It was Friday, and I was indulging myself at the prepared foods bar at Whole Foods, thinking — hoping — that a meal would calm my anxiety enough to face the mountain of grading I had to finish at home. I had been too anxious to eat for about two days. Lost in thought, I ended up bumping carts with another shopper, resulting in a few awkward moments of mumbled apologies and annoyed looks. That was all it took to set off my third panic attack of the week, right in the middle of Whole Foods.
That semester, I was working through my second year of graduate school. I had been assigned to work as a TA for a professor who, I learned much later, had a reputation for abusive behavior towards his students, particularly women students. For most of the time I was working for him, however, I was convinced that I was completely alone in experiencing this behavior.
From the day I began working for this professor, it was clear there was something very seriously wrong in the power dynamics in the relationship. He refused to shake my hand when I introduced myself to him. In meetings with the other TA (a cis man), he talked over me and blatantly ignored my questions. I had worked with garden-variety misogynists long enough that I could cope with this kind of treatment. It was infuriating and unjust, but it was behavior with which I was, unfortunately, familiar. But nothing in my previous experience prepared me for the full scale of his actions.
After grading the first test, I received an email telling me what a lax, disappointing job I had done and how much extra work I had created for the professor. He explained that I should have been drastically more critical in my grading to ensure that students continued to perform out of fear. The next day, the professor announced to the class that they were lucky to have such a pushover like me grading their papers. Hopefully, he told the students, I would learn before the next test how to grade properly.
And this was just the beginning. He gaslighted me repeatedly. I would get replies to my emails that reinterpreted my words to make it sound like I was lazy, unprepared, or willfully challenging the professor’s authority. These emails came at the end of the night or first thing in the morning, calculated to be read when I was alone and vulnerable. No matter how many times I replied and restated my original message, his narrative of events remained the dominant one. His treatment of me grew more dismissive as a result. His interpretation of my words and refusal to listen dictated his behavior towards me, not only in front of the class but in private exchanges as well.
There were other petty signs of disrespect. He introduced me to one of his undergraduate advisees as “the most well-dressed student in the department.” But, like so much else that year, it escalated. He asked me repeatedly if I had a significant other or if I was married. He memorized my license plate number and repeated it back to me in the middle of a meeting. He implied he had the ability to fire graduate students who didn’t meet his expectations. Through all of this, I remained convinced that I had done something to deserve this behavior. That I really was that incompetent in my work to warrant being called out in class and in our department. That I had brought this on myself.
Then, in the course of the class, a topic came up that dealt with issues of sexuality. It was a topic that was wholly appropriate in the context of the class, and though the class was overwhelmingly male it wasn’t a topic that should have made anyone feel isolated or uncomfortable. But as the class continued, I watched the women, approximately 10% of the class, begin to wither, to squirm in their seats, to look around and see if they were the only ones who were feeling uncomfortable. To this day, I can’t tell you what was said that made all of us so uncomfortable. What I can tell you is that I felt physically ill by the tone of this lecture, by the insinuations that were covertly made about women, their sexuality and wanton sensuality, and their cruelty towards men. I was nauseous coming out of that class, and it was clear, looking at the faces of the other women in the room, that I was not the only one.
Desperate and exhausted, I went back to my office after class and slumped down onto my desk. My office mate watched with concern and asked me if I was alright. I turned and blurted out, “Is it just me, or have you ever heard any negative stories about Professor X?”
There was a long pause. “Of course.” My office mate finally replied. “Didn’t you know?”
Needless to say, at the time, my department’s whisper network was faulty at best. Students would share the hell they had endured with their friends, but there was no attempt to warn incoming students. There was no support network in place when professor-student relationships were exploited. So I started asking questions, and was told that yes, this professor would put you through hell, but if you endured, you got the best internships, the most helpful connections – as if that made it ok. I also realized, in having these conversations, that I was not the only one who had been subjected to the public shaming, threats, and gaslighting. Other students had suffered — and, indeed, suffered much worse than I did.
To be clear, this abuse was not physical. I am very aware that there are others, not in my department but around my campus, around my town, and around the country, who have suffered abuses of power and violations that were infinitely more damaging than mine. But in speaking with others in my department who worked with this professor both before and after my experience, I do know that his abuse was no less real for that. He frequently subjected one of his two TAs to this behavior, framing his emails in ways that made it nearly impossible to prove abuse, and ensuring there was no paper trail that could be used in complaints against him.
I also realized that the consequences, especially for those who worked more closely with him than I did, were also very physically, mentally, and emotionally real. By the end of the semester, I was too anxious to eat. I wasn’t sleeping, too afraid of the emails that would be waiting for me when I woke up, or the threats and veiled insults that would be waiting for me when I got to class. I broke down and cried in Whole Foods because I felt so useless, so utterly helpless and hopeless as a result of the cumulative effects of this predatory behavior, because I must have done something to be the one selected for his abuse. Despite learning all that I had about his actions, I still couldn’t shake the belief that there was something wrong with me that made me responsible for his behavior.
One of the most damaging and infuriating aspects of predatory misogyny, indeed, about any abuse of power, is how insidious it is. It poisons other relationships by making it so difficult to trust what anyone is saying. It withers your self-esteem by feeding on that voice of doubt that we all have deep in our psyches. It works on you to the extent that you don’t want to stick up for yourself any more. You lose the will to keep trying. Talking about it helps. There is a power that comes from building a support network. There is an enormous sense of retroactive justice when saying to someone else, “This behavior is wrong, and you don’t deserve to be treated like this.” But that doesn’t make the issue, or the person in question, go away.
To this day, I flinch when I hear him walking down the hallway by my office. Whenever I am stressed, whenever I hear that voice of doubt in my brain, it sounds just like his voice. And at the end of the day, while talking helps, knowing that there are so many other students who live with these and similar feelings doesn’t make dealing with them easier. If there is power to be found in such situations, it is in listening, and in creating spaces where those who have remained silent can be heard, and in assuring those people that they are not, and never have been, as alone as they think.
Reading the newspapers or listening to the news, these days, we learn of “high profile” abuse cases that, though disturbing, seem removed from our mundane, “average joe” lives. But it is stories like this that drive home the fact that these situations are everywhere, experienced by every-day people who do not have the resources, or the support system, to help them deal with, or combat, these issues. The young, the vulnerable, are finally finding a supporting shoulder, a sympathetic ear. And, more importantly, a voice. By having young women, like this author, telling their story, expressing their fears, it gives strength to those who have similar experiences. But it also makes many of us aware of the depth and breadth of the problem that has infected society.
My thanks to your guest author. Stories like this not only serve to spotlight the problems with which we need to deal, but they help to focus us introspectively. Do I exhibit similar behaviors without realizing it? Do I encourage this behavior by staying silent when I witness it in others?
As Michael Jackson so eloquently put it, “I’m starting with the man in the mirror”.