The Day My Water Broke

21 Jul 2016

A week ago I gave the keynote at the Student Network Conference of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Today, FIRE’s photographer Aaron Reese sent me this photo from that event, and I smiled at the juxtaposition of two things: FIRE’s logo in the background and my magenta water bottle in the foreground. There’s a history there.

If you’ve watched the talk or read the afterword to the paperback edition of Galileo’s Middle Finger, you know the basic story of my resignation from Northwestern. What I haven’t mentioned is that I decided, in February 2015, to speak to the faculty and especially the students in our program about our dean’s censorship—well before the issue became public.

The book was due out a month later than this talk. Rather than recounting what happened that day, I’ll quote here an email I sent later that day to my then-editor at Penguin, Ben Platt, copied to my agent, Betsy Lerner:

For three years, I have carried around the same water bottle as kind of security device, I think -- it was glass wrapped in a rubber protector. We’ve all joked it would make a fine weapon if I needed to protect myself (heavy, very heavy). I’ve dropped in many times, and it’s been fine; it’s never so much as chipped.

Today at noon I gave my first real “book talk,” to the folks in my program and our affiliates — about 45 people — and I told them what the book was about, and finally named the censorship by our dean of the “Bad Girls” issue, and I talked about why I had tried to resolve it quietly internally and how I couldn’t stay quiet on it forever and not feel like a hypocrite (they got it) — and I gave example after example from within and without Northwestern of people who have stood up for academic freedom — and why we have to take care of democracy — and it was an emotionally exhausting talk for all of us — my colleagues who have lived through this 8 years with me, our students who want so badly to do good in the world, our colleagues who are fighting the stupid in the administration — there were tears and sighs and a lot of murmurs of agreement [especially] for white people -- and after it was over, I dropped my water bottle, and it shattered

And it felt like the book is finally out, and it’s going to be okay. People get it. I don’t have to worry they won’t get it anymore. I really appreciate how Betsy and you folks at Penguin have made that possible. More than I can say.

Betsy is first and foremost a writer (which is why she is the best kind of agent), and so she saw in my words the image I didn’t consciously catch. She wrote back, “You broke your water!”

The baby, she said, was being born. With the tears and the groans and the moment of community and the feeling that an era was ending.

The book came out a month later. Two months after that, FIRE wrote to my administration to try to talk sense into them. Knowing I would probably be leaving Northwestern because of the censorship—I had already been trying to get them to reverse it for a year—that winter, I pulled out all the stops in my teaching. Why not truly teach without fear?

The students were, as usual, outstanding. The magic of their abilities and my freedom made for the best History of Medicine course I had ever taught to our students, most of whom were earning M.D.’s or genetic counseling masters’ degrees. On the last day, they brought expensive champagne, and I tried not to cry in front of them….

My students are gone to me, now, my Northwestern colleagues, gone. Though FIRE told me that almost every university answers a letter from FIRE, Northwestern never answered the one FIRE wrote to defend my and my colleague’s rights to academic freedom.

The water bottle in the photo from FIRE is a replacement of the light blue one I broke that day in February 2015, when I knew my relationship with Northwestern was very likely over, when I felt like we had to tell our students the truth about what was happening at their medical school.

I think I will go swimming tomorrow.