Dear Dementor: or, what I figured out this week
This has been a big week for me emotionally — an afternoon a little bit like an earthquake moved around a lot of internal stuff — and I’m raising my head to look at which pieces of my emotional landscape are still standing.
In many ways, nothing has changed. My mother is still very ill, more unhappy than she was when I was there, and not taking care of herself in ways she should. I’m still nagging her several times a day to eat and drink. My father is still dangerously clueless or in denial about her situation in a way that is starting to make him look like he’s being a jerk on purpose. He is still drinking. He is still not taking care of my mother in ways he should. My brother and sister-in-law are still in conflict in unproductive ways that are hurting their daughters. I’m still in a job I feel ambivalent about in a profession I am troubled by in a position that’s contingent on year-to-year renewal in an economy that’s poor in a state that’s making budget cuts left and right. Wednesdays are still impossibly long. I am still unsure how I’ll deal with the problem that grading presents to my sanity. My apartment and office are still a mess.
There is still never enough pickled ginger in a package of sushi.
I got news this week that ignited a pile of things that had been gathering before my door at once and a fire started burning. I won’t give you the whole list because I’m not sure I can — but the proximate cause is clear.
It wasn’t good; it was terrible news, although not unexpected, about something that’s happened to another friend at my last campus. The train wreck continues; luckily or unluckily, the number of people I care about who can be hit in the collision falls year by year. I only have one more true hostage to fortune there and so soon I will hear these stories and think, “how typical,” instead of “how awful.” It’s hard for me to describe exactly what I felt — but I saw deep into the structure of the world I had lived in for so long without understanding it. And I got it. I wondered what to do.
Then, about two hours later, Jas posted this in response to this picture.
And I after I read that what she wrote, for about twenty minutes the pieces that have been out of place and rubbing against each other for years aligned.
I thought: I know what is wrong with me. I know what they did to me there, I know why it was wrong, and — most importantly — I KNOW HOW TO FIX IT.
To remind myself, I wrote this post about developing one’s own authority to decide as the basis for self-integration. Know thyself.
Richard Armitage as Lucas North in Spooks 7.1. My musings on the connection of self-knowledge and creativity as exemplified by the location of the tattoo on Lucas’ body are here. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com
On the Armitagemania level — Not that there may not be issues with this declaration, as my fears about Mr. Thornton portend. Blind vision is dangerous. But I saw the other side of those fears for the first time in — a long time. A decade, maybe? And I can see now why I’ve been so occupied with Guy of Gisborne of late — it’s about processing humiliation. I’ll probably finally be able to write about him some more now. And maybe after that I’ll be able to see North & South as a romance. And apply for a few jobs. That’s the amazing shift — not strictly the topic here — but I have feared for some time that when this job ends, I wouldn’t be able to make myself work at all, as a professor or anything else. I know now that I will, even if, perhaps, not as a professor any longer.
I’ve been feeling so much better the last two days. About everything. At the moment, the feeling is still very new, and I’m hesitant to put any really heavy weight on what feels like — I imagine — a cast over a broken femur. But I haven’t been crying before work, in itself a big change. And my mood has changed enough that I’ve been able to do at least two things I’ve been avoiding for a year. Not out of conviction of the threat of impending disaster if I don’t do them, which is 90% of what has been motivating me through my real life for the last several years, and part of why I blog so much — because I truly feel almost all the time that this is what I want to be doing — but out of the feeling that it was natural do these things, time to do them, and not even that difficult. (I won’t tell you what they are, because you’d laugh. Both are things normal people do without any difficulty, but they were huge for me.) I’m looking forward to taking small steps in the direction of tackling bigger challenges, but I’m going to proceed carefully. I’m not going to risk losing this if I don’t have to.
And yet, since the goal is full functionality in the larger sense, I’m going to write down the stuff about that job, not only because I was able to feel and process true anger at a foe, which is rare for me, but because I need to hang onto the realization of the conviction that has to underline my main task — self-integration (whatever the professional consequences of that are).
Greetings from an in-between place.
Contrary to what you told me about how awful places like this are, how they were scarcely worth the thinking person’s attention, it is so much better here than it ever was, working with you. Despite what you said, not everyone sees my achievements as failures. It is also very different from the darkness to which you hoped to send me. I have longer and longer glimpses of light, now, and lately, the hope of more.
I bet you never thought you’d hear from me ever again. I bet you thought you’d gotten rid of me, squished me into the ground, killed me — professionally. Not that you’d ever have admitted that to anyone. As you, and everyone around you, would have said, what you did to me did not stem from malice. We have mutual friends. So I’ve heard, second-hand, the stories you tell about me at dinner parties, when people ask you about my fate, the stories in which my tale is a regrettable episode. In your stories, you play no role in my fate. In your stories, no one would have been more delighted than you to see my story end differently. And in your stories, what I’ve been doing for the last several years proves that you were always right about me.
That wasn’t the story you told about me to those people when you hired me, of course. When you hired me, I was the most brilliant candidate in a sea of snoozy dolts studying a forgotten topic that nobody who was anybody cared about anymore. You hired me in preference to hundreds of others! Strange, how in just a few years I could have gone from being a powerful, independent thinker with an energetic enthusiasm and a keen, subtle intellect and quirky creativity that had the potential to change the academic world, to a dreadful failure, a mistake in hiring, someone you were obliged to intervene — you had a fiduciary responsibility to the institution, you said to one of my friends over a cocktail — to protect the university from.
In your story, it was never your fault for having chosen poorly, but always mine for not having been what you said I was supposed to be. I was the one who failed despite your every support.
This was a story I tried to think about and hadn’t much questioned. I knew you weren’t supportive, but I didn’t know how to explain it so it would make sense to the outside. I also knew that anything I said would be disregarded against the accounting of time and money that you’d have noted — correctly — were invested in my success. An expensive waste — I not only failed, I also wasted resources that should have gone to a better candidate. Never mind that I worked hard all those years. In your world, a salary is not offered in exchange for contracted labor — it’s a prize that’s only been acceptably spent if the result is what’s expected.
I could have been a success, you’d say, if I’d been smarter, worked harder, not spent so much time on things that weren’t ever going to pay off, been less insistent on doing my work my way. If I’d just done it all your way, then everything would have been fine.
But you know — you never, ever told me how to do things your way, even when I asked. Though you were one of two people charged with my professional advancement, you avoided, rescheduled, forgot the appointments I made with you. When we did meet we talked about your work, not about mine. When I stopped making pointless appointments, I was castigated for not doing my part to keep you warm.
You criticized me — in punishing ways that I now see were not just an enforcement of “standards,” but meant to maim me — for not knowing already what to do. What you did was your way of saying, “you’re not good enough and you never will be.” That was your idea of how to motivate me to be what you wanted me to be.
What you wanted to say, but couldn’t: “I don’t care about you, I am slightly threatened by you, and I don’t want to waste my time reading your work.” That would have been politically unwise, so instead, when it emerged that you had not read my publications, you argued repeatedly that what I had done was totally meaningless and thus not worthy of your time. (You could do this, of course, since you held the monopoly on the definition of meaning in my world.) In saying my work was meaningless, you sought to damage my agency on purpose. Then you put it on paper so there would be a record of how bad I was in case I ever thought about questioning it in practical terms, then clucked about it in the hallways so everyone would know what a failure I was. You prevented me from learning about avenues of redress within the institution to question your evaluations of me. Though I tried to avoid you, you physically interposed yourself between me and the door of public spaces to harangue me with loud expressions of your opinion of me — where everyone could see. When powerful people in our workplace began to wonder what was going on and questioned the story you were telling — a story that was equally applicable, in other versions, to other people — you knew what to do before I even heard the rumors that people were asking. You approached them preemptively to tell them just how badly I had failed, guaranteeing that I would find no sympathy from people who had been put in place to help me.
You and your colleagues. The one who told me I shouldn’t worry about not being as “good” as a male colleague, when my CV was already longer than his. The ones who warned me off from publishing things that weren’t “smart,” but then insisted at the same time that I publish as much and as fast as possible. The ones who, when I asked them what I should do with my work, didn’t have the time or the interest to consult. The ones who said, well after I was hired, to my face, “I’m still not sure why we hired you,” proceeded to ignore me for most of a decade, and then on the eve of a crisis that could no longer be averted, wrote to offer their every sincere assistance. The ones who watched as you conducted a professional review of my work without having read it, and neglected to intervene when I pointed this out, and shushed me when I argued with you, telling me it wasn’t in my interest for us to disagree. The ones who told me the only way to succeed was to do whatever I needed to do to secure your approval. The ones who assured me, after the most important barrage of your professional assassination of me was over, and I had decided to accept your judgment and leave, that you were absolutely not opposed to my continuing in my position — which they knew because you had spoken to them about it — again preemptively. Thus, my failure to defend myself against you after years of bombardment, my concession that I was exactly what you said I was — a failure — was also turned into: my fault. Everything about the losers must be lost.
There were people there who were on my side, but almost all of them were afraid of you, or not willing to do what would have been necessary to intervene against you.
This is what was wrong: you hired me because I had a beautiful mind and I was to be an authority. You hired me because I am the grand example of the autotelic personality. But you — for reasons I will never understand — did not want me to be that authority, were afraid of my authority. So after you turned yourself into the local authority over the meaning of my career, you formulated the objective of preventing me from obtaining the authority I was hired to assert by disabling my ability to love and pursue the autotelos.
This is what you did to achieve your objective: you told me to go along to get along. You undermined my own sense of my authority at every step, in every possible way. You whispered about me in the halls, you got other people whispering about me, you made me concerned for the first time in my entire academic life about how I appeared to others. You actually made me self-conscious about my intellect and all the pieces of it that had kept me strong in the face of criticism for my entire childhood and adolescence. You made me think I didn’t know things I actually knew. You then told me the only way to regain my authority was to be exactly like you. Finally, you prevented me from learning how to do that, and circumvented my efforts to do so in ways explicit and implicit. You avoided me, excluded me, sabotaged me, and then acted to make yourself look innocent.
And this is what I have to do: I have to find that authority again, the inner drive and emotion that fed that person I was at the turn of the millennium and who disappeared, month after month, year after year, as I trod the pavement of that campus, first with exuberance, then with exhaustion, next with humiliation, then fear, then resignation, until finally I was almost paralyzed, just barely capable of dragging myself and my stuff out of my office. If thirty- and forty-somethings have to live their lives in an inexorable grind, as it appears we must — then at least for our own ends, our own wills, our own creative goals. (In this sense, Richard Armitage the person, or what he has said about himself, becomes more of an ideal than ever, and I’m surprised to note that I had glimpsed this already some time ago.)
I’ve been suffering for years. But I’m done suffering at your hands. And don’t worry, I’m not planning to whine about this in the professional public. The time for that is over. I hurt myself much more terribly, using the tools you gave me, doing it with my own hands while you watched with pleasure, than you ever could have if I hadn’t helped you.
Against you, Dementor, I now assert: I know who I am. I am neither the movie star you asserted I was at the beginning of my association with you, nor the failure you asserted I was afterwards.
Against you, Dementor, I further assert: I am still alive. My mind is still beautiful, subtle, quirky, energetic. I am still an authority.
Against you, Dementor, I assert: The source of my work is a deep self-knowledge that I must work to tap into. Not a knowledge of the outside and its prejudices, but an awareness of what I am doing for me and why. If this self-knowledge is a weakness, it is also, and much more importantly, its primary strength.
Against you, Dementor, I assert: I am the one who decides who I am.
Against you, Dementor, I assert: I am the one who knows and determines my telos.