Jennifer/The Captain here with a content note: This post is about professors who abused their students by creating a cult-like environment. It also contains a mention of sexual assault.
I was too furious to form coherent words, so I turned answering duties over to a friend-of-the-blog, author Amy Gentry. I can think of no fiercer and better advocate for the Letter Writer.
Dear Captain Awkward,
I am a 25 year old woman about to finish a three-year professional degree. I had a pretty intense undergrad experience. Or, I thought it was intense, but I am starting to think maybe it was worse than just intense, and I don’t know what to do.
From about week 3 of my freshman year at age 19, two professors in my program (married, basically the program’s center of gravity, both regarded nationwide/even internationally as Important Leaders In The Field) adopted me into the fold of their “favorites,” which basically meant “if you do exactly what we say you’ll get one of the best jobs in the country when you graduate.”
They controlled pretty much every hour of my life for two years straight. In week 8 of my freshman year, they told me I couldn’t go home for fall break to visit my parents because of a project they wanted me to work on, and made me convince my dad to drive home without me. They had me come over to their home to work on projects and wouldn’t drive me back to my dorm until late at night. They coerced me into skipping classes so often I had to repeat a class once because my attendance record was so bad. Once I tried to say no to them when they attempted this, and one of them emailed the class’s TA behind my back to tell them I couldn’t come because I had to work on something for him. They made fun of me for going to church until I stopped going. They invented all kinds of scenarios that pitted me against my classmates for no good reason. They told me my parents wouldn’t understand the program and I shouldn’t talk to them so often. They would talk about their best students and how they would work for more than 24 hours straight and how great that dedication was. They talked me into taking an unpaid internship out of state I couldn’t afford because one of their friends ran the organization. When I mentioned interviewing for an internship at an organization they didn’t have connections to, they told me they knew somebody who worked there who said she wanted to kill herself after five years in the job. They created arbitrary deadlines I’d have to drop everything to meet and then say that we actually had months to work on it anyway. I wasn’t getting credit or pay for a lot of my projects. I got about four hours of sleep a night for two years straight. After a year of that my thyroid failed and I gained a bunch of weight and my hair started falling out and I stopped having a period. One of their other students sexually assaulted me at the end of my sophomore year and I reported it (and that was a whole other nightmare, the university admin tried to get me to either shut up about it or drop out) and those two professors never spoke to me again.
But they loved me and cared about me. They fought for me at every turn when they could. They gave me opportunities I never could have imagined, and they encouraged me, and told me I was talented, and acted as mentors and parent figures when I was isolated from my own family. They put in good words for me with organizations and introduced me to powerful people in the field and entered my work in contests that won me thousands of dollars. And lots of their other students still basically worship them – they got almost every graduate of that program with a job in that field their job – so it seems like maybe I’m overreacting. Whenever I worried about whether I was cut out for the work or if I should leave the field, they were so quick to assure me I had a place no matter how I was feeling and that my work was important. They gave me space to rest when it all got too intense. They wanted me to succeed. I wanted and still want them to be so proud of me.
But I had to leave it all behind after I was assaulted, and they act like I don’t exist now, and so many people love them, and they didn’t do anything illegal. But I break out in a sweat when I get emails from professors in my graduate program and I’m really scared to even go to office hours and I can’t figure out why. Once a professor at my graduate program said students could call him by his first name and it’s like I physically can’t do it. And whenever I’m not working or if I turn in something a little late I feel like I’m going to be obliterated. And I feel guilty about going to bed before midnight, especially when I usually can’t sleep anyway. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. They gave me every advantage in the world and for some reason I still just couldn’t hack it. Every time I see them promoting the work of current or former students I feel sick. Especially because I’m never among them. I live alone now in a different city but it’s like my head is full of loud static all the time. It was never like that before.
What’s going on? What do I do? I graduate in May and I feel like I’m about an inch from a nervous breakdown I don’t deserve to have. I have no idea how I’m going to perform well in the job I’m supposed to start next September when I can’t even get to all my classes every week because I keep having to throw up in the school bathroom out of anxiety. I’m not even on the same campus I was at in undergrad. Should I tell the school about the kinds of things they say? Every other graduate, at least from when I was there, would tear me down in a heartbeat. I feel like you’re supposed to report teachers who abuse their students but I don’t think that’s what happened to me. What would I say? They had high expectations and I took it all too seriously. I tried to read about abusive relationships online but everything was about sexual abuse or domestic violence, so maybe this wasn’t that bad. I know this is way more than 400 words but it’s like I sat down to ask a question and all of this came out of me at once.
– Burned out before I even got a real job
Dear Burned Out,
Hi, I’m Amy, an ex-academic who wrote a novel about academic abuse! You didn’t write to me for advice, so first off, thanks for the opportunity to respond to your letter.
Burned, I’m so sorry this happened to you. It wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t your fault. You got targeted by a pair of sadistic abusers who groomed, gaslighted, exploited, and betrayed you when you needed them most—all within a power structure that allowed, and still allows, them to do so with total impunity. No wonder you feel burned out. Someone took a blow torch to you, my dear.
But I also want to say, right up front, because it’s important: Congratulations! You are graduating with an advanced degree from a professional program and walking straight into a job that Mr. and Mrs. Internationally Recognized Leader in the Field did not get you, because of course they didn’t! They are scam artists who only wanted you to succeed as long as you were absolutely dependent on them, so they could take all the credit for your success. When you actually needed something real from them (support after a traumatic assault!), they responded by kicking you to the curb. But you made it. You were told you needed them to succeed; that was the first big lie.
Let’s start by puncturing the myth these sentient piles of steaming bullshit have created around themselves. You say, of Dr. and Dr. Very Important Con Artist, that “they got almost every graduate of that program with a job in that field their job.” Look closely at that sentence and see the invisible “failures” who slipped through the cracks. Where are the students these professors bullied out of the program? The ones who had mental breakdowns because of their abuse? Where are the students who decided to hell with this whole profession, I’m going to take up pottery (more power to ‘em)? And finally, where are the students who, like you, got jobs in the field without them? They’re all hiding in that sentence, ghosts you’ve been taught not to see, crowding around the big lie.
You didn’t see them or hear about these casualties and all-too-common exceptions because your professors abusers didn’t want you to. Their ex-students were too busy paying hefty therapy bills and learning how to throw pots to come back and tell you what a crock of shit these people are serving up. Even if they had, you’d already been prepped with the idea that anyone who leaves or is pushed out “couldn’t hack it”—a lie you internalized so thoroughly that even though you’re technically a success, you still feel like a failure. (Believe me, I feel this—I still sometimes catch myself telling people I “dropped out of grad school,” when what I did was finish my degree and choose a different career.) Your only information came from the indoctrinated, who had to try to recruit you to team They’ll Get Us All Jobs to validate their own life choices and justify their misery.
It’s no coincidence that this type of predator targets new arrivals. When you hit this program—at 19, no less!!—they were falling all over themselves to get to you first, because their entire deal is convincing literal teenagers to serve their needs through a combination of love-bombing, scare tactics, and psychological and physical abuse.*
*Yes, sleep deprivation counts. As does kidnapping, which it sounds like these two came very close to when they held you at their house against your will. Maybe it’s true that “they’ve done nothing illegal” (a low bar!), but they’ve certainly flirted with the line.
“But they loved me and cared about me.”
This is the second big lie, and it’s so much more pernicious and harder to purge than the first. It’s the reason I felt compelled to write a whole (fictional) book about murdering professors.
In a pivotal scene, two students are invited over to the house of a married pair of superstar professors for dinner, where they are courted and petted and unsubtly pitted against each other. Here, protagonist Mac drunkenly ruminates on her own version of the Big Lie:
S]itting around the table, I felt for the first time how professors could be like family… They taught us. They mentored us. They fed us, mind and body; they protected us from catastrophe; they prepared us for the world ahead. When we were burdened with impossible tasks and surrounded with words as impenetrable as swarms of bees, they made the Program survivable. We loved them, in a way. We couldn’t help it. They were all we had.
This isn’t love. This isn’t caring. This isn’t mentoring. This isn’t teaching. It’s inappropriate intimacy, the pivot point between grooming and abuse.
And abuse is what happened here. Look at the words you use in your letter. They coerced you, controlled you, made fun of the values you held most dear, isolated you from your family, pitted you against classmates who could have been supportive friends, and deprived you of sleep, a classic abuser tactic that erodes your ability to think straight and resist. They tanked your grades on purpose, to the point where you were failing other classes, and oh yeah, also did their best to ruin your financial security—all so you’d have to depend on them, because they were all you had. When you said no to their controlling behavior, they took away your choice by going behind your back. If this is love, it’s the no-more-wire-hangers kind of love—narcissistic, self-serving, and abusive. You owe them nothing—not your job, and certainly not some kind of acknowledgment of their good intentions. Maybe they sincerely thought they were loving you when they held you captive at their house, kept you up all night, damaged your relationships with other professors who might have helped your career in less destructive ways. But your body knew this was abuse, not love. Love doesn’t make your hair fall out.
Frankly, even if none of this boundary-demolishing behavior had happened, these human hemorrhoids outed themselves as ruthless, cowardly jerks when they chose to freeze you out instead of supporting you after your sexual assault. They picked Team Rapist, and so did your flaming trash heap of a university. In the end, Burned, that’s the part that makes me want to burn it all down.
I think there’s a part of you that wants to burn it all down, too. Maybe the rage you didn’t allow yourself to feel when they were hurting you has been scorching you from the inside for so long, you think it might kill you on the way out. But as it is, you’re throwing up before class and feeling guilty about getting sleep. Scratch that guilt, Burned, and you will find the rage underneath. I’m not saying it won’t burn you; I’m saying it already has. It’s making success feel like failure to you. The closer you get to the degree and the job, the more forcefully that rage is going to want to come out.
I actually think it’s a good sign that you’re starting to feel some of these awful feelings. It means you’re finally strong enough to feel them, or will be soon. It’s great that you’re googling “abuse,” great that you’re writing to the Captain. You’re even tossing around the idea of reporting them, a great and hopeful sign.
Sidebar: Should you actually report them? Hmmm. Call me a cynic, but I have a hard time believing a university that messed up a sexual assault allegation so royally is going to change their stripes for you now. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do it; but think very hard over what you are expecting or wanting, and ask yourself whether there are other ways to get it that don’t involve putting yourself in the exact same position of not being heard and believed by these scoundrels.
Besides, Burned, they totally know.
Years after I separated myself from an abusive advisor and graduated from my PhD program, on my book tour for my first novel, I met up with an old (supportive, non-abusive) professor, and we spoke candidly about Abusive Advisor for the first time. Good Professor told me that everyone knew they were like that, but no one could do anything official because the students never filed complaints.
Although even at the time this sounded kind of bullshitty and victim-blamey to me, I was still haunted for a long time by the idea that by not filing a complaint, I was part of the problem.
Well, Abusive Advisor died recently, spurring a frenzy of adulation on social media and glowing obits in national news outlets, all of which made me feel triggered, gaslit, and low-key crazy. When I expressed this publicly, people began reaching out to me with stories, and guess what, plot twist! Some of them had actually filed complaints! The university had made these complaints go away, obtained written apologies in return for retractions, etc. Now call me paranoid (though, as the sign in my friend’s therapist’s office says, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you), but I suspect that, were you to dutifully file these complaints, taking on just one more job that your professors’ bosses and peers should be doing themselves, you’d get a heaping helping of re-traumatization and not much else from these motherfuckers.
That said, if it will help you heal, do it. Just remember that you can wait until you’re in a position of strength—ten years into a healthy career, for example—to put yourself out there again. I won’t judge you. This is on them, not you.
Here’s what helped me heal:
1) Get therapy. It’s hard to trust a therapist when you’ve been abused by people whose job was to help you. (And university mental health services can be infected by the same toxic crap they’re supposed to be combating, eroding that trust still further.) But it’s going to take a while to learn to trust again, and you’re going to need a person to practice on who will give you tons of validation and practice in good boundaries. A competent therapist will help you recalibrate. Hot tip!: If you’re anything like me, you have some unlearning to do around valuing “brilliance” over boundaries. Avoid the idea that your therapist has to be some kind of superstar. A therapist who models good boundaries by setting her own and respecting yours is what you need most.
2) Reclaim your headspace. It’s fine to block out all knowledge of these people and their protegés for a while, especially on social media. (Their students sound awful, who cares what they’re doing?) This is going to be hard when you’re still in the same field, and you will probably bump into them at some point down the line. Put that moment off as long as you can. Later, as you move out of the suffocating academic world and into the professional one, I suspect you’ll find that the Brilliant Duo’s reputation is not so unimpeachable as they would have you believe. There are whisper networks in the professional world that you didn’t have access to as a student. You’ll eventually meet others in your profession who went through what you did, with them or someone else (these abusive profs are SO FUCKING COMMON, truly BORING in their ordinariness), and who also survived. In the meantime, unfriend who you can, block the rest, send alumni newsletters straight to the trash folder, and get in the habit of thinking “gee, those miserable assholes are still at it” whenever you encounter their names.
3) Fill your life with other things. This is advice that gets much easier when you’re not a student, but you can experiment with it now. Invite stuff that’s not school-related into your life. Cultivate relationships with people outside your profession. Watch stupid movies. Read trashy books. Eat good food. Contact old friends from the Before Times. Go back to church, if that feels good. (Seriously, fuck them for making fun of your church. I noped out of religion years ago, but this pisses me off so much. Only insecure asshats do that.) Circle back to all the things they made you give up; touch them all, and remember what you got out of them once. One of the most healing things for me after leaving academia was rediscovering parts of me that had nothing to do with the values I’d internalized there. I picked up my guitar again. I read The Artist’s Way and did all the woo-woo exercises. (Seriously, do this.) I baked cakes and decorated them. I went ice skating, took improv classes, listened to my favorite music from high school. I relocated to a city where lots of my old friends still lived. You probably can’t do that, Burned, because you’ve got this job lined up, but maybe start looking into non-work connections in your new town—clubs, hobbies, friends-of-friends—and in the meantime, experiment with whatever the equivalent of cake-decorating and listening to Tori Amos is for you.
4) Embrace your shiny new red-flag detector. Before I entered my grad program—at 24, not 19—I was shockingly naïve, and later, I wasted a lot of time shaming myself for not seeing the abuse coming. But the truth is, abusers are very good at what they do, especially when they’re backed by rigidly hierarchical institutions like universities. I’m not saying you have some foolproof abuse detector now, but you are paying special attention to your boundaries these days, and listening to your internal alarm bells. When something makes you feel uncomfortable—like Professor Call Me By My First Name—you listen. Good on you! You don’t owe anybody a level of intimacy you’re not comfortable with. When you sense someone pressing up against your boundaries, it doesn’t make them evil or abusive, but it might make them someone you don’t want to stick around and play with. There will be boundary-pushers and abusers in the professional world—watch out for them in your new job, and maybe start reading Ask a Manager, just in case!—but in my experience, they’re easier to get away from than they were in school. You won’t be stuck in a program with five professors in your subspecialty anymore; you’ll be in a big pond with lots of interconnected networks, some of them more toxic, some of them less. Use your superpower to gravitate toward the circles where you feel most comfortable, and don’t be afraid to take a step away when you’re not.
5) Decentralize your mentors. I have actually backed away from the whole idea of “mentors.” I prefer to think of mentorship in terms of a wide range of roles—“useful person to know,” “supportive friend,” “advice-giver,” “knowledge-haver,” “person with resources who is willing to share them as part of a mutually beneficial relationship”—that can be filled by lots of different people at different times. This is self-protective, because it doesn’t put all your emotional and professional eggs in one basket. But it also helps when it’s time for you to pass along your knowledge to people who need it, without the pressure of having to be someone’s everything. Mutually supportive relationships with peers and people further down on the food chain are as important, sometimes more, than upward relationships. Some of the most helpful people to my career have been those who just happened to explain something to me at a moment when I was able to understand and benefit from it. Anyone who claims they can get you the world if only you turn over the keys of your life to them is a cult leader, not a mentor.
6) Be gentle and patient with yourself. All this takes time. You’re going to have good days and bad. Days when you wake up glowing with the realization that they can never hurt you again; days when you feel worthless because of something petty they said ten years ago; and even days when you feel guilty, as if your anger were somehow responsible for their death. (Sorry, that one’s specific to me.) On the good days, celebrate the fact that you made it out alive, and look for small ways to help others do the same. On the bad days, buy yourself some ice cream or a weighted blanket, take a hot bath, go to bed at 8pm. Find something, no matter how small, that makes you feel better in the moment, and wait for it to pass. It will always pass if you let yourself feel it.
And Burned, on your absolute worst days, always remember: They’re the ones who fucked up. They could have just taught you. If I believed in hell, which I don’t, they’d be the ones burning.
Bio: Amy Gentry is the author of three thrillers–Good as Gone (a New York Times Notable Book), Last Woman Standing, and Bad Habits—and a 33 1/3 book on the Tori Amos album Boys for Pele. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Paris Review, Salon, Austin Chronicle, and lots of other places. She has a PhD in English and lives in Austin, Texas, where her hobbies include horror movies, cake decorating, and not being in grad school anymore.