Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Ruby from Richmond Follows Up On Classroom Drama.

I want to offer one more possibility about the Contemplative Cynic's situation ("Breakups and Drama"), because I was in a similar situation with my first girlfriend in high school.

I was the one waiting for her outside of classrooms. I was the one skipping activities to be with her and joining activities to which she belonged (and which I had no business joining). I still remember my marching band section leader snapping at me, yelling, "Quit looking at your girlfriend!", because I was staring at her while he was trying to tell me something.

But I wasn't a creepy stalker. I was an abuse victim, and while I waited outside the classroom, I prayed that I could someday escape this claustrophobic relationship.

You see, if I didn't wait outside that classroom, didn't skip activities, didn't look in her direction during marching band, she'd get incredibly angry at me. Sometimes there was physical abuse (yes, I know, rarer for a male to be on the receiving end, but I was--and I haven't anonymized our genders for the sake of this post), but it was all a distraction from the mental abuse that kept me in that horrible relationship for more than two years.

Picture something like this:

Her: Why weren't you looking at me during Band?
Me: What? Because I was, uh, looking at the music--
Her: Because you hate me? Because I'm not pretty? Because you'd rather look at someone else?
Me: No! I wasn't looking at anyone else! I was--
Her: Of course you were looking at someone else, because I'm the worst person in the world, and I'm the ugliest person in the world, and I don't deserve to live, and you can go be with the person you were looking at during Band because I'm going to throw myself off the stairs!

She would then run toward the nearest stairwell, and I'd run after her, believing it was my responsibility to keep her from hurting herself.

She made a few suicide attempts, some real, some probably not real. She self-mutilated. She was my first girlfriend. I could never break up with her because I knew she'd injure or kill herself, and it would be my fault. She told me this.

I would only learn later, when I finally did break up with her, that she had been telling the whole school that I was a creepy stalker waiting outside the classroom--and when her friends looked, what did they see? They saw her running toward a stairwell, and they saw me running behind her desperately, and they thought, "Geez, that guy has some problems. He won't give that poor girl any space." This is, presumably, exactly what she wanted everyone to think.

If I told anyone she was suicidal, she said, she'd kill herself. I once tried to bring her to the school psychiatrist. That didn't go well. We'd talk on the phone every night for hours, then spend all day together at school the next day. There was nothing to talk about after a while, but if I let the conversation slip, she'd accuse me of being bored with her. (I developed a talent for extending conversations about nothing. It's a skill I use with my toddler today.)

There was crying in class. There were outbursts. I thought I was being caring and helpful. In reality, I was being very, very weak.

So why am I telling you all of this? Because in your classroom, CC, Silly may well be stalking Sally--or the real situation may be more complex. Maybe Sally is emotionally abusing Silly. Maybe somewhere in between.

And you know what caused me to break up with my high school girlfriend? Direct intervention from one of my teachers. This teacher cared enough to coach me through the breakup process, which I was too scared to undertake on my own. Thanks to this teacher, I learned to liberate myself, and--surprise--my girlfriend didn't end up committing suicide. (Last I heard, she got married and moved halfway around the world to terrorize someone else.)

I don't think it's your place as a professor to do what my teacher did. Goodness knows I wouldn't feel equipped to intervene in a student relationship. But referring her to counseling is something you can do, and it's something you should do. Whether she's the aggressor, the victim, or somewhere in between, the counseling folks will diagnose that. It's their job to help students who are emotionally incapable of helping themselves, like I was.​


  1. Thank you for writing this, Ruby.

    My department had a similar situation (especially the "I would only learn later...") a couple of years ago, and reading about your experience was extremely helpful.

  2. Wow your experience sounds awful. Rarely have I ever seen or heard of such a relationship.

  3. Ditto the above. Thanks for writing this.

    1. I think there are a lot more relationships than we think, especially among 16-20 year old students.

      These two stories remind me so much of a pair of relationships I was witness to when I first started teaching. Harrowing.

  4. Ditto the above. Thanks for writing this.

  5. I happen to be close to more than one man who's been the victim of relationship violence by women. Threats of suicide, accusing the victim of negative thoughts about herself, and physical violence were all there. Society is getting better at recognizing abuse when women are the victim, but women victimizing men looks different and we have very little context for that at all. Ruby, I'm so glad help was there for you, and thank you for sharing this story.

  6. Thank you for sharing your perspective. I am sorry you went through such a painful relationship. I, too, had a similar relationship in college, but because it is more common for women to be viewed as the abused than the opposite, I had plenty of support from people who helped me to extricate myself, and even then, I had to be the one to be brave enough to say, "His opinion of me doesn't matter and I am not responsible for his life or his behavior." My life changed for the better after taking that step (i.e. not just in romantic relationships), so I understand your perspective. I just didn't recognize that kind of behavior here from Silly and Sally, but it's a possibility.

    UPDATE on Silly and Sally: I have been in touch with the Counseling Center and appropriate people in the residence halls (we are a residential campus and are small enough that EVERYONE on campus now knows Silly and Sally, even people who don't know their names) to be on alert for any intervention.

    Yesterday I spoke with Sally about her inappropriate behavior. She admitted that she had misbehaved, was contrite to me in person, assured me that she would try to behave more appropriately in class, and also apologized to the class for disrupting the whole class period. This was, however, done in a dramatic way so as to gain attention for herself, again, as she took up the first five minutes of class to do so. Silly was nowhere to be seen, although I did see them later in the day holding hands (so who knows). She claimed that he was now going to go to his classes while she was in hers, but I'm not sure how much of what she says to believe, given that several of you have indicated she might be unbalanced or the relationship might be abusive.

    1. Was Silly actually missing his own classes just to wait at Sally's classroom door?

  7. I've been on both sides of this, actually. I had a really rough relationship with my family and when they cut me off I really spiraled into a harmful situation. And my friends and lover really got the worst of it. I acted very much like this above. Luckily, I came out of it (surprisingly, getting a job and then almost losing it because of my behavior was what pulled me out of the spiral) but I am forever ashamed of those 18 months and my wacky behavior.

    I've also been on the other side. And my conclusion, honestly, is this: I would never like to go back to being 19 again. As unstable as our academic lives can be, I love being a responsible adult, in control, not having to rely on teenage emotions.

    Poor Silly and Sally.

  8. Echoing the thoughts and the thanks above, Ruby. Your experience is something like the explanation I found myself leaning toward as I thought about Silly and Sally, but I also wondered whether I was favoring that conclusion because, as I mentioned below, I've witnessed something similar in my own family (involving a middle-aged man who was professionally successful, and experienced with relationships, but vulnerable due to a recent loss that echoed an earlier one, and also gave him something in common with a new partner who had had similar experiences, and whose pathologically insecure behavior seemed, at first, to be in part explainable by those experiences). I'm not sure of all the details (in part because alienation from family and existing friends was, as it often is, part of the picture; in part because these adults had more privacy, and more self-control, so there was considerably less public drama), but I'm pretty sure there was emotional abuse, and there were some signs that it had spilled into physical abuse on occasion, or at least come close. No, it's not the most common abuse scenario, but it does happen, and it's hard to see, because it's not what we're used to looking for.

    I don't know how much teachers can or should do, either (though, on a small campus such as CC's, having many eyes on the problem, and multiple sources of potential help, seems like a plus, whatever is actually going on). High school or college does seem like a good time for intervention, though, since both parties are young and more psychologically flexible, and since bringing children into such a situation would be a real tragedy (because it can be very hard for a sane(r) male partner to win custody if he decides to leave, and because the roots of the problem, like many others, seem to rest in some combination of inherent/inherited vulnerability and environmental triggers, which can lead to a self-perpetuaing cycle).