossy marketing amounts to a classic case of putting lipstick on pig. Even still, one way or another, almost every kid will get used to it, except those who don’t. Here is one boy’s recollection of his time at school:
“So, at age 15 I was sent to boarding school in England. My stepdad… insisted it would ‘help the boy grow up, and make a man of him’… Frankly, those were– and remain to this day– the most nightmarish years of my life… My most vivid memory dates to one cold winter morning. On that morning, I was the first to make it to the showers (which were in a separate building, across a courtyard), in my dorm of some 70-odd boys. I turned the corner… and found one of the junior boys who had hung himself with the belt from his Judo kit. He was a quiet, sensitive boy who’d had few friends… and I distinctly remember thinking that it could as well have been me.”
He follows that up right away with, “In retrospect, I can’t deny that the academics were excellent…” Firstly, what of the poor boy, all alone, who took his own life? Secondly, what of this boy, and the how many others, who saw that scene? Well, he comes from an RMP family and spent time at the most focused RMP institution you can attend as a child. What is a child to do with that kind of trauma, in that kind of place? Bury it and latch on to anything that will distract you from your own pain, from thinking “that it could have been me”.
As discussed earlier, outside of extreme physical and sexual abuse at home, your parents are still your parents – and the young child doesn’t have any other frame of reference. As far as they are concerned they have typical Mums and Dads, regardless of their deficiencies as parents. So, even in the case where the energy and framework of the home closely matches that of the Boarding School, the loss of parents is still devastating, regardless of the child’s ability to cut off from their heart, rationalize it and make the best of it.
A wonderful example of this appears in the 1994 short documentary film entitled The Making of Them. It follows four boys as they prepare to go to Boarding School for the first time. They are all eight years old. The film only scratches the surface of the Boarding experience but so dramatic is the actual experience that even witnessing the scratched surface is jarring.
The title of the documentary comes from one of the mothers, Lady Caroline Lindsay-Bethune Wrey, who is interviewed and suggests Boarding School will be the “making” of her boy, Harry. At another point (20:30 – 22:30), Harry’s father, Sir George Bourchier Wrey, 15th Baronet, drink in hand, reminisces about a friend who had to be heavily sedated every time he was dropped off at his Boarding School. He chuckles awkwardly as he recalls his friend being in a “virtual state of coma” and wonders what upset him so much. The chuckle turns into a full laugh at his friend being drugged and “dragged off to school”. He wipes his moist eyes at the thought because it’s what… funny? It’s all good though since decades later they are still friends and he’s “a perfectly normal chap now”. No doubt he would say the same thing about himself. Why? Because it’s true. They are indeed both “normal”; though as we see him fumble his drink we might wonder if “normal” is the best we can do when “normal” can easily be a euphemism for traumatized.
Then Lady Caroline tells us that her brother actually ran away from his Boarding School. “Something was worrying him but they never got to the bottom of it.” It didn’t matter what was wrong. Her parents wouldn’t listen or understand anyway, just like she won’t listen or recognize her own boy’s trauma. She then says she spoke with Harry before dropping him off and asked him to tell her if anything odd or “beastly” is visited on him. Her voice trails off as she wonders if he would tell her. She’s right to wonder because deep down she knows if anything “beastly” does happen, her child will likely tell her nothing. And her use of the word “beastly” suggests she knows that such things happen – maybe even from personal experience. And yet, she and her husband have sent off Harry, all alone. In the film, Harry can’t even look at her when she leaves him. The level of unconsciousness is truly staggering and yet absolutely “normal”. A culture of intelligent people reduced to ignorance emanating from what Mr. Monbiot calls being “emotionally disabled”, especially where the aristocracy is concerned.
The irony of a privileged, noble, lineage is that you have far less freedom than commoners to forge your own path. Harry is the scion to the Wrey Baronet. Now 32 years old, he may not even feel pressure to conform to that lofty position; it is simply assumed by him and all. Or not. I found Harry’s Facebook page and guess what the profile picture is? His 8 or 9 year old self – at Boarding School. The trauma, frozen in time? At another point during the film, Harry’s mother says that some of her friends’ children, who have also recently been dropped off at Boarding School, have phone access to their parents. Lady Caroline is happy that Harry’s school does not allow phone calls in the first few weeks. She’d rather not speak with him because it’s obvious that boys are going to say they want to come home even though “they are not unhappy at all”. There you have it. A child’s feelings are not only irrelevant, they are actually non-existent. Another mother in the film says that leaving her boy at school where she has met the teachers and staff on a few occasions is like leaving him with her best friends. This one anechdote exemplifies the centuries-long unconsciousness of British culture, especially where children are concerned.
The film represents a small sample size but the trauma that all four children, and other boys, undergo is there in plain sight. It’s agonizing to watch the betrayal setting in, in slow motion (see 22:35 of the film). It won’t take long for them to succumb, but the self-betrayal is never totally complete, as we can see from the boy at 26:26. The rationalization that this “child” is having to go through to make the experience palatable is disturbing, especially at the end of his monologue when we see the little boy in him emerge. I say “emerge” because until that point, even though he is a boy, he has been working hard to present himself as a man, already pigeonholing his future life as a business man.
Will one or more of these damaged boys adjust and have a ‘good time’. Very likely yes. Why? Because they will learn that their feelings do not count. The feelings of children do not count in our culture. Why? Because our own feelings do not count. And we are unable to recognize the signs of trauma that will be buried somewhere very deep, with life-long consequences.
Despite their stylistic differences, note that David and Boris have remarkably similar foundations: Profound early life personal trauma compounded by abandonment at Boarding School.
It is our lack of empathy that prevents us from grasping the suffering they’ve endured, and continue to endure. There is no abatement when you remain firmly ensconced within the RMP system. At these lofty political heights, you are either on top and have to deal with the immense and constant pressure to maintain your position, or you are knifed from behind and while you’re bleeding to death on the ground you are kicked in the stomach and mocked for good measure; the exact same finger-pointing we saw at all schools, let alone Boarding School. Almost everyone joins in lest you attract the wrong kind of attention. Except possibly in rare circumstances, up until the recent and marginally effective anti-bullying campaigns came about, school was not the place where anyone stood up for the meek and vulnerable. Every student was unconsciously consumed with their own protection.
Bullying often conjures images of physical aggression. But, as in the home, subtle emotional bullying can be just as harmful; as when the coolest kid in the playground shoots a look of disgust towards the victim of the moment, some poor child at the receiving end of a poison-tipped spear; as when your parent shames you for something they themselves are perpetually guilty of (though they don’t have the self-awareness to know it).
And lest you think this piece is focused largely on Boarding School and the issues that it presents, the very same issues are clearly ever-present at all levels of the education and social system; the same rigid, left-brain approach that caters to some, neglects others and is rife with bullying. How could it be otherwise? Only a culture steeped in the Rational Man Project could place such emphasis on curtailing bullying in school while bullying is rife in all areas of adult life – which only causes more confusion for our poor children.
Look at the political process. Look at Parliament. Look at the school playground. We lament the bad behaviour of our representatives but, with betrayal at the forefront, what do we expect? It is entirely predictable that young, traumatized boys who grow up to become our leaders act out the patterning they learned at school, especially Boarding and Private School. In the case of Boarding School, in the first few weeks of attendance, often within the first couple of days, as your Strategic Survival Personality takes firm root, the betrayal becomes frozen in time. You were 7 or 8 or 9 or 10 or 11 or 12 or 13 years old. Now you are 35 or 45 or 55 or 65 or 75 years old.
As we have seen from the inequality figures, betrayal does not discriminate between political parties. ‘Reservoir-Dogs-style’ betrayal within the Conservative Party. Betrayal within Labour. The betrayal of a disappearing Nigel Farage.
Michael Gove was done in by a text sent by his campaign manager, thereby suddenly ending his bid. Then a few days later, “Mr Johnson’s former campaign manager… suggested Michael Gove could be unfit to be Prime Minister because of what he called “an emotional need to gossip, particularly when drink is taken” Is drink ever not involved?
And then there were two, until Andrea Leadsom, who only entered the race after being betrayed by Boris, decided to attack her remaining competition, Theresa May, by pointing out what she thought was the strongest vulnerability to be exploited – lack of motherhood – only for it to blow back in her face. Her lack of empathy (not surprising since she apparently has a portrait of Margaret Thatcher hanging on her office wall) was again par for the course, without any regard for the myriad reasons why Ms. May does not have a child.
The bully always identifies the greatest weakness – and goes for the jugular. You must. It is the prime directive: kill or be killed.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Theresa May has been described as being, “the nearest thing you could find in British politics today to Margaret Thatcher.” Some may take comfort that a female Prime Minister (and President) might do better by the people. Maybe, but surely not if there is any resemblance to Margaret Thatcher.
In the same way that African-Americans and the poor have failed to benefit from an Obama presidency, it is highly unlikely that women in the UK or US will benefit from having females, such as Hillary Clinton, as leaders. Once you arrive at the upper echelons of the Rational Man Project your gender becomes irrelevant. In the climb up the ladder whoever doesn’t understand the game gets weeded out. If you make it to the top it is because you believe hook, line and sinker in the RMP. It’s all you know. You are not even aware of it, because you don’t see it, because you can’t feel it, because it is you.
Bard Azima is a Writer, Photographer, Filmmaker, Empathy Miner and Boarding School Survivor.
You can read more of his work at: www.empathyrising.com.
To order the ebook, with all 10 sections, from Amazon, click here.
Here are the other sections of this article:
Brexit: An Invitation to Dig Deeper – Part 3 – Reflections on David Cameron and Boris Johnson: Boarding School, Systemic Betrayal and the Subjugation of the Feminine as Outgrowths of The Age of Reason
Brexit: An Invitation to Dig Deeper – Part 7 – Reflections on Donald Trump, Ridicule as a National Pastime, The Sheer Scale of Humanity’s Endless Trauma, The Continuation of Global British Influence and the Troubling Legacy of Winston Churchill