Saturday, October 23, 2010


By nature, I'm a very happy person. I remember when I was 18-20 years old, people used to ask me all the time why whenever they looked at me I kept smiling to myself. I don't know why that happened, really. I was raised to believe that the world is a wonderful place and I am a wonderful person. :-) Then, I moved to Canada and became even happier. I discovered the field of Hispanic Studies, which I loved to the point where I would walk down the street and look at passers-by and think: "Gosh, this person isn't specializing in Hispanic Studies, what a loss for them." I loved my life, my friends, my daily reality. I still knew that a world was an amazing place where anything was possible and you could do absolutely anything you wanted. And there was hardship, don't get me wrong. I went through emigration, divorce, loss of social status, cheap, nasty apartments, crappy part-time jobs, money trouble, trying to fit into a college system that I didn't even understand. There was a constant battle with Asperger's, which at that time I didn't know how to deal with at all. But still, I was deliriously happy.

Then, I graduated with all possible awards and accolades from an MA program at McGill University (and what an amazing school, people!). I had no doubt that the only way for me was to do a PhD in my field of knowledge. Since McGill is the best school in my field in Canada, the consensus between all my professors was that I had to go to the US. So I applied to all the Ivy League schools for the doctoral program. I was offered he best conditions of all by Yale. And, of course, I accepted. I didn't get a chance to go for a preliminary visit but I thought I knew what to expect. I was prepared to encounter this beautiful, orchard-like refuge for scholars who pass the time talking about Derrida and Baudrillard. I'd never been to the US before. All I knew was Montreal, which, believe me, is not very typical of North America.

The day I arrived in New Haven, CT, I immediately realized that things were not going according to plan. I come from a thirld-world country with a completely failed economy but even there I never got a chance to see the kind of dilapidation and poverty I saw in New Haven, Hartford, Bridgeport, etc. The poverty of the people who live there, the gutted buildings, the piles of garbage, the homeless mentally sick people looked even sadder when contrasted with the diamond-clad, overdressed and incredibly vulgar parents of Yalies. And then I discovered the racism that I'd only read about in books.

As sad as my first impressions of the place were, reality was a lot more desperate. My imaginary community of scholars was substituted by a crowd of spoiled Daddy's boys and girls who had no interest in discussing anything but their trust funds, wedding planners, plasma screen TVs, European cruises, and their plans to "marry well." (If you are reading this, Oli, you know I don't mean you, right? You and R. were the only people there who helped me to get through this and preserve my sanity, at least partially.) My students were great kids, but it was very hard to relate to them. They had no idea (and what's even worse, didn't care to find out) what it means to work for a living and what life is like in less sheltered kinds of reality. Academically, I was permanently underchallenged there. Back at McGill, I had started a productive research agenda. I had gotten used to being treated as an esteemed colleague by senior faculty members and to be expected to produce accordingly. But now, suddenly, I found myself in a situation where getting published in a very prestigious, peer-reviewed journal had to be concealed. I had to walk around in terror of this great transgression being discovered.

And the things I had to listen to, and smile, and say "Thank you, professor, this really helps." I was told that every single word I ever published was shit and garbage. And my writing was gobbledygook. And I was schizoid. And a lot more. It wasn't just me, of course. Other grad students and junior faclty members heard even worse stuff. Those of us who didn't end up in the psych ward or heavily medicated for clinical depression dropped out. Except the trust fund babies, of course. Those were always valued and appreciated. And given the chance to teach courses to undergrads that they were completely unprepared to teach.

That was when I stopped being happy. I realize that this must be some huge personal failing of mine, but I really went off the deep end. From the day I was born, I knew one thing with a complete certainty: I was talented, smart, and strong. And then suddenly I wasn't. As somebody who specializes in identity formation, I can tell you that getting a person to doubt the foundations of their identity is hugely traumatic. I couldn't deal with being insulted, humiliated and ridiculed just because I wasn't born rich.

I was in a very bad place for a very long time. All I knew was that I had to graduate from that place as soon as possible and just escape. I completed my doctoral program in 5 years, which is extremely rare. Since I was forced to write two doctoral dissertations instead of one, it was even more difficult. Then, I found a fantastic Visiting Professor position but I was still hugely traumatized. For almost a year after I graduated from my doctoral program at Yale, I kept acting as a PTSD victim. I don't want to encroach on anybody's suffering here. Of course, it wasn't actual PTSD but it surely felt like it. I'm sure my former colleagues at my very first professorial job still think of me as this eminently weird individual who shirked any kind of human contact and tried to make herself as unnoticeable as she could. It took all I had to drag myself (mostly, very unsuccessfully) through yet another round of job interviews for a permanent position and deliver my almost dead body to this job.

The job I now have turned out to be a blessing. I feel almost completely recovered now. My usual happiness is back. Once again, I feel so happy that I have to make an effort not to start dancing right in the street. After years of being terrified of doing any research, I'm back to publishing on a regular basis and speaking at conferences in a way that attracts listeners. I don't feel the need to dress in black and lie on the floor for three days. I don't feel like breaking into tears the second I go out the door.

The reason why I'm writing this post - definitely the most personal post I have ever written - is this very talented student I have. October is the month when our students start thinking about grad school. So this student came to talk to me today about his plans to apply for grad school. The guy is really gifted, and I have no doubt that grad school will be really good for him. He came to talk to me because he sees me as a mentor. At some point in the conversation, he said, looking crestfallen, "Of course, I don't have a chance in hell to get into an Ivy League school."

To my shame, I didn't find the words to tell him how lucky that made him. It has taken me a while to formulate all this. So now I will probably print out this post and give it to him.


Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg said...

I relate to so much of what you're saying, Clarissa. I went to Princeton for my first two years of college and oh, God, it was horrifying. Between the poverty that surrounded our pristine little island of prestige in NJ, and the lack of intellectual curiosity and social responsibility of the people there, I'm amazed that I made it through two years. Then I transferred to UC Berkeley, both to finish college and to go to graduate school, and I loved it. I loved being around a much greater diversity of people--some of whom, like me, had actually worked for a living! Imagine that! And the overall quality of my education was much better than it had been at Princeton.

My daughter is applying to college this year, and I am steering her toward the public universities. An inmportant part of an education is learning about the ways that a vast array of people see the world, not just the folks from Park Avenue.

Clarissa said...

Thank you, Rachel! It's still hard for me to share such deeply personal stuff and I'm glad the very first response I get is understanding of my experiences.

You are a powerful writer, and you do very important work.

Anonymous said...

Great post!!! Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I totally understand.

My grad school experience was tedious at best. My classmates at one of the most prestigious private graduate schools in the country were only interested in beer bongs and weed, not in languages or policy or national security. However, I went to school in northern california, so it serves me right. :)

Thanks for this post. I am glad you are happy again.

Clarissa said...

Thank you so much for your kind feedback, Anonymous and Temite.

Anonymous said...

This was where it was useful to have an academic in the family. My father wasn't big on telling me what to do but he did point out that nice small Midwestern colleges would be very small atmospheres and not at all urban, which was a good point since I had never been to a place cut off like that and wouldn't have thought of it. He also said never to consider going to Yale for any reason, painting the precise picture you do.

This was in the 70s and 80s, he told me these things; he had started learning them in the 40s, 50s, 60s.

Glad you're feeling better. It does take a long time to get over trauma and I usually don't give myself credit for the trouble it took to get over mine. I'm sorry you went through it for so long but also affirmed somehow to see evidence that it is hard to just snap out of it.

KT said...

Nicely written. I think you've told me this story before, but I like it reading it here again. Well written.

Clarissa said...

"also affirmed somehow to see evidence that it is hard to just snap out of it."

-There is definitely no snapping out of such things. If only there were! :-)

"Nicely written. I think you've told me this story before, but I like it reading it here again. Well written."

-Thank you, buddy. My readers are so supportive, it's beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Random events at Yale: