When I first began my PhD, I entered not entirely certain of my abilities. I looked up to the knowledge of my lecturers and professors, and I was keen to impress them as my mentors. I wanted to produce work that they thought was of high quality, and I wanted them to like me. I relied on the feedback I received to form my own understanding of the quality of my work and of my own own abilities. Since I trusted their assessment, if they told me that I wrote well, I felt pleased that I did. If they told me that what I had written wasn’t yet conceptually developed enough, I felt disappointed in myself. In short, I trusted them to shape me and to give me feedback that was reliable. I think these are fairly normal relationships to have.
Because I trusted those in a position to teach me, I was also vulnerable to manipulation. I had a professor, the head of my PhD programme, even, who would make comments to me. He told me that he had admitted me to the programme because he wanted me around (this ‘wanting my around’ was meant to be personal). He told me that he would make sure that I got the grant I applied for. When I did get it, he told me he had done me a favour – was looking out for me. When I submitted work to him, sometimes he would respond with flattery. But at other times he would respond with criticism that was imprecise. An idea ‘had problems’ – he would not say of what sort. Something was ‘not there yet’ – but he would not say why. Often he would deliver this feedback (either praise or criticism) in front of other students. I always felt humiliated when he did that. Even if he told me that my work was good, it was so public: it felt like an assertion of his power over me and his access to me.
The manipulative feedback came with its own ends: if my work was excellent that day, maybe he would try to walk me home. Maybe he would turn up at my house late at night to ‘sign some paperwork’. If the response was criticism, then maybe he would send me 2am emails suggesting that we have our next supervision after dinner and, and even if I was a little on the slim side, hadn’t I looked lovely today. More than once, I had to slide out of his sticky, clutching grasp.
I was in a position that it was difficult to remove myself from. Judgements of my work that were not about its quality, but were instead meant to manipulate me, were highly effective and ultimately threatened to entirely destroy my own sense of my work. Realising that I was being manipulated only amplified my sense of the unreliability of everything around me. Was it the case that he’d unfairly admitted me to a programme when I didn’t deserve it in order to get something from me? Was my work any good, or did he tell me it was good in order to try to gain access to me? Was I a good writer, or did he just want to have sex with me?
The confusing blurring of the boundary between academic interest and sexual interest eroded my confidence. I didn’t have any feedback on my work that I could trust, and that wasn’t adulterated by the desire of a man with power over me to have sex with me.