As noted here two or a hundred times, my childhood was not one of unadulterated bliss. My father was an alcoholic who could turn brutal when drunk, and my mother complained to anyone who would listen about the unfairness of being stuck with a boring bookworm for a daughter. She openly preferred several of her friends' daughters who were around my age, inviting them to shop and gossip with her and pointing out to me their superiority in looks, personality, and a general sense of fun. She told me that my friends didn't (couldn't) actually like me but must be using me to copy my homework/swim in our pool/meet my brother or, in the case of camp friends, visit New York.
We were a middle income family in a very affluent and prestige-conscious suburban community. My parents refused to buy new clothes for me starting in the seventh grade and canceled my allowance in high school; I had to buy what I needed with babysitting earnings until I reached 16 and was able to wait on my classmates in an ice cream parlor and then a convenience store. So in addition to being demoralized, I looked low-rent. Sharks can always smell blood in the water, and I was shunned and bullied by many of my classmates. I lived for the day I could escape to college.
Ideally, those who have suffered unfairly develop a strong sense of compassion and justice. I like to think that happened in my case — but not right away. I arrived at my college determined never to be an underdog again, no matter what it took, and with the underlying conviction that most people would hurt you if they could. I planned to be as tough as necessary. I quickly developed a reputation as a sharp wit.
I took an instant dislike to my roommate, based solely on her large wardrobe of nice clothes and the fact that my mother tried to bond with her as we unpacked. Over the next few weeks I perfected a cruel imitation of her way of walking and talking (i.e., a parody of a pretty young Southern woman, which is what she was) with which I entertained hall mates, sometimes in her hearing. I also short-sheeted her bed and hid her notebooks.
I like to think I would never have turned a webcam on her in the midst of a private act, even if the technology had been available, but the fact is, I'll never know. The movie MASH came out the year I graduated from high school, and we all thought the scene where Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould wire the camp PA system to broadcast Sally Kellerman and Robert Duvall having illicit sex was hilarious.
For my first-year roommate and me, everything changed within a few months. She confronted me in a reasonable and humane way, and I realized I was acting like an idiot. She has a forgiving nature, and so we became, and have remained, friends. I was lucky. I had a wonderful college experience and emerged, I think, a much deeper, kinder and wiser individual.
Dharun Ravi is currently on trial for invasion of privacy, bias intimidation and other charges in connection with having watched, via webcam, and tweeted about a sexually charged embrace between his roommate, Tyler Clementi, and another man in the dorm room he and Clementi shared. He also may have tried to arrange a failed "viewing party" for a second sexual encounter. He is not being tried for Clementi's subsequent suicide, but that is of course in the background. He could serve ten years in prison, and the shame and notoriety may follow him for the rest of his life.
When I have expressed concern and compassion for Ravi and for Molly Wei, his friend and conspirator who took a plea deal, I've been misunderstood to mean that I don't think what they did was a big deal, or that there should not be consequences for their actions. What they did was contemptible and they are accountable.
But these were three eighteen-year-olds, works in progress, and struggling through their first few weeks in a strange environment. I wish they had all had more time to grow into the deeper, wiser and, in some cases, kinder adults they may have been capable of becoming.
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