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Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Christmas Suicide of a College Professor

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"I am sorry to have to tell you that you were not chosen to go forward to the next stage of the selection process. There were a large number of superb candidates that we were unable to include on the interview list. Many factors that had nothing to do with the intellectual quality of your dossier contributed to our decisions. Those of us who do have fulltime college teaching positions are acutely aware of the difficulties faced by adjunct professors who do not, and of the cruel realities of the very competitive academic job market..."

"You were not selected…"

"We wish you the best of luck…"

"Another candidate was chosen…"

Day after day

Week after week

Envelope after envelope

Email after email

Year after year.

Don't talk to me about dreams deferred. I could school Langston Hughes.

Next year I will be able to buy a car, and go places, and meet people, and make friends…

Next year I will be able to afford to go to the dentist…

Next year, I'll be able to afford health insurance, and I can finally get this lump checked out…

Next year…

That never comes.

In "Save Send Delete," the story of my email debate / love affair with a prominent atheist, he and I debate the ethics of suicide.

I asked this world-famous atheist why I should not kill myself.

I told him the same story I've told everyone who asks why I have no life.

Got a PhD.

Published in the best peer-reviewed journals.

Won prizes.

Received excellent reviews from superiors and students.

And, after five hundred applications, I

can

not

land

a

fulltime

job.

My hopes, my future, my body, die, by pieces.

My atheist could not come up with a God-free reason for people to go on living when their lives suck. In fact, he said to me that my "spirit" was reason enough. And then he apologized, as an atheist, for resorting to the word "spirit."

The inherent value of human life, no matter the circumstances, is a Judeo-Christian concept. And so we have atheists like Peter Singer arguing that parents should be allowed to kill their own children.

Singer DOES hold a fulltime college teaching job, by the way. Not only that, but he occupies an endowed chair, the height of academic success. At Princeton, an Ivy League university. He teaches ethics. You can't make this stuff up.

***

I spend all fall applying for jobs, and the week before Christmas and Solstice, Andy Williams' "Most Wonderful Time of the Year," the shortest day of the year, the rejections come in. There are professors out there, the chairs of search committees, who spend Christmas Eve – yes, really – sending out rejection emails. No doubt these Professors Scrooge drive Priuses and vote Obama and are the models of Political Correctness.

Others' Christmas festivities twist the knife in the heart.

I think about suicide.

***

For every one of the five hundred jobs I've applied for, I've included laudatory letters of recommendation from established, even famous scholars.

A few years back, my class was observed by prominent poet Rachel Wetzsteon. Rachel was unstinting in her praise:

"Dr. Goska has created an atmosphere where students feel completely comfortable with each other to a degree I have seldom witnessed in my many years of teaching, and I take this fact as testimony to her own rich skills as a teacher.

Danusha balanced rigor with humor, supportive kindness with bracing toughness. The students are lucky to have a teacher so committed, intelligent and gifted, and this school is deeply fortunate to have her here."

Every fall, before the job search began, I would go to Rachel's office, and give her envelopes with stamps on them, and beg her to address them and fill them with letters of rec for me and mail them out.

I would come in to her office feeling like the Little Match Girl begging the revelers for crumbs from their feast, and Rachel would compliment me and my writing and my teaching and make me feel as if I were every bit as worthy as she.

She would smile her vast, warm smile and I would wonder at her abundant hair.

In fall of 2009, Rachel enjoyed that mystical plum enjoyed only by fulltime college teachers: a sabbatical. She got to take the semester off, and she would still have a job to return to!

I contacted Rachel at home. And I begged. "I know this is your sabbatical, and I am so ashamed to ask …"

"Sure," she said. "I'll gladly serve as a reference for you."

"How are you, Rachel?" I asked, hesitantly. Who was I to ask an academic queen, a poetry star, how she was? But I asked. "How are you?"

"I'm going through a rough patch."

Rachel had been so kind to me. I wanted to be kind to her. I felt like the mouse in Aesop's fable. Can a mouse offer a lion … anything?

"What is it, Rachel? You can tell me."

A bad break-up, she told me.

"Rachel!" I insisted. And I did not say – please take this seriously even though I am naught but a lowly adjunct professor who has published in small publications! – "Rachel!" I said. "You have been kind to me. Let me be kind to you. I can take the bus into the city and you can cry on my shoulder." I can travel from Paterson, the city where adjunct professors live, to Manhattan, where fulltime professors live, and comfort you. I can. "I can read your cards!"

"Maybe," she said. "But not today." And she again said she'd be sure to get the letters of recommendation out.

***

2009 was an especially bad year. Applied for so many jobs I would have been perfect for. Was rejected for so many jobs I would have been perfect for. Ready to go. I designated two men: an editor who had published my work, and a former grad student friend who, as he had ridden from academic success to success, had become distant. They would clean out my apartment and, in exchange, inherit my bank account.

The days got shorter and darker as I dully trod toward the ultimate darkness.

And then I got an email. My book, "Bieganski," had been accepted for publication.

Well, no way I'd kill myself then.

And so I didn't.

On December 22, 2009, the day after the winter solstice, the day the hours of daylight begin to increase, I signed the contract with the publisher.

***

On January 21, 2010, I attended a meeting on campus for adjunct professors. I was handed an agenda. Three quarters of the way down the colorful page – the paper was goldenrod colored – "The memorial service for Rachel Wetzsteon…"

And my conscious awareness immediately began to play hide-and-seek with the meaning of the words.

"Memorial service": when do people hold memorial services? For what reason? Well, when someone dies. Okay, but at what other times? Can't think of any. Maybe Rachel won another award for her poetry? No, that would be an "awards ceremony." What might "memorial service" mean in this context? It can't mean anything else but what it means.

She hadn't been sick. She was aggressively alive. Her springy-haired, vast-smiled aura wrestled the air in the room to the ground and she became the name in lights, the main character of any space she occupied.

It could have been an accident.

It wasn't an accident.

Rachel Wetzsteon ended her own life on either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, 2009. I was told that she used gas. I do not know if that is true.

***

I volunteered to speak at the memorial. My offer was declined. Fulltime professors spoke.

I remember one comment especially. "This is such a tragedy, such a waste. The tenure committee voted unanimously to grant her tenure."

After all the fulltime professors were done, and people were beginning to rustle their programs and to look at the clock and to wring squeaks from chairs by repositioning their butt cheeks , Rachel's students were allowed to speak.

"You thought you were finished," one said. "I disagree."

Another, "I wanted to be like you when I grow up. Now I can't."

The students' frank pain; their unavoidable exuberance, even at a wake; their embrace and their celebration of the campus as a place where they could color outside lines and reimagine life and meet others doing the same: they made the memorial service.

The professors' obsession with status and cold emphasis on CV bullet points as that which makes a life worth living made me squirm. The love I felt for the students, and the alienation I felt from the professors, says much about why I can't get a fulltime college teaching job, and why I keep trying.

***

I resolve to pray the rosary daily. I pray the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesdays and Fridays. The fifth sorrowful mystery commemorates Mary witnessing the dead body of her son, Jesus, on the cross. We Catholics pray for "The Great Gift of Final Perseverance" – magnum usque in finem perseverantiae donum – when we pray this mystery. I pray for Rachel.

***

You know what I'm saying here. Maybe you have said it, too. "She had everything to live for." And she didn't.

A reviewer, Adam Kirsch, said of Rachel's poetry, that it manages "to turn Morningside Heights – a quiet, bourgeois neighborhood near Columbia University – into a theater of romance, an intellectual haven, a flaneur's paradise. Her poems evoke the kind of life that generations of young people have come to New York to live – earnest, glamorous, and passionate, full of sex and articulate suffering."

I mean, yeah.

And I live in a slum and trod, alone, over garbage every day, and sleep alone every night, and have no hope.

And I'm alive.

I don't get it. I really don't.

I mean, I'm Catholic. And we fear hell. Suicide is a mortal sin.

Enough with the questions.

***

It's another Christmas coming up, and the rejection letters are coming in daily.

I have nothing to live for.

I will think of suicide again this year.

And I will not. 


Rachel Wetzsteon

Rachel Wetzsteon's much lauded book "Sakura Park" is available at Amazon here.
Robin Kavanagh, a former student of Rachel Weztsteon, blogs about her movingly here

4 comments:

  1. When times are tough, two things keep me going (and alive):

    1) Curiosity: "I want to see how the story ends"
    2) Spite: "I won't give them the satisfaction"

    I don't tend to drag metaphysics into it a lot. Nevertheless Danusha, you wrote a very interesting piece, and I was glad to read it.

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  2. I agree with Magdalena's 2 point approach in terms of dealing with tough times. Suicide is simply not an option. Whether you ever get a Prius or not, you are much loved Danusha Goska and the world would be a much sadder place than it is already if you aren't in it. Christina Pacosz

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  3. Danusha, I am an atheist. It seems we both struggle with despair. This is not a condition unique to atheists or theists.

    I stay alive mostly because I can still do some good in the world. When my ego was bigger, it was what I could do, now it is more about what others receive from me.

    Perhaps by making other happy, I will be happy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous, i am curious about your identity. I hope you will post again and I hope you will consider posting under a real name.

      I'm sorry to read that you struggle with despair. I am glad that you have found methods that work for you.

      My blog post is not about despair. it's about the contrast between people who face deadly odds who keep living, and people who have everything to live for and choose death.

      That is the mystery at the heart of that blog post.

      I'm glad you found something of value in it, and that that prompted you to write.

      Delete