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.

But I.

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).

Here goes.

***

Dear Dementor:

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.

signed: Servetus

~ by Servetus on September 14, 2012.

38 Responses to “Dear Dementor: or, what I figured out this week”

  1. Brava, Servetus, brava. It had to feel good to get all this out, and to know the Dementor has not ultimately won. and will not win.

    I am glad you are in a better frame of mind, and I hope things improve back home, as I know that is a continuing worry for you, especially when you are so far away.

    Hooray for your beautiful, amazing, wonderful mind and sharing it with us here. I haven’t been fortunate enough to take one of your classes, but I am happy to study under Professor Servetus here at the Center for Armitage Studies. 😉 Bless you, my friend.

    • Yeah. Whatever happens now, he didn’t win.

      BECAUSE I NOW HAVE THE MONOPOLY ON THE DEFINITION OF VICTORY. Yes.

      re: home — I keep telling myself that things could be worse than they are.

  2. OMG, This is so empowering! I’m sorry that you had to go through that! I’ve only heard about this level of wretched behavior, but frankly, very little that humans do surprises me anymore. I suspect I know the kind of institutional hierarchy you are dealing with and it is disgusting that this continues – clearly harassment on so many levels, but who has the energy to resist when being systematically dismantled. I hope you find this letter to be as cleansing as it seems to be. Gels so well with your post on what holds you prisoner. So many things in life are so far out of our direct control, but you do have the power to take back control of how you perceive yourself, and you seem to have made great strides here. BRAVA! Sending positive energy your way for your continuing journey.

    • this is represented as business as usual in that place — and it’s very hard for people to resist, which is why the train wreck continues. No one wants to stop it, and I suspect even when this guy goes it will continue because it’s part of departmental culture.

      I got a lot out here. I don’t know if this is everything but it’s the first time I’ve been able to put it all down in one place.

      Thanks for the positive wishes, and I’m sending the energy right back at you.

  3. YEEEEESSSSSSS! Fuckfuckfuck…I can only imagine how it felt to write that! Thank you for trusting us with it.

    • Exhilarating and exhausting all at once. I am going to have to go to bed soon.

      Thanks for being so trustworthy. Seriously. That is not empty language. Thanks for showing me that the world and people in it are occasionally deserving of my trust.

  4. And it’s brava from me too. After reading this, I think I understand for the first time just what you have been through these past years.
    Never having experienced it personally, I can’t even begin to know how it feels to experience this kind of constant knocking down in one’s workplace, and to live with its effects every day. However, I can, and do, admire your resilience and honesty. I hope writing this has helped you feel better, and that you continue to heal. *hugs*

    • Thanks for your support. Finally writing this down helped an awful lot. Also, I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe what happened to me almost since the beginning of the blog, so just finding a way to say it is a huge relief. It might have been that I couldn’t make myself do it while it was still primarily a story of shame for me.

  5. You are Servetus and we hear you RoAr!
    Well done on freeing yourself from the shackles that the Dementor hindered you with.
    It’s a constant process to not let the “bastards/bitches” get you down. But surviving is winning.
    However it would sure be helpful if the “good guys”–who looked the other way or who were gullible clods for the Dementors lies–weren’t covering their own asses all the time and stood up now and again for others threatened and harrassed by the Dementors of this world.
    Victory Cheers to you! Love and Hugs, Grati ;->
    P.S. Sadly, your Dementor sounded very familiar to me. Maybe we need a national people offender registry for the Dementors of the world.

  6. […] so I’m at work on chasing off the Dementor. I put him on notice by writing down my anger about him, but I don’t expect he’s gone […]

  7. Great to get this out, Servetus. It helps to get rid of it somehow, though my experience with my, in comparison to yours now harmless seeming tormentor, showed me, that the person who comes out is not the same who went in. But it is a change for the better, for the more complete, more aware.
    I spoke with people in my surrounding about my problems, but really a change was the step, when I could write about it. This may sound strange, but it felt more comple, more closed and solved somehow.
    I hope, that it helps you solving it. And the tormentor better should not make himself know or I could feel obliged to bring out my otherwise completely non existent militant side. For him, it would be worth it.

    • yeah, I’m different, too. But the pieces I thought I had lost are still there. That was the big realization.

      The Dementor is a very happy man who is not impinged upon by guilt. Mine isn’t the only career he sabotaged. But I doubt that, after i left my last job, he thinks about me all that much unless someone asks him to talk about it. That is also something I resent — i carried him with me all this time.

      • I am convinced that there is a special circle of Hell reserved for those whose casual brutality is exercised without any conscience or awareness. They are sociopaths, more deadly in their way than serial killers.

  8. Servetus- Wow. This post was phenomenal. Brava!
    It is unbelievable how someone else can strip you of your own sense of being and how hard it is to regain it. You’ve always known your true worth, but you unfortunately encountered a brute who manipulated you into doubt. I’m happy to hear you have turned the tables on him and shut down the lies he put in your head. I had my own Demeantor who after nearly 20 years of being his brilliant right hand, I suddenly became this 40 – something hag who no longer could do anything right and was jettisoned for a younger and cheaper (and less threatening) model. While I don’t know if what you are dealing with in your family has contributed to your ability to exorcise that demon from your head and feel free to declare who you are–not the figment of someone else’s distorted reality, but an intelligent, brave and strong woman–it was during my own mother’s serious illness that I began to gain clarity. Dealing with an onslaught of emotions, I had to pull from my own reserves, so to speak, which kick started the process of stripping away my own tormentor’s grip. In an odd way, I see that as my mother’s last gift to me.
    While there remains a tough road ahead for you (and for that you have my sympathy and prayers), you have made a vital leap.
    Not to be trivial, but to paraphrase Pink (yes Professor, I know I should use a more pedigreed source!) if you “change the voices in your head” and make them like you instead” no matter how much you may have been mistreated and misunderstood, you can joyfully declare “Hey, look I’m still around!”

    • Thanks — and thanks for sharing your experience and telling me i am not alone.

      The insight that the stuff in my family might be contributing to my clarity is interesting. I’ll have to think about it, because I’ve mostly seen that stuff as an energy suck, but you may be right. The main insight i had after the summer was that spending that long so close up against my parents and family really vindicated my major life choices — leaving home for far away, not marrying, not having children. I thought of it as a negative insight, one about damage, but you’re right, maybe I ‘ve been seeing myself more clearly than I have thought.

      I’m checking out Pink. My historical method is called “new historicism” and we like non-high-culture sources. 🙂

      • Vindication is important, to see what you did NOT choose and know that you were right. As humans, we often carry the imprinted patterns of our parents, often to our detriment, and it’s good to recognize when you have said, “No, that is not a path I will take.”

  9. I’m almost speechless… Your dementor seems to be the kind of person who thrives in an academic environment – not only in the U.S. but here in Germany as well. As you know I’m neither teaching nor doing research but I have been working at a university for more than 20 years now and I’ve witnessed several stories like the one you’ve disclosed here.
    I’ve never ceased being amazed by how much power a (German) professor holds over the professional and thus also personal fate of his academic staff. In the position I’m holding, I’m currently involved in a major conflict with several of those professors. I’m convinced that one of them is mentally unstable, yet he holds more power than my colleagues and I ever will . They are like independent rulers within their own principalities (pardon my English).
    I’m lucky because my personal fate does not depend on them and I definitely haven’t gone through what you’re describing here.
    However you’ve finally put it into writing – a big step forward! One thing is for sure: you’ve every right to be self-confident about your academic abilities. You’re an intelligent, learned woman and you should be proud of that!
    I know your family situation is more than difficult right now. Don’t forget that you cannot help everybody in your family and you have to think of yourself too (an advice always easier to give than to take).
    Sending you lots of hugs through cyberspace… 🙂

    • I think it’s worse in Germany because professors have more autonomy — one thing that led to the end of my last relationship was my unwillingness to pursue a career in Germany, and that came directly from my horror at the way so many professors acted like tiny little dictators squabbling over rewards and building their own tiny little banana republics. Not all German professors do that, of course, but enough do that it’s troubling.

      I thought when I went home last night, you’ve been trying to write that post since February of 2010!!! It really was a victory.

      Hugs right back. Thanks for your support, all this time.

  10. I was aware of your wounds, but I didn’t know how serious they are.
    You are very brave woman ,Servetus! :*

  11. BRAVA!!! I am so glad you wrote this; just by setting it down, you have won against the insidious maliciousness and abuse. May the Dementor wither in the brilliant light of your self knowledge. Goethe said, “To endure is to conquer”, but you have done so much more than endure. You have triumphed. It may feel like an earthquake has hit right now, especially with the family issues, but your strength shines through. I repeat, BRAVA!!

  12. I so pleased that you are able to move forward by writing this. It certainly feels like a weight is lifting off of you. I have taken the liberty of copying (not linking – RA wouldn’t be his bag!) this to a close friend who has had similar experiences at his present university who, despite being a leading historian in his (Flanders) field, published author and a regular TV and radio broadcaster, has had his self-confidence and ambition destroyed over the last few years by those in power. I hope it is an encouragement to him. Thanks for your honesty.

    • What? you mean not everyone loves Richard Armitage? HERESY!

      I’m glad if it can help anyone out; I’m always hesitant to give people advice because my experiences were so bad that they sometimes seem anomalous. But especially in the current atmosphere, it can be very easy to lose control of how people see you.

      I was talking to Pesky about this today — though he knows what happened to me in my last job, he doesn’t read this blog, I was talking to him about the shifts in my emotional landscape — and he said, no matter what happens now, at least you know the Dementor didn’t win.

  13. I think and hope you have given yourself a gift here. Warmest wishes for a sweet year to come. L’shanah tovah.

  14. “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.”

    Oh my god. So beautiful, so important, so insightful.

    And let’s not forget the same dementor trumpeted the supremacy of outside confirmation of your value only to renege on that notion and assert, in its place, his own uninformed opinion of your work — and trumpet it so loudly that it came to seem like truth to those who still sought his approval.

    • That’s a good point.

      He did that to the extent that I was so afraid to read what those outside scholars wrote — that I wasn’t going to do it — that I only did it because of what happened to our colleague — and then when I went, was overwhelmed with tears about all the amazing things that had been said.

      I’d forgotten that. Thanks.

  15. I’ve worked under two people similar to what you’ve described. In both situations my coworkers and I assumed the person enjoyed what they were doing — which was to destroy people’s lives. It sucks that people are allowed to get away with such behavior.
    In one situation we were actually able to find humor in the circumstances and discussed ideas for movies/sitcoms based on the seriously bizarre environment in which we worked. Glad you were able to articulate how you feel and move forward.

    • Someone who’s working there now (my last remaining close friend there who’s in this situation) is actually writing a TV treatment for fun to deal with this stuff.

  16. […] over my own story — not being who my parents or my childhood religion or my profession or my colleagues or even my well-meaning friends say I am — but realizing that as an adult, I am the one who […]

  17. […] and there’s also a frightening level on which Saruman in the Hobbit film reminds me of The Dementor. In which case, I’m tumbling toward the skirmish with the goblins right now and I’ll be […]

  18. […] she met The Dementor. Where the ideas had to be instrumentalized. Which she knew she could not do. She let the Dementor cow her; she watched her mill fail, helplessly, in the belief that she could not have acted […]

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