Content warning: This article contains descriptions of psychological and verbal abuse. If this article causes you any distress, please seek support.
There is a form of privilege that we try not to speak about. Society knows this privilege and often casts woeful eyes and aching hearts to those without it but, in academia and science, we cover our faces and look away from this privilege because to admit to the lack thereof, is to admit how few without it end up entering our hallowed halls and ivory towers. For what we rarely admit is that it is a privilege to grow up safe, loved, believing in your intrinsic value, and unabused by those entrusted with our care.
The safety of children is protected the world over and so, to look towards peers that often double as our competition, and acknowledge that they were denied the safety of childhood and still made it here, trauma and all, is one more way that we must set aside our privilege. We the abused, the survivors, the resilient, we do not want your pity but few of us would turn away your empathy and, more than anything, your willingness to listen.
Oftentimes, through some unidentifiable signal or unseen gaping wound, we the survivors find one another. We dance around one another until finally, we admit our shared histories and bond as intruders in the strange and unwelcoming academic landscape. A terrain that draws the narcissistic, the shallow, the unkind, all with the same shadows and heartlessness that we saw in the eyes of our abusers. In the name of our passion and desire for success, we throw ourselves into the viper’s pit having been bitten far too often already.
Yet, for all the fear, if we do not speak more openly of this privilege, and particularly for those of us that have lacked it, we lose the chance to reach those who may need to hear the ever-important message of ‘you are not alone’. Yes, we personify the survivorship bias, the lucky ones to make it to where we are, but if we cannot speak about it then we cannot help others survive.
I am known for talking openly about my publishing mistakes, my years of being single in academia, my disability thanks to rheumatoid arthritis, and, as I’ve continually recovered from it, my own history of abuse and trauma, both in my child and adulthood. I am not fearless but open and, while my previous pieces brought me concerns of the judgement of my peers, this one brings fear of the return of my abusers (if you’re reading, don’t come back, I’m not who you knew). Yet, having started this piece two years ago, I find myself returning to it, because it is always with me. For all the work I’ve done, professionally and personally, it is always with me and perhaps by speaking openly about it, we can destigmatise survival and, as I often strive to do, make someone feel less alone. I did not ever want to be this person, this resilient. I would not have chosen it. I do not care to hear that my suffering made me stronger – every child deserves to not need to be strong, only to be a child. Yet this privilege is not granted to all and I have less fear than some, so here I am speaking about my experience.
So, why aren’t more of us speaking up in academia?
Well, for starters, we’re protecting the privileged around us. Years ago, I stopped (for the most part) feeling ashamed of being emotionally and verbally abused but the reactions of the privileged around me have made it difficult to speak openly. When people talk about their parents, it’s considered impolite to explain that you don’t speak to your father because, among other equally awful stories, when you were 16 your 6’2” ex-military dad got within inches of your face, called you a bitch on the front lawn, and you told him, “If you want me to act like an adult, you have to speak to me like one and adults don’t speak to each other like that”. While it’s perfectly acceptable to explain that you love going home for the holidays, it’s a conversation stopper to explain that since your sibling threatened to kill themselves on Christmas, you’re less fond of the holiday. No one likes to hear that you don’t speak to the same sibling you used to defend because they went on to be an abuser and, even though you were 28 at the time, screamed at you full-force for an hour while you were trapped in a car in traffic. That they told you that no one cared about your work, that you were selfish, and you deserved the abuse you received. To explain that you then immediately, or as immediate as 28 years of abuse can be, cut ties with your sibling and parent is to do something shocking because “family” means abuse is tolerated, at least if you’re privileged enough to not have truly experienced abuse so awful as to be trauma or not so recovered as to realise you don’t have to tolerate that anymore or, worse still as is the case of many, trapped by your circumstance to tolerate what you shouldn’t have to. We’re not actually protecting ourselves. We are protecting the people who don’t have the decency to listen without judgement to what we lived through.
Then there’s the fear of the abusers themselves, who I spoke to earlier (don’t come back). So often, the abused become the abusers. In my time, I’ve certainly been toxic to those around me, and also tolerated toxicity in my desperation for love and value I didn’t know I was denied, even by myself. To stop that trend, to not become an abuser myself, has required considerable work and is something I’m afraid of in my own personal life. I fear having the choices that I’m ashamed of brought back into my life. I am wary that the toxic, abusive people I grew up with and the ones I later drew (and were drawn to) will reenter my life at times I feel safe and secure. Will I ever be truly safe, will I ever believe it?
Finally, there’s the culture of academia: the perfectionism, overworking, lack of work-life balance, and the competition that is built into the system. To admit a flaw is terrifying enough but to admit to having been abused and all the aspects of survival and recovery is to feel that you are risking your entire career. Academia often asks that you be its only lover, and to be one who needs time to recover and unable to devote yourself only to it when so many are falling at its feet is to feel less. My first and worst postdoc supervisor reiterated the words of my past abusers when they called me selfish, cold, arrogant, and abrasive. And I believed them. My entire lifetime I’d been holding on by my fingernails to the belief that I had value because I was smart and capable, and with the last source of external validation stripped of me, I began to believe myself truly worthless. Is it any wonder so few of us make it here when recovery is a lifetime practice? This is a loss because those of us that do make it can use our experiences to apply the empathy and compassion for students, staff, and peers that modern academia claims to so crave.
I haven’t felt terribly lucky in my life, but I have been privileged enough to have some very important and caring people enter it. There’s the PhD supervisor who, when I told him about getting trapped in that car, told me he was sorry that happened, that I didn’t deserve that, and stood by me and never judged me. The friends – the ones with the gaping wounds that drew us together – who have supported me and allowed me to support them, with neither making the other a burden but, instead, a member of the family. The therapist who saw right through me and, even though I haven’t spoken to her in eighteen months, set the groundwork to heal that I’ll follow for the rest of my life. It’s with the support of these people that I can speak and write openly about my experiences with this message to others like myself: “You are not alone”.
To end (to begin?) I will speak directly, as is my way. To the privileged, all that’s asked of you is an increase of empathy and a lack of pity, a willingness to look at the suffering that others had to live. We the abused, or I suppose it’s better to say, I the abused, write this with the ever-present hope of being heard by those who need it. To them I say again, you are not alone. You are heard, you are valued, and your worth is yours without doing anything other than existing. You are important. You are loved, inside and out. Fuck anyone that says or makes you feel otherwise, no matter how ivory their tower. As with most privileges, I believe the most upsetting part of this is the acknowledgement that being loved unconditionally was never meant to be a privilege but is an unassailable right given to each and every child. Until it is given as such, we must acknowledge that there are those among us who grew up denied this right and consider how we help and support those deprived of the privilege unspoken. Myself and others like me can start by speaking the unspoken, that you are not alone.
All power to you. Speaking out is a great way to vent, and we all need air to breathe. Breathe easy. Live as it suit you. There is no one way to spend your life.
“My entire lifetime I’d been holding on by my fingernails to the belief that I had value because I was smart and capable, and with the last source of external validation stripped of me, I began to believe myself truly worthless”- that really resonated with me. I am so very sorry for what you went through, and I completely understand these feelings in a workspace that is hyper-competitive and performance-driven. I would like you to know that you are a very strong person to be where you are now, and it was wonderfully courageous and compassionate of you to share your story.