I worked once, over 30 years ago, with a tragic character. Her name, fictionalized, was Sephina. I thought of her whenI watched Charley based on Flowers for Algernon. A story about bullies ~ adult bullying exists and Sephina was my first introduction to this behavior.
Sephina was the daughter of first-generation Italians raised in an Italian working-class community during the 1930s. She was odd and she was justifiably paranoid. Her behavior did not fit the norm; she talked to herself, in between answering phones. She was the receptionist at an office where I held a temporary job, and the butt of humor for the adults behind the glass door that separated the reception area from the offices.
It seemed Sephina’s fear that people were talking about her increased with their talking about her and that is where, as I recall, her paranoia became evident. As she sat down at her station, her eyes would become big and bigger with each person that grazed past her desk. Individuals spoke a casual, “Hello,” then turned to one another and giggled as they opened the glass door and went to their cubicles and desks. Many times I heard small groups whisper to each other, “Oh, there is Sephina, talking to herself, she is so crazy.”
My Aunt, the daughter of Italian immigrants herself, knew Sephina and told me that her husband was a brute. He controlled her every waking moment, rarely let her out of his sight, and demanded much in the way of household chores. I imagined how after being outwardly shunned all day, never invited to Chicken and Biscuit lunches, and climbing into her husband’s car, Sephina went home to more abuse and labor: fixing dinner, cleaning, and making her husband’s lunch for the next day, all the while hearing: “You f____ c ___!”
Sephina dressed in tailored skirts, matching sweaters, and carried a plaid handbag. I watched her leave the office one day, head bowed, staring at the ground as she opened her husband’s car door and slid into the passenger side. He looked like one of those guys in life who never smiled, harsh, grumpy.
One day my Aunt invited Sephina over to her house because we both wanted to see how she made homemade noodles. She taught us step-by-step this arduous process, which I have never done again. She and my Aunt talked about the old days, the kindness of people back then, and some of their mutual acquaintances. Sephina acted perfectly fine and made delicious homemade pasta.
Then she went back to work the next day and to the role she was cast in by that small little world she had grown to inhabit. The role, which her husband solidified (as my aunt told me) when she was told repeatedly, “you are no good.” It is natural to assume the part and become the victim of the role cast in: the unsuspecting person believes it and acts on it. I learned Sephina was not crazy; she was encased in a socially cemented part that her husband and co-workers reinforced.
It is our social nature to want to belong. Groupthink is when individuals follow the thinking of the group even when it causes cognitive dissonance. People with power get away with bullying, not because they are right, but because the individuals around them who comprise the immediate group, do not have the courage to question the behavior of someone in authority. Things will change, when individuals within groups stop supporting the erroneous myths and behaviors of those around them. Children will learn from that example as they replicate the behavior of their adult caretakers.
I never saw Sephina again but in my mind, she still sits alone, isolated from the group behind the glass door. A person with more courage than most.
For further reading, Ode to Bucky Goad will break your heart.