On Abuse That Isn’t Domestic

I have written a lot about the English department where I am getting my PhD. I have found some of my greatest joys in this department. I adore my dissertation advisor who has been so kind and stable for me, but has also helped me to grow as a writer in an infinite number of ways. I know that I would not be the writer that I am today if I did not have this advisor. And then, there are so many other faculty mentors that I have grown under.

There is my Postcolonial/Transnational professor who taught me about shame, and inarticulation, and generational trauma. I received my first book offer while on break from his three hour graduate seminar, and I was shaking. at the end of class, he said, “May I give you a hug?” And it was the kindest thing that he could have done because I wanted that hug.

There are others, but I don’t want to single them out because my department is so divided right now that I cannot draw attention to the generosity of certain faculty members without incurring the jealousy/anger of other faculty members who have not, as of late, been on the right side of history.

And in this situation, yes, there is a right side and a wrong side.

There is more information in the case against the predatory professor in my department. None of this information comes as a surprise to me, but it has finally hit the news.

I really can’t single out a quote from that article, but here are some highlights: There is a seventh Title IX complaint against Escobedo–this time from a faculty member. The complaint alleges that the faculty member reported the harassment to the then-departmental chair, Joe McLaughlin, who dismissed the allegations and said that, Escobedo was “just like that.”

Perhaps, most telling is that the climate survey from 2006 (which the department had sent out in response to a complaint about Andrew Escobedo’s sexual harassment) that had disappeared has mysteriously surfaced (Surprise, Escobedo had it!), and the survey shows that a majority of the female graduate students in the department did not feel safe.

How am I not supposed to feel betrayed by all of this? How am I supposed to feel safe in this environment?

I am at the Vermont Studio Center on a fellowship stay. It has been lovely so far. I have a room, and a gorgeous studio with a riverfront view. They make us such good food, and everyone is so nice. I am surrounded by visual artists and writers, and I feel understood.

Yesterday, I was sitting in my studio, and it hit me very suddenly that I did not feel stressed. I could not think of the last time that I did not feel stressed. So much has happened to me in the past few months–I turned in my book, I messed up my hips from overexercise, and I had to move from one home to another.

None of that even broaches what I’ve dealt with in my personal life.

Today, I slept until late into the morning. I skipped breakfast, got a cup of coffee, walked around, then went to lunch.

At lunch, a woman and I compared PhD programs. She said, “Well, you know that you have a domestic abuser as a PhD student there, right?”

I stopped, fork in mid-air. “Do you know what I’m writing about?” I asked.

She looked at me and said, “No, why?”

And then she told me the story, and I will not write it here because it is not my story to tell, but it is bad, and it is as bad as my own, and my heart hurts so much that these stories keep finding me.

So I came back to my studio, and I texted a friend who had been involved with the abuser, and I told her that I had something to tell her, which I planned on telling her in person, and of course she asked that I call her immediately, which I did, and she then told me things that validated what the other woman had told me.

And my heart hurts–not because I care about the abuser (he was a friendly acquaintance, but not a friend), but because I am tired.

I am a part of this little community, and it is so divided, and that division hurts, and it is going to get worse now.

After my phone conversation, I chatted with my best friend for a while. I wrote to her about what I had heard, about how much that upset me.

She wrote to me that I need to give myself permission to not worry about that stuff while I am on my residency.

I wrote her that being here, and not feeling stressed, has given me time to think (and I have only been here for a day!) I wrote that I have realized that being in my department is like being in another abusive relationship.

She, unsurprised, wrote back that she agreed.

Eight faculty members voted for Escobedo to keep his tenure.

Hallmarks of an Abusive Relationship:

Imbalanced Power Dynamic: My department has a voting block on the faculty that folks call the “Evil Eight.”

Isolation: Grad Students whose faculty mentors were part of the Evil Eight were implicitly or explicitly instructed not to involve themselves in movements to get rid of Escobedo, and there was real risk involved. (Losing the recommendation of a dissertation advisor is a death blow in academia.)

Diminishment: One of the Evil Eight questioned whether what a poet claimed was rape was really rape? Then, when the students said he was sexist, he responded by bringing all of the women individually into his office and and interrogating them as to who had turned him in. And then there are the micro-agressions–such as the female professor who left a card in my mailbox that said that they “didn’t know.”

Escalation: One of the Evil Eight snidely commented on a FB post of mine where I had named no names, “Are you being targeted directly? If so, you should file a Title IX report.” Later, another of the Evil Eight told me in the stairwell, “I gave you something you wanted,” (as though I should have been grateful for getting a scholarship that I earned). This is only what I received. I can’t imagine what the victims themselves survived.

Qualification: The excuses from The Evil Eight who said, He’s an alcoholicThink of his family! The same professor who questioned a student’s rape said this for an on-the-record article about the predator, “People who claim to be certain about how much culpability is involved in the case, or about its fairest outcome, might be overconfident of their own righteousness,”

And here is where I’m going to get real: DON’T TELL ME THAT YOU DIDN’T KNOW. YOU FUCKING KNEW.

These white, middle-class faculty members living in comfort, had their worlds disrupted because they have a predator in their midst. That’s not cool,  but there is no way that they didn’t know.

I knew. All of the other graduate students knew. Faculty in other departments knew. Students in other departments knew. Townspeople knew.

Seriously, everyone knew.

If, at this point, you didn’t know, then you need to interrogate your own reality.

This is what I said to one faculty member who had been friends with Escobedo, but claimed that he “didn’t know”: “Did you really not know, or were you just participating in rape culture so much yourself that you didn’t see it?”

He said, “You know, you’re right.”

But the thing is that this guy had already established himself as being on the right side. He had already cut off his friendship with Escobedo. He had already done the necessary work of being an ally.

But I am here, still agitating, and I’m tired. I get the cold shoulder from faculty in the hallway. It’s either the cold shoulder or the overly friendly, “HELLO!”

I get passive aggressive cards in my mailbox, but more than anything, I achieve things that I know my department will never acknowledge. I also apply for awards that I know my department will bend over backwards not to give me. So I quietly delete OU from my Facebook profile. I don’t mention them in my bios. I won’t be thanking them in the acknowledgments of my book, though I will, with all gratitude, be thanking my advisor and committee.

I want to write something beautiful to sign off here, but I don’t have anything to offer. Sometimes, people look to me for something, and all I can offer is my very flawed self, eating an apple cider donut in my studio at 2 am.

Wisdom forthcoming.