Talking to the Wall

I should have gone to a conference where most people could be trusted to be assholes.

But I came to the History of Science Society (HSS) meeting in San Francisco specifically because the people in HSS can be trusted to be kind, thoughtful, gentle, supportive, devoted to science but also real humanists. It’s my home discipline; my home society—the first academic society I joined, still my favorite. It’s home. So I figured it would do my soul good, especially so soon after my resignation from Northwestern.

Some people look forward every year to some home holiday tradition—when a prayer is said, a candle is lit, a song is sung. For me, that prayer-lighting-song is the women’s caucus meeting at HSS. It happens on Friday morning, early. The women gather with their coffee or tea cups, in a big circle, and each in turn stands to say her name, her affiliation, what she works on or what major project she’s got coming out. The presence of so many smart women historians is creamed soup.

But yesterday, as I listened to each in turn, I froze up. I was increasingly glad I had come in late—perhaps I would be skipped—because I did not know what to say. I have no affiliation. And I knew I was just about to announce my resignation from two scholarly projects, which meant I was rapidly becoming even less and less one of these women.

I’m Alice Dreger. I quit things. I shouldn’t be here. I’ll go now.

I started thinking about the trajectory of my career, and I started to choke back tears. When the woman next to me turned to pass the sign-in sheet, she looked startled to see my face, and so I put my head down. Most of the women of my generation were now (as I was until August 31) full professors. They were (as I could have been) chairs, associate deans. They edited the major journals in our fields. Me? Twenty years post doctorate; I just fell off the edge of the earth.

When you don’t have an affiliation and you come to the conference, they name you an “independent scholar.” That’s how they listed me in the program, for the panel I was on later that day. But I am not a scholar anymore. I haven’t been able to deal with scholarship in a while, because of having the shit kicked out of me a little too much in a short space of time. I’ve filled the days working on a local newspaper and its affiliated foundation, so that I could use my skills without having to face the wreckage of my career.

The staff of HSS had done me a favor and, on my request, jokingly listed the “affiliation” on my nametag as “in recovery; resting comfortably.” But I had already lost the nametag overnight, probably subconsciously-intentionally. I didn’t have the joke in me.

I’m Alice Dreger. I’m not really independent or a scholar. I guess I’m simply dependent.

The chair running the caucus was a younger woman I know and admire. After the circle was finished, she asked people who had come in late to go ahead and introduce themselves. She looked at me. I froze. Someone else spoke, then someone else, then someone else. I thought I would skip it.

I’m Alice Dreger. I am wondering what my life would have been like if I had stayed in our discipline like you all. But I have no discipline. I screwed up.

The chair looked at me again. I stood up. I fought back tears, and embarrassment, and I said:

I’m Alice Dreger. I recently resigned from Northwestern University. I mostly try to get doctors to follow the Declaration of Helsinki.

There was a murmur of appreciation from the people who know my work.

The forum moved on to announcements. The woman running the women’s mentorship tea, scheduled for later in the day, said that she had had a lot of trouble getting enough mentors—although she had plenty of mentees signed up—because so many women think they’re not worthy of being mentors. They think they haven’t really succeeded, so they can’t be mentors. There was a mumbled laughter of self-recognition in the room. I thought for a second maybe I’d sign up. And then I thought: what would I do other than confuse young scholars?

(My mind went to that shower scene in Silkwood, where she’s radioactive and they are scrubbing her raw.)

The formal bit went on a while, and ended. I saw an old friend, and she gave me a hug and said, “How are you?” to which I answered, “It’s been a year,” and then I just couldn’t stop crying. She held me and said, “Oh, oh. You always seem so brave I think we forget….”

The rest of the morning went like that. Old friend; hug; tears; reassurance; sense of confusion and failure.

At 1:30 was our panel, on “socially-engaged history.” By that point, I found myself talking to the back wall of the room, about what I had done, and what had happened as a result. The ten-thousand-yard vet stare. It wasn’t that people weren’t listening; it was that I didn’t want to engage on it. It felt ridiculously clear I have done both done way too much and way too little.

And that gender matters to how such a thing looks. A man bruised from fighting very hard appears tough. A woman bruised from fighting very hard appears beaten. And then each becomes true. He is what a friend of mine calls craggy-sexy. She is a wrinkled gray woman whose “bad choices” show. Which do you listen to? Which do you follow?

I shouldn’t be here.

It wasn’t as if I wasn’t grateful. In fact, the gratitude I felt towards the friends and colleagues there was like desert sun—warming to the bone (though with a feeling one was already burning a little).

I went back to my hotel room, and cried a ridiculous amount. The emails and texts started: “Are you alright? You seemed kind of beat up today.” “I’m always shocked by what you’ve been through.” “You always present such a brave face, but I know that the kinds of battles you fight must take a terrible toll on you.”

So I did what I’ve learned to do. Called home to talk to the mate. Put myself to bed. Got up in the morning and called some friends, And took people here up on their offers texted and emailed, to today schedule coffee, drinks, a walk.

And so moved onto the next stage, which is self-loathing as to how much care I require.

The five stages of a “brave” women’s grief process: indignation; resignation; alienation; self-loathing; dependence.

Eventually I’ll probably be useful again. That’s what they tell me.