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For Your Oedification

If you’ve missed this blog since I put it aside a year and a half ago to focus on finishing my novel, please don’t blame New Yorker book critic James Wood. He is but an innocent bystander whose name I only invoke on the off-chance that he still checks his Google alert emails. (If he does: Hello James Wood! GOOD AS GONE, my debut novel of psychological suspense, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on July 26! Contact my publicist for a review copy!)

Genre is a funny thing. When I first started working on GOOD AS GONE years ago, I thought it was a Henry James novel. Then one day, I realized there were going to be dead people in it, and guns. That’s when it started transforming itself into the propulsive, suspenseful mother-daughter thriller it was always meant to be. And thank goodness, because I have more thrillers in me–a lot more. The heir of Henry James, after all, was Patricia Highsmith. And the heir of Patricia Highsmith was–a snail, probably. She was funny like that. But maybe if I work terribly hard, one of my novels will make someone feel as delightfully awful as her novels make me feel.

For now, though, a new genre demands a new look. My freshly launched author website uses appropriately electric shades of neon yellow and pink from the book cover design. I love my new look–by a strange convergence of energies, I recently purchased and wore an acid-floral ’60s frock in just those shades. But I will miss the aspirational, bone-and-parchment, upper-middle-brow fussiness of The Oeditrix.

So, I’m hanging onto dear old Oed for now, even though I’m not sure what will become of her. In the meantime, if you’d like to read more of my words, subscribe to my newsletter (go here and scroll down!) for a semi-regular dose of writing talk, book and TV reviews, lighthearted yet rigorous analysis of mainstream female-directed comedies and exploitation films from the ’70s-90s, pictures of glamorous fashions, detailed descriptions of fabulous prizes, and tales from the publishing trenches–not to mention updates on GOOD AS GONE, my 33 1/3 book on Tori Amos’s Boys for Pele, and, of course, my sanity. Don’t miss it.

Skin Is Powerful When It’s Right Next to Yours

It shouldn’t take holding a baby in my arms for me to see the events of Ferguson as personal. It shouldn’t matter that the baby is my nephew. I shouldn’t need to remember his recent warmth on my lap, his boisterous baby laugh, his tiny strong baby hand bringing me a book to read to him. I shouldn’t need to have just held him in my arms a couple of weeks ago to feel afraid for black people everywhere.

But skin is powerful when it’s right next to yours.


When my nephew gets scared or upset or overwhelmed, he craves the feeling of warm skin against his. He calms right down, even if it’s only his auntie holding him, not his mom or dad. He’ll take what he can get. He sighs deeply, sucks on his fingers, and leans into me, hard. He closes his eyes.

When my nephew sits on my lap, he looks like a baby. When he grows up, he will look like a criminal. This is something I am having a hard time wrapping my brain around, because I’m white. Others have expressed this sentiment over and over again, in the last five days and long before. It shouldn’t take a photo of me reading to my nephew for me to realize that from a distance, we look a lot more different than we feel, close-up.

So much is transmitted through the skin. But you have to get close enough. Close enough to comfort, close enough to wound. Close enough to understand how very little it means for one person to be called “black” and another person to be called “white.”

I call him nephew. He doesn’t call me anything yet, although my sister swears he tried to say “Amy.”

From a distance, my nephew’s skin absorbs light in a certain way. The way it absorbs light makes people feel scared. It’s an irrational fear. I say “people” as if I don’t understand it. Looked at another way, it’s perfectly rational. You only fear people that much when you know they have a very, very good reason to hate you.

You look at a college kid and you see a thug. You look at a reporter and you see a hood. You look at a local alderman and you see an “outside agitator.”

You look at a 14-month-old baby and think, by the time he is 14 years old, he will have undergone a frightening transformation that is completely imaginary. Maybe it will happen earlier. Maybe it will happen at 12. Maybe it will happen at 10. When does it happen? Someone who is black, someone who has experienced it from the inside the skin, tell me. When does it happen?

He’s small for his age. Maybe it’ll be 18. Maybe he’ll be getting ready for his first semester of college, like Michael Brown.

It’s a race, in my mind, a selfish race: my nephew growing quietly older while America grows noisily scarier. Do we have time to shape up before he hits the age of Looking Scary? How much time do we need? How much time does my sister have to prepare him for the reality of life in his city, in his country? How much time does she have to prepare herself?

Maybe he’ll never be stopped and frisked, maybe he’ll never be wrongfully imprisoned without charges or bail or paperwork, maybe he’ll never be beaten. But I guarantee you that if anyone ever is again–and they will be–under circumstances that resemble Ferguson or any of the other events leading up to it, and if he is old enough to see pictures of it on the news, with their half-assed watered-down language of “face-off,” “heightening tensions,” “conflicting reports,” trickling out the next day because they didn’t send any cameras during the four days when it was actually happening—if he’s old enough, he will understand, better than I ever could, that his skin is a mocha-colored target for police batons, rubber bullets, real bullets, tear gas containers, fists. And he will understand why this is happening. He’ll understand it perfectly, in a way I never, ever can.

I wish I could hold him and feel his warm skin against mine again. I wish we could share that moment again where I’m reading to him, where I can’t see him, can only feel him on my lap, and he can’t see me, can only feel me holding him on my lap. I wish we could all just close our eyes for a minute and feel how much we need each other, how much we rely on each other not to hurt and kill one another, how fragile is the skin, how warm, how powerful it is, and how thin.

Rough Draft of a List of My Successes

1) I have it better than most people in this world. I’m surrounded by friends and family, and married to my favorite living organism. I get to do so many things I want to do, including write. 

2) I smile a lot. This probably goes back to my childhood with a sick sibling. I was a bouncy-haired Shirley Temple of a kid. I laughed and laughed, and I made people laugh at me. That’s how I earned my place in the world.

2.5) I still do. It’s fair to say that most people I interact with have never seen what my face looks like at rest. Once at a college party, someone said, “When you stop smiling, you look so sad.”

2.75) That person was not trying to pick me up.

3) The sadness comes from nowhere.

4) The sadness comes from everywhere.

5) The sadness is a tar pit I sink into sometimes, but so slowly that no one can tell it’s happening except me.

5.5) And that makes it hard to ask for help.

5.75) Because when I do, I’m easy to ignore.

5.83) Because I look fine.

5.95) Because even when I say the words, “I’m not fine,” it sounds like “I’m fine.”

5.97) I’m not sure whose fault that is.

6) The sadness is embarrassing.

7) The sadness is my fault.

8) Right now, the sadness is especially my fault. I’m going off of anti-depressants after years of taking them. I started in grad school, because my advisor looked at me one day and said, “Do you think you might be depressed?” That wasn’t my first episode of depression. It was just the worst up until that point.

9) I’m going off anti-depressants because I think it’s the right thing, for now. I’m considering trying to get pregnant, and I can’t be on those particular drugs and be pregnant, and before I decide to switch my cocktail to a pregnancy-friendly mix, I want to be very sure that I can’t live without taking at least one pill every day, as I have almost every day for the past six years.

10) When I missed one pill, during those six years, my limbs felt like they weighed twice as much, and my synapses slackened and floated away from one another.

11) When I missed one pill, during those six years, my peripheral vision narrowed, and everything sounded like it was being funneled through a paper tube, and I couldn’t focus my eyes as quickly, or for as long.

12) Now, three weeks after taking my very last pill, after a year of excruciatingly responsible decreases in dosage, I feel like a person floating next to a boat. Yes, floating next to a boat in a wide ocean while the end of the rope she’s untied from around her waist twitches over the next wave. The freedom feels good. She rolls over on her back and lets the ocean pillow her and the sun dry her eyelids. But you don’t have to close your eyes very long to lose sight of the shore. You don’t have to close your eyes very long to lose sight of the boat. You don’t have to close your eyes very long to lose sight of the rope. The freedom feels good, but that’s a feeling for the shallows.

13) My depression started in high school. I know this because I recently found the rip-a-day Gary Larson calendar pages on which I kept my journal. Pages in which I railed against gender expectations that felt confining and unfair, struggled with loneliness, castigated my discarded religion while yearning, daily, for God, chronicled my thoughts on The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina, catalogued my crushes on baristas and bookstore boys, and wished and wished and wished for someone to notice that I was sad. I fell asleep every day in my calculus class. I fell asleep on the sofa after I came home from school. Not because I felt tired, and not because I was lazy. I just didn’t want to move.

13.5) When you move, that’s when it hurts.

14) Fear of movement is still my symptom. The air feels malevolent, like it’s breathing back at me. If I move, if I care, it will hurt. So I stay very, very still, storing up all my energy for those times when I will have to perform. I shut myself off like a refrigerator light and wait for the door to open.

15) Only one person sees me when I’m not performing. It’s almost certainly not you.

16) I’m performing right now, but writing is a performance like dancing is a performance. I love dancing, even when people are watching. When I’m dancing, it feels good to be alone and it feels good to be watched, so I don’t have to care either way.

17) Failure to keep up appearances is a mortal sin.

18) That probably comes from my mother. But so does my strength.

19) Today I set out to make a list of my successes—publications and performances, risks taken and outcomes enjoyed. But no matter how much I succeed, I feel like a failure. That’s kind of my whole deal.

20) So instead, this is a list of failures. In fact, this whole list is a failure.

21) Or alternately, we could just call it a rough draft.

My article about hybridized genres at the LA Review of Books!

My article about hybridized genres at the LA Review of Books!

America, with its relative lack of codified, non-race-based class distinctions, has always been a good place for working out questions of literary status. Novels in particular have been the repository for these struggles since the 1890s, as Mark McGurl tracks in The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James. But literary distinction has been especially important to writers of speculative fiction since — well, since the word “speculative fiction” was used by Judith Merril in the 1960s to gently disentangle the more aspirational science fiction from the robot-and-spaceship kind.

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The Wire Mother, or, Politics and Paranoia in the Academy

Last week I wrote a post about the ambivalence I felt as a PhD accepting a teaching job whose value would never be acknowledged by my graduate program. Three hours after posting, I was added to the University of Chicago English Department’s PhD Alumni listserv. (I graduated eleven months ago.)

The overworked department administrators were always kind to me, and I do appreciate being added to the list; however, the immediate result of the email was acute arrhythmia. The next day I got the cold sweats when the University of Chicago Alumni page retweeted my post, despite the bump in pageviews.

When I wrote the original post, I wasn’t actually thinking all that much about the university, honestly. I was thinking of, and writing for, my fellow in-betweeners, my colleagues in confusion, “the ones who left,” as I strangely think of us, even though not all of us did. We are the ones Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius euphemistically call “post-academics” in their terrific book about finding careers outside of academia–which is published, in a hilarious bit of irony, by the University of Chicago Press.

One of my post-academic compatriots had a therapist who had herself been through grad school hell. She had a sign posted in her office that read, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”

Anyone whose anxiety issues first appeared in grad school will tell you that this is literally the funniest joke in the world. And like all the best jokes, it’s funny because it’s true.

* * * * *

Immediately after posting a couple of days ago, I realized with a jolt that I had failed to mention the many, many skilled and hardworking teachers in post-secondary education, professors working everywhere from community colleges to liberal arts colleges to Research I institutions. It’s not because I don’t know any great and humane teachers in the academy. I know tons. They are my former professors, my acquaintances and close friends, my family members, even. These professors care about their students. They struggle to improve their teaching. They work long hours and are usually underpaid. It was truly irresponsible of me to leave them out of the picture. Why had I done so?

I did it because I was treating the academy “monolithically,” a critique I heard second-hand from a professor who did not want to comment on the blog itself. It’s true that I treated the institutional stance toward non-academic life, specifically non-university teaching, as monolithic. It is not. However, to borrow one of the many useful terms I learned in the academy, I would make the case that it is hegemonic. I believe that although many, many individuals in the academy, maybe even the majority of them, do care about teaching, that doesn’t mean there’s not a problem with the way teaching is perceived in the academy. It just means that the problem is institutional in scale, not individual.

The same source suggested that my views had been unduly influenced by my own personal academic experience, to which I can only say, guilty as charged. However, she then went on to say that I had made “ridiculous assumptions” about how academics see colleagues who leave the academic world.

If this is a ridiculous assumption, I am not making it alone. I got far more responses to this post than anything else I’ve written for this blog–in the comments section, on my Facebook page, and in my personal inbox. I will cite a few of them here to illustrate my point. (None of the private or anonymous comments were used without permission.)

First things first. I started out complaining about the University of Chicago’s attitude toward non-academic jobs for its graduates. Here’s an unsolicited comment from someone I don’t know who graduated from the same department I did:

A few years ago I challenged the dept about the fact that they don’t list alumni with non-academic jobs (or show any interest in them). I was told that they couldn’t put such info on the website or it would tarnish the dept’s reputation as a serious program in the eyes of prospective students and applicants.

It doesn’t get much clearer than that. Another anonymous commenter confirms this view, saying that faculty response to her “other” jobs post-graduation” was “utterly shaming,” even when that job was working at an extremely prestigious academic journal.

And another:

I have a friend who decided to become a high school teacher and her advisor promptly dropped her–he has put off reading her completed dissertation and scheduling her defense for almost two years since she’s no longer pursuing “academic employment.” 

This is not a huge sample size, but anecdotally and based on my own experience, these stories are not very surprising. Moreover, I have never heard this type of story told about any high-status job other than academia–as a friend of mine remarked, no lawyer or doctor would ever look down on someone who decided to quit a massively demanding job to do something else that made them happier (with the possible exception, sadly, of raising a child). Maybe we’re all just trying to cover up our own academic failings, which I don’t believe is the case, or maybe the assumption that academics often look down on non-academic jobs isn’t so ridiculous after all. Unless we’re just being paranoid.

But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

* * * * *

If that’s the perceived value of teaching outside the academy, what about teaching within the academy? I heard stories about that, too:

when i did a campus visit at X earlier this year, one of the committee members told me that he had taught at Yale before moving to X. When he received a teaching award, his colleagues all sent their condolences — because no one who had received a teaching award had ever been tenured.

The most shocking part of stories like these is that if you have been a grad student, they are not really shocking at all.

But! Duh, you are thinking. Yale, you are thinking. All these examples, you could point out, come from Research I universities with English departments consistently ranked in the top 20 nationwide, by whoever ranks those things. What about all of those professors toiling away at liberal arts schools, at inner-city public universities, at community colleges? They’re not suffering from delusions that they are living the always-scare-quoted “life of the mind.” They are too busy grading, or endlessly meeting with kids in office hours to help them revise their papers, or staying up late to put together a terrific lesson plan. They teach, and they care, and many of them get tenure.

To this, I respond—I hate to burst your bubble, but in the rarefied heights of academia, in the top ten English graduate programs in the nation, those jobs are not valued very highly either. I have heard so many anecdotes from colleagues who were visibly and palpably snubbed by professors, often by their own advisors, for having taken jobs like these. I wish I could give the stories in more detail, but they are not my stories and I will not tell them without permission. People have their reasons for not talking about these things in public forums.

Yes, most (though not all) of my anecdotes come from departments renowned for this type of occluded elitism. Nonetheless, there is no denying that they are the top departments in their discipline, that their professors are the top academics in their fields, that a recommendation from one of these professors opens doors. They wrote the books we cite, they headline the conferences we travel to. They are the scholarly tastemakers, the critical vanguard, the leading lights who set the standard for the most prestigious jobs in the field. Students continue to fight to get into these universities because in a nearly non-existent job market, they continue to place students in academic jobs–“good” ones, though again, the definition of a “good” job is determined entirely by the people doing the placing.

As suggested by the former University of Chicago grad student cited above, professors want to maintain that prestige for the department, thereby continuing to attract the brightest students, and they know how to do it: promoting the importance of research, and, by extension, demoting teaching to secondary status. (Tertiary if you account for wearing cool clothes.)

Anyone who doubts this is invited to meditate on the phrase “icing on the cake.” It’s a phrase I heard a dozen times when I was applying for jobs, a phrase used to describe the value of teaching on the academic job market. Every professor in my department, even the ones who themselves value teaching, will use this phrase (or sometimes the less colorful “bonus”), meaning sure, talk about your teaching skills in an interview, it won’t count against you. But it won’t get you hired either, much less tenured. (Conversely, as many of us have seen, the lack of it won’t get you fired.) I assume that these professors, who are at the top of their field, and whose most pressing business is to get their students academic jobs after graduation, know of what they speak.

I have approximately a zillion anecdotes that demonstrate the undervaluation of teaching in my department, but again, I do not want to tell others’ stories without their permission. So instead I will directly quote another commenter, this one from a prestigious public university, who actually changed her focus from literature to rhetoric and composition out of frustration with the sexism of her lit professors. Although she had always loved 18th-century literature, the classes this student took in rhet/comp were more interesting, more humane, and more generally acknowledging of female existence than the lit classes:

The seminars were awesome! And the things that we were talking about were so smart! And the faculty were supportive and helpful, and they thought that ladies were smart and that teaching *well* (not just teaching, but doing it well) was important. . . . In leaving lit, those old white 18c dudes think that I have made a *huge* mistake. Because anything rhet/comp is considered “service work” and is (*gasp* oh no!) feminized. . . If they were any good at teaching, they would realize how hard it is and how much research goes into being a good teacher.

Rhet/comp is the study of writing and argumentation. Writing is a demonstrable skill with copious uses in non-academic jobs. Teaching someone to write is difficult, but progress in writing is relatively easy to assess, which is perhaps why the field tends to be more teaching-oriented than literary fields. So it’s no surprise to me that, with the exception of certain theoretically-oriented departments like Berkeley, rhet/comp doesn’t get a lot of respect in English departments. Anyone who’s seen an English professor’s nose wrinkle at the though of teaching freshman comp classes knows that it is considered “service work.”

And as the commenter pointed out, that makes it women’s work, and women’s work is undervalued. Is anyone really surprised that attitudes toward feminized work within the academy reflect attitudes toward feminized work in the outside world?

Well, yeah, I was kind of surprised, since I went into academia to teach. I thought that was what professors did! I entered grad school with the comically naive goal of standing in front of a classroom in an elbow-patched blazer, teaching the books I loved, and getting summers off to write my novel.

By the way, if I had a dime for every academic who got into it thinking they would write their novels in the summer, I would be the saddest millionaire in the world. Creative writing is seen as a quaint and slightly embarrassing hobby in  academia.

* * * * *

Is teaching, especially teaching writing, institutionally undervalued in academia? After all this, I confess it’s hard for me to say, given my own experiences, which some would call extreme. They may be, although, as I argued before, I believe those attitudes coming from on high affect the way teaching is valued (or not valued) at all levels. Still, they create a certain myopia, as another commenter from my department described:

. . . on the other hand, at one of my mla interviews, one of the questions they asked was, “why do you want to be a teacher?” — it’s hard to be very sure when most of the grad students you actually know were raised on the same wire mother.

If you are unfamiliar with the wire mother, it’s shorthand for a classic experiment in screwing monkeys over for life conducted by psychologist Harry Harlow in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Basically, you isolate the baby rhesus monkeys from their real mothers and give them surrogate “mothers” made of wire and cloth instead, and watch what happens over time.

I don’t know whether any of those monkeys went on to finish their doctorates, but they exhibited intense, crippling anxiety and misdirected aggression throughout their lives. I had to laugh, juvenile as it was, upon learning that in these monkeys “[s]ex behavior was, for all practical purposes, destroyed,” as  “isolate females ignored approaching normal males, while isolate males made inaccurate attempts to copulate with normal females.” Maybe that’s why I didn’t have a boyfriend for six years!

Other bizarre behaviors exhibited by these children of cold, pointy, comfortless mothers included “clutching themselves, rocking constantly back and forth.”

Oh, rhesus monkey. I’ve been there.

* * * *  *

I feel deeply, deeply complicated about the wire mother that is University of Chicago. I don’t want this post to become an autobiographical list of all the cold, pointy, comfortless things I witnessed there, but it’s hard to stop once you start. It’s hard to communicate to people just how traumatizing those things were, so you just keep going, which is why, after all, I am still writing this at 4:30 in the morning when I have to get up at 7:00.

It’s been eight years since Thomas H. Benton asked (pseudonymously) “Is Graduate School a Cult?”; longer still since Margaret Newhouse wrote “Deprogramming from the Academic Cult“; and over ten years since Lisa Ruddick observed the dehumanizing influence of the academic hierarchy in her post-9/11 article “The Near Enemy of the Humanities is Professionalism.” But if my recent experience and those of my peers is typical, not a whole lot has changed since then.

For a more recent example, see this humorous but dead-on comparison of grad school to a cult by a grad student who, by the way, was once literally in a cult:

1. On the first day you arrive, you’re reminded that you’re part of a small, elite subgroup with access to specialized knowledge that the average person can never hope to achieve. You’re congratulated for choosing to come to graduate school and leaving behind the shallow materialism of the world.

2. Despite what a great achievement it is to get into graduate school (or so they tell you), you start to notice that your only reward seems to be working harder than all your college friends.

The pride in suffering that keeps you in a place like this even when you have to be doped up on Klonopin to bear it, this cult-like tribalism that says you are being torn down for your own good, that you will emerge the better for your wounds, is everywhere on display at the University of Chicago. It is a mentality perfectly articulated, literally inscribed on the body, by the t-shirts worn proudly by undergraduates all over campus, bearing the legend: “University of Chicago: Where Fun Comes to Die.”

* * * * *

The question of how this all pertains to sexism and the undervaluing of “women’s work” is something I can’t quite handle yet. It is at once a personal issue, a political issue, and a the-personal-is-political issue, all tangled up in a big, messy knot with my particular experiences of humiliation at the University of Chicago. I entered the university by way of an MA program whose students, despite being basically cash cows for the university, get treated very, very poorly within the English department. I fought hard for legitimacy and respect, and eventually I must have won it, because I was admitted into the PhD program the very next year. Having lived in two worlds, I am intimately, painfully familiar with the difference between being valued and being ignored, sometimes even openly despised, within the same intellectual community.

Did I get a huge rush every time a professor gave me the head-nod of approval in class, or liked my work, or treated me as an important person with good ideas? Absolutely. Did I feel giddy every time I won some department-wide competition for a scant resource, whether it was money, an award, or teaching (which, although the professors don’t care about it, acquires value among grad students precisely because it’s a scant resource at U of C)? Yes, yes, yes.

The first time I got the magic head-nod, I nearly hit the fucking ceiling. I trembled for hours. That’s approval addiction. Approval is not the same as support, not by a long shot. But in an environment where actual, steady, dependable support is hard to come by, you’ll take it. Any port in a storm, any mother in a monkey cage. I leapt for the gold ring again and again, transfixed by the moment of exhilarating warmth I felt, the knowledge that I was doing well.

Like all addictions, approval has diminishing returns. But that doesn’t make it any easier to give up. I wish I didn’t still want it. The job placement page is just a bookmark in the vast tome of not-giving-a-shit that I, paranoid, feel emanating from the university where I spent six years learning how to feel inadequate, even as I piled up successes within the department.

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not trying to forget you ever existed.

If this sounds crazy, you’re just going to have to believe me when I say that I never felt this way before I attended the University of Chicago–not as a child with my parents, not in grade school or high school, certainly not in college. If it helps, I have plenty of witnesses from my pre-grad-school life who can attest to this. I’m married to one of them.

To make a long story short (too late!): No, I don’t believe non-academic careers are much valued in academia, and no, I don’t believe teaching, either in a university or elsewhere, is much valued in academia, and yes, I think this attitude disproportionately affects women, and no, the quantities of good, hardworking teachers in the academy do not really change the question of how much they are valued. The fact that I had it relatively easy in academia, the fact that I was a valued and respected member of my department who also avowedly loved teaching, does not change the question either. If anything, it’s even more damning to me. Even while I earned approval from the department again and again, I couldn’t help but absorb those attitudes, and eventually they became toxic to me. And that is why I left.