The first bitter truth you must learn is that it is never about your art. Or: the first bitter truth you must learn is that you can’t trust anyone. Or: the first bitter truth is that no-one will care.
A little while ago I read a New Yorker article that began by reminding its audience that we have all had our lives changed by teachers: “almost everyone we know has been turned around, or at least seriously shaken, by a teacher.” This is as true for me as it is for any lucky kid; I felt the suggested pang of recognition. But as I read those opening paragraphs, my recognition turned into a bad-tasting realisation – the teacher who turned things around for me is also someone I never, ever want to see again. The change he made in my life is real, for good and for bad. He was my mentor, and then he was my predator, and now I’m shot of him, thank god, but the shadow remains.
This is my bitter truth: that this person wrought a lot of good in my life, and it’s all irrevocably coloured by the bad. I’m sure you will have heard similar stories before.
I was a writing student at university and he was my lecturer. We became friends, along with a number of others in my cohort. He encouraged me to pursue my passion projects, he edited my work for me, he found me an Honours supervisor, he got me a job tutoring for him – then he took me drinking after my heart got broken, drove me home, and kissed me in the car. I was drunk. I felt revolted and I froze while he felt me up, then I pulled away and laughed and laughed and fled. I still had to work with him. Just when I thought the whole thing might have been forgotten, he sent back edits of a piece I was working on with an explicit proposition in the Track Changes. I had to ignore it. It sucked. It all sucked.
It sucked because I had to learn the bitter truths that so many women are familiar with: once the person you looked up to makes a pass at you, every good thing they’ve ever said to you is reduced to nil. It doesn’t matter how much of his professional encouragement was genuine, and not just an extended exercise in grooming me for sex; the two are indistinguishable, so it all means nothing. Inside my house, after the incident in the car, I leant against the wall and felt a whiplash of retrospective razing: all of it, all the praise, the words in ears, the opportunities and friendly coffees and time, had been leading up to this premeditated pass. I felt bereft. I felt exhausted. I had loved writing, had loved and valued this man’s support; I knew immediately the vivid truth of the phrase “ashes in my mouth”. If I hadn’t already had some stuff published, and wasn’t naturally possessed of a monstrous creative ego, I might have decided to give up my writing career there and then.
(It also sucked because he fired me in the second year I worked with him for making a request for time off. “Fired” isn’t quite the right word – he got upset with me for addressing him like a friend when I asked to miss a week of class in order to present a lecture at a writers’ festival. He scheduled a meeting with the head of school admin to discuss the situation. When I arrived, there was no head of school admin. It was just him. He berated me over coffee for a bit, I refused to apologise, and he never asked me to work with him again. The year before, after the kiss in the car, I’d asked for exactly the same thing: a week off to attend the same festival. That year, I went with his blessing. The following year I had a boyfriend, and a boss who threw a tantrum when I gave him two weeks’ notice that I’d be missing one class. It made me feel sick.)
No-one likes to be hoodwinked, but I was. Like many bright girls, I was unsure of myself, eager to learn, excited to be challenged, and extremely susceptible to flattery. So when he praised my work – my own work! My own ideas! – I was thrilled. I thought I was on my way to academic and literary stardom. It did not occur to me that I was being groomed, because he made sure to tell me how much he liked and respected me. He was friendly with lots of his students. I trusted him.
In the time between then and now I’ve spoken to a number of women who have eerily similar stories to my own. We talk in corners at parties and our voices get low and angry. It feels good to commiserate but it feels dreadful to know that it happened before, is happening now, and will happen again. “It” – being taken advantage of by a man who should know better; being preyed upon by a known predator.
In an article on the harassment of women in STEM fields, author A. Hope Jehren mentions that her male colleagues are often shocked to hear these stories, “appalled by the actions of bad apples so rare they have been encountered by every single woman I know.” That’s not my experience. I have so many friends – male friends – who are still on good terms with this guy. They are happy to have him review their books, come to their events, attend drinks where he might meet other young women who haven’t heard about him yet. When I’ve mentioned that this particular person harassed me and many others, that I know of other men who’ve harassed other people, no-one is surprised; no-one is appalled. My male friends look uncomfortable and purse their lips and say “Yeah…” Everyone knows. If I had any confidence left after the battering my ego took post-come on, this knocked it out of me. Everyone knows; no-one does anything. It makes you feel worthless.
People are unsurprised and unappalled because harassment of women in academic institutions is very, very common – not just in STEM fields, but across the board. It is the definition of an open secret. Recently there has been a rash of articles discussing this phenomenon, in academic fields including but not limited to literature, finance, ethics (!), race and culture studies, economics, music. This Jezebel article details the various iterations of what they call the “important, inappropriate literary man”: “There’s the grabby lit mag editor, the wildly volatile critic, the author you hear once hit somebody, the professor who every year dates a first-year grad student and manages to send her reputation, not his, into the mud. In terms of artistic value, this man is often phenomenal, the type that can define and support an institution; in terms of his effect on half the women writers he encounters, this man frequently adds up to shit.”
I’m happy, if that’s the right word, to see these articles; happy that more and more women are coming forward to talk about the shit their professors, advisors and supervisors pull, and that more universities are starting to take disciplinary action against these men. I’m happy because I guess it means that things are starting to change. The media coverage, unsurprisingly, tends to be the same – it doesn’t engage with the nauseating tangle of power, ambition and self doubt common to harassment cases in the academy, choosing to focus instead on the sordid sexual details: he insisted they share a hotel room; he pressed against her in his office; he got her drunk and kissed her in his car. That stuff is horrible, sure, but the memory of being kissed in a car isn’t what bothers me these days. What makes my heart lurch is the thought that I owe my career to this guy.
Michelle Obama said this great thing during her speech at Oregon State University’s commencement ceremony a few years ago: “Success is only meaningful and enjoyable if it feels like your own.” She said it in the context of urging the students listening to pursue their dreams, to do the things they really wanted to do, rather than what was expected of them. But when I came across that quote, it struck a different, bitter chord: I can’t tell any more how much of my success is my own, and how much is due to my relationship with a pretty bad man.
You grieve when you realise the privileges you’ve been given aren’t because of your talent, but because of your perceived attractiveness, and your vulnerability, and someone else’s sexual agenda. When I realised that I had no idea how good I really was at writing – that it could all be absolute crap and I might never find the career I wanted – I grieved the person I thought I was becoming.
A friend of mine gave up an academic career in art after her professor came onto her. When we talked about it, she said that when she lost him as a mentor, she lost the enthusiasm to express her ideas, and that’s what she grieved the most. Her professor had told her she was an original thinker on a certain path to honours; she loved his classes, read his books and studied the way he wrote. Like me, she thought someone believed in her talent, and then she received the dull gold star of an obvious sexual overture, and her self-confidence began to erode. She felt disillusioned with academia. Later she heard about a list he kept of students he’d slept with. She didn’t continue her studies in the field.
Often when I talk about this to men—my boyfriend, my dad, my friends outside the academy—they’ll ask why I never reported him. To any woman who’s been in my situation, the question will seem laughable: I wanted to keep my job. (I want to keep my job now, which is why this is anonymous – I work for a man about whom I’ve heard rumours of much the same underhanded shit as my old teacher.) Then they’ll ask me the other question: what are we supposed to do?
I don’t know. Talking about it helps. Noticing it helps. Believing women when they say they’ve been harassed or groped or belittled or creeped out helps. But it’s going to take something else to change a culture that still allows older, more powerful men to treat younger, vulnerable women—and their burgeoning careers, their potential, their dreams—as disposable entertainment, a renewable resource of potential pussy. I found out recently that my old teacher’s kiss-in-the-car jag is something of a signature move. He’s done it before, and I’m sure he’ll do it again, and I don’t know how to change that. I don’t really think it is going to change. That’s the bitterest truth there is.
If you are being made uncomfortable by a relationship with one of your teachers at university, all universities have procedures in place in order to protect their students, and will have people available for you to talk to. Usually you can find these resources if you Google “sexual harassment (your university)”. Sexual harassment includes “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in relation to the other person”. You can find more information here.