...and the madness of academia
I haven’t read anything that describes so clearly the human geography we find ourselves in now. I keep thinking how 55 years ago my mother couldn’t get a bank account without a man, but I meet young women every day who somehow feel more trapped and powerless than she did. A young man in a locker room yelled at me for being naked after a shower, even though I was dressing quickly. On one hand, we are bodiless and on the other we are too-bodied and subject to gunfire and death. And yet even a sight or touch we might have found casual a decade or two back now feels like an unrecoverable assault too. But at least when I read this piece I saw a map of our times, even if it can’t guide me out. Sometimes the only thing we can do is see. So - thank you.
This darkened my mind to the point of extinguishing the few bright spots I maintain to sustain the illusion that ‘things aren’t as tragic’ as I assume — a naive chant for sure.
Also, this confirms that we’re living in what neo-Freudian Erich Fromm called a necrophilic culture*. Exacerbated into madness by electronic media. 1/2 of the shows on Netflix are all serial killer-oriented or true crime documentaries.
*As opposed to a biophillic (love of life) condition.
Thank you Mary for this rift. I’m always moved by your ability to toggle the dark and light with such grace. Your heart, too, is always front and center.
I teach college first-year students and this year teaching really did me in. I alternate between compassion and disgust, anger at what a raw deal they've been dealt and irritation at how disrespectful they can be. None of it makes sense. What you wrote makes sense. The rise in male suicide rates is horrifying yet nobody seems to want to address it. At the school where I teach there has been one suicide already this year and I have had two male students write or tell me about male friends of theirs who committed suicide in the past year. There should be klaxon-level alarms about this, the secret epidemic. Thank you for taking all this confusion, organizing it, putting into words.
Have you ever taught or considered teaching outside of academia? I'm a documentary filmmaker and I've learned so much about representation, character, and ethics from your fiction and essays. A review you wrote in Salon called Satan Goes to Harvard became a blueprint for my filmmaking at times. I'm sure your feedback and observations challenge people from a variety of disciplines in unexpected ways.
A friend of mine is doing student teaching at a middle school in a large metropolitan area. Earlier this year, a female student followed her after school, took out her phone, and recorded her standing next to my friend, making gun motions and telling her she was going to kill her. My friend told her faculty mentor, who told the school admin, who told the school district, who immediately took my friend out of the school 7 months into the school year and placed her in a completely different school. All the relationships she had built throughout the year were thrown out the window overnight. They never asked her what she wanted to do, she wasn't allowed to talk to the student, or the students' parents or the school, or really get any kind of closure. She's since transferred schools again, and is really struggling to make it through the year. Would things have been dealt with differently if they had happened 10+ years ago? I don't know. But just like your experience with Luke, no one wanted to deal with the unpleasantness of a real confrontation, and my friend, for her part, didn't push the issue when she probably could have. A lot of people I greatly respect talk about the need for restorative justice, but my feeling is that most people, myself included, when push comes to shove, really struggle with what that entails, even as we recognize the complete hollowness of traditional "solutions."
I read this in the Chronicle as well and have shared it widely. It's an important essay, one of the best among so many powerful pieces of writing you've shared with this substack. I wonder if you have gotten any or a lot of pushback from readers of The Chronicle--Academics, that is?
I'd add that the institutional response also feels false because it refuses to be human, that is, messy.. Everyone is looking for an easy (and speedy) out. Anything but sit down together and talk.
Such a fantastic essay Mary! Again, you are able to explore the complexities of the characters - the students you write about - with extraordinary openness and understanding, and at the same time convey the forces they are up against and the total inability/cowardice of academia to respond in any meaningful or helpful way.
As a creative writing teacher in a university in Ireland, I really relate to the sense of helplessness that closes this essay. However, it’s interesting to note that across the pond, and especially since the pandemic, we have an epidemic of fantasy novel writing (colleagues in other universities have reported the same) and it’s very hard to push the students to articulate what they want to say about the world through this genre. Most is pure escapism and designed for multiple books so they are evading the sense of meaning which a beginning, middle and end would convey.
Whew, Mary, you drive a hard bargain with your subscribers.
Often I get muddled-up by your prose, but this time I was engaged from start to finish and will be pondering the questions you raised for the rest of the day (at least).
It made me think back to those halcyon days 60 years ago when a lovely humanities prof allowed us to form the now-embarrassingly-named Society for Enlightenment Through Conversation. We would meet regularly to discuss utopias, Zen and other nifty topics and even published a literary magazine called furioso. All this still within sight of the last world war, the current cold war and the looming lust of Vietnam.
Few of us were unscathed then. Some, like me, fled to the welcoming arms of Canada. Others put on neoliberal hats; others red caps. Wheels within wheels.
Surely you know how critical are teachers of your calibre. But where does truth lie in this post-AI world?
My pondering has begun…
I love this piece. And I am so glad not to be teaching creative writing!
"Yes, terrible things were happening in the 1980s, and terrible things have always been happening, but…not like this." First writer I've read who acknowledges that. I wonder...if the gatekeepers of publishing don't change anytime soon, if we continue to prioritize this insistence on happiness -- which in my experience leads to a collective gaslighting -- what will it mean for the art of young(er) writers who wrestle with such profound "darkness" which is, in essence -- and which this essay understands -- the reality of young people's world and lives?
Thank you for another deeply thought-provoking essay.
When I was an angry young man in a creative writing program at San Franciso State, you read a short story to my class. It depicted a scene in which an incapacitated woman was gang raped by a train of unfeeling young men. While one man was on top of the woman, they appeared to have a moment of connection and what seemed like empathy manifested in his eyes. But then he turned and high fived the next guy. I was utterly shattered by that scene. It was horrifying, and while I despaired over it, it made me a fan of your work. You re-arranged something in my heart with that story.
In my class we had a whole range of writers, and our first stories were all about suicide or madness or addicition. After that batch, the teacher said, "OK, you've all done your suicide, addiction, and madness stories. Now write something else for the rest of the semester." It was a funny rebuke and made me realize that there was more to writing than telling the world how badly I felt.
I never felt scared of anyone in the class. We didn't have any folks obsessed with murder or rape like you described in your essay. We had real issues, for sure. It was the tail of the AIDS plague and some of our classmates were literally wasting away. We were all experimenting with transgressions of various kinds, but there wasn't this dark, school-shooter vibe. We were aware that we were aspiring to something that at least felt like truth and beauty in our work.
I remember there were always a few of those guys who were obsessed with serial killers. I didn't get that then and I still don't. I agree with you. Murder is the opposite of art. It is Thanatos, not Eros. I remember being interested in Dennis Cooper and the other writers you mentioned, but I didn't feel very connected to that work. It almost seems like they planted seeds back then that have grown into something very malevolent, like the Giant Hogweed. If you touch it, you blister in the sun.
I'm the parent of a son who is the age I was back then. He's into STEM, and he's a gentle, sweet kid. His friends are all very kind, hardworking boys. I wonder if these issues are primarily the humanities going off the rails? Or do some kids in comp sci classes also study forensic crime scenes and see beauty in the brutal sadism that the worst of our kind inflicts on others?
You've given us much to think about, as usual.
thank you mary for this wonderful piece. if it's any solace, i recently graduated from a west coast art school with real avant-garde bonafides. while i was there, the tenor of discourse never felt especially hostile or stifling, even in classes focused on extremely charged subjects; race, gender, class, climate, yada yada. if anything my peers demonstrated a remarkable openness to differences of opinion. and faculty showed bravery in animating a vibrant discourse that dodged easy rhetoric. i'm not kidding !
the school is still adamantly opposed to censoring any artwork students produce. i can recall a few thesis shows that stirred up lots of debate on campus, but none that ever involved engagement with the administration, who to their credit stayed out of it and let the students engage with the work independently. wild example, there is a school bylaw from the 60's that allows nudity anywhere on campus, and i was witness to it's healthy exercise as recently as 2020 ! of course such a libertine environment has it's shortcomings, but overall i consider myself lucky to have spent some very formative years in such a relaxed, curious place ! it's rough out there, but the pendulum can always swing the other way...
Hard thinking produces excellent writing.
I think I lucked out teaching non-fiction writing (mostly) to people who want to be activists. Non-fiction tethered them to the “real” more and their activism (sometimes surprisingly effective, sometimes young and clumsy) gave them a sense of purpose and, just a little, efficacy. They had the usual challenges, many as described above. They also found it easier to be kind to one another and dig deeper.
That said, this rings true start to finish. I’m saddened to see so many good to great teachers driven out of teaching by the current circumstances, sadder still at the world we’re leaving to the young. (What generation couldn’t say that?) I’m glad there are writers struggling with it, as you do here. I think one or two of my students, after long apprenticeships, will get near to where you are as a writer, and many will do some good work. That gives me some hope.
Yeah, the PC diversity training in universities has become a stale joke, encouraging students to be over-sensitive to everything. I’ve heard it all from my husband, a professor. But I think maybe the adults in the room (the kids’ parents) should be doing so much more to acknowledge what their offspring are facing in the future, instead of trying to remain so very positive about life, some maybe to justify birthing a kid possibly in pursuit of their own happiness, but also because they don’t want to raise a pessimistic, anxious person who’d have a difficult time succeeding in this cut-throat world. I opted not to have kids for various reasons, including that I didn’t want to bring a kid into this world—not unless he/she would be super-rich, with money/wealth becoming increasingly more important. If I did have kids, I’d be constantly protesting, marching, writing politicians, whatever I could, to address authoritarianism, gun violence, the climate crisis, the wealth gap, etc. IMO, the majority of parents I meet have their heads in the sand, or else they are following an expired formula for raising a kid. Yes, some parents are just struggling to survive (and for working class families this is especially true because of socioeconomic injustices), but even they should sit down and speak with their kids about what is facing them in the future and discuss how their family can do something about it.