When Digital Journal hooked up with ecologist Elissa Sursara for an interview, we were supposed to discuss her upcoming conservation efforts and her forthcoming Antarctic campaign with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. It didn't work out that way.
On the surface Elissa's story is one of success. The 24-year-old ecologist has completed partial studies in biomedical engineering and studied environmental biology at the Australian National University. Besides this, Sursara is a correspondent, a documentary filmmaker and even an occasional actress, having starred in shows and movies such as Touched by an Angel (1994), American Gothic (1996), Boston Public (2001), Marion Bridge (2002), Touch & Go (2003) and Going for Broke (2004).
Recognized for her global conservation efforts, particularly with regard to marine, wildlife and habitat conservation, Elissa is also an ambassador and crew member for Sea Shepherd, and is affiliated with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Earth Hour, the Australia Zoo and Greenpeace Australia Pacific. In 2012, she was named as a nominee for PETA’s Sexiest Celebrity Vegetarian of 2012.
Now you could be forgiven then for thinking that this young female has so far led a charmed life, but in reality, Elissa Sursara has experienced more adversity than most people will ever experience in an entire lifetime.
Having lived through episodes of mass bullying, life threats, and what can only be described as attempts by others at absolute soul destruction, it is astonishing to learn just how much the human psyche can be forced to endure. Equally alarming, is the realization that some people are comfortable causing another human being absolute anguish and pain, and that it is okay.
Such was the case of Sursara, who encountered bullying for the first time at a new school when she was just 13 years old. Targeted because of her eagerness to fit in, Elissa was bullied extensively throughout high school:
My school bullies locked me a bathroom until a janitor finally rescued me, pushed me around in corridors and forced me to sit alone. During class, after burning me with a Bunsen burner, one bully cut off my hair."
And later, when she was absent from school with whooping cough, her fellow peers even "celebrated" the circulating rumor that the teen had died. But things went from bad to worse for the Australian youngster, when the bullying turned violent.
"I was followed outside of school" she said, "and on one occasion, trapped inside a local store as my bullies waited menacingly outside." Having been forced to attend a mandatory personal development camp through the school, Elissa said her peers even "threatened to push me overboard on a dingy and drown me in the water."
An eager student, Sursara's grades fluctuated to the point that she failed her first and second years of high school. "I had been skipping classes and missing school," she explained, "faking sick or hiding to avoid confrontations." Eventually Elissa says, she hit an all-time low. "My self-esteem plummeted" she explained, "and I rarely came out of my room."
For the next three years the teen simply struggled to survive but inside, she was crying out for help. Desperately, Elissa said she typed the words "help me" into a web browser:
I was met with a list of online resources for kids, teenagers and adults who were struggling to cope with trauma, depression, anxiety and even suicide. Realizing I wasn’t alone, I spent hours reading the stories of survivors, and finally summoned up the courage to talk to my parents, who later involved my teachers, coordinators and my school headmaster.
Sursara was offered an opportunity to address the entire school body at an assembly and highlight, as well as chastise, the bullying she had been forced to endure. "It was my first time speaking to anyone outside my family about my bullying," said Elissa. Still, the brave teen stood tall and shared her experiences; she even turned down the opportunity to move to another school. "I wanted to finish my schooling with my bullies" she said, "and show them my strength."
With issues somewhat resolved, the teen went on to excel in her studies and although "things were far from perfect," she said, the bullying finally did stop, only to start up again as an adult:
As an adult, bullying manifests in different ways, and as a public figure, I am particularly vulnerable to it. The public interest in my work has been undoubtedly positive, but no good deed goes unpunished.
There have been times where I have been defamed, singled-out and aggressively harassed, either by opponents, cyber bullies or disgruntled individuals.
From 2005 onwards, I was victimized by online identity theft, in which anonymous Internet users would use my pictures and information, pose as me, and engage with others online. Often this was harmless, but one instance became expansive.
Information about me online became difficult to navigate and disingenuous claims made by impersonators were sometimes accepted as fact. This alone was occasionally confusing to professional work, and I was often attacked for viewpoints and comments that I hadn’t genuinely made.
One example of this Sursara explained, is an alleged feud with fellow Australian actress Isabel Lucas. Lucas is best known for her role as Tasha Andrews on the Australian television soap opera Home and Away (2003–2006). In 2008, Lucas moved to Los Angeles and has since starred in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Immortals, The Pacific and Daybreakers.
"No such feud existed," said Elissa, "in fact, Isabel and I are co-ambassadors for Sea Shepherd."
Sursara's personal life was also targeted and became the source of much attention:
Elissa now campaigns against bullying for Reach Out Australia.
My relationships (both platonic and romantic) were written about, dissected and appropriated on blogs and even gossip websites. When falsely linked to a celebrity actor (Emile Hirsch) and then a celebrity musician (Justin Bieber), I was unable to control my online privacy and spent several months as a target of sometimes jealous fans. Several hate groups were created and maintained before eventually going defunct.
But Sursara's biggest challenge still lay ahead. In early 2012, while working on field research in Assam, India, Elissa contracted staphylococcus and tetanus:
I cut my leg on debris from an abandoned roadside car and left my wounds untreated. It wasn’t until months later, after becoming seriously ill and unable to walk, that I finally admitted myself to hospital.
It was during this time Elissa explained, "bullies exploited the misfortune of my illness to create mass online confusion." They even circulated a rumor that the ecologist had died, but the attacks really took a sinister turn when Sursara's disease forced her to put on weight.
For nine months during her sickness and recovery, Sursara was mostly immobile. Inactive, the conservationist gained approximately eleven kilos (around 24 pounds). Currently she says, "cyber bullies are engaging in campaigns against me using their social media to call me fat, ugly and worthless." One depraved bully even suggested that Elissa should "check into a concentration camp."
But this is not the first time Sursara has been bullied by social media she says:
For part of 2011 and some of 2012, I became the target of a brutal smear campaign fronted by three women, whose names I will not divulge. It has been one of the worst experiences with bullying thus far.
I was called mentally disturbed and lies about my personal life were played out in front of an audience. After being exposed by an affiliate organization as deceitful, the womens' bullying efforts were merely an attempt to damage my reputation whilst rescuing their own. One of the women even emailed her claims to at least one of my professional contacts in an effort to jeopardize my work and professional connections.
By now the culmination of these events might have bested the strongest person, but in Elissa's case, she has discovered a silver lining and a new cause. The ecologist has found added strength by helping other victims of bullying:
As a result of my now very public experiences, I am working with Reach Out Australia, a resource from the Inspire Foundation, to advocate against bullying as a patron and contributor to their project. I aim to offer my advice and friendship to children and young adults struggling with depression, bullying and other difficult traumas.
Having dealt with aggressive bullies for much my life, I now speak out to advocate against a social injustice that affects millions of children and young adults all around the world.
For anyone going through a bullying-type situation, Elissa's message is a simple one. "The cardinal rule in dealing with a bully" she said, "is remembering it’s not your fault, and nothing you’ve been accused of doing, justifies a bully’s behavior."
But the young woman also hopes that unlike her own experiences, those in need of help do not keep it locked inside. "It’s important to reach out," emphasizes Elissa, "talk to your parents, teachers or an adult you trust. Go online and gain support from the many resources available to you. Always remember," she adds, "that it’s your right to feel safe, happy and secure."