Toxic (academic) Avenger

Let’s talk about abuse, shall we?

I’ve been putting this post off for some time. It’s something I need to get out, but it is painful, and I’m still digging myself out from the wrong lessons I learned about agency and self-worth.

At MATC 2018, the Larissa Fasthorse gave a powerful keynote. She spoke passionately about the need for native rights, and for those of us with privilege in the academy to recognize that this is not our house. Our institutions are built on native land, and our fortunes that sustain them stem from that same theft. We cannot just invite native peoples to the discussion; we have to recognize the active process of exclusion in which we are complicit. It was a moving call to action, a call to correct mistakes, and I was inspired to do more.

Then she moved on to abuse.

I will not recount the entire story here, but Fasthorse told of how she endured working for a known abusive executive, and how she was able to stand up for herself against a powerful person who had never been told no. The abuse was verbal. The abuser was a woman.

Something under me shifted. I felt the weight of something sliding: I’ve been trained to accept and excuse abusive women.

In my time in academia, I have worked for and studied under a few abusive women. These women taught me:

  • If you rise to top of your field, you can treat people below you poorly.
  • Being an emotional support system for your professor is an honor. Hold it above other’s heads if you are a chosen one.
  • Do not feel or express emotion. Anything other than smiling gratitude will be met with ridicule.
  • Gossip is currency, and if you have the right kind you can expect a big payday.
  • Likewise, refusing to gossip will mark you as a permanent outsider. Be a good spy.
  • Pick sides. Don’t pick the wrong one.
  • Gentleness and sensitivity is a cancer. Kill it or never make it in the real world.
  • Anything that would raise a red flag from a male professor or mentor is not a problem from a female one. She is just trying to toughen you up. Be grateful.
  • Toxic behavior from men is admired so it should not be criticized in women. Instead, accept and mirror it. Whatever you do, do not question these abusive power structures.

While learning the above lessons, I endured gaslighting, coerced intoxication, derailed scholarship, public shaming, private shunning, and the fear of academic retaliation.

It took a long time to un-learn these; #3 is still causing me issues. I never called this abuse. Even now, I struggle to name it as such. In my head I hear the refrain “Get used to it, life in the academy is fraught with assholes. Get that thick skin or perish. You should be grateful for what they gave you.”

Never be grateful for abuse.

I am grateful for this: not all my mentors were abusive. I’ve had the fortune to study under and work with those force-of-nature, magical women and men who can stare down a tide of adversity and come out the other side. Their cheeks may be streaked with tears and their hearts may be broken, but they still stand. These mentors showed me kind people are always kind. The showed me justice and generosity are the greatest qualities to have. They showed me how to maintain boundaries, and how to care for my heart over another’s ego. They gave me access to my self-worth by demonstrating their own. From my first to my last, I owe them so much.

I hope you have one of these people in your life. I have many. Why I let the abusive, toxic lessons of the few poison that of the many, I do not know. Perhaps calling abuse for what it is will help me to cast off those last tendrils of hatred.

After Fasthorse’s keynote, I made a new covenant with myself: I will be a mentor who is kind, generous, and just. I will teach people who will inherit my path to recognize abuse when they see it– and then find the strength to walk away.

Kindness, Generosity, and Justice.