ENOUGH: How We See

By

ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women and non-binary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.

The series will run every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.

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How We See
Sara Schaff

1.

In class I write “REVISION” on the board and ask what my students think when they look at the word this way—large and spelled out. Their answers inevitably lead us into a discussion about re-seeing their writing, about stepping to the side of it and understanding what it wants to be about. The work of true revision, I always say, to the disappointment of previous adherents to the one-draft rule, is harder than simply fixing small errors in grammar and spelling. Because this new sight allows us to return to the work wiser, and that wisdom means we can now see our own bullshit.

What I sometimes talk about in my classes on revision is how much sense it makes that we do this re-visioning with our own lives; our relationship with the past changes as we acquire new information about ourselves and others. This act of re-seeing our past has been a compelling part of the conversations around our national reckoning with sexual harassment, assault, and misconduct. It has happened to me, too; I have gone over old incidents and comments in my mind as if I’m searching through an old photo album for facial expressions or body language I didn’t notice the first time. But no matter how many times I search through these old snapshots, the image itself still looks pretty much the same. I can go right back to my physical awareness of what was happening to me: like the wind being knocked out of me while a heaviness planted itself at the bottom of my feet, a kind of paralysis. I knew what was bullshit even then, but as in a terrible dream, I felt I couldn’t do anything about it while it was happening.

One essential thing about all that bullshit looks different, and it has to do with the accumulation of incidents and their aftermath. A neighbor flashing his penis at me when I was three, my high school health teacher telling our class that he and I went on dates on weekends, a family member drunkenly sticking his tongue down my throat at a party. When I think of these snapshots now, what comes into focus is less like a tidy photo album and more like a damp compost pile of disappointing but useful information. After regaining control over my body and voice, I usually told someone what had happened. The response always felt more like a shrug than an acknowledgement of misconduct.

By the time I met my writing professor in grad school, and he tried his scarf trick on me the first time (adjusting it so his hands could graze my breasts) I knew exactly what he was doing, that he was targeting me, and that his behavior crossed a line, even though he always did the scarf trick in public. I also suspected it was only the beginning, and that nothing would change if I said anything about it. My experiences in the past made me unable to see the present in any other way.

 

Once upon a time, this professor was a rising literary star, a contemporary of Updike and an acquaintance of him, too. My cohort and I heard rumors that that Carly Simon song might actually be about him. (It’s not.)

But when I was in his workshop, this professor’s star was neither rising nor particularly bright. After graduation I met someone at a party whose family friend had studied with him decades earlier at another college, where he suggested his student—the family friend—sleep with him. (She declined.) The anecdote came as no surprise. My grad school classmates and I had already surmised he had once probably behaved far worse with his female students than he did with us.

He never propositioned me or the women in my cohort—at least not as far as I know. Instead, he looked down our shirts in workshop. Eventually, the conscientious men in class sat on either side of him so he couldn’t. But he continued to adjust my scarves in front of other writers at our weekly “teas,” which were events we grad students were expected (though not required) to attend, in order to mingle and to meet visiting writers.

It was at one of these teas that he told George Saunders, whose writing I complimented, “Oh, she says that to all the boys.”

The professor chuckled and watched my face. What would I say? As I recall, Saunders and I kind of froze and looked at each other and then away and said nothing.

This is the first verbal form of harassment I remember from my professor. It was only further confirmation of what I already knew: though I was here to work, it wasn’t my work that mattered to him.

 

His harassment wasn’t just sexual in nature; it was intellectual, and seemed intended to undermine. To set himself up, always, as the smartest guy in the room.

Our workshop was a hostile environment, a tone he set the first week of class when he gave us an assignment I initially enjoyed: to bring in a sample of our favorite writing. I brought in a passage from Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince, and though the moment in which I presented her work and my reasons for loving it was my moment, he took over and undermined me and Murdoch both.

“She could have used a better editor,” he said. “She should have stopped writing long ago.”

Iris Murdoch! After whom my husband and I have since named our daughter. A writer and scholar and whose work has, arguably, influenced generations of writers.

I felt like my professor was showing off. But more than that, he was revealing his inability or unwillingness to see genius when it exists in the body of a woman.

 

When my professor’s family donated several bronze Degas sculptures to the university museum, it was considered an occasion. A group of writers from our program were walking from our building to the museum, and my professor was describing these bronzes with reverence when he stopped walking. The rest of us stopped, too. He looked me over very quickly from head to toe, and exclaimed, “You should bronze your torso!” As before, when he’d spoken to George Saunders, he was smiling.

And then he was moving again, walking away from his remark and from me.

I laughed about it later with friends and still laugh about it when it comes up, but the truth was, though it happened so quickly, I was frozen in place, like all those old, lead-footed moments of my past. Even when the mind is diminished, the sting resides in the body. I felt dizzy from wondering if I’d heard my professor correctly.

 

2.

The world of academia, and creative writing in particular, seems to have been slow to catch up with the #MeToo movement. In December 2017, Dr. Karen Kelsky, who maintains the blog The Professor Is In, published a crowdsourced survey of incidents of sexual harassment in academia. There’s been an outpouring of (mostly anonymous) reporting. Spending an hour reading through the stories, I was struck by the harrowing repetitiveness of them: the sexual grooming of young students by trusted mentors; the office hours that turn suddenly into “dates”; the comments that minimize women’s work. (“She says that to all the boys.”)

Perhaps academia will still have its own reckoning. I began this essay in 2017, and as I revisit it in 2018, short-story writer and frequent New York Times contributor Ron Carlson has resigned from his position on the faculty at UC Irvine’s MFA program. According to the UCI English Department Chair, Carlson’s departure was “his decision, and his alone.” But it comes on the heels of a Boston Globe story that reported Carlson’s name in connection with systematic sexual abuse of students at the Hotchkiss School in the ’70s. (For years, Carlson’s alleged abuse of power as a university professor has been something of an open secret in writing-academic circles.)

Aside from this recent development regarding Carlson, there has been little visible effort to hold perpetrators in creative writing accountable. My professor retired, and the program named a prestigious fellowship after him. I recently opened up a writing magazine to see his face staring back at me, the author of a very long article about craft. (To this day, I cannot recall a single thing he taught our class about craft; it’s possible he did teach us, but the lessons I learned felt more like warnings.)

For the most part, reporting on professors and colleagues in academia and the writing world continues to be through the anonymous whisper-network many women and men have come to rely on. A few notable exceptions: the very public conversations about Junot Díaz’s misconduct (after which MIT cleared him of misconduct); the national reporting on Sherman Alexie’s years of harassment and abuse of indigenous women writers; an essay at Electric Literature reckoning with Derek Walcott’s abuse and objectification of women. But where are the Times articles and NPR segments on (living) white male writers and writing teachers?

It’s not beyond me that I am keeping the men and institutions I am writing about here mostly nameless; both my decision and the decision of many women and men in academia has a lot to do with the tight job market; I am a visiting professor who has for the past several years been supporting my family with my contingent jobs.

Like me, many are afraid that if we don’t speak out, nothing will ever change.

Or worse: that even if we do speak, the only thing that will change is our ability to compete in a terrible job market.

 

3.

A number of years after grad school, after the low pay and insecurity of adjuncting, after an illuminating stint in advertising, I plunged back into academia with renewed energy, because when it comes down to it, I love teaching writing as much as I love writing.

When I returned to teaching, I believed I was at the perfect place to be doing it: a rigorous liberal arts college, the kind of haloed institution I’d once dreamed of teaching at, and initially my experience matched my expectations. I was thrilled by my ambitious and curious students and relieved to be treated like a professional—with healthcare and a contract, and offers of desk copies of books I actually wanted to read sent directly to my mailbox from publishers in New York.

And yet the body, once the object of an objectifying gaze, becomes a great detector of future bullshit.

When I picked up a copy of one of the student publications intended for incoming freshman, a little knot tightened in my gut. In a list of “100 things to do before you graduate,” what turned my stomach was the suggestion that students “become more than friends with a professor.” Students fall for their teachers and mentors sometimes; it’s the job of the mentors to understand their power and not abuse it. The tone of this student publication suggested to me that perhaps the supposed adults running the school might not always be doing their jobs.

Recently, a professor in my former department resigned for deeply disturbing misconduct. Another colleague’s resignation has, thus far, not materialized. I began to hear rumors about him in my second year—misconduct with students, a former colleague (a contingent faculty member)—young men without a strong network of mentors or security. I knew one of these young men. When I think about him I feel deep anger at an administration that didn’t protect him initially, and did little to support him afterward, though they say they did everything required of them by the law.

One might understandably assume that the legal procedures for reporting misconduct in academia (via Title IX) exist to create both transparency and protection. Instead, what I witnessed indicates that the paper trail created by such procedures is very good at insulating the institution.

Breaking through that insulation requires the brave and sustained voices of the most vulnerable people: those who have been harassed or abused by their mentors or colleagues. I’m thinking of the wall of young women and girls heroically testifying about their abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar, a man whose abuse officials at Michigan State had been notified of for over a decade. Individually, many of these women’s reports were ignored, covered up, buried. The burden was on them to keep coming forward, to keep speaking out in spite of being publicly shamed, or ostracized.

One should not have to be heroic in order to get justice.

Students enter college or graduate school expecting, rightly, that their new home exists not just to educate but to protect them.

Instead, these institutions sometimes appear to exist primarily to serve and protect themselves.

 

4.

I consider myself lucky. Aside from that one professor, my graduate program was a comfortable and supportive place. I can imagine an argument being made that it was the millions of dollars he had helped raise that allowed this program to be more or less egalitarian, with no obvious stars among the incoming classes and a promise made to every student that they would graduate without debt. The truth is, I have made this argument to myself, on my professor’s behalf and on behalf of the rest of the program, to justify his being allowed to continue teaching there for so long.

Still, that semester I “studied” with the professor in question feels like a lost semester. All that engineering of how to look (wear a scarf to hide my chest, or don’t wear a scarf, and have him stare?) and what to write (sex scenes by women got unwanted attention) took up so much energy.

Along with this compost pile of discomfort was an idea that our professor, though no longer famous himself, was the one with connections—to our university’s big donors, to the truly famous writers—and that if he liked us he might put us on our way to being famous ourselves. To be clear, there was no greater proponent of this idea than the professor himself. He claimed to have single-handedly “discovered” Andrea Barrett, though when he met her she’d been writing for quite some time.

I made sure I was never alone with him. Whenever he suggested I might like to meet with him to discuss a story that had just been workshopped, I would smile and nod, which was easier than telling him I did not want to hear what he’d say to me in private, in his office that was bigger and better appointed than some studio apartments in Manhattan.

While I knew how to protect myself from him on one level, the fact remains that I never reported him. I could say I was afraid of retaliation, and this would be true. I could say that my life had taught me that nothing would change if I did say something, and that this would also be true. But didn’t my professor target me, in part, because he suspected I would remain paralyzed and he would remain protected?

Although I didn’t report my professor, others did. And little changed, except my, and my classmates’, view of the program. My dear friend put herself on the line when she told another professor about what was happening to me and another woman who had been targeted, and the response did not inspire confidence.

“That’s our Jeff!” this professor said. (His name is not Jeff.)

The resignation and recognition in those three words seemed remarkable at the time. We saw the professor who spoke them as a champion of young writers, and of women in particular. We had hoped we’d receive, if not the promise of change, at least an expression of sympathy.

But in light of all the recent conversations about perpetrators of misconduct and their enablers, the words are only remarkable for their utter banality.

 

5.

Some of my writing students relish the complete overhaul of a bumpy draft. Others resist the intense work required because facing our own bullshit is a kind of work we’re unused to doing.

When it comes to the banality of sexual harassment in academia, what re-seeing has given me is, if not any truly new insight, a window of regret, and also of possibility. If I had just written down the words my professor said to me—“you should bronze your torso”—and added them to whatever was already in his file—maybe my university would not have named a prestigious fellowship after his retirement. Or maybe if I speak up now, if I write down these words, they can help create a new lens to see through, one that requires we understand both what happened and the hard work we need to do to end, not perpetuate it.

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Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.

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ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women and non-binary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it is also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change. You can submit to ENOUGH here.

Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.

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