Chapter 12 Fragments of Missed Opportunities

Or Unrealized Dialectical Exchanges with a Mentor

In: Critical Storytelling: Experiences of Power Abuse in Academia
Open Access

1 What Was Said

18/06/20xx, 23:50: Dear Denis,1 I will be in my office tomorrow morning. Come see me, I need to talk to you. Professor

19/06/20xx, 00:02: Dear Professor, Of course. I hope it is nothing serious. See you tomorrow. Denis

P… remember, last summer, in the restaurant by the sea, when most of the others had left, you were washing your hands in the bathroom and I approached you from behind. You leaned towards me, but suddenly pulled back when you heard a noise … [leans forward expectantly]
DI’m really sorry, professor. I remember that dinner, but I really cannot recall the moment you refer to. I’m sorry if I … [the rest of the record has been censored by survival mechanisms]

19/06/20xx, 20:45: Dear Professor, I am a bit troubled by what you mentioned this morning. But only because I’m afraid you might be troubled, too. I was trying really hard to remember what I did, and it is true that I recall a moment of proximity that might have caused the confusion. And it is my fault. On the one hand, you must have noticed that I am rather flirtatious in general and, on the other, I am used to combining intellectual closeness with certain physical gestures. Anyhow, I am glad you mentioned it, since honesty and sincerity are qualities I really appreciate in you. Please know that, from the very start, you have been a great father figure to me, and you remain someone I respect, admire and—moreover—am inspired by. As a student, friend and confidant, I remain at your disposal.

Cordially, D.

19/06/20xx, 20:45: Dear Denis, no troubles, no problems, no worries. A long road lies ahead of us. We talk, we explain, we live. A very important thing: I found a copy of my book, come pick it up on Monday. Complicitly yours, and please, no father figures—I despise them. P.

2 What Could Have Been Said

2.1 Fragment I

PWhat did you want to discuss?
DSexuality, rapaciousness and academia.
PWhy now?
DBecause the long road is over and you have no power over my life anymore.
PYou were always a strong and stubborn person. What kind of power have I ever had over you?
DYou arranged for me to relocate to a foreign country whose language I barely spoke, to a city where I had no social support, to enter a system where I always felt slightly illegal, did not know my rights or the administrative mechanisms. You convinced me to pursue a long unfunded endeavor without any structure, but with you as the sole reference point in a foreign land.
PWhen I was your age, I traveled Europe alone! Did I tell you about that time in a monastery?
DMany times. You also told me not to worry about money because you would help me figure something out. I don’t know whether I prefer to believe that you were just lying, or that you had some kind of sleazy arrangement in mind.
PYou were always so sensitive and creative. I don’t know where you get your ideas. You were always neurotic about money, too. You seemed to be doing just fine.
DI was lucky to meet genuinely generous people. I was also motivated enough to juggle three jobs at a time. You call me neurotic, but while you got a bonus for having an extra student, I had to get by at times with half the minimum wage.
PYou’re exaggerating, reducing a fruitful scholarly relation to a moment of physical weakness. My students are everything to me.
DScaffoldings for your robust ego?
PWould not life have been harder for you in your country, where you could not express yourself freely?
DYou made sure to establish that early on, didn’t you?
PWhatever do you mean?
DYou asked my colleague if I was homosexual less than a week after you met me.

2.2 Fragment II

PI felt you needed support, encouragement and acceptance. I felt I could empathize with your position.
DI was in my early twenties and living my sexuality more or less openly. You were nearly retired, married, with children, inquiring about other people’s sexuality by proxy.
PYou are twisting words and events. I was genuinely caring.
DI believed you were caring, now I know you were tentacular.
PI accepted you and appreciated you as you were.
DYou imagined me as you wanted me to be. You were being duplicitous. You said you had two sons and that, if you had a third one, you would like him to be just like me. And I told that to all my friends as a wonderful example of kindness and acceptance in academia. That is, before you made your move and tried to convince me that I misconstrued you as a father figure, or whatever.

2.3 Fragment III

PI do not see anything wrong in a physical relationship between two free and equal adults.
DThen why did you wait for your wife to leave the city before approaching me?
PThere’s no need to bring her into this, this is between a teacher and a student.
DI’m sorry to ruin your Spartan fantasy, but you have just tapped the nerve of inequality in our positions as adults.
PYou are being so Anglo-Saxon and puritan! This bureaucratic temperament will be the death of free academia. Makes me wonder what happened to the spirit of ’68!
DMind your adjectives! What was this spirit of ’68, pray you?
PFreeing bodies, unbinding spirits, unshackling minds! Society and academia have forgotten our great heritage.
DAnd where were you while they were forgetting? Having a perfectly heteronormative life, dipping your spoon into the sexual liberties in the cupboard, cashing in on social democracy, while letting it expire and disintegrate.
PBut the spirit of freedom …
DFreedom begins where necessity ends. How was I to live my freedom with homophobes on one side and predators on the other, both latently threatening my physical integrity?

2.4 Fragment IV

PYou’re accusing me of heterowhatever, while you defend a puritan traditionalism that only allows for relations sanctioned by bourgeois society.
DIt’s the dishonest predatory types that keep us trapped in our “chosen” binary categories, because we feel it is safer there. Sexuality is the most liberating thing there is. But you cannot blame me for not wanting to explore the depths of a shark tank.

2.5 Fragment V

DYou know the joke you always tell about northern cavemen and southern faggots in antiquity?
PBrilliant, isn’t it?
DIt’s about as funny as the one about a woman’s head serving as a beer-pint stand.

2.6 Fragment VI

PYou’re turning this into a trial.
DI could have, had I wanted to.
PSo, I should just stop doing young people favors to avoid hurting their feelings?
DYou know, I hooked up with a guy soon after I met you, just before starting my studies. An “uneducated” fellow, professional waiter. Dazzled by the opportunity you offered, I bragged so much about being lucky, about the things you said and your warm endorsement. “Just you wait,” he said, “soon he will name his price.” No way, I objected, not in academia!
PWhat is the meaning of this?
DThe meaning is that you are not extraordinary in any way, and that the ivory tower is porous and rotten.
PDo you think you are special?
DNo, now I know that I was not the first one to refuse you.

2.7 Fragment VII

PYou just want to hurt me.
DI just wish I could unhurt myself.

2.8 Fragment VIII

PWhy are you so obsessed with this? It happened years ago and I didn’t even touch you!
DYou touched me and others inappropriately so many times. And you always stood too close.
PYou did not object.
DWas I in a position to object?
PNow you are being duplicitous. On top of perverting an honest affection, if this vision of frigid and sterile academia is what you believe in, why didn’t you fight for it?
DEven if we disregard the fact that I felt my career and livelihood were at stake, there are still a couple of reasons.
PI would never cause you harm.
DYou were doing it constantly without realizing it.
PWhat are the other reasons?
DInsecurity and empathy.

2.9 Fragment IX

PDo you think it was easy for me? Do you know where and when I grew up? It’s easy for you to talk about freedom.
DDo not turn this into a generational thing. Do you remember that famous scholar from our field who admitted his attraction to a male colleague? His boss “found him a wife” to quiet down the rumors, because the object of his attraction bullied and blackmailed him, threatening to ruin a joint project. Do you know that less renowned scholar from our field who fled the dictatorship and jubilantly lived his homosexuality for decades, with or without his partner, without harassing or harming anyone around him? They are both of your generation, living in the same city. Alternatives become more obvious when you move the axis of the world away from yourself.

2.10 Fragment X

PNow you are being duplicitous. You admitted to being flirtatious.
DAnd you did nothing to correct me.

2.11 Fragment XI

PYou always had a nasty character. And this dialogue is artless, you turned me into a scarecrow, a one-dimensional caricature that no one can empathize with. I don’t understand what kind of empathy you are talking about.
DThat afternoon, after you stood too close to me once again, while I was thinking of ways to mend my vulnerability, when I did not know whom to ask for advice, when I dug painfully deep into my memories and forced myself to fill the void with your version of events, a part of me that was not torn between panic and anger and guilt, a part of me was actually feeling compassion for you.
PYou were pitying me?
DI was trying to put myself in your thick skin. I imagined myself 30 years on, an emotionally hungry male professor in frigid academia, tortured by the fact that he happened to be attracted to male beauty and youth in front of him, nostalgic for the beauty and youth that he wasted laboring behind dusty volumes.
PYour brain is too complicated. Didn’t you get anything from me?
DOh, so much! A life-long warning and empathy for those who deserve it. When I opened up to my friends, I heard so many stories of unsolicited exposures, implicit blackmail, wandering hands, rapes. Years later, I told my mother about what you did. She shared stories of sexual harassment by her professors. I was the first person she ever dared talk to about this.

2.12 Fragment XII

PYou admitted to being flirtatious. You’re a bright young man, you knew what you were doing.
DThroughout my education I overheard and imagined whispers. They said I was gay because I wore a different outfit every day. They said I was sucking up to professors because I always asked questions. They said my grades were higher than what I actually deserved. They said I got where I was through charm and rhetoric, they said I had no substance. And here I was, starting out in a new environment, being told that the man who brought me there was interested in my body. Were you ever aware that I disagreed with most of your scholarly work? Did you even hear anything of what I said?
PYou are twisting and projecting. You make it sound like I violated you.
DShould I be grateful that you didn’t?

2.13 Fragment XIII

PYour brain is too complicated. My students are all over the world, I gave all I had to them. Didn’t you get anything from me?
DYou turned me into a monster from my father’s nightmares. I spent my whole adult life secretly trying to prove to him that queer relations are not necessarily “tainted” with perversion, illicit seduction and exploitation of youth, falling into the decency trap. I thought I carved a stable ground for myself, a safe social niche. And at the beginning of my independent life, there I was, losing at my own game.
PI couldn’t have known any of these things.
DWould you have done anything differently if you had?

Note

1

The name is fictitious.

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