I was in my early 20s, in graduate school studying literature (mainly American) and art history (mainly the figure of the artist in fiction). There’s a huge employment market for people who have studied the figure of the artist in fiction, of course. My thesis was entitled “The Solids of Uccello: Near Recognitions of Reality in William Gaddis’ The Recognitions.” It was a heady time, indeed. I was studying in an English Department then ranked first in the nation, in a school known as Mr. Jefferson’s University that until 1970, just twelve years before, had been an all-male bastion.
The competition was fierce in the English department, though I didn’t realize just how fierce for quite some time. I thought it was all about the love of literature—and it was, in large part, but with an undercurrent of beating the other M.A. students for the few, precious slots in the Ph.D. program. It was particularly competitive if you happened to be a woman (though I didn’t know that either), because many longtime professors there still weren’t sure if going co-ed had been such a good idea after all.
There was only one tenured female professor in the department who, in a memorable conversation, told me that she had suffered deeply to get there and her intention was not to help other women by making it easier for them, but to ensure that every other woman suffered as much as she did so they would understand and appreciate the journey.
Evidently you cannot help without torturing the ones who follow you, I thought. I, myself, would rather sweep a path for them, show them the landscape, be—as Sun Tzu says in The Art of War–a local guide.
Friends like these you do not need, I thought as I sat across from this woman. “Is this what Walker Percy had in mind when he wrote about ‘handing one another along?’ I asked sweetly. Having studied his work in her class, it was a fully appropriate question, I thought. She was less amused.
One American literature professor stood out for me—I took many classes with him during my time at Mr Jefferson’s University—smart, demanding, a man who knew how to teach in an institution that, frankly, put more emphasis on research and publishing than teaching. But this professor was a shining light, sure to get tenure. I loved his classes—funny, hard, smart. I would use the word “brilliant,” but you and I both know that word is taken.
I did well there, made all As my first year, and was named a DuPont Scholar that January. I noticed a difference in how the old guard treated me afterwards, as if I had emerged from the swamp of first year to become a Real Possibility for the Ph.D. program. It was a culture built on achievement and a department in which—quite literally—a “B” was equal to a “D” and even an “A-” was nothing to write home about.
Those were heady days. My best friend there, Ken, used to crack me up with his Marlon Brando “On the Waterfront” impersonation: “I could-a been a critical theorist,” he would wail as we worked on papers that very nearly sucked all the life out of Melville and Eliot and Yeats.
My biggest learning there began on the evening of February 28, 1983, the night of the last M*A*S*H episode. I lived in Tucker Dorm at the time and those of us in the dorm had planned a party in the basement to watch the two-hour finale together. Just as the episode started, my roommate ran down the stairs.
“Patti, your professor is on the phone.”
“What?” I shouted across the room. “Who?”
“American Lit,” she said as she ran up the stairs. “Says he needs to talk to you.”
What on earth? I couldn’t imagine. I had taken a lot of classes with him and never had he called me. Was something wrong with my last paper?
I ran up the three flights of stairs, two stairs at a time. Of course, that would make my heart explode if I did it now, but it seemed easy at the time. I was nervous when Pat handed me the phone.
“Uh, hi?” I said.
“Hi Patti,” he said.
He was, he said, just listening to music and having a nice glass of wine and wondered if I’d like to come over.
I’m sure I must have cocked my head to one side in wonderment. I felt nervous and slightly adult and flattered in a confused kind of way. So nice of him to think of me! Perhaps he wanted to talk about my thesis, then in its developmental (i.e., undone) stage.
“Oh, thanks,” I said, “but we’re all having a party here in the dorm to watch the last episode of MASH, so I can’t. Thanks, though.”
Pat stood watching. “What did he want?” she asked.
I explained his invitation, saying, “well, maybe he’s just lonely—I mean, his wife works out of town during the week, so maybe he’s just lonely.”
“Yeah,” she said slowly, “he’s lonely all right.”
I, evidently, had cornered the market on naïve.
I went back down three flights of stairs to rejoin the party. Less than 20 minutes later, she came back down (this was in the Stone Age before cell phones). He was on the phone again, this time more insistent. I declined again, and went back down.
This happened, no exaggeration, a total of 21 times. Each time his words were more slurred, what he was suggesting we might do was less innocent, his tone more demanding.
“I’ll pick you up,” he said. “I’ll be there in 10 minutes. Meet me out front.”
“It, um, it really doesn’t seem like you should be driving…”
And so it went.
There is a fine line between naive and not, between politely declining and flat out refusing. My roommate got to that line before I did. At call number 11, she stopped coming down to tell me. At call number 13, she threatened to call the R.A. in our dorm if he didn’t stop calling. At call 17, she threatened to call campus security. And at call 21, she unplugged the phone.
I called his office the next morning. “Can I come over and talk with you?” I asked, nervously. “Sure,” he said loudly. “I’ll be there for an hour or so before class.”
When I got there, he motioned for us to walk outside. I can still vividly remember the sunlight on the steps, the stillness of the chilly day, the way we both sat facing the same direction like passengers on a bus.
“I’m a little uncomfortable about what happened last night,” I started, so nervous I could barely speak the words.
His response sounded like a large metal door closing, shutting me off from all I knew before, bringing me to a realization of what it is to have power, and what it is not to have it.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said calmly.
“Your calls, inviting me over,” I stammered.
“I was just grading some papers and asked you if you wanted to come over. That’s all,” he said.
“But you called 21 times—I think there was more to it, and since I’m still in your class, it makes me uncomfortable.”
“Patti, I’m shocked and disappointed. You are reading way too much into this,” he said calmly. “I’m flattered that you find me attractive, but that’s absolutely not what happened. You really need to think twice before accusing someone of something so outlandish.”
You are, he was saying to me, the one with the problem. You are, he was saying to me, the one who is misinterpreting an innocent invitation. Poor Patti, he was saying to me.
My face went instantly hot. I knew in an instant: This is what power really is. The power to deny the whole reality of someone else. This is what it must feel like when a white person says to a person of color, “you’re just overreacting. That wasn’t a racist joke.”
The pavement was swept out from under my feet in that one fell swoop, taking me on a ride of anger, self-doubt, and—ultimately—of impotence. There was nothing I could do in the face of his blank denial. He was the one in power, not me. Or that’s how it felt at the time. Did I read too much into his 21 increasingly drunk phone calls? It is so easy for us to doubt our own perceptions, particularly when our “superiors” tell us it is not so. It is so easy to have others place doubt in us, to suck away all the power and hold it themselves.
I knew, in that hot-faced, hollow moment, that he had the power, that he had used it by telling me I was the one with the wrong intentions. You are the one reading into this what you wanted to have happen. It is not so, he was saying. I am the innocent one, he was saying.
On my next paper in his class, I got my first “B” at The University. I made an appointment to see him about it.
I felt I was trying to climb a glass, sheer wall, a slippery slope of denial, one without any crevices for a toehold. He couldn’t admit my grade was connected to an event he denied had happened, now could he?
Maybe, I now realize, this was less about him, and more about me. What can we do in such a situation but stand true to what we know to be right? He might win in the smallest definition of winning, but I would know. And sometimes knowing trumps winning. In the long-run, if not in the short-term. At the time, I didn’t know any of that. I just knew, in some ineffable way, that I had learned something terrible about human nature.
My dorm R.A. happened to be a shining star in the same department. After I left The University, he sent me a note, telling me of the professor’s departure. “He was ‘let go,’” he wrote. “Asked to leave.” Turns out, he had a reputation for exactly what he said he didn’t do to me.
A brilliant addition to The University, he was nevertheless denied tenure. Not because he hadn’t written his “tenure book,” but because he had finally taken it too far, finally going after 18-year-old undergrads when all the grad students had said either yes or no.
Dr. Stephen Meixel might have saved my life that year.
Some time after that B, I took myself to the student health center at the University of Virginia. He listened, looked behind and beneath the physical symptoms I was describing, and asked me to take a short test about the stress in my life. Always the over-achiever, I got the highest score he had ever seen for life stressors in one year.
I was depressed, unable to focus. I felt like I was in a paper bag and was so weak I couldn’t even fight my way through thin paper. I had to work hard to get one thing done each day.
With Dr. Meixel’s help, I emerged from that fog, that depression. But this propensity toward depression has not left me. I am sometimes paralyzed by it, unable to do one thing. Not one.
Sometimes it is brought on by my sense of overwhelm at the need in the world that I cannot fix. Sometimes it is just there, and I cannot answer the question why. I just know I am unfocused, that the lessons of the past like this one at the University of Virginia weigh so heavily on me I feel I cannot raise my arms. Lists of to-dos stay undone, things pile up, making me more depressed. I feel it to my bones. It makes me heavy and sometimes staying in bed is the only thing I can do.
It is the inequities of the world, those power imbalances, the sense I have of worthlessness that picks at me and sends me into times of inaction. Do we all feel this at times in our lives? Perhaps. But how can we navigate when we cannot move?
(Excerpted from my book, The Geography of Loss)