Tuesday, September 06, 2011
The Hilly Holbrook Syndrome
The Help was like that. The chapters of the three main characters – Aibileen, Skeeter and Minny – were read by wonderfully talented actresses. In fact, the Minny chapters were read by Octavia Spencer, the actress who plays Minny in the movie. For hours I was transported into their lives as if I were a fly on the wall.
I loved this book. It made me laugh. It made me cry. It made me angry. I was around 11-12 years old during the timeline of the story and I remember most of the historical events woven into the novel. At the time and given my age, I’m sure I didn’t realize the importance of the news stories, but I do remember police turning fire hoses and dogs on civil rights protesters, and the integration of schools, the church bombings, and certainly the assassinations of both Medgar Evers and JFK.
When I was in the 3rd grade my family travelled to South Carolina from Massachusetts. We were actually en route to California but stopped in South Carolina where one of my aunts lived. For a short while my parents considered settling there. I don’t remember how long we lived there, but it was long enough for my mother to enroll us kids in school and for both my father and mother to seek work.
My mother had to fight to get my brother and me into the all-white schools. My father was 100% Armenian and we had olive skin. It was the first time I’d ever heard the word “passing” and realized what it meant. School was miserable. In spite of good school records, I was dumped into the slow class where many of the students were older because they had been held back, some several times. No one would speak to me or play with me at recess. I was picked on by both students and teachers. I wasn’t just dark skinned. I was also a “Yankee.” A double whammy of horror. My brother and father had their problems, too, and it wasn’t long before we packed the station wagon and headed for California, where I finished out the school year.
But something else about The Help also struck a chord in me. I call it the Hilly Holbrook syndrome.
It doesn’t matter where you’re from or the color of your skin or what your generation, we have all known Hilly Holbrooks throughout our lives. These are the girls who exercised power and control over other girls at a very early age right into adulthood. They decided if your time on the playground or between classes would be fun or hell on earth. Other girls worshipped them, some out of blind wannabe devotion and need for acceptance. Others out of fear. One kind word from “Hilly” and your life among your peers could be tolerable, even happy. One nasty word, and a school year could be a sentence to hell. They wielded their power with capricious irresponsibility. Sometimes wearing an old dress or having the wrong shoes could trigger the attack. Other times it stemmed from jealousy over a boy or attention received from others. Or simply because the target is deemed different.
We read all the time about kids snapping over bullying. Some lash out, as with Columbine. Others get dragged into bad decisions. And some even take their own lives. Yet, the Hilly Holbrooks of the world survive to terrorize the next kid unfortunate enough to fall within their path.
Years later these same warped people (men and women) hold court within clubs, charities, churches, associations and the workplace. Even Congress. People seldom outgrow a bullying nature developed and reinforced at a young age. Over the years, they learn to develop it, becoming more astute and stealthy at wielding their power and poison.
The Hilly Holbrook character in The Help was as real and disturbing as the central topic of prejudice. While most readers might have found her ridiculous and laughable, and entertaining, she could and did ruin lives because no one stepped in to defy her early on. She did it because she could. Just as real life bullies continue because they can. Bullies only stop when no one gives them a platform and a spotlight.
The tag line for the movie The Help is: Change begins with a whisper.
Personally, I think there's been enough whispering. I think it's time for shouting.