What's Wrong With This Picture?

September 30, 2008

Question (from "Constance"): A year ago I resigned from my assistant-professor post at a small college because my husband ("Drake") detested that part of the country and wanted to move back to the Other Coast. It was a good job, and I had taught there for six years. Why did I agree to leave? Fear of abandonment, I guess, and doubts about my ability as a professor.

This pattern of acquiring and leaving jobs due to my spouse's evident inability to live anywhere but Other Coast has been going on since I finished my Ph.D. in the 1990s, and we got married. I've left three tenure-track jobs, including ones near my best friend and my elderly parents, because of his dissatisfaction with the locale.

What is wrong with this picture? Did I mention that he is a "house husband" and therefore free to follow me? I guess I'm a bit resentful. Now we are in the town of his choice, and I am bored to death teaching basic courses (when I can get them) as an adjunct at the local community college.

Last spring a university in another region, where I have a close friend, offered me a job as an instructor, and I'm fantasizing about moving there next year. Of course, my husband says he wouldn't go and, believe it or not, we do have a good relationship.

Answer: Ms. Mentor at first drafted a mental movie in which she saw your career through graduate school. It was a well-mapped route, with clear signs, warnings against tempting scenic distractions, and a big destination: "Tenureville." But then a big sign popped up in the middle of the road: "Boulder Ahead."

You might have driven around it. Instead, you evidently embraced it, sweet-talked it, and tried to make it into, say, a kitten who happily followed you everywhere, romping and purring. But it stubbornly retained its boulderishness. And so your troubles began.

Unless you're in a sought-after field like nursing or accounting, your career path may entail cross-country moves, odd locales, some time living apart, the temporary or permanent sacrifice of one career, and little financial security until you're 40 — that's if you make it to the end of the road and get a tenure-track job (most people don't). You need a partner who knows the risks of an academic career and loves you enough to take the bumpy trip with you.

Ordinary mortals sometimes fantasize that we can change others to suit our specs: "If only she'd decide she wants children after all" or "If only he didn't drink so much." Ms. Mentor need not belabor the hazards of believing in a fantasy mate and torturing oneself with cognitive dissonance, a wild frothing and jerking of the mind.

Rather, she concluded in her first draft that "If you feel driven to be an academic, the boulders and potholes have to be outside the car, not next to you on the seat, sabotaging your ride."

But something nagged at Ms. Mentor, for Constance's story is eerily familiar. Isolation from family and friends, fear of abandonment, doubts about one's professional abilities, being kept from a fulfilling career, yet claiming that the relationship is good ...

Those are the classic signs of an abusive relationship.

"One of the first steps in the cycle of abuse is isolation from others who might help her, might intervene, might encourage her to leave," writes Susan Koppelman in Women in the Trees: U.S. Women's Short Stories About Battering and Resistance, 1839-2000 (Feminist Press, 2004), the supreme anthology of domestic-violence stories.

Some abusers, writes Ginny NiCarthy in Getting Free: You Can End Abuse and Take Back Your Life (Seal Press, 2004), "are adept at picking out a trait that a woman is most pleased about and using it against her. ... When an abused woman begins to doubt that she has that one special trait she has always felt secure about ... her ability to make other judgments becomes impaired as well."

The late Ann Landers's quiz to recognize warning signals for battery included "jealousy of your time with co-workers, friends and family," "controlling behavior," and "isolation (cuts you off from all supportive resources)."

And finally, the National Domestic Violence Hotline Web site asks if your partner has to "Control what you do, who you see or talk to or where you go?" "Stop you from seeing your friends or family members?" or "Make all of the decisions?" "If you answered 'yes' to even one of these questions," says the Hotline, "you may be in an abusive relationship." You're urged to call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.

Ms. Mentor wishes that Constance's situation could somehow be interpreted as a quirky marriage to an eccentric house-husband. Constance's "I'm a bit resentful" sounds fearful, and her situation is not at all unique.

But Constance does have work experience and education, and she can earn an independent living. Ms. Mentor thinks Constance should call the hot line for advice, take the instructor's job in a different region, and leave quickly, without a forwarding address.

Ms. Mentor also urges her readers to notice, in students, colleagues, and friends, the signs of abuse — and speak up, share information ("Maybe this number will be useful to you, or someone you know"). Troubled people often feel they cannot speak, that they are alone, that they will be mocked, that they will be shamed. Intervention may seem rude, but silence can be deadly.

Question: When I'm applying for jobs this year (in the humanities), I've decided to restrict myself to tenure-track jobs at good liberal-arts colleges, with a teaching load of no more than two courses a semester, in places like San Francisco or Boston, since I hate the South and the Midwest and have to be near water and can't bear students who are not political, intellectual, and avid readers of thoughtful books. How would you rate my chances?

Answer: Nil.

Sage Readers: Ms. Mentor's invitation to suggest "ear worms," songs that invade and won't leave the skulls of academics, has so far netted some 25 nominees, but the teeth-gnashing winner outnumbers the others 5-1. Disney's "It's a Small World After All," writes one correspondent, "gnaws into your brain."

Meanwhile, an unrepentant correspondent brags about rage against those who won't clean up their own messes, the subject of last month's column (The Chronicle, September 5): "In grad school I actually did put the dirty dishes in the roommate's bed. Other roommates were angry. I moved out."

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes rants, ripostes, and queries, and regrets that she can rarely answer personally. All details are masked in published correspondence, and although you probably think a letter is about you, maybe it's not.


Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. She is the author of "Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia," which will appear in the fall (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is © Emily Toth