In a recent Huffington Post piece I wrote on downsizing, a reader suggested I had a fab book or movie deal lurking in my tales of starting over. But what crisis, she asked, had precipitated this downfall? Ought I not at least hint at what it was that caused me to topple from the heights of my university career to counting my blessings finding feathers on the sidewalk while calculating how soon before my daughter and I are living out of a shopping cart because my Ph.D. is worth about as much as a dirty sponge and the shelf life of a woman my age will expire by Halloween?
That’s the sort of question I’ve learned to dread, the kind of question that I can’t find any answer for in any of the self-help books on how to make a comeback, how to find work past the age of forty, how to make social media work for me, how to change my way of thinking, make a meta-plan, set obscenely unreachable goals and think so positively that I’ll achieve them all and then some by the end of the year if I can only find my passion, faith and car keys. Because not a single one of those book has anything to say about people who have been accused of terrorism.
No, really, I was. And I don’t even wear a head scarf (if I did, I’ve no doubt they’d be water-boarding me to this day for no better reason than they could). How in the world it ever happened can’t possibly fit in a blog post, but there’s probably a country western song out there that sums it up, if I can only find it. And while I’ve been writing it up in a couple of books (one serious, one funny, because let’s face it, when Homeland Security comes knocking on your door, you’d better keep a straight face, and as soon as they leave and the PTSD is under control and all you’re left with is an inch-thick document that says you’ve been investigated inside and out and you’re completely innocent but your home is gone, your job is gone, your career is gone, your friends are gone, your pension’s gone and your mind is gone, well if you can’t laugh at the mess you’ve made of your life then you’d might as well run for office, because what better place to be bitter and have a welcoming platform).
The story, in a nutshell, was I was a professor at what I like to call the University of Athletic Achievement, Inc., a lone woman amidst a bunch of aging men, and a single one at that (you married gals count your blessings; entire tragedies are written about those of us who aren’t). Now I don’t think being surrounded by aging men is all that big a deal, having grown up with three brothers, some of whom have aged, but let’s just say, this testosterone-laden bunch didn’t think of me as their little sister. But no big deal. We hire more women, though I have to raise a ruckus or two for them to seriously consider bringing too many ovaries on board. We recruit lots of graduate students, new hires, things are changing, the budget shrinking, staff is nervous. Who’ll get the next raise? Who’ll get the next axe?
Throw in a charming lothario (who is good buddies with the university President) who takes to banging and threatening students and female faculty, suggests we have an affair and I say no, then starts bad mouthing me as I go up for tenure. A colleague advises I tell the boss, which I do. Big mistake. No one likes a tattle tale, and before I knew it, I was the target of a character assassination that got bigger and bigger and weirder and weirder until I was accused of everything short of homicide.
No wait. I was accused of homicide, and so was my ten year old daughter (she suggested baking a plate of chocolate chip cookies for my boss, and since he was a diabetic, my employers reported it to the FBI-Joint Terrorism Task Force; after all, for all they knew, they were dealing with a whole family of criminal master minds). “We do not know what more she is capable of or contemplating,” the FBI-JTTF wrote of me, “we must move aggressively.”
At first, it was pretty predictable. You want to get rid of someone, you start redefining them and revising their work history (if they’re genuinely bad workers, just fire them, it’s the good ones who require the Machiavellian techniques). Use labels. “Difficult worker,” “unstable,” “crazy.” It dehumanizes them and makes them easier to attack. Reward the lowly workers while publicly humiliating the target. They get scared they might be next while at the same time they start enjoying new rewards. A little praise here, a big raise there, a pending promotion if a job opening should come up. Before you know it, gossip is flying and it ain’t good.
At first they called me negative, then angry, then crazy and pretty soon suicidal. After that it was homicidal, and when none of that worked, they said I was building a bomb. “She’s always talking about bombs,” a student wrote to the FBI, “she has a fascination about them.” “Do you make a habit of talking about bombs in your classes?” the agents asked me, as we drank lemonade on my front porch as my ten year old daughter looked on. “Would that be my class on warfare?” I asked, my voice shaking in fear because I had absolutely no idea of what I’d been accused of, “or my class on the atomic bomb?”
Apparently, my employers neglected to tell Homeland Security that they had hired me to teach about warfare and bombs, and that they were paying me to research depleted uranium used in warfare.
“You told us if we made these reports that she would never know,” one student wrote after finding out I’d submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the report. “You promised us if we did this you would change our grades,” another wrote (she had said I was engaged in extortion to obtain classified information on nuclear transport in exchange for a higher grade; I had told her that if she wasn’t going to do her work, she could take an incomplete and for a higher grade work on her thesis topic – which she’d suggested be nuclear transport.)
A couple of junior colleagues who specialize in social justice rushed to Homeland Security with reports that they’d passed me in the hall and I “appeared strung out.” “She approached me in the hall and said she was going home to kill herself,” one pathological nitwit said. You could have told this guy you’d seen Elvis leaving the building and he’d have seen him, too. The other asks me in a friendly tone if I had a will and when I said I didn’t, suggests I write one and her dad, a lawyer, will review it. I do and she takes it to the university lawyers as proof of my suicidal signals.
By then, suicide sounded painless, as the song goes, but it would have required a plan, and my brain was turning into a bubbling, boiling ball of terror as every day got more surreal. My home computer hacked not once, not twice, but three times (that I was eventually informed of); office rifled regularly, like some drug fiend was looking for my stash. Men in hats sitting in parked cars outside my house. My emails solicited from all my colleagues, my students told I was insane and not to take my classes. It was madness, shear madness, and I was falling apart.
“I don’t know how you have stayed so sane,” people say to me when they meet me. “I would have had a nervous breakdown.”
Well, I pretty much did, which was all the justification anyone needed to convince themselves they were doing the right thing by turning on me with a vengeance for having rocked the boat.
“I’m so sorry, I never meant for the police to go to your house,” the junior colleague who turned over my will wrote to me. Followed by an email to my boss, “If she is tenured, I will quit. She has had mental problems for the ten years that I’ve known her.” It’s true, the ten years part. I’d known her for years, I’d recruited her for the job when she couldn’t find work, she even stayed at my home for two weeks while looking for one of her own. I’d even named her in my will as trustee of my life insurance and guardian of my daughter if something ever happened to me and my daughter’s father. In short, I’d trusted her.
But after having told people to avoid me, watch for signs of madness and report anything I said about violence in my course on warfare and structural violence, going to the FBI and reporting I was going to kill myself (“but she wants you to know she thinks you’re a good mother,” a colleague passed on), she writes me another letter. “I hear you’ve been telling people I’ve been damaging your career,” she wrote, “I’ve done no such thing. Don’t make me start.”
She gets in her car and drives off, while I gaze at her bumper sticker. CoExist, it says.
Clearly, I was a buzz kill to be around while all this was going down. I ranted, I raved, I babbled endlessly and incoherently, and I sobbed and sobbed. No doubt I looked and acted crazy, what with the Patriot Act defining what could and couldn’t be done to me, and people really, truly out to get me. But I’m as sane as anyone who would devote ten years to graduate school and live in a mud hut can possibly be, but once my friend and junior colleague struck a deal with the devil she knew she had to remove me from her world and gossip was the best way to do it. “I’m so concerned,” she started each conversation with our mutual friends and colleagues, until everyone we knew was concerned only for her and I was history.
So that’s how it happened, in a nutshell. I was exonerated, and damned near every rule the university ever wrote was broken in their determination to eliminate me. “If you hadn’t reported it,” my boss said to me after I asked him to talk to the bad-mouthing lothario, “you’re tenure wouldn’t have been an issue, but because you did . . .”
When I submitted the FBI report declaring me innocent, my senior colleagues – all male – declared me “a clear and present danger.” When I appealed to my profession to help me, I got a lot of attention – until some of the leadership picked up the phone and started ringing up my colleagues, and before I knew it, people were told I was crazy and to stay away. “We’ll assure she is shunned by her national colleagues,” the university wrote when I sued the S.O.B.’s. And I was indeed shunned, never knowing all the lies that were told about me, but finding my reputation, once stellar, was so ravaged by gossip and lies that I’d might as well have been a child molester trying to get a job as a babysitter.
When I heard from Democracy Now, they were very alarmed. “We want to interview you about what the FBI did to you, and how your university responded as a result,” they wrote. “I’d be happy to,” I replied, “but I want to be clear, the FBI was only doing their job; they actually treated me with respect. It was the university that came after me and used the FBI as a pretext. And the ones who made the reports were not conservatives, but human rights advocates. Which I think is the more important story. The very banality of it all.”
“Never mind,” the liberal press declared. It wasn’t the story they wanted to tell. Like wars fought in the name of God, organizational warfare fought in the name of ideology is viewed as justified. If human rights advocates call you insane and dangerous, then it must be true. They’re the good guys. Until they go bad.
I thought, when it all began, that my boss would never get away with such behavior. After all, I grew up in Michigan, good old working class stock, where if management screwed a worker, they stood together and didn’t put up with that crap. But the ivory towers go by different rules; we might teach about class solidarity, but we don’t practice it.
“Civil and human rights are one thing when they’re on the other side of the world,” I told my junior colleague right before she gunned me down, “but it’s another thing altogether when it’s three doors down the hall.”
“There is such huge punishment in the culture for an angry woman,” Gloria Steinem wrote, and I sure found out how right she was when I let the world know how angry I was when my life and livelihood were so flagrantly destroyed.
“You just need to be more perky,” my dean had advised shortly before it all went down. I told him I was doing my best to channel my inner Mary Tyler Moore, but I guess all I managed to convey was my inner Carrie.
Now, when people ask me what the crisis was that led me to my downfall, my brain begins to boil, my ears turn red, and my face goes cold and white. But I’m better at avoiding the question, being vague, focusing on the future – even though the future is not what it once was. “You need to go back to school,” an attorney told me when turning down my application for a secretarial job, “and not let on that you have a Ph.D.” “Have you considered Starbucks? No really; they have health insurance,” a friend suggested, while I pondered the title of Barista.
And when I don’t avoid the elephant in the room, when I do tell someone I’ve recently met my story, I see that nervous, scrutinizing look in their eyes every time they see me. It’s that look that says, Where’s the crazy? When am I going to see it? What is she going to do? She looks so normal . . . And that’s what makes it scary. To think that someone so normal can at any moment turn insane. It scares us.
The truth is, I am normal; I’m as normal as those who attacked me, who circled like vultures and went for the blood and wouldn’t stop ravaging my bloody carcass until they were damned sure it wouldn’t rise up and strike back because once they got going they knew they were going too far, but they also knew they couldn’t stop. They’d been given the green light to attack, and the more I fought back, the more I had to be beaten down. And like gunners in a firing squad, they could all pull the trigger, but none of them fired the fatal shot.
Joseph Goebbels once advised Hitler that the more outlandish the lie, the more people are likely to believe it. Just keep saying it over, and over, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda explained, and people will eventually decide that it wouldn’t ever be said unless it were true. After all, where there’s smoke there’s fire, right? Well I’m here to tell you, where there’s smoke, there’s very often mirrors.
And that’s why I’ve turned to chocolate. We may all have a heart of darkness, but when it comes to my own, make it bittersweet and soft inside. Because life can knock you down, hard and weirdly. And when it does, just remember, we may not be able to laugh it off, but we sure can howl till our howls turn to laughter and we’re laughing at our own goofy missteps, and the whacky world we live in. And when you’re slammed up against the wall and getting hit harder and harder, ask not What Would Gordon Liddy Do? (Unless he’s your uncle, then ring him up right away.) Ask What Would Mel Brooks Do? And there you’ll find your answer.