“I want to stand up on their behalf.” Why John Marsden calling bullying "feedback" is so dangerous.

“Don’t shut down who you are. Don’t try and edit yourself into something you’re not. Be who you are.”

While young adult author John Marsden has stirred up controversy this week by claiming that bullying is “feedback” for kids with “unlikeable behaviours”, another young adult author has come out today with a very different view.

Claire Zorn, who says Marsden’s books were really important to her as a kid, tells Mamamia she found his comments on bullying worrying.

“I would have thought that he would be more insightful as to the kind of things that teenagers live with and put up with,” she says. “I wanted to stand up on their behalf.”

High school is all about five minute moments. If you’re being bullied, don’t give up. Post continues after video.

Zorn herself was bullied at school. That bullying included having rotten banana smeared on her back, and crude drawings of her performing sex acts being passed around class.

So why was she bullied?

“I think I was probably just a bit weird and a bit different to the other kids,” she says.

Zorn’s parents were supportive, but it was a time when schools often brushed off bullying as “part of childhood”.

“I remember I was in Year Six and I went with my parents to meet the principal or someone about some of the ways that I was being treated at school. And I still remember, to this day, she said, ‘Well, it’s not going to be a problem next year or in five years or in 10 years, so it’s not worth worrying about’.”

“Of course, it does have a long-term effect on you, which I think is something that schools and teachers are finally starting to recognise.”


Zorn did, in fact, treat the bullying as a kind of feedback.

“I think kids that are bullied or ostracised, they do start to self-edit their behaviour and their personalities, which is what my experience was. You just kind of shut yourself down. It was all pretty horrible.”

But it didn’t help. By the end of high school, she was having suicidal thoughts.

“I had some pretty serious mental health issues by the time school was over. I became super-anxious and depressed and lonely and isolated. I think that when you feel you’re not accepted for the person that you are, it can have a huge impact on mental health. When the message comes back that who you are isn’t right, that’s incredibly damaging and harmful.”

Zorn went on to channel her experiences into the novel The Protected. Now she has young people contacting her via social media or coming up to her at school visits to tell her about their own experiences.

“They say things like, ‘I’ve been bullied and I really connected with the character of Hannah, like she was my friend, and I felt less alone.’”

Listen to an episode of Mamamia’s parenting podcast This Glorious Mess below. On this episode, what age should you let your child have Instagram? Post continues after audio.

Zorn doesn’t think we should be victim blaming. When someone is being bullied, it’s the person doing the bullying who needs to change their behaviour.

“Bullying isn’t about the person being bullied. It’s about the perpetrator themselves. I think we need to recognise, sometimes, that when they’re victimising other students, it’s because of stuff they’re dealing with in their lives as well. At the same time there’s a place for reprimanding certain behaviour.”

The author has a message for young people who are being bullied, and it’s very different from Marsden’s message.

“All I can really do is speak from experience and just say they will find their people. They might not have found their people yet but they will find their people, whether it’s at university or outside school, in some other activity.

“It’s excellent to embrace diversity and the quirky qualities that other people don’t have. That’s a beautiful part of being human. We’re all so different.

“I just really hope that teenagers don’t take his comments on board and I hope they just feel that they can actually be who they are.”

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you’re based in Australia, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

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