In figuring out my perverse belief system about love, I'm also figuring out how that belief system has affected my work. You see, when I write of love, I'm not just writing of personal love. That is, I'm not just writing of the sad and warped way that my parents taught me about familial love, and I'm not just writing of the ways that I took that sad and warped understanding of love into a the world and got myself into some ultimately abusive romantic or sexual liaisons. I am also writing of the way that my sad and warped understanding of love made me wholly suspicious and even hostile to all human interaction. The suspicion and hostility affected my ability to have or to maintain friendships (a topic for another time), my ability to be a good teacher (also a topic for another time), and my ability to develop as a historian. That suspicion and hostility also bled me dry of any passion for my work.
The beginning of this story eludes me. Do I start with my need to find better parents, better people to help me into adulthood, to help me realize my own potential? Perhaps. If you start a biography or an autobiography, you start at the beginning, and this is the beginning of that professional autobiography. That would take me to my first adviser, who not only sexually harassed me, but also gave me some criminally bad advice.
I'm not talking about the kind of advice like, "no, no, the job market is fine, please do go to grad school in the humanities." I'm talking about, "yeah, if you want to study this subject you should stay right here with me. I'm the best, therefore this school is the best. So what if it isn't prestigious. So what if I know nothing -- in fact disdain -- the particular subject in which you are interested. So what if you would be better served going to these east coast schools and studying with these professors who do that sort of work. No, stay right here with me." I'm talking about, "take classes only from me and from the people whom I bully. Don't listen to anyone else, don't ask for anyone else's advice. Just do what I say. Besides, everyone else here is an idiot, professors and students alike; and let me tell you all sorts of dirty details about their personal life. And don't piss me off by talking to any of them, either, because then I will make sure that you are kicked out of the program." That sort of advice, which I was too naive to know was so horrible and, when I figured it out within a year, was too scared and in no position to challenge.
That relationship was one of those, "I'll do everything you say if you will put up with me" relationships. Sadly, I hated myself so much that I thought that, because he thought I was talented and smart, then I must be talented and smart. Then, I figured out his game. He did not think I was talented and smart. He thought that I was a flake and malleable and might serve as a good spy in his campaign of paranoia against the graduate students and junior faculty. Extricating myself from that professional relationship was necessary to my life, but I ended up back where I started -- maybe worse -- feeling worthless and now like a total idiot for not being more courageous and mature.
I look back now and I see that I did lack a significant amount of maturity. I'm still ashamed of it. At a time when people are well into pursuit of their careers, married, having children, generally becoming adults, I more resembled a teenager. I can only forgive myself for being so childlike because I now realize that nothing in my life up to that point had taught me how to be a mature adult. Most of the adults around me while I grew up -- even in my delayed state of growing up -- were invested in me being a child and rewarded me for being a child. They rewarded me by not beating me, by not belittling me, by not launching a nuclear assault on these early stages of my career. So, I grew to mistrust these adults, the ones in parental or mentor roles, the ones in roles that guide young people toward being adults and toward being successful professional adults. I grew to mistrust advisers. In graduate school, that is pretty much the kiss of death.
Eventually, I did find a good advisor, but of course I did not trust him and therefore did not turn to him for much other than to sign off on my dissertation and to write the occasional recommendation. I did not learn how to act like a professional historian from him, despite the fact that he was willing to teach me without any of the conditions that prior adults had imposed. I mostly hid from him. Only now, a decade later, am I starting to foster the sort of professional relationship that I should have back then. Of course, only now, a decade later, have I discovered that maturity that I should have had back then.
Looking back, I also see something else that I was doing wrong. Because of that sad and warped love that I had learned at home, I went in search of alternate parents and would glom onto anyone who might provide some wisp of hope of giving me what I craved. That's not the way to approach an advising relationship. That sets you up for some huge disappointments regardless of the person on whom you glom. Of course, if you are searching for something emotional from this relationship, that makes you prey to scum like my first adviser, and, indeed, the sociopath that I dated at the time -- and his pathologically lying successor.
As I write this, I also see that the convergence of that bad advisor and dating those two sociopaths, both of whom were fellow graduate students (ooh, what a bad bad bad idea!) all occurring at the beginning of graduate school worked together. After these first two or three years of graduate school, I no longer trusted faculty and I no longer trusted other graduate students. I also thought of myself as a complete and utter floundering idiot who did not deserve to be in even this low-grade program.
Thinking yourself unworthy and stupid doesn't help much in your friendships with colleagues. When I did start to make friends of good fellow graduate students, I didn't fully trust them because I was always sure that they were laughing behind my back, saying all of the things that the gremlins said in my head, "she's an idiot! How do they keep her around? She's not that smart. She'll drop out. She'll be kicked out. Her life is a shambles. What will be come of her?" This meant that I never really formed strong attachments to friends, and never put too much effort into holding on to them. I let them put in the effort, but I didn't.
I think I'm getting PTSD tremors just remembering this. At least I would, if it didn't seem so remote, now, like something that happened in one of those movies that seem to affect you years after you've seen it.
Anyway, there were three components to being successful in graduate school and as a historian that I did not foster: a functioning professional relationship with advisers, a functioning professional relationship with colleagues and friends, and my own confidence as a scholar.
In other words, I was fucked. This is why I say I don't deserve to be where I am. I am here by pure luck and some desperate, gut-level will to survive that surprised even myself.
Surviving graduate school became just that: surviving. Surviving is quite often simply functioning, putting your body into motion to do what you have to do to get from beginning to end, and not being sure what might be on the other side of the end. In fact, the other side of "end" is probably pretty crappy, too, so you have to fight your own ambivalence about getting to that end. Still, you persevere because you don't know what the hell else to do; and in surviving, you lose passion. Whatever motivated you to start on this path, whatever curiosity drove you, disappears. You become a machine.
Worse, you feel yourself a failure as a machine because, if you really did become a machine, you wouldn't feel so miserable. You wouldn't feel at all. You would probably be more focused and successful in driving forward, too. You also wouldn't end up overcoming your ambivalence about the "end" by realizing that you would be more miserable if you didn't get to the "end" than anything on the other side of the "end" could possibly be.
On the other side of the end, you actually find more of the same. Not the exact same. The details, the setting, the people from whom you are disengaged, the work that you plod through, differ; but the sense of being a ghost in your own life, of feeling as if you could slide off of the world, stays. The sense of surviving rather than engagement stays, and you often wonder why you bother to survive at all. You feel bleak.
What does all of this have to do with love? Love, in it's broadest sense, is creative engagement, an engagement that drives you forward and makes everyone involved better. As a child you engage with your parents, as a parent you engage with your child, you engage with your advisers, your mentors, your colleagues, your friends, your lovers, your subject. I'm not sure what you would call some of the engagements that I have had, but most were not creative and most were not love. They were destructive, caused me to disengage, and caused me to see any further engagement as not really worth the effort.
I'm starting to put all of these pieces together. My rules of engagement, so ingrained that I don't even notice them -- like my heart beating -- have kept me from actually engaging and have kept me from being a better historian.
That professional piece of love, of engagement, started to crystallize last weekend when I saw how a functioning professional relationship with our adviser helped one of my old grad school colleagues be a good historian. Heck, I saw how a functioning professional relationship with an adviser worked. Also, when I found myself in conversation with that adviser and realized that I wasn't hiding from him in any way. I mean that I wasn't afraid of appearing stupid or lacking knowledge, I was talking with him as a junior colleague would to a senior colleague. I also felt that when Prof. Famous addressed me in the same way.
I've been learning this also through this process of writing my article and my book proposal. First, seeing people respond to my work as if it is actually worth something. Second, realizing that their feedback and interaction with them not only helps me figure out what I do think on the subject, but also that I enjoy that interaction. I feel a sense of support rather than a sense of criticism. I feel myself trying to be better rather than hiding because I am not. I feel myself trust, which is so bizarre.
I've been learning this also through the way that I find myself re-engaging with my work, with the research, and most importantly with the puzzle of understanding what this man's life was about and, perhaps more, what these women's lives were about. Them more than him, definitely. This, in fact, is driving everything else. This is why I wanted to be a historian (even more than as an alternative to being a frustrated novelist): to somehow inhabit an alien world and understand how it operated; to find that understanding by looking at an individual life or set of individual lives and figure out how they negotiated through that world; and to write that story. That, I'm remembering, was the reason I went into that horrible professor's office in the first place to ask him advice on graduate schools. That, I know, is why I am still (or back) on this path. That has made a lot of decisions very clear in the past few months.
This is where I should have been 15 or 20 years ago -- hell, 42 1/2 years ago! -- but I had this really bad idea about people and about myself and that slowed me down. I'm still slow. Excruciatingly slow.
If you ever meet me in person, or even maybe you've figured this out online, you now know why I'm a little off, a little odd, a little inattentive, a little remote, and maybe even come off as a little weak or lightweight or, still, immature. I'm learning. Gradually, I'm learning.