“Moving At the Speed of Thought”—Or, A Drop of Liquid Sunshine

[dedicated to Alice, with gratitude]
Peter Sellars On Art, Ethics, and Opera*
Department of Music at Princeton
March 30, 2013

[I remember one year ago today: temperature in the 60s, or 70s even, blossoms effortlessly and joyously emerging.  Today, I see a crocus here and there, a mangled snowdrop, and the spring seems elusive still, hard won.  But the birds persevere, beckoning into the next season.]

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Peter Sellars—I first heard tell of his legendary Adams House swimming-pool extravaganza thirty years ago when I was a freshman and years later had something of a fit when I saw his Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez during my first years of graduate school—darts in and begins by honoring his hosts, referring to musicology as a “place to create a zone of integrity,” saying that “the story behind the story is going to save the world.”  He describes the value of many minds, rather than a single authoritative one, and speaks in favor of reciprocity and inclusion.  He acknowledges the physical body that creates the music and describes Bach’s as a “music of questioning,” noting that the texts of Bach’s works are discussed less fully than are their ostensibly abstract principles.  I think of the lecture hours my undergraduates and I have been spending just upstairs considering the norms and questions that inhere, but do not quite cohere, in Bach’s chorales, stripped of their texts and contexts.

[Three hundred sixty-four days and nineteen hours ago, in a theater across campus, I picked up my bass clarinet to sound the first notes of my opera, Weakness.]

Sellars speaks of ritualization, cooperation, reciprocity, inclusion, and the involvement of the “congregation” (audience).

[Weakness concerns trauma and healing, and the entire process of putting the work together was blessed by mutuality and cooperation even as it was bedeviled simultaneously by thoughtlessness and disregard.  The final two weeks of preparation go beyond the expected pre-premiere strain, past the irritating but inevitable underfunctioning and jockeying, to insupportable dysfunction and outlandish aggression.  And, as I warned at the time would happen, the damage is still resounding a year later.  I have spent much of the last twelve months lathering, rinsing and repeating, but despite all my elbow grease and scrubbing, my opera remains grimy.]

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Mr. Sellars—I think it’s time I call him Peter—speaks of the St. Matthew Passion: “Two weeks ago you thought you were going to change the world, and now you are standing around a tomb. What happened in these last two weeks?”

[Indeed.  One year later, I am no longer surprised that a staging of the unspeakable conjured up more of same offstage, but I do still mourn it, and I think how after all this time, I am still recovering from the trauma attendant upon the trauma.  I marvel at my profession’s expectation of constant activity (often confused with productivity, which is not at all the same thing) and the disinterest in addressing what has been damaging in favor of getting the next gig and making another mess.  My naïve youthful belief in the academy as a sanctuary for contemplation, in the arts world as a setting for what Keats called “a vale of soul-making”—

—But here I veer dangerously toward taking others’ inventory, which is never a good idea, so I’ll just leave it at this: In a conversation with a cherished colleague, months after the beauty and horror that was Weakness, I found myself saying, “You say you have not had a moment to reflect in the past few months, and that is all I have been doing; you have reached outward, while I have been looking inward.”]

Peter speaks of the Passion inspiring one to look inward rather than outward.  He speaks of Dorothy Day—I mentioned her to Charles just yesterday, and though I know little of her, she has always intrigued me with her compassionate Catholicism, so different from the one I was indoctrinated into and to which I am now violently allergic—and her growing dissatisfaction, many years ago, with the “emptiness” of the worlds of arts and politics.

There is talk of mutual dependency and of Haydn and Mozart constructing a model of democracy in the configuration of the string quartet, where every voice is essential.  “What would equality look like?  What would it sound like?”

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Later I thank Alice, who invited Peter, for making space for these words and thoughts.  She and I acknowledge, again, the dangers of discussing openly the ubiquitous and pressing topic of trauma.  I say, realizing it for the very first time as the words exit my mouth, that I have encountered more resistance, even retribution, in response to performing trauma onstage than I have when I have addressed the topic in scholarly prose.

Peter has spoken about his staging of Handel’s Hercules  in Chicago—coincidentally, a work I first heard and fell in love with a month or so ago—and how the performance was attended by veterans and complemented by discussions of PTSD; he stresses (no pun intended)  that  the opera was meant to inform the understanding of PTSD rather than the other way around.  One veteran heard a countertenor for the first time—David Daniels, to be precise—and described the sound as “blood coming out of his mouth.”

[Years ago, Tom taught me a Druidic expression: “Wisdom makes a bloody entrance.”  Perhaps its exit is also messy.  I excised the line from my libretto, for it perplexed my collaborators, who, while sensitive and knowing, fortunately came to Weakness from their own experience rather than mine.  I appreciated their input, and I return again and again to that saying as I try to imagine my next work.  I am currently editing and polishing the documentation of Weakness, so that I may share it with others in audio and video format.  Nevertheless, I am leery of mounting it again, of risking that the trauma story may engender yet more trauma.  I have had enough bleeding for now.  Perhaps it is better to leave my four years (and more) of labor aside.]

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Peter says, “Bach is an incredible composer of disappointment” and recognizes what it means to live “with your idealism in such a state of profound despair.”  The first and only performance of his St. Matthew Passion was “ a mess,” and Bach, realizing his work was not meant for the milieu in which he found himself, “put it away for the rest of his life.”  Somehow this bad news is good news to me, much more so than the familiar narratives of dominance, of success, of triumph over adversity.

Peter talks about one’s “moral standing as an artist,” and while that is a difficult notion to explore without seeming righteous or judgmental, without seeming to congratulate oneself, and without denying the real, tangible, practical matters of survival that can be so far removed from the luxury of the proscenium, he manages somehow to inspire rather than to preach.  Likely this is in part because he himself moves between the palaces of culture and glitterless venues in a way that many of us only talk about.  He expresses a desire for all of us to resist the “gossip and infighting in the classical music world,” saying that “we are actually here to do something much bigger.” 

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It’s one of those days when I marvel at the way strands and shards weave together unexpectedly, offering solace and inspiration when they are most desired, in ways that could not possibly be anticipated.  Peter talks of magic and transcendence, but all I am seeking is awareness, good faith, and perhaps a bit of company in cultivating a more equitable and nurturing space for us all.  Afterward I say to Alice that these are the most worthwhile almost-three hours I have spent in this building this year.  I can’t help but feel sad that such conviction, such searching, is the startling exception rather than the norm, that this talk seems so out of the ordinary in our profession, but it’s a glimpse, at least, of something more expansive and generous, more aware and committed, and I am beyond grateful to hear some of my own values reflected and affirmed.

These simultaneous sensations of dark and light, of desolation and hope, remind me of a Hawai’ian expression Riley taught me: “liquid sunshine.”

March 31: the anniversary of the closing of Weakness.  Also, Easter, a holiday I appreciate without really celebrating.  The birds continue to beckon, and I think they might win out at last, for a while.  I think of the volunteer chorus members who contributed so much to Weakness a year ago today, and especially of the family of three with whom I have become friendly.  Yesterday they sent me dozens of candids they shot as we put Weakness together.  I looked at the images as at the record of a dream, tearing up just a bit.  Maybe I’ll give the chorister-alums a ring today and see what they and their new puppies are up to.

Gangplank-225x300“The speed of thought”: the speed of my thought, I see, is slow, its path recursive, its destination hidden.  Sometimes it feels less like a path and more like a gangplank.

March 29: I attended Emi’s show, a musical about gender-neutral parenting. As we began working together, I explained that I do not really care for musical theater’s syntax or aesthetic, but that I was happy to mentor her, and to my surprise, I was pleased to dip my ear in to this world.  Her songs are incisive, thoughtful, brave, and moving—youthful and idealistic to be sure, but also more mature and ethical than what I hear from many middle-aged artists.  It’s this sort of blossoming that keeps me motivated as a teacher.

April 1: a good day to post at face value.  Time to listen to the birds, head out,  and see what sorts of blossoms are popping up.

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*”Moving At the Speed of Thought” is another phrase of Mr. Sellars uttered in this same discussion, exemplifying the content in the form of his improvised paragraphs.  “On Art, Ethics, and Opera” was the title of his talk.

 

What is Classical Music’s “Women Problem” Problem?

Chewing on the many issues raised by
“What Is Classical Music’s Women Problem?” by 

Formerly posted elsewhere by Barbara White, October 11, 2013

Thank you for calling attention to this issue, for covering it with nuance, and for including counterexamples. This eruption has an all too familiar shape: there is the A theme (inane offending statement), the B theme (understandably outraged response), and . . . well, not a lot of development. Recapitulations abound though: Twenty-five years ago Rolf Smedvig, trumpeter with the BSO, claimed that women lacked the equipment to play brass instruments, and there was outcry; in 2013, despite certain improvements in circumstances, the nature of the discussion itself has not changed all that much.

The very question, “Why aren’t there more female conductors?” shapes the discussion by implying that there is a clearly identifiable cause for underrepresentation and that the interviewee himself possesses a sophisticated and worthy understanding of a complex societal problem; this invites him to express his unconsidered biases and just make something up. When posed to a (specific) male figure who, it appears, has had no incentive to consider his male privilege, and who does not care about the underrepresentation of women in his field, the response is more a script than an exchange: a man exposing his inadequacy by claiming (yawn) that women are “weak.”

Consider a different question: “How do you go about fostering equity and respect in the workplace to make sure that the profession can ascend to the highest possible level?” I don’t for a moment think the esteemed gents cited here would start waxing poetic about diversity and inclusion, but it would take a step away from these unwitting invitations to proclamation one’s incomparable virility: “Why no women? Because my penis rules! Only I can wield the wand!” (Yawn again.)

And why is this called a “women problem”? (I know this may not be the author’s title.) Could NPR instead dare to title this article, “Gender discrimination persists amongst prominent male conductors”? Or, “Misogyny hinders excellence in classical music”? Or, “Male privilege still enjoyed by highly paid time-beaters?”

It is heartening to read, “I would like to hear the women in our community speak up as well, without fear of embarrassment, contempt or retribution.” And there are those of us who do speak up and write about such matters; I am only one who has done so. But the sad reality is that, in addition to the necessary burden of some of us (some women and a few men) taking on a second shift by addressing and resisting unequal treatment, those of us who advocate for equity do experience retaliation every day. And women are socialized to downplay the intransigence of inequity, encouraged instead to internalize the Ayn Randian notion that those who are tough enough will succeed and those who speak up about discrimination are just whiners—to focus on individual will and determination instead of systemic mechanisms that render some more equal than others. Ask a woman in a male-dominated field whether she has experienced discrimination (another one of those cocked questions), and see whether she checks the box yes or no. It’s another script, and a reply of, “No, no, not at all; I’m too strong for that” is positively reinforced. So, inviting women to speak up without fear is laudable but may—although this is absolutely inexcusable—cause even more harm to women. Even in 2013.  Sad but true.

For example, here is another prominent conductor speaking on the dearth of women in the field, ten years ago: “I personally feel that accepting the role of powerless victim can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and I am unwilling to even entertain that concept!” Who was that? Marin Alsop. It was posted on her site in 2003 as part of a
reply to the question, “Have you ever experienced prejudice as a woman in a field dominated by men?” It’s still there.

Which is Worse: A Dull Knife, or a Sharp One?

“Our brains have evolved to help our bodies find their way around the world on the scale at which those bodies operate.”
—Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

To Richard Dawkins, DSc, FRS, FRSL:

Following up on your recent Twitter Conference on rape rankings, I wonder whether you might be willing to answer the following questions.  Your reasoning ability is much needed.  One of your conclusions follows:

Dawkins Rape Tweet ScreenshotFollowing up on this, and taking advantage of the copious space afforded off-Tweet, a few questions follow.  I would like to get at some of the subtleties of your point of view—ones you could not have expressed in a mere 140 characters.

Ranking Rape

1.  Which is bad and which is worse: to agree to go on a rape date without being informed that it is to be that sort of date, or to be held at knifepoint and raped by a stranger without being informed ahead of time?

1a.  Which rape date is worse: one with someone you have met in a bar and never have to see again?  Or one with an acquaintance you will see in evo-bio class on Tuesday?  Or one you were introduced to by your best friend?

1b.  Which is bad and which is worse: to be threatened by a dull carving knife, or a sharp serrated knife?  Or to submit to the rape in order not to be cut?  Or to be cut and raped both?  And if so, by which knife?

1c.  Which is bad and which is worse: to dress up, go on a rape date and have a nice dinner first, including fine wine?  Or to dress casually, go on a rape date and get raped before dinner and drinks?  Or, to go on a rape date and later be interrogated about what you drank?  And wore?

1d.  Which is bad and which is worse: to be raped by a classmate and receive little or no assistance from campus authorities?  Or to be raped by a stranger and receive little or no support from the legal system?

1e.  Which is bad and which is worse: to be raped by several young men in your school, and for them to put pictures and/or videos on the Internet, and, as a result, to take your own life at the age of 15?  Or to be raped and take one’s own life right away?

1d.  Which is bad and which is worse: to be raped by your partner?  Or by your mother’s partner?  And does a pregnancy resulting from either experience change the ranking?

1e.  Which is bad and which is worse: to be sexually assaulted (without penetration) by one’s father at 6, or to be raped (with penetration) by one’s uncle at 3?  (Those are ages, not times of day.)

1f.  Which is bad and which is worse: to be sexually abused by a distant family member and to keep quiet about it for decades?  Or to be ostracized by the family when you at last choose to speak out?

1g.  Which is bad and which is worse: to witness a man without understanding or compassion opine on grades of rape in 140 characters?  Or for him to publish more than one 140-character statement?  Or more?  Or for these micro-statements to get so much news coverage that you cannot but see him everywhere?

1h.  Which is bad and which is worse: that inhumane acts such as sexualized violence continue to be tolerated, or that a prominent male intellectual, whose speciality lies elsewhere, chooses to focus on degrees of suffering rather than degrees of misdoing?  Or, just to leave the discussion to those who are equipped to undertake it?  (To “go away,” one might say.)  And, if he is taken seriously on the topic of rape, does that mean we should believe what Jenny McCarthy has to say about the link between vaccination and autism?  And should we all be making appointments with homeopaths?

1g.  Which is bad and which is worse: to opine on the significance and degree of others’ suffering without listening to what they have to say themselves?  Or to deny others’ suffering altogether?  Or to consider oneself irreproachable by virtue of one’s (ostensibly) superior intellect?

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1h.  You say that you can reverse the “X and Y”—that is the rape date and the aggravated assault—and retain the same logic.  Might one contend then, that “acupuncture is bad, and that homeopathy is worse?”  And that neither is commendable?  And then reverse the X and the Y?  Could one say that sudden death is bad but slow, agonizing death is worse, and then reverse that?  Or that death by 1000 cuts is bad, but by 1001 is worse, or maybe the opposite?  Could one say that one offensive tweet is bad and two are worse and reverse that too?  That confronting inhumanity before death is bad and that finding it the afterlife too—hypothetically speaking, of course—would be worse?  Or would the afterlife, even in the presence of others who scorn compassion and mutual understanding, have other advantages that make the big picture worth it?

Semantics, Virtuality, God, and Delusion 

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Richard, please tell us what, in this era of virtuality, “go away” means.  If there is an “away,” must there be a “here”?  Are we to assume that “here” is where you are?  If so, most of us, statistically speaking, are likely “away” already.  And to confuse matters, I have a hard time thinking of the sofa on which I sit as anything but “here,”  though if I expend some effort, I can understand that to you it may be considered “away.”  Where, then, am I to “go”?

Richard, do I understand correctly that your experience of sexual abuse was rendered innocuous because you did not believe in evil (and, presumably, God)?  You mention that your schoolmates suffered (more) at the hands of the same offender while your “mental trauma was soon exorcised.”  Does that mean that God, not the human being who did the “fondling,”  sexually abused these children?  And if God does not exist, who sexually abused these children?  Who is responsible for their suffering?  (Extra credit: can you explain your choice of the word “exorcised”?)

Describing your resilience, you write, “Thank goodness, I have never personally experienced what it is like to believe – really and truly and deeply believe – in hell. But I think it can be plausibly argued that such a deeply held belief might cause a child more long-lasting mental trauma than the temporary embarrassment of mild physical abuse.”

So, Richard, why are you speaking out about degrees of sexualized assault?  And why are you comparing the effects of different sorts of rape if you yourself were so unaffected by your childhood experience?  If your trauma was “exorcised,” why do you think rape is “bad” and can be even “worse”?  Can’t those who have experienced rape access your form of “exorcism” too?  Isn’t the real offender, not the sexual predator, but God?  And since there is no God to hold accountable, does that mean that rape does not exist?

And how is it that your brain is helping your body find its way around the world?  Does it help you find your way around Twitter?  Maybe your brain could help me figure out where I should go to learn to think. I would like to think better.  Although, like you, I hold a doctoral degree and a professorship,—albeit without such a public profile—I am not sure that my Ph.D. in Music Theory and Composition qualifies me to compare different degrees of rape.  But you appear to know better than I do about applying one’s training in unexpected areas.

Richard, please critique the following statement:  “As an eminent evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins has become known as a public intellectual.  As an eminent evolutionary biologist and public intellectual, Richard Dawkins compares varieties of sexual assault in order to rank them.  As an eminent evolutionary biologist and public intellectual who compares varieties of sexual assault in order to rank them, Richard Dawkins unwittingly exposes the limitations of logic.”

I like to think that your brain can help my brain help my body find its way around.  I will appreciate any assistance you can offer.

Oh—one more question:  Can you define “syllogism” for me?  Is it something like “solipsism”?

Sincerely,

IAmNotMakingUp

Why So Many Questions About Why So Few Women?

Thank you for this article, Susanna; I appreciate your raising important and subtle points, including the fact that there are still firsts, that ‘blind and neutral’ are not the same, and so on.  There are too many points to cover, but since you mention specifics and acknowledge not having the answers, here are few thoughts:

(1) We need to take into account that men and women are socialized in ways that are suboptimal or worse for women (and for men, depending on one’s values, ethics, and goals).  The inclusion of women on boards and panels and such is necessary, but not sufficient.  Presence does not equate with equality; there are many more factors to consider.  (For what it is worth, I have been on plenty of panels that were attentive to gender.  But the imbalance continues.)

(2) You ask about role models: I am one such role model, and one for whom Judith Weir has been and continues to be an exemplary role model herself (in her role as a composer, as you say—and I have written about her work in regard to gender and other matters too).  But I am sad to say that the presence of mature, experienced women is not enough either.  I have been attentive to mentoring female composers, and male ones too, including but not limited to advisees interested in gender-related matters.  Most of my own mentors were male, and they were and continue to be exemplary citizens in terms of gender issues and everything else.  I myself am puzzled sometimes to see that there are fewer women applicants for a certain opportunity, or fewer who are likely to be considered as likely contenders.

(3) I am curious (literally) about your mention that women “lose motivation to continue studying music and musical composition, and why are they then less likely to put themselves forward”:  Is that an inference from the data?  Can one be sure of what is happening behind the numbers there?

(4) The ways in which decisions are made and opportunities awarded (caveat: I am in the US) can be quite informal and subjective, and the distinction between professional expertise and personal bias, in a field such as composition, is not always easy to manage.

(5) Apart from the numbers, men continue to enjoy unwarranted privilege and license; for example, how many male composers are reading this article?  For how many is this topic a concern?  As above, it is, for #SomeMaleComposers.  Yet it continues to be the case that men are accorded license far beyond that accorded to women, and that (again, in the US), personal hunch and identification may well affect decisions.  The fact that there are likely to be comments on your article that put forth blanket assertions without having worked in this area or having done any investigation to support what they say is telling.  (Cue the tubas . . . )  #SomeOfUs report our experience, read books about discrimination, have discussions like this, look at data, and strategize (and worry over whether clothing is too sexy or not sexy enough, whether self-presentation is too humble or too self-important, whether manner of interaction too accommodating or too “pushy”).  In response, #SomeOthers say, “Well, no, it’s really like this,” presuming to define others’ experience without having done the legwork to support their assertions.  In such instances, the opinions of those how know less too often are accorded disproportionate authority.  If one is not required to deal with gender on a daily basis, why would one?  (The fact that some do is all the more heartening.)  And if not, why consider oneself an authority on the topic?  Moreover, most articles on the underrepresentation of women focus on what needs to change on the XX side of the chromosomal balance: there should be more women, why are the numbers low, what can women do.  (Hence my question above about the data.)  But there is much less energy being directed toward men and the changes they need to make.  The frequency with which a proposal is described as “letting” women in is revealing.

(6) I am sorry to say that, as a composer with three decades’ experience now, having enjoyed opportunity, support, artistic accomplishment, and recognition, I find the persistence of gender inequity in some pockets of the composition world egregious.  Another matter that that is almost never discussed is the way that women may be confronted with more, not less, discrimination as we gain wisdom and expertise, as we become elders; that has been my experience, from some quarters, I am sorry to say.  I hope that my mentees and other younger composers do not encounter such resistance to their mastery.  For now, being experienced and established offers no guarantee that one will be respected in the way that each one of us deserves.  There is still pressure on women to deny any imbalance; we receive much positive reinforcement if we say we have not encountered challenges, that we think of ourselves “as composers first” or that we believe ourselves to have been treated fairly (great, but how could we know?).  Women who acknowledge forces that work against them meet with reprisals of various sorts.  (Notice the #ManyQualifiers in my discussion here; they are accurate, yet my commentary is still likely to be read as dualistic.)

(7) As some have written about in mainstream discussions of otter gender issues, again and again we are the ones who are required to adapt to circumstance.  While informal, ad hoc efforts may not be effective, it is also not realistic to think that systemic/bureaucratic changes are feasible. (The amount of training that would be needed . . . ) I do not see this changing unless individuals and groups really take responsibility—a familiar term—and, more fully, unless enough of us really desire gender equity and fruitful exchange—and all the yummy fruit when the harvest comes.  In order to foster a better climate for women, we need to recognize that such an endeavor is in the best interest of all, to value a community in which one individual’s success is no longer seen as another’s loss, to pay as much attention to how we do what we do as how much of it we do.  I myself have been considering leaving the profession, or changing my relationship to it—in my late 40s, knowing it is my calling and that I am at the top of my creative abilities (thus far), with many more pieces in me, and devoted as ever to the next generation—specifically because the values I see espoused in so corners of the composition world have revealed themselves as  abhorrent and destructive.  It’s not only about gender, but it plays itself out in dishonorably gendered manner, and someone in my position must ask whether such an environment will permit one’s gifts and offerings to be of use. The fact that in saying this, I place myself, not others, at professional risk, says much.  The fact that I, having been fortunate in so many ways, am still asking the question of whether it is worth persevering says more.

It is disheartening to observe how “the woman composer question” keeps flipping back to page one, without much recognition of previous chapters.  I observed this in what you correctly term “the rather unedifying recent debate about women conductors.”  It is encouraging that your article, despite its brevity, takes into account historical context.  More frequently, though, the public discussion on this topic seems to rewind again and again to pose the first question that would open the first meeting of the first seminar in the first semester of a life’s work on being a human being and a composer.  (And even, the response to that opening question may be interrupted when the kindergartners barge in and exclaim, “It’s time for recess!  Where’s my cookie?”)  It’s unfortunate that there is not more continuity and depth in such discussions, though it is understandable.  Perhaps that is something you, in your position, could cultivate.

Is it possible to dream a world of composition and music where we place mutual respect and the greater good at the top of our priorities, where we all remember what we don’t know and remain open to one another’s experience?  I would like to think so, but I have yet to see a quorum on that.

Ok, that is more than a few thoughts.  Thank you again for your thoughtful and good-willed attention to the topic.

—Barbara A. White

Veritas Revisited

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Last Friday, I attended a symposium on my campus and listened raptly to scholars from various fields discuss the myth of Phaedra. Inspired and unsettled by the centrality to the myth of Phaedra’s false accusation of rape, I delivered a talk about sexualized violence and its representation in “truth” and “fiction,” focusing in the ways that women’s stories are sometimes denied credence and respect.

A few days later, on April Fool’s Day, I read an article in the Harvard Crimson that detailed the Harvard administration’s handling of a case of sexual assault. Unfortunately, this wrenching essay had much in common with my talk. But it told an even more troubling story.

How eerie that Sexual Assault Awareness month begins on April 1.

In my talk, I projected news accounts and still images I took from the Internet. Most were images of women used in advertising. There were “Photoshop fails,” and there were advertisements for drinking glasses engineered to detect any intrusion of date-rape drugs, with big words flaunting the technology: “SAFE” on the ordinary glass and “UNSAFE” on the one activated by Rohypnol. There was an advertisement showing a steamy, stilettoed woman, accompanied by a caption proposing that—I’ll say in advance: no, you are not misreading this—organ donation is “probably the only way you’ll get inside her.” With trepidation, I talked about the young Raehtaeh Parsons, who took her own life, not directly after being sexually assaulted at age 15, but later, after one or more images of the alleged assault were publicized and she was taunted and shamed by abusive, misogynist language. She lived to be 17. Having seen her image saturate my screen in disquieting and familiar fashion, I created a speedy montage of headlines, most with the same image, hoping that the flickers and flashes exposed overwhelm more than they created it. But I was not sure. And I continue to wonder, if I shudder every time I see the image of her with her dog, what must her last weeks have been like?

I discussed the ways in which violence against women, physical and otherwise, is curated in so-called real-life.

To be sure, an assault, an ensuing account of it, and an artistic response are very different things. But post-traumatic stories, whether real, adapted, or imagined anew, present many possibilities: the possibility of effecting catharsis or kindling compassion; and the possibility of cultivating healing, understanding, perhaps even wisdom. They also present risks: the risk of aestheticizing violence, the risk of being targeted as prey again, the risk of being dismissed by those who do not want to hear such a truth, the risk of being retaliated against for speaking truth to power. It’s commonly said that one aspect of healing from traumatic experience lies in the telling of one’s story, but doing so presents limitations and dangers as well as possibilities. It sounds good in theory, but it is not so simple to break silence and voice the unspeakable. Nor is it easy to deal with the consequences.

In the post-traumatic aftertalk, stories may be denied and erased—even though nowadays some offenders record evidence of their actions, as is said to have happened in the Raehtaeh Parsons case. So, this week, a student at one of the most prestigious colleges in the country wrote to her institution, “I am writing to let you know that I give up.”   In “Dear Harvard: You Win,” the writer describes her unsuccessful efforts to have her assailant moved to a different House (“dorm,” in purposely idiosyncratic Harvard parlance). Her letter was published anonymously. So before you say it: no, I was not there. Only she and the alleged assailant were.   And her name has not been given.  Yet, as much as I would like to doubt, to find such a story implausible, I know from past experience that it is anything but. So, it is true that an investigation would have to have been completed before her request could have been granted, but an investigation, Anonymous was advised, would not likely lead to a satisfactory outcome. And that is a much too familiar story.

There are the overwhelming sensations that arise from traumatic experience, and there is the reliving of those moments in memories, often disruptive and unbidden. There is disclosure and there is the shaping of experience into story.   There is overwhelm in witnessing and receiving such a story, and then, if an account is contested, distorted, stolen, or erased, another kind of confusion, even violation, ensues.

The Phaedra myth offers many invitations to unease, one of them being the significance in the narrative of Phaedra’s supposedly false accusation of rape. But is it truly false?  Who put those words in her mouth? Anonymous, I think—but a different one.

What is especially chilling in the Harvard case is that it shows how, even when the report of assault itself is believed, the aftermath can be gruesomely re-traumatizing.

I continue to wonder about images and words, about experiences and stories, about Phaedras and Raehtaehs and Anonymouses. I am no longer surprised that some stories are unwelcome. Yes, in stories about grisly truths, complexities may be overlooked. Much as simplicities can be.

The feedback loop between experience and story is of particular interest to me for numerous reasons. Here is a violation of a different sort, one that bears just a little similarity in outline to the experience of Anonymous: some time ago, I learned that my work had been misappropriated in a published document that had been widely distributed. When I contacted those responsible and suggested that together we take steps to remedy the problem, I was perplexed by the response (or, rather, non-response) I received (or did not receive). After a while, another party delivered deflecting, pacifying, palliating statements. When these did not soothe me as expected and I persisted in asserting my authority and authorship, the cooing gave way to deafening hostility.  I was stunned that my assertion of authorship and authority was perceived not as necessary and responsible, but as a sort of transgression and aggression in and of itself.

Now, let’s pause for a moment. I want to invite you to observe (just to yourself) your response to what I just disclosed. Might you have felt an impulse to doubt what I said, to assign me culpability, to imagine that there must a different narrative I have missed, or that you must supply? Do you think you know better? Might it seem I am just a little too uptight and should share more generously? Does it seem I might be angry? Might you by chance have thought I invented this story about the theft of a fiction? If so, that is not surprising. It is something we learn to do. I have done so myself.   So, you decide what to think of my story of the violation of my work concerning violence. Whose violation is it?

The work in question, if it exists, concerns female sovereignty,—that’s sovereignty in the sense of self-determination, not royal status. It reveals the trauma, perhaps, that results from sovereignty being assailed. And so the refusal to collaborate with me in restoring the story to its proper form—in turn silent, calculating, and loud, if it happened—created an uncanny association between various kinds of stories in which women are asked to make ourselves small. We do so to get by in various ways, out of fear of the aggression that may come our way if we do not comply. We do so to pacify those who have the privilege of ignoring our stories and even rewriting them—those who may be as powerful as they are fearful. We choose covert, unacknowledged self-betrayal instead of speaking up and risking explicit and humiliating defeat. It’s not an easy choice, and the sad truth is that it may be smarter and safer to give in and play along.  To give up.  To say, “you win.”

Women (and other people, sometimes) cannot be sure that our sovereignty, as in our authority over our bodies, will be recognized. We cannot even be sure of ownership of the stories we tell, reluctantly and bravely, about violence perpetrated against us. Phaedra made it up, you know. But who made up Phaedra?

And, if you do believe my story, what do you think should be done about it?

The perplexities and paradoxes of the current-day academy include what may well be the beginning of the end of the romance known as “academic freedom.” The Kansas Board of Regents recently proposed that it had the right to “to suspend, dismiss, or terminate from employment any faculty or staff member who makes improper use of social media.” “Improper” use of social media is described as that which is “contrary to the best interests of the university.” In the current climate, academic freedom, even as it awaits full-on siege, permits a journal to publish a titillating review by scholar and woman Camille Paglia of new scholarly books about bondage. But, after leafing through and leaping off the pages of such forward-thinking discourse and returning to her campus office, a woman and scholar may find herself bound in a different way. As may her students. A tweet in poor taste about the National Rifle Association is grounds for dismissal. As is a skit about prostitution. But there is a Harvard student who has little choice but to pass daily by a classmate who, it appears, expected her to acquiesce to his violent compulsion—and, likely, to his perverse satisfaction in overpowering someone who until that moment considered him a friend.

They used to say, “The hardest part about Harvard is getting in.” Maybe that’s not true. Maybe the hardest part, for some, is getting justice. And staying in. It appears that some get in a bit farther than others. Anonymous’s story points out some subtle and important points: it may be true that a formal case would not have reached satisfactory closure under the “current” (i.e., written in 1993) policy, so perhaps it was indeed prudent to forgo a complaint with the Administrative Board. But to be advised by her resident dean that living in the same House as her assailant was akin to “a divorced couple working in the same factory?” (“Factory?”) I picture a young woman slouching thorough the same corridors and entryways that Al Gore, Al Franken, and Susan Faludi frequented; past the Senior Common Room with its portraits of illustrious forefathers; hearing her dejected footsteps echo through the squash court on the way to the laundry room; and seeing her classmates across Memorial Drive, on the Weeks Bridge, waltzing to Strauss in their in formal wear. (Do they still do that?)

Are you wondering whether I made this up too? No, these are images I carry from the 1980s, when I was a student in Harvard’s Dunster House. I was fortunate that I never experienced violence from a supposed friend in the way Anonymous describes. In my case, it happened off campus and before I arrived at school: I was betrayed by a mentor just a week before I entered Harvard Yard. I showed up, still wide-eyed, belongings packed into my parents’ crotchety Dodge Aries.  (I inherited it a full twelve years later, and it still wouldn’t start.)  But I was no ram, just a wounded 17-year-old with no idea that I should ask anyone to help. Or that I could even tell anyone what had happened. When, twenty-one years later, I stopped protecting the man with my own silence, I was the one who was penalized and shunned by the tribe (though he, to his credit, stepped out of their protection, took responsibility, and endeavored to make amends).

Anonymous tells us she is writing her article in the dining hall, her assailant visible “a few tables away.” I do not know which House she lives in, but I have vivid memories of the Dunster House Dining Hall. I saw my first Maya Deren film there, presented by the Dunster House Film Society; it’s a film I now show to my own undergraduates. One of the Masters, Sally Falk Moore, had been an attorney at the Nuremberg trials in her youth. My Secret Santa gave me a book of Norse myths. I remember lots of yogurt, cheese, and tofu warmed in the hot water intended for tea; I am glad to see that the dining halls now serve vegetarian and vegan food for those who do not want to harm animals. Even as it serves those who harm human beings. I wonder if the alleged assailant is a vegetarian. And if there are others who tremble when they see him get back in line for a second tempeh burger.

One begins to suspect the existence of a secret club where the smartest of sadistic boys are encouraged, “Study hard. Get into Harvard. You’ll make connections and enjoy untold liberties.   With no consequences.”

I completed my freshman year thirty years ago this spring. The very first Harvard lecture I attended was presided over by the formidable Marjorie Garber, who began her course on Shakespeare by quoting, “I say there is no darkness but ignorance, in which thou art more puzzled than the Egyptians in their fog.” We students chuckled at her dusty pun on the name of the lecture hall in which we sat, in the bowels of the university’s Fogg Museum. Only later did I become initiated into the old-school practice of hissing when a faculty member’s humor proved too pat, usually on purpose and with a wink, I figured. Legend had it that that my prof—who later published a book called “Sex and Real Estate” and another about cross-dressing, not to mention my favorite, about the culture of academia itself—disagreed with her Shakespearian colleague Walter Kaiser about whether to teach the plays by genre or chronology, and thus the English majors had to shuttle between laughter and tears, ever confused between years.

That same semester, I began studying music theory, which I now teach to eager Ivy-league undergrads myself. I took private lessons with a gifted composer who later left to run a Buddhist training center. The son of a renowned ballerina and a record-industry VIP, he stayed at Harvard just a few years, and there is a small group of us who benefited from his genteel and eccentric mentorship. Entering college, I owned just three LPs of classical music and had attended one orchestra concert in my life. When a teaching assistant referred to the unconscious-probing analyses of Heinrich Schenker,—I think of him as the Freud of music theory—I thought she was referring to an Indian sitarist. My Expository Writing professor told me I was being condescending when I wrote a short story about working-class people, not knowing, I guess, that I was not one of the Andover-Exeter set. (Though I would have thought it rather obvious.)

The same year, I inhaled a lecture course with Stephen Jay Gould; at the time he was said to be experiencing a miraculous remission from the cancer he outpaced, or lived with, for 19 more years. On a Harvard tour the spring before, we all snuck into a minute or two of a lecture in which Gould showed a slide of “The Fly That Ate Cleveland” or some such, made for a B movie. He went on to observe that the monster displayed preposterous proportions: it was an illusion that could not be replicated in physical reality. (That was the minute that made me want to go to Harvard.) For Anonymous, it’s physical reality that cannot be registered in the face of others’ illusions. I think of Gould’s term “punctuated equilibrium,” so innocuous to me at seventeen, and now it makes me think of a young person, perhaps a student in his successor’s lecture, whose equilibrium has been punctuated. Or punctured.  Students should be studying fake carnivorous bugs, not suffering through nightmares about being bitten against their will.

No one can speak for Anonymous, of course, but what hits me so hard about her story is the lack of understanding she encountered in those charged with managing the aftermath. Sexualized violence is more monstrous than any city-devouring insect. It is life-changing and traumatizing in any case. Yet to be denied any genuine or effective response, to be offered platitudes and ineffectual suggestions even as the speaker claims to offer “support”—it’s another way survivors’ stories are erased and diminished. Somehow, I myself am always at least as disappointed by those who stand by and fail to take action as I am outraged at the original offender. As much as I wish it were not true, I am aware that offenders will offend. But I like to think the rest of us (us?) can at the very least offer consolation and remediation, however partial, after the unthinkable has taken place. If I understand correctly, this is not a false Phaedra story, nor is it a true-or-false art-theft story like mine: it sounds as though Anonymous was believed, but that she received no useful action in response. (In such circumstances, perhaps authority figures are relieved even of the burden of doubting: it seems almost irrelevant whether such stories are true, since there is so little recourse available anyway.)

Anonymous writes, “I know deep down that all those administrators are not bad people.” It’s good of her to be so charitable to those who failed her. But I wonder. In a case like this, what is the meaning of “deep down?” How does a “good person” suggest that it was Anonymous’s drinking that led a classmate to bite her neck and breast and refuse to stop? While I myself do not tend to distinguish between “good people” and “bad people,” I wonder how I might make sense of a circumstance in which professionals “want to be supportive, and they really try to be but have not been trained sufficiently.” Who is in charge of such training, and have they noticed that it is needed?

Anonymous clearly has the training, though. She knows to seek help from various professionals: she has an attorney, and she has a psychiatrist, who tells her she is depressed. She understands that a policy from 1993 does not serve her. She knows about Title IX, and that it is not just about sports. And she knows to request remediation from those who have failed to provide her a safe educational environment. These are all things I was pretty unaware of back in 1983. Anonymous, in brief, is more informed, and likely much smarter, than those who are supposed to watch out for her.

Anonymous also knows when to give up. She knows that the merger of Harvard and Radcliffe (or, more properly, the assimilation of Radcliffe into Harvard) should signify that women have equal access to education on campus, but that they do not.  (I was in one of the last graduating classes, I think, to have both Harvard and Radcliffe seals on my diploma.  Even today, I like seeing then-Radclliffe President Matina Horner’s signature on the bottom.)  And I lament that Anonymous had to learn this so early, that she could not believe for a while longer that she was valued as a student and a human being.  She could not count on authority figures to ensure that she had reason to hold such a belief.  I held on to that untenable belief a few decades longer than did Anonymous did, but I too see reasons why one might surrender in such circumstances.

Back in the 80s, I cleaned the rich kids’ bathrooms to pay for my books.   (I was later promoted to trash collector.) I never thought myself a master (or mistress) of the universe. I was one of the uninitiated, always catching up, who spent the summer in a missile plant punching computer cards rather than interning at the Museum of Fine Arts of the Boston Symphony. My first boyfriend, after a double date in the North End, told me I did not know how to dress.  (I really liked the calico skirt I made myself, and the knee socks in the same hue of cornflower blue.)  It did not occur to me to keep my clothes on and find another companion until a while later.

I have always felt mostly fortunate that I was by some stroke of fortune invited to take a tour through the world of Bach Societies and Masters’ Sherries and French Tables where classmates chatted with others from “the city”—that is, the only city that counts as such, which I had yet to visit. But I never really felt like part of the club. Thirty years later, as a full professor at another Ivy League college, I still don’t. That’s because I am not. It’s a truth Anonymous should not have to know.  It’s a truth that should be rendered false, impossible, unthinkable.

There are cases that are hard to investigate and address.  I know this: I watch Law and Order.  This may be one of those cases.  So it may not be possible, according to current policy, to move the Predator Who Eats Dinner to a table across campus.  But think big, Harvard; there are many ways to cultivate a campus where Anonymous learns about Title IX because she plans to go to law school,—where, hopefully, she’d learn that Title IX is no longer needed—not because she was violated by another student.  Where she doesn’t have to take on a second job fighting to be treated like she belongs at the educational institution that admitted her.  She does belong, and at a place where she can just put her dinner tray on the conveyor belt and have a postprandial cup of coffee with her roommates without needing to worry about running into her assailant.

I’ve never shouted a “rah-rah” for Harvard, nor have I sung its song.  I have never considered attending a reunion. I am grateful for my education, but I do not see the Harvard “brand” as a big part of my identity. Like one of my classmates, I used to feel self-conscious telling people I studied there; I didn’t like dealing with their responses, complimentary or otherwise. (My favorite, from a distinguished feminist author, was, “Heard of it,” uttered with a glint in the eye.) But right now I feel even farther away from my days in Cambridge, even more reluctant to celebrate my pedigree.

My ambivalent relationship with my alma mater is a first-world problem of the highest order.  But uneasy intersections of privilege and exploitation characterize the ways in which women like Anonymous are still denied equal opportunity.  (That’s putting it mildly.)  And, of course, it’s not only Harvard undergraduates (male, female, other) who deserve better; but Harvard University is one place with the resources that should enable them to provide better, and perhaps to make a difference outside Johnson Gate too.

I am ashamed for Harvard. I blush crimson. I see red. Not only because of this case—it’s still true that I wasn’t there, and I do not know the intricacies of the bureaucracy involved—but even more because one of your undergraduates has become an expert on the unthinkable reality of violence against women.  This is not in her curriculum; she is on campus to learn other things, and you compensate professionals to ensure that she is able to do so unimpeded.  Not just because you care; because it’s Federal law.

This is my Veritas.

“Fair Harvard,” you should know better.  And I hope you will—soon.

Anonymous, you say you have given up, but you have given much to others by telling your story, though that’s probably little consolation.  And it’s even more work for you on top of the second shift of consultations with attorneys and deans, not to mention the burden of managing nightmares and pharmaceuticals you should not have to worry about. But you devoted even more time in order to tell your story.  Let’s hope Harvard listens to what you have so generously shared.

Anonymous, I wish you well.

And by the way, Harvard, one more thing: if you think this is what winning looks like, you lose.

Barbara White ’87, RI ’01