The Cycle Of Violence Is Never Absolute

After reading this story recently on Yahoo! News and reading through the story’s User Comment thread…

…I recalled a pair of Blu-ray reviews I’d read a few years ago for My Bodyguard (1980)…

…in which both reviewers dismissed the film’s message as simplistic and troublesome.


“…its safe-haven look at school bullying now reads like a dollop of Soft-Scrub, severely hampered by Dave Grusin’s flowery score, and a final message that the only real solution to bullying is to be bigger, stronger and meaner. Or to find someone who is. “


“My Bodyguard has…a screwy way with the cyclical nature of violence, presenting a confused conclusion that doesn’t even begin to solve all the trouble that precedes it… The ending basically endorses a “violence solves everything” message that doesn’t make sense, indulging wish-fulfillment… Ideas on escalation are intentionally avoided.”

This is purely anecdotal, but, in my own experience, when it comes to adolescent bullying, the so-called ‘cycle of violence’ is purely academic. It may sound comforting to the cynic, or provide rationalization for the squeamish, but it all depends on the individuals involved in the bullying.

Situations don’t necessarily escalate simply because the victimized person chooses self-defense. Sometimes violence does solve ‘everything’ a bully has done, or intends to do, to their victim.

Sometimes just standing up for oneself, announcing to the victimizer, verbally and/or physically, that you’re through providing them with an easy target for their animosity, is enough to discourage them.

Some individual personal anecdotes on that subject:

When I was in 4th Grade, there was a little dipshit who wanted to impress the two male classmates he walked home with every day after school.

His scatter-brained idea was to start bullying a 3rd Grade boy who was absolutely harmless, who had actually been one of the few kids whom Little Dipshit had invited to his 5th birthday party just a few years earlier (just to give you an idea of the twisted psychology at play in Little Dipshit’s eight-year-old brain).

The bullying began in the middle of a snowy winter. Following the harmless 3rd Grader home, Little Dipshit would verbally taunt him, daring him to fight. When the harmless 3rd Grader ignored the challenge, Little Dipshit would knock him down into the roadside snow banks, sometimes pushing the 3rd Grader’s face into the snow.

On one occasion, Little Dipshit held the 3rd Grader upside down by his ankles and tried dropping him headfirst into the snow, but the snow wasn’t soft enough and the kid just rolled away into somersaults each time.

Little Dipshit continued taunting the 3rd Grader to fight back, but the smaller kid continued to passively decline, just wanting to get home. The refusals just made Little Dipshit frustrated and more determined to bully his victim further.

Before the violence involved in the bullying could escalate to truly dangerous levels, though, some unexpected course-correction occurred. The 3rd Grader’s big brother, who was in junior high at the time, surprised Little Dipshit and his laughing friends as they were in the middle of bullying his brother on the way home.

Big Brother emerged from his hiding place and chased after the trio of little goons, but focused on Little Dipshit when the other two 4th Graders peeled off in a different direction.

Attempting to hide behind a pile of shoveled snow in the side yard of a residence, about a block-and-a-half away from the site of Big Brother’s surprise arrival, Little Dipshit was yanked up from the snow by Big Brother.

Warning Little Dipshit to stay from his little brother or else, Big Brother socked him twice in the gut and threw him back hard onto the snowy ground, all of which knocked the wind out of Little Dipshit’s lungs for a few moments. Then Big Brother walked away.

Little Dipshit was an idiot, but he wasn’t foolish. He knew he could’ve gotten in far worse trouble for what he’d been doing to the 3rd Grader.

He also knew he didn’t want to push his luck with Big Brother, or anyone else, for that matter, by continuing his illogical bullying efforts. This marked the end of Little Dipshit’s brief, unfortunate phase of predatory bullying.

He’d realized, even while he was tormenting the 3rd Grader, that he was being a real asshole by doing this. Though his friends had seemed entertained by his nasty behavior, none of it made him feel good about himself. In fact, he felt increasingly guilty and insecure.

After a while, he figured out that what he’d been doing was trying to get somebody to fight him. Little Dipshit didn’t want to lose the fight, though, so he intentionally targeted someone smaller and more vulnerable to him. Little Dipshit had previously been bullied and beaten up himself by bigger kids, which Little Dipshit’s friends had witnessed.

This half-baked bullying effort had been Little Dipshit’s confused, thoughtless attempt to establish himself as a tough guy in the eyes of his friends. Now he knew the truth about himself, though: He was simply a weak-minded piece of shit, not unlike the kids who had knocked him around for petty reasons.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, Little Dipshit was me. It’s still embarrassing, but the experience taught me some valuable lessons. 

While my dubious reaction to being bullied, by becoming a bully myself, might seem to make the case for the existence of a “cycle of violence”, it wasn’t a cycle. It was simply a reactionary behavior which ended as soon as someone gave me that fully-deserved, retributive beating. 

Welcome to the wonderful world of Consequences, Little Dipshit. Now you have a choice to make. Continue earning your title of Little Dipshit. Or grow up and out of it.

I abandoned the former.

9.8.74 collage1
Attendees and I at my 5th Birthday party in 1974.

A cycle suggests something perpetual and endless. In terms of physical retaliation against violence leading to retaliation, after retaliation, after retaliation…well, I’ve never seen that play out on the small-scale, individual level. There’s always been an end to those conflicts.

Sometimes it merely involved the straightforward act of standing up for one’s self or one’s friends.

When I was in 2nd Grade, a new kid arrived in my class and quickly established himself as a bit of a pest. Lacking in social skills, he tried and failed to insinuate himself into the recess playtime activities of my friends and I, interrupting our conversations and attempting to boss us around. Simply ignoring and moving away from him was enough for us to piss him off.

Returning from recess, I walked in to our boys restroom and found one of my best friends being shoved up against the wall at the urinals by this angry new kid. Hearing this new kid threaten to “knock” my best friend’s “lights out” immediately motivated me to intervene.

As I pulled the new kid away from my best friend, telling him to leave him alone, the new kid released his grip, turned to me and, without hesitation, kneed me directly in the groin, which instantly had me doubled over in agony. The new kid dashed out of the restroom and back to class. My best friend and I returned to class, but said nothing to our teacher about the incident.

That afternoon, as school let out for the day, the new kid snuck up behind me in the crowd of departing elementary school students and knocked me forward onto the grass with a violent shove. Before I could get up, the new kid turned me over, straddled my chest, pinning both my arms with his knees, and began pounding his fists into my face and the sides of my head.

Since we were both seven years old, he didn’t manage to inflict any physical damage to my face, but I couldn’t breathe with him sitting on my chest and I was unable to block any of his blows. All I could do was shut my eyes and rapidly turn my head back and forth to dodge his fists. I can’t recall how many of his punches landed on me, but several did.

Though this was over forty years ago, I can still picture the crowd of elementary and junior high kids standing around us in a circle, many of them cheering him on.

After a few moments of this beating, which seemed to last for a full minute, I heard one of the kids say that a junior high teacher was coming over. Hearing this, the new kid jumped up and fled through the crowd. After catching my breath, I stood up and walked home.

Once again, I didn’t tell anyone at the school about this. I didn’t tell my parents. I had two reasons for that:

1) It was embarrassing.

2) If I ‘told’ on him, I was worried I’d only compound the feelings of weakness I was already having, especially if the new kid decided that ‘telling’ on him was all I was capable of doing in response, which might lead him to continue coming after me.

The very next day at school, the kid not only acted as if nothing had happened between us, but now he was talking to me as if I were his best friend. No mockery, no threats, no intimidation. He wasn’t even addressing my friends that way.

He ended up behaving that way towards us for the rest of the school year until he moved away to parts unknown before we all started 3rd Grade (1977-78). Though he did seem to be bullying my best friend in the boys restroom, I wouldn’t necessarily classify his subsequent violence towards me as such.

Looking back, I figured he attacked me both times to save face after I’d stood up to him on behalf of my best friend. Since I hadn’t pushed the issue further, either by physically retaliating or tattling on him,  the new kid was probably relieved and just as willing, as I was, to put the negativity behind us.

When my classmates and I moved on to 4th Grade, we attended school at a smaller building several miles outside of town. This location housed our town’s 4th through 6th Grade students.

When I attended this smalltown Midwestern school, from August 1978 through May 1981, bullying and fistfights between classmates were a weekly, often daily occurrence, usually at recess, but often at the end of the day as we boarded the school buses to head back into town.

Every once in a while there were student altercations inside the building. Those fights were sudden and violent, but brief, as they were quickly broken up by teachers. The fights during recess often went unnoticed by staff members and unreported by the students.

Boys fought boys, girls fought girls, and, in at least two cases I was a personal witness to, larger girls would batter smaller boys.

One Amazonian girl, in particular, used to wear raised-heel leather boots to school, targeting boys and girls alike for surprise shin-kickings during recess, laughing with sadistic glee as her victims fell hard onto the grass or concrete. She did this year-round.

There was another tall, broad-shouldered girl who had a habit of picking fights with girls and boys smaller than she was (which was most of us). When she’d kick or hit the boys, she’d immediately dare them to hit her back. If they didn’t, she’d taunt them with comments such as “If you were a real man, you’da punched me!”.

Remember: We were nine and ten years old, same as she was.

Sometimes the boys would take the beatings, or the shin-kickings, or the groin-kneeings, etc. Other times, they’d retaliate with their own fists and feet. It all depended on the individuals and the behavior involved.

At the time, all this violent behavior among my classmates was so common that it was mostly not thought of as that big a deal. In retrospect, I’m a little shocked at the frequency of it, as well as our overall cavalier attitudes about it.

That was the late Seventies.

Having witnessed so many angry punches, kicks, slaps, scratches, pulled hair, etc, during such a relatively short period of time, I can honestly say that I never observed anything close to resembling a ‘cycle’ of violence.

Retaliation, yes, but these conflicts always wound up getting resolved soon afterwards. One half would lose the fight, the winner would gloat for a shining moment, then both would move on.

Sometimes the combatants became close friends in the aftermath, which never ceased to amaze me.

Back then, ‘bullying’, per conventional wisdom of the late Seventies/early Eighties, in my smalltown Midwestern community, anyway, was thought of as a combination of verbal abuse and physical battery.

Minus the battery, such behavior was considered merely being ‘picked on’ by somebody who didn’t like you.

The answer to that problem was either physical retaliation (which I never felt was justified if the abuse was merely verbal; you didn’t hit somebody just because they said something you didn’t like), or giving the name-caller a dose of their own verbal abuse.

Taking the abuse lying down almost always guaranteed more of it (sometimes a bully would just lose interest).

Turning in the name-caller to a teacher made you look weak and gave you a reputation as a tattletale among classmates. Later, in junior high, ‘narc’ became the preferred slur. 

But there was never an observable cycle of violence. By the time my classmates and I moved on to 7th Grade (and back to the larger school building in town), nearly all those daily/weekly, spontaneous outbursts of violence came to an end.

Shortly before the end of my 6th Grade year, one of my best friend’s older sisters predicted that behavioral shift, with surprising accuracy, as she soberly informed us, “You guys fight all the time out there and you might think you’re going to act that way when you get to 7th Grade, but you won’t. They’ll just kick you out of school“.

I don’t remember a lot of fistfights taking place once we returned to school that late August of 1981. Maybe it was due to no longer having outdoor recess periods together, where all of us inhabited the same barely-supervised patch of school grounds for 90 minutes each day.

Once we returned to town for school, we were in closer proximity to the faculty members between classes. In spite of having the freedom of an “open campus” lunch hour, during which we were allowed to leave school and eat wherever we wanted, most of us became aware that we wouldn’t be able to get away with as much as we had earlier. 


When I first watched My Bodyguard on TV in the early Eighties, it had a real impact on me. Not as wish fulfillment, but as a fairly accurate depiction of adolescent experiences similar to those I’d  just lived through. The film’s fight scenes didn’t seem stagey to me and the violence wasn’t exaggerated through stylized choreography and ridiculously amplified sound effects (i.e. no ping pong paddles smacked against a leather couch). 

What was particularly resonant for me, and still is, is the awkwardness of the fight between Chris Makepeace and Matt Dillon, which had a ring of truth to it:

My Bodyguard continues to be one of my long-standing film favorites, partly for nostalgic reasons, but mostly because it takes compelling subject matter and spins it into an engaging yarn with a deft blend of charm, humor and tension. 

And, yes, sometimes a good beatdown actually does quash the problem. In fact, I would argue that most of the time it does.

But that’s just what I’ve witnessed firsthand.

One of the criticisms I’ve read about My Bodyguard has to do with Adam Baldwin playing a high school student, but looking like a 25-year-old. He wasn’t.

my bodyguard cast 1979

Kudos to the filmmakers for casting kids who were actually their characters’ ages.


One thought on “The Cycle Of Violence Is Never Absolute

  1. I’ve never even heard of the film but institutionalised violence was a huge part of my upbringing (again in the 70’s) and exposure to it a contributing factor to my personality to this day. I’ve taken a fair few beatings in my time and can only equate improving your economic situation as an alternative to continuous participation in the world that endorses thuggish behaviour. Yep. I moved to cut ties with the violence in my past.


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