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  • Writer's pictureJuliane Bergmann

13-Year-Old Slut

When was the first time you were ashamed of yourself?



When I get out of the car, after my mom picks me up from ballet class, I immediately see the word in giant red letters across the side of my house:


S L U T


I am an awkward 13 year old 8th grader, standing on the street, looking at my house, paralyzed. I feel the heat in my cheeks and then seething through my entire head, pulsating in my neck, pushing tiny beads of sweat out of my scalp. My heart is hammering. I am shaky and lightheaded. I’m about to be sick. I don’t want anyone to see this, but my mom is right there, staring open mouthed at the red letters.


I don’t know how many people in my German hometown actually know what the word means translated into German. Except for elderly people, most everyone in Germany knows at least some English. I need to get rid of this before anyone can ask me what it means. I wonder how long “slut” was displayed across the side of my house for everyone to see before I got there.


I know immediately who did this.


I scrape the sticky, red tape off the bumpy textured walls, with my face so close to the pale yellow paint that the bumps blur in front of my eyes. Close up at least I can’t make out the letters, the insult. My face hot, I hold back the tears that keep welling up, burning in my throat. I was supposed to be the good one. I feel dirty and disgusting.


I have never even kissed anyone, but I’m immediately thinking of how to defend myself and my purity in this tiny town where everyone knows everyone and you don’t want to be the village whore. It didn’t occur to me then that even if I had kissed someone, it still would not have deserved this.


After helping me scrape the letters off the house, my mother pried the names of the boys I suspected out of me. She told me to call and confront them. I didn’t want to. My mother was angry and I felt I had to match her anger, when all I wanted was to cry and hide in my bedroom and never go back to school. My mother didn’t let up. She threatened that she would call the boys’ parents if I didn’t call them and deal with it myself. Two bad options, but having my mother call this boy’s mother was just slightly more mortifying than having to face them myself.


I called one of them, while my mother was hovering in the background. It was before cellphones, so his mother picked up the landline and I had to ask for him, voice shaking. I was scared waiting for him to come on, feeling like I had to project strength and anger in front of my mother, when really I was so sad and so ashamed. I had considered him almost a friend. We lived close and usually rode the train home from school and he would walk me home, because my house was on the way. Many afternoons we’d stand at my front gate talking for a long time.


When he came on the line, I could hear the other boy giggling in the background. I unloaded a string of curse words and told them I knew what they did and what the fuck was wrong with them. He played dumb at first, and then admitted it. They were both whispering to each other the entire time. I felt stupid. I felt betrayed. They didn’t apologize, just told me it was a joke and I was too sensitive. I did not allow myself to melt into tears or just ask him why he would do this to me. I had to save face in front of them and in front of my mother. I took the hurt and pushed it all the way down into a tight little ball in my stomach. I unloaded another string of expletives, spit angrily into the phone, before I hung up.


I don’t think my mother was necessarily pleased, but at least my performance prevented her from calling anyone’s parents.


I didn’t stop talking to him afterwards. We were still in many classes together and lived in the same town and our families knew each other. I couldn’t avoid him. I remember thinking that he was weak and two-faced, that he would pretend to be my friend when we were alone, and then stab me in the back when he was around the other guys from our school. But being weak myself was not an option. We never discussed the incident and I pretended it didn’t hurt me. Pretended that every time I thought of it, I didn’t turn hot with shame.


Now, over 20 years later, I got a FB message from the man who used to be a boy I thought was my friend. He said he still thinks about me and it haunts him what he did to me. He says he knows it was wrong and that he is ashamed of his behavior. He says nothing was wrong with me, and that he just had a crush on me he didn’t know how to express. He said that maybe it still bothered me today sometimes and that’s why he reached out.


It sounded so much like the old trope of the boy who torments the girl on the playground and the parents think it’s cute because it means the boy must secretly like her. I hated that shit then and I hate it now. I couldn’t decide if I thought it was brave he reached out, or cowardly that he didn’t specifically say what he apologized for. Sorry for everything I did. I hate those apologies.


I was glad that he had to live with the shame he tried to inflict on me. I was glad that at almost forty his actions still haunt him. I wanted him to suffer for making me suffer. Forgiving him would free him from that, and I’d rather he suffer a bit longer.


The message brought up a fuzzy unidentifiable rage. Unidentifiable at first. Then I realized the part that made me the most angry. When he said that I might still think about it all these years later.


It pissed me off that he was presumptuous, but mostly it pissed me off that he was right.

It pissed me off that everything I did then and throughout so much of my life, the projection of strength and unflappability, the fake confidence, the stoney eyes, the sharp witty comebacks, my entire performance had not done the thing I wanted it to do. I had fooled nobody, but myself.


I know my mother tried to to help me confront the situation head on, seeking the conflict to advocate for myself. It was too much for me at 13. Maybe this would have felt empowering to someone else, but to me it felt like pressure to be someone I was not. Inadvertently this added more shame. Because what really is shame other than the feeling that who I am is bad, wrong, unacceptable. Whether it is a 13 year old boy trying to publicly humiliate me during the raw early stages of puberty and sexual identity formation, or my mother accidentally pressuring me into dismissing the sad, scared, humiliated parts of myself in favor of projecting fake strength and confidence.


I wish I could tell teenage Juliane that it’s okay to cry, when a friend betrays you. It’s okay to feel shocked and paralyzed and angry when your friend goes out of their way to deface your home to publicly insult and shame you. It’s okay to say it hurt. It’s okay to confront them or not. It’s okay to stop talking to that person who hurt you. It’s okay to have all your feelings, not just pick one that seems the most acceptable. Have them all, feel them all.


I responded to the man who used to be a boy who I thought was my friend. I wanted to know what specifically he was sorry for and his answer was vague and hedging. I left it at that. I understand, he was just a boy, like I was just a girl. And yet, I am beyond accepting crumbs and dried up olive branches.


One of the ways shame affected me was always feeling like I was somehow defective and broken. I could only be accepted and belong if I made an extra effort to compensate for my inherent flaws. I was damaged goods and I was lucky if anyone made an effort whatsoever for me. This is of course not to say this one experience did all this. It’s just one of the ones etched into my brain. I’m sure you can remember yours.


There are moments in all of our lives that forever change who we are. They slice us open with such precision, steer us down a seemingly inevitable path. And while I believe in my ability to change, I know there are things buried inside me, under thick numb scar tissue. Things that I can recall with such clarity, if I dare. The time between the moment and now, maybe decades, shrinks to nothing, rushing and crashing and splitting me open all over again.


Red letters taped to the side of my house.


“The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” — African Proverb

I think this proverb is true, but not for everyone. The need to belong, to be accepted, and to be valued is so strong in humans, that certainly many of us turn to destruction and anger if we are rejected. Or we turn to other individuals or groups who will accept us, regardless of their dysfunctional dynamics and potentially destructive nature.


But I think there are also a lot of us, mostly talking about myself here, who don’t turn openly aggressive and destructive but just keep trying to be accepted, to fit in somehow, to compensate for perceived flaws. It is destruction in its own way, but not like a blazing fire, more like a slow leak that rots the foundation and erodes one moldy crumb at a time.


Shame made me into a chameleon. Shame made me go into hiding. Somewhere along the path I realized my real self would invite humiliation or rejection. So I started hiding parts of myself. Then I started hating those parts, because they would not go away and kept reminding me that I was a fraud and if people ever found out who I really was, they’d reject me or ridicule me. I became very good at people-pleasing and anticipating other’s needs before they even voiced them.


Often this worked and I temporarily felt belonging. But many times, it backfired. I was a rubberband stretching myself too far. Just a matter of time until it breaks. I hid my softness in favor of fake strength that came across as arrogance. I hid my flaws, because I thought I had to be perfect to be loved. Instead I pointed out where everyone else failed because I thought this would ensure that if there wasn’t enough love/attention/approval to go around, I’d be the one getting it over the other person I’d torn down.


I learned who expected what and I tried to give it to them. That meant selectively turning up and turning down various parts of me, which made me feel fragmented. There were few people and few situations in which I felt fully myself.


It’s still a process. I still have a fast and hard shame response. Just today, I shut down completely in defensiveness. What would have taken me days or weeks to untangle before, rearranged itself today in a matter of minutes and I was able to address why I got defensive, name what made me feel ashamed, and get to my actual feelings about the situation.

I’m still awkward when I do this. I stumble over my words. I frequently cry while I’m trying to explain what is going on. But I’m doing it anyway. It’s been a very slow going practice to dismantle my knee-jerk shame responses again and again. But I can tell it’s making a difference in my life and relationships. I feel more myself and less afraid to show who I really am.


A friend shared something personal and painful with me recently. I was sad and also happy because of the trust necessary to have that conversation. A few days ago I read in an article that it’s not only true that hurt people hurt people, but also that healed people heal people. That’s a bit hippie woo-woo, I know. I don’t mean I’m healed or that I heal people. But just like the hurting spreads around quickly, so does the healing. Being honest and vulnerable might repel some people but it will draw in others, who will feel an invitation to also open up. I like this feeling of walking together and being there for each other along the way, not fighting shame with gritted teeth, but openly acknowledging it and then watching it deflate and dissolve between us.

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