Back in the mid 80’s, I was the girlfriend of a well-regarded, academically established poet. My partner A. (let’s call him A. for the sake of privacy) was also the poet on faculty at my undergraduate university and we set up house together when I was 18 years old. He was recently divorced after years of marriage to another writer. After months of intense conversation and mutual longing, he picked me up at the hospital the day I had my wisdom teeth surgically removed and took me back to his house to recuperate. I lived there for the next three and a half years.
I also took classes with A., and we eventually attended university functions together, with me as the administration-tolerated equivalent of a faculty spouse. He received his tenure during the years we were together. In our home, we hosted a great number of the visiting writers who came to read for the Creative Writing Program and I sometimes traveled with A. to the readings he gave. I was there in the next bedroom to hear the screaming phone argument the novelist Richard Ford had with his editor over changing the ending of his now famous story “The Communist.” I remember making a perfectly tragic “fancy” dinner for the poet Stephen Dunn and playing ping pong with Robert Creeley. Bill Kittredge was the first person to ever get me drunk and looked on with avuncular sympathy as I hurled mint juleps over the side of the patio. So I was sometimes in the company of well-known writers who often kindly asked to look at my own budding verse (possibly their version of a hostess gift). For me, this unusual level of instruction and attention came to seem quite normal.
And yet at the time, it never occurred to me to care very deeply about how I was perceived by the company into which I had wandered. That may have something to do with my particular personality—for good and ill, I can be described as an emotional “risk taker,” the euphemism my former therapist uses for personality types who go balls to the wall and worry about the outcomes later —but it probably had as much to do with my age at the time as well. What do one’s larger reputation and the idea of professional/academic “scandal” mean to a very young writer? Because people in the writing community did talk about me—they surely did—and not very nicely, I came to discover.
From what I can tell, scandal and reputation don’t mean much immediately to a lot of bright-eyed, eager young things, other than to add an extra sheen of “us-against-the-world, nobody-understands-me-but-my-baby” romance to a relationship. Despite most being made to read the novel in high school, only those who have some experiential context for a community’s idea of acceptable grown up behavior fully appreciate the scarlet letter of scandal and the possible long-term weight of that accessory. And those of us who particularly loved Hawthorne’s book were likely the ones who couldn’t wait to get busy earning our alphabet. What’s more romantic than suffering for true love? And the history of novels and poems gives bookish young women so many terrific models! This long-suffering ideal now seems to me a very young woman’s way of thinking about relationships. And while I was perhaps even younger than usual when my relationship began, I think middle class, artistically-inclined young women in their twenties are often very sheltered and spend years being served the cultural Kool Aid about the Great (Male) Writer and his mythology. That is, for a romantic young woman, it can seem that there’s nothing important to lose.
I have known a number of women over the years who occupied various versions of the category in which I lived with A., women now in their 30s and 40s who spent some part of their 20s as the girlfriend of so and so, the Established Male Writer (from here on referred to as EMW). A few went on to eventually marry these men with lesser, much lesser and occasionally greater degrees of marital happiness in store for them. Most often these women lived for years as the secret everyone knew about or, less often, as in my case, were publicly “out,” with their chins and their own writing held up defiantly before them. We in this club don’t share the details of our former relationships easily, as we’re all very aware of how such confidences can be interpreted by others, the embarrassing level of cliché with which it associates us. And such relationships, whether open or not, come to be defined by strict levels of secrecy, where great care must be taken not to throw extra servings of red meat to the three-headed dog of gossip. A young woman in this position soon becomes the major support system for protecting her EMW from the rumor and fall out that such relationships inevitably engender. For me, this was a part time job, though one I embraced happily enough. For young women more discreet or sensitive than myself, I’ve watched it become a full-time occupation with few benefits.
Of course things are somewhat different now: since A. and I were together, parts of the world have done some catching up on issues of harassment and acceptable conduct in the work place. Having been on a task force to examine harassment policies in university systems, having been deposed in a very public sexual harassment case between an EMW and his student back in the 90s, and as the present the director of a large Creative Writing Program, I’ve had the chance to see up close how increasingly seriously most institutions now take these issues. But then there is a huge ethical and legal difference between harassment and misconduct—I want to distinguish between those predatory EMW who take advantage of women repeatedly, holding grades, prizes and promotions over a woman’s head to get her on her knees, and the different, murkier lines A. and I crossed. I look back on my relationship now as a bona fide grown up and have to wonder: how did this issue not ever come up during his tenure process? I remember these thoughts occasionally disturbing me when A. and I were together, but I convinced myself that I was exceptional, that anyone could see my good grades were well earned, my talent apparent. I now know this kind of rationalization has another name: in this case a big, self-justifying pile of it. Because the fact is many of my classmates were rightfully disturbed by my special status. It affected their class environment in negative ways. And A.’s faculty were none too happy to be put in the position of tacitly approving our relationship, which might end up redounding on them professionally, and frustrated that the implicit rules were not applied to all. Whether I was particularly talented or not didn’t have a thing to do with their perception of our conduct.
Thankfully, I think we’d have a hard time imagining anyone getting away with such behavior these days. I write this with a semi-clear conscience, knowing that I was with A. because I indeed loved him and not because of the writers he would introduce me to or the grades I would receive. I have no regrets about my relationship with A., but I do wish I had been more mature and graceful in how I handled our situation professionally and had been able to see how our relationship impacted others around me. Even more so, I wish A. could have seen this, too.
But the truth is, even though this particular behavior is no longer condoned, these hierarchical, power-imbalanced relationships still make the writing community around them at least uncomfortable and, more often, righteously angry. And typically that ire is pointed not at the EMW, but at the young woman with whom he is involved. I’d say at least once a month I hear someone gossiping about a young woman at A, B or C writing program, or another has who received a residency or prize under what the national gossip mill deems sketchy, preferential circumstances. So women should know that there are hard-to-live-down, professional perceptions and even consequences that come from making such romantic choices, formed independently from the quality of these women’s writing. From my own experience, I’ve learned to be very slow in forming my opinions—if I believed everything I’ve heard said about now well-known women writers over the years I’d have to conclude that most of them are “crazy whores” to use a common, ugly phrase–and I always question why the woman is typically on the business end of the gossip gun. But I know others aren’t always so willing to ask that question.
I’m thinking of a friend, a woman in her early twenties, who until just a few months ago was such a girlfriend to an EMW, a man who is also a faculty member in her writing program. She is a gifted poet and a lovely, decent person. She spent two years being the open secret of which all were completely aware until the EMW broke up with her recently. While she never took classes with him, I know the relationship was a constant source of sour discussion and bad feeling within her program, no matter how discreetly she acted (and she did) and no matter how small she made her self in order not to attract the community’s notice. And she did make herself small—not participating in the life of her writing program, avoiding her peers, unable to compete for department awards, limited in the classes she could take, worrying herself sick that their relationship would put the EMW, and not her, in some professional or political jeopardy. It was hard to hear about this and even harder to advise her. Her heart was clearly broken and she felt that so much of what she’d given to the relationship, her dreams of what she and the EMW were and would be together, had been kicked out from beneath her. What I told her finally is that I don’t believe in legislating the human heart—what we feel for others is often unruly, inconvenient and worth fighting for in the face of other people’s envy and spite. But I also told her being the “muse” and caretaker to an EMW is not a lifetime project I’d wish on any young woman. So I’m glad she’s free of the relationship and now has the chance to grow as an artist on her own. I have a strong feeling that what lies before her will ultimately be much better for her and, just as importantly, for her work.