“These Things Can Break You”

A Story from Academia*

My burnout happened three years ago, and it took me more than a year to recover from it. I had to stop working because I had panic attacks, sudden stomach aches and I often began to tremble and break into a sweat for no good reason. I realized at a certain point that I wasn’t even able any more to read a simple newspaper article. After a sentence or two, I would get dizzy and feel a sharp pain in my head. Even after I admitted to myself that I couldn’t work anymore, it was still a difficult step to announce it at my department. I had a large number of students whose thesis I supervised. I felt I let them down. I also worried about my colleagues who would have more work because of me.

There is a story behind every burnout. Mine is a story of people who abused their power to intimidate, threaten and bully me, of administrators who backed this behavior up, of Kafkaesque procedures by which university personnel transformed the bullying into apparently legitimate but in reality close to Stalinist forms of control and coercion. Patriarchal abuse of power meets the neoliberal university that likes to boast about its ‘modern’ forms of personnel management but treats people less and less as real human beings and more and more as output generators. To be clear, my “output” was never an issue in this case.

After twelve years of professional experience in the academic world and six years of teaching in my department, I was threatened with dismissal because I had, one single time, openly challenged an assignment. I had expected a conversation and some form of understanding. Instead, I was forced into a year-long process of coaching coupled with “examinations” in which I had to demonstrate that I was developing a “professional attitude” and that I would henceforth “accept decisions”. If the coaching was not deemed “successful” after a final evaluation, a “trajectory” would be put in place that would “lead to” my “dismissal”.

I was intentionally, and skillfully, deprived of any possibility to resist this treatment: On a Friday afternoon I was confronted in an official meeting with the “information” that I would immediately lose my job if I didn’t explicitly “accept” this humiliating scheme and that, on top of it, I would have to make this decision before the end of the weekend. What I had to say did not count one bit, neither during this nor during any of the meetings in the gruesome months that followed. The whole procedure aimed at reducing, once and for all, my possibility of speaking for myself, of making my perceptions heard at my workplace. I was systematically disrespected as a scholar, as a colleague, as a human being. At its worst moment it became a scheme that effectively prevented me of any possibility to speak for myself at all.

“These things can break you” said a wonderful colleague from South Africa after I indicated the outlines of my story to her. Well, it certainly broke my health in the spring of 2013. While it also dealt a heavy blow on my spirit, it did not completely break it. Or, to put it differently: As broken as I felt then, eventually I was able to put myself together again. The most horrible experience in my 40 years of life couldn’t make me give up and leave a job and a profession I was, and still am, passionate about. There was an element of luck, the bully and his main accomplice left the shop at the right moment. But mostly I am still here because my story is also a story of support and of friendship, of colleagues who behaved as real and wonderful human beings when I most needed it.

My main strategy of survival was to individually talk to those colleagues I thought I could trust. I made a list of names, I made appointments with each of them, I told my story again and again, my heart beating every time. Apart from one exception, nobody disappointed me. These conversations helped me in two ways: First, the pure fact of telling my story helped me starting the very long and difficult process of making sense of something that seemed utterly senseless. But, secondly, getting a compassionate reaction and thus being able to connect to my colleagues helped me even more. While the bullying works by pushing the victim into social isolation through arbitrary acts of shaming and humiliation, every single conversation I had was a powerful experience of human solidarity that counteracted this isolation and shame.

There were colleagues who reacted with more empathy than I myself might have been able to show them had the situation been reverse. Nothing humbled me more during that time than this realization. I now know better than ever how social and psychological violence committed in a workplace strains everybody who gets in touch with it. It puts a strain not only on those who support the victim, but also on those who become complicit, most often unwillingly, in a culture which protects the bully and shames the person who dares to speak up. I became a living and breathing warning to my fellow colleagues that this is what might happen if you challenge a decision from higher up no matter how impeccable your record. There is a reason why some countries, one of them France, have laws which criminalize bullying by bosses. Dealing with it privately asks too much of human beings. If such violence remains unaddressed it is like an invisible poison continuing to diffuse in the workplace long after it happened.

I am also still here because a good colleague and friend of mine did not stop telling me again and again to get myself a lawyer. She ended every single of our many skype conversations with that point. She knew what she was talking about, she had been through a similar thing. Luckily I followed her advice. I didn’t have to go to court to finally make my torturers lift the threat of dismissal they had placed above my head for a whole year in order to discipline me into a nice and quiet girl without a sense of justice and without a voice to raise. I knew I had to act, when the bully himself likened my situation to a “snake hole”. I understood then that as long as he could, he would use this threat to keep me in an utterly helpless position completely at the mercy of his arbitrary attacks. He used the expression (“slangenkuil” in Dutch) in the presence of several other people attending the meeting in an official function. That’s how save he felt in his posture. That’s how unsafe my own workplace had become for me.

Continuing this work situation was not an option any more. It was either quitting on the spot or activating my lawyer. Although there was nobody else in my immediate surrounding who really supported me in this, I chose the latter. Sometimes things become so clear that you know what you have to do even if all your friends worry that it is unwise. But then, they were safe, I was not. They did not, could not feel exactly what I felt. They even, I often thought, had to protect themselves to a certain degree from recognizing the intensity of my ordeal in order to be able to help me at all. As it turned out, the pure presence of my lawyer, a very smart woman, in just one meeting was enough to end what I can only call a sadistic game.

This one last meeting has burned itself in my memory in a way that superimposes all the other memories of humiliation. It was an act of psychological hygiene for me. Neither she nor I had to actually say what became clear simply through her presence: Had the sadistic game not stopped, I would have gone to court and I would have won. There was a certain kind of beauty in that clarity, there was also a beauty in two women knowing exactly what to say and what not to say to make sure the bully was put back in his place. Yet, that I endured a year of unbearable harassment supported by my university in spite of this clear legal framework is still painful, even now. It brings to the surface again the stain that stays with me, like the shadow of a stigma once burned on my forehead: the shame of having been an outcast. It is the trace of this stain, I think, which usually makes people with a story like mine, and there are way too many of us, remain silent about their experiences.

Thanks to the introduction of my lawyer the game was over, I had won a fierce battle that had been forced upon me. But the feeling of relief lasted only for a short moment, only until the psychological and physical repercussions of a year in hell truly hit me. I had been at war, months and months on high alert, always anticipating what the brains of my bullies had in store for me next, constantly figuring out my strategies of survival. While keeping up my teaching I had refrained from most research activities because I sensed from the beginning that this situation was dangerous for my health, that my capacities in such a toxic surrounding were very limited. Several times I was very close to giving up and resigning immediately because I thought, because I feared, I could not endure it even a day longer. This is what persistent humiliation does, what it always does, to anyone exposed to it.

The breakdown was in that sense no huge surprise. But when it hit me it shocked me nevertheless. Its first clear signs occurred at the end of the only conference I attended during this academic year, shortly after the battle was over. Coincidentally, it was a conference on “post-traumatic cultures” – as if fate had found an ironic way to announce the next phase of my life. To be exposed to such inhumane behavior at your workplace, to experience that it threatens your physical and mental health, to understand, as a consequence, that even if you have successfully and with great enthusiasm done everything you are supposed to do in your academic life, such an event can force you to leave your work and give up what you have achieved and what you love in order to, literally, safe your life – this kind of an experience shatters the ground you thought you were standing on.

At a certain point, when I started to look back and to begin the long and agonizing process of comprehending it all, it slowly dawned on me that I had experienced a form of reality shock after which the world would never look the same to me. The following year I crawled in, through and eventually out of the rabbit hole of complete exhaustion, mourning and physical and mental reconstruction. At the other end, I came out as a different person. A person who would live with and honor her scars and vulnerabilities in order to be able to connect to others with similar, or worse, experiences. A person who knew she would never again let herself be silenced any more. A person who knew about the wonders of solidarity. In short: A person who would more than ever embrace the idea that “going human” is the only sensible reaction to a dehumanizing world.

* This story from academia is not told with the intention to attack anybody, neither my current employer, the administration of my faculty nor any particular person. What I do intend, however, is to engage in, and thereby encourage, an honest and open conversation about experiences of (patriarchal) harassment that have increased with the neoliberal management of universities and that are very difficult to talk about. To break open the paralysis produced by these developments we need a new language and new forms of conversation. We need these new forms if we want to safeguard and nurture the university as a place in which learning, teaching and exploring the world through research is understood as a creative, and therefore vulnerable and complex human activity. This activity cannot fulfil its promise of insight and emancipation in a culture of fear. I tell my story because I am not willing to give up this promise.


Reading recommendations:

On fear and silence in organizations: Jennifer J. Kish-Gephart et al., “Silenced by Fear: The Nature, Sources, and Consequences of Fear at Work”, Research in Organizational Behavior 29 (2009) 163-193; Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison and Frances J. Milliken, “Organizational Silence: A Barrier to Change and Development in a Pluralistic World”, The Academy of Management Review 29 (2000) 4, 705-725.

On workplace harassment and its physical and mental consequences see the work of Marie-France Hirigoyen, especially her Malaise danls le travail. Harcèlement moral. Démêler le vrai du faux (Paris: Éditions La Découverte et Syros, 2001).

On bullying and shame in academia see Duncan Lewis, “Bullying at Work: The Impact of Shame among University and College Lecturers”, British Journal of Guidance and Councelling 32 (August 2004) 3.

Finally, as inspiration for how the university might reinvent itself as a creative space that actively engages in fostering a fear-less environment, I want to recommend Ed Catmull (with Amy Wallace), Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (New York: Random House, 2014). It is somewhat ironic that Catmull, the head of a profit generating company (Pixar Studios), seems to understand much better what kind of management a creative workplace needs than the majority of today’s university managers, including those at the head of (semi-)public places of learning.

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