I am only tangential to the circle of academic creative writing, but I’ve heard the stories.
So and so picks a girlfriend for the conference at the first happy hour. Saves time later.
Oh, he waits until he knows their work is good before seducing them. He doesn’t like to have to lie about that.
Everybody knows. It’s just what he does. The prettiest skinny girl in the class is always his target.
This is gossip, recorded over years, filed away because I was struck by the lines and a thing I like to do is collect bits and pieces from the world for possible later use in my fiction. Gossip being gossip I never knew how true they might be, and I always did my best to forget who the gossip was tied to anyway. I didn’t want to know, and it didn’t matter if it was going to wind up in fiction.
Except that I also knew some of it, maybe all of it was likely true.
Also, it’s not just gossip, and it matters.
Writing at Tin House, novelist Bonnie Nadzam (Lamb, 2011; Lions 2016) recounts a period during her MFA studies under the influence of a predatory mentor. It is a harrowing, powerful piece of writing that I won’t do the disservice of extracting because it should be read in its entirety.
The scope and depths of the predatory behavior of the mentor is sickening. This was not an isolated incident for this particular person. He is also not the only creative writer to abuse his position in this way.
And of course, mentors behaving despicably isn’t confined to MFA programs, but there is something about that particular atmosphere that makes it even more conducive to this kind of abuse. I remember feeling a kind of desperation bordering on helplessness during my own graduate studies, a persistent anxiety over whether or not I had “it.” I cannot imagine having to navigate this fraught emotional terrain while being subjected to psychological abuse by a mentor.
But I did not have to contend with this because I am male and straight and as Ms. Nadzam’s essay and a series of follow-up responses by almost a dozen highly accomplished writers published at Lit Hub show, this is a culture of male predation, what Roxane Gay calls “mentorship by way of seduction.” And Anna March calls “a matter of course.”
These women point out there are always excuses for these men, a foolish drunken evening, or it’s something from the past, the person the abuser used to be, now reformed. Sometimes it’s clear that these men are too powerful to challenge, holding the keys to a gateway of career and security. These are, I suppose, the academic version of “locker room talk” terrible things that happen, but aren’t allowed to matter for real.
The power structures in academia make the field particularly fertile for this type of abuse. Some of these men really do have to power to initiate careers – placements in fellowships, introductions to agents – and once they amass power in their home departments, the risk of challenging them becomes high. In academia it is easy to keep to one’s own lane and stay plausibly ignorant of the wreck across the way. We are not expected to be our colleagues’ keeper. All that freedom extracts a cost when the powerful choose to use that freedom to abuse others.
And then there is the excuse of “genius,” as though artistic merit entitles these figures to consume the lives of others to meet their needs.
The abusive mentor develops skills and strategies to inoculate himself from accusations as well, becoming more and more practiced at the deception. After awhile, I can imagine that it comes to seem like the way things should be. I’d like to believe that academia, unlike Hollywood, which is beholden only to money, has a special obligation to prevent this kind of abuse.
I am not so naïve to believe much will change, even in the wake of the discussion Bonnie Nadzam has started this time. It is not the first time for this discussion. It won’t be the last. How much progress have we really made?
At Lit Hub, Roxane Gay says, “It’s time to start naming these men. I’d name names, but these aren’t my stories. It’s not my place. That’s what I tell myself while also knowing that when we keep these men’s secrets, we allow their predatory behavior to thrive. They won’t stop until they are held accountable.”
If I had names, I wonder if I’d have the courage to name them, but I have no names, and I’m not convinced of my own courage, even as only an adjunct to this world who would risk less than many others.
I have only gossip, unattached to names.
I have no power, no influence, other than a voice in this space.
But I can, and will make a vow.
When women come forward at great risk and with great courage, and speak of these experiences, I will believe them.