My Latest Life Lesson in Needing Approval

I’m on tour in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. It’s one of my favorite places in the USA: sweet people, great politics, strong human rights movements, and stellar academia. I’ve been having a great time here, meeting wonderful folks and connecting on many levels of mind, body, spirit, and theory. But yesterday, I ran headlong into an old buried obsession of mine: my obsessive need to be recognized as a peer within PhD circles—something I’ve not experienced in the 20 years I’ve been writing postmodern gender theory with my lowly BA degree in Theater Arts.

Here’s what happened… I was invited to a luncheon at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. The IAS is based on a great idea: when anyone in any discipline needs to do high level research with anyone from another discipline, the IAS plays matchmaker, provides some grant money, and the research actually gets done. Voila! Coalition building at the level of higher education. The theme of this year’s Institute is “Body and Knowing.” I was thrilled to have been invited, because I felt I had a great deal to offer and a great deal to learn from the multidisciplinary scholars.

I arrived early with two undergrad students who were my driver and companions for the day. We were met at the door by Angie, the gracious woman who manages the day-to-day workings of the Institute. She showed us to the luncheon room, gave us vouchers for our lunch in the cafeteria, and accompanied us as we bought lunch and returned to the room just before noon, when the luncheon was scheduled.

Thirty minutes later, it was still just the four of us in the room. Not a single one of the Institute’s scholars had come to attend the luncheon to which they’d invited me. At the insistence of the IAS, no one else from the U of M campus was invited to this lunch. It was a closed door affair for members only, and me. Well, I took off, leaving the gift of a “Get Out of Hell Free” card for each of the absent scholars. I asked Angie to please phone me when she had any word as to why this had happened.

Hissy_fitI stewed alone in the rage I inherited from my father. Three hours later, and no still call from the IAS—so I phoned them. No one knew why none of the scholars hadn’t shown up. It wasn’t a miscommunication. People simply hadn’t come. They simply had more important things to do than talk with me about “Body and Knowing.” At IAS insistence, the luncheon was a closed meeting. So one else from the U of M who actually might have wanted to attend was either informed or allowed to show up. Sheesh.

And that’s when I went into my default mode of “I am a totally worthless worm.” Completely groundless reasoning, but I’m a depressed mess for the most part, and that’s where I go when I’m rejected. I Twittered about the experience, and my Twitter friends shored me up.

It wasn’t until I realized that the scholars’ absence had triggered my ego-driven need for acceptance within their hallowed ranks that I began to take responsibility for the fiery depths of my anger. Silly, silly me! In the two days I’d been making appearances, doing talks and performances in the Twin Cities, literally hundreds of people had come up to me telling me how much they appreciated my work. But did I take that to heart? No way. Here I was, all worked up into a tizzy over the fact that a dozen scholars had snubbed me.

When I realized I’d gone so far out of balance, my lesson became clear: my worth as an author and theorist does not depend on the approval of the people who teach my work, as much as it depends on the people who read my work and use my work and take my work further than I ever dreamed it could go. In the end analysis, that’s what jazzes me about writing. Within minutes of that realization, I received this carefully worded email from the Director of the IAS:

“Dear Kate Bornstein, I hear from Karen Kinoshita that virtually no one showed up at your talk. I am sorry about that, and that you were distressed that no one from the Institute was there to greet you. I am at a conference in Paris, and the managing director is also out of the country. I am so sorry that we did not show you appropriate hospitality. Ann Waltner”

Well golly, that sure doesn’t sound like a sincere apology to me. There’s no explanation for the scholars’ rude behavior, and no expressed wish to reschedule a meeting in the future. Well, fuck it. I’ve decided to accept Ann Waltner’s apology and move on… far away from the Institute for Advanced Studies! Back to the people from whom I regularly do learn things: the smart folks I meet every day of my life, most of whom travel nowhere near the rarified heights of the IAS. And while some of my friends and acquaintances may have earned their hard-won PhDs, very few of my friends belong to exclusive clubs of higher academia. If they don’t need those clubs, then neither do I. It must be said that everyone else I’ve been working with at the University of Minnesota has been a complete delight, and we’ve pulled off several great events with great respect for each other.

The people who support me and my work are my family, my tribe. They’re the folks to whom I want to be the most supportive. As family and tribe, we welcome each other’s company without the need to hang up “members only” signs on the doors of our meeting places. My family and tribe and I have intelligent, respectful conversations with one another. Oh, it’s embarrassing to admit that it’s taken me until I’m 60 years old to have come to this realization. Chasing after approval from any exclusive inner circles has only ever led me to feelings of inadequacy, and I’ve had enough of those feelings in my freaky-gendered lifetime. I’m resolved to try to deal better next time.




  1. oh, kate. how we love you.
    the animosity toward both art & activism within the academy upsets me. i see it a lot. that if you are an academic, you can’t have a POV (much less a heartfelt calling!). it’s supposed to be for the sake of “intellectual neutrality” or being “objective.” to me, it’s a farce, but there you go.
    of course this may have nothing to do with why they weren’t smart enough to talk with you. probably it’s quite simple: they just weren’t smart enough to know with whom to lunch.
    i would be happy to gather you a crowd of academics whenever you’d like, here, or when I’m in Wisconsin teaching.

  2. Despite the lack of scholars that showed up to the luncheon, I’d say we had a pretty good conversation anyway.
    I still hold the opinion that IAS just isn’t advanced enough yet for the topic of “body and knowing” and certainly not advanced enough for you to have taught them something.
    They missed a great opportunity, they really did.

  3. Well, Kate, I just want you to know that your little “chat” at the U of MN school of social work on Tuesday, at which undergrads, MSW students, PhDs and faculty, including the director of the school were represented, sent a buzz through the building that went beyond the attendees. You opened a discourse which is going to continue in OUR particular ivyed walls. I am teaching your work, work that has taught me, and saved me. I would not be at the SSW were it not for what Ilearned from you about living out loud.
    IAS is obviously populated by FOOLS, or perhaps just people too fearful to approach the topic and challenge thir internalized bully. You are welcome at the SSW ANYTIME!!

  4. Thanks for this post and description of the journey through emotions when it comes to academia, such a familiar journey to me:
    I’m teaching community college students (you rocked their worlds, BTW, seriously), and I’ve had to work through my own gamut of emotions when I return to the institution of “advanced” academics because I’m working at such a “lowly” place. Uh huh.
    One note that might help: I’ve been to other events at the IAS, events that were widely publicized, and only a few attendees showed up. Of course this doesn’t excuse the absolute rudeness of those absent scholars.
    “Advanced” indeed. They don’t even have simple manners!

  5. Thank you so much for coming to Augsburg yesterday! It was awesome to hear about your take on the upcoming elections. Your work has helped many people find their inner warrior, and it was truly refreshing to hang out with you for awhile. Be well in your travels, Kate!

  6. Thanks for your encouraging words. There’s more I want to put together on this issue of mine, so I’m grateful for your perspectives on academia from the inside. And Nico, yes you’re right — you and Cassie and Angie and I did have a lovely conversation, with lotsa laughter.
    I had a WONDERFUL time in Minnesota, land next to the land of my birth. I’m back home now in NYC. I’m smiling, smiling, smiling, at the thought of all the friends, old and new who I got to connect with while I was there.
    Special message to all the folks I left behind in the land of Nice: pretty please elect Al Franken. What a hoot he’d be on the Senate floor!
    kiss kiss

  7. Those people do not know what they missed. We at AQLF who were lucky to see you DO know –and we were all so lucky to not miss you.
    I read your FREAKS book on the plane on my way home, and it rocked my world. I’m so grateful to have a book I can suggest to any young (or not so young) person I think might need it.
    You save lives.

  8. I’ll be honest; I didn’t attend any of your events, because as an undergrad working 2 jobs (one in a failing Minneapolis Public School that we’re trying to save from restructuring) I just simply wasn’t available. And I’m STILL bummed about it, even though there’s not really much I can do about it now. But to read that some prickish scholars at the University snubbed you when there were people like me dying to attend one of your events, that’s frustrating. More than frustrating–it pisses me off. But no worries, as I’m glad to hear you had an otherwise good experience at the University. I know a few of the people that escorted you around town and I’m sure they were wonderful.
    Anyway, I love my University and it pisses me off to see representatives of it representing the University and students in such a shitty manner.
    I hope you come back to the cities soon!
    P.S. I’ve asked around, and I’ve yet to find someone who’s even heard of the IAS. So they’re not really as big of a deal as they think they are, anyway.

  9. Ever since I posted this piece, I’ve been looking for this Idres Shah story, from his book “Wisdom of Idiots.” — Kate
    Sufi Ajmal Hussein was constantly being criticized by scholars, who feared that his repute might outshine their own. They spared no efforts to cast doubts upon his knowledge, to accuse him of taking refuge from their criticisms in mysticism, and even to imply that he had been guilty of discreditable practices.
    At length he said:
    ‘If I answer my critics, they make it the opportunity to bring fresh accusation against me, which people believe such things. If I do not answer them they crow and preen themselves, and people believe that they are real scholars. They imagine that we Sufis oppose scholarship. We do not. But our very existence is a threat to the pretended scholarship of tiny noisy ones. Scholarship long since disappeared. What we have to face now is sham scholarship.’
    The scholars shrilled more loudly than ever. At last Ajmal said:
    ‘Argument is not as effective as demonstration. I shall give you an insight into what these people are like.’
    He invited ‘question papers’ from the scholars, to allow them to test his knowledge and ideas. Fifty different professors and academicians sent questionnaires to him. Ajmal answered them all differently. When the scholars met to discuss these papers, at a conference, there were so many versions of what he believed, that each one thought that he had exposed Ajmal, and refused to give up his thesis in favor of any other. The result was the celebrated ‘brawling of the scholars.’ For five days they attacked each other bitterly.
    ‘This,’ said Ajmal, ‘is a demonstration. What matters to each one most is his own opinion and his own interpretation. They care nothing for truth. This is what they do with everyone’s teachings. When he is alive, they torment him. When he dies they become experts on his works. The real motive of the activity, however, is to vie with one another and to oppose anyone outside their own ranks. Do you want to become one of them? Make a choice soon.’

  10. Hi Kate
    I have a PhD, it just means I went to school forever! I read your stuff, I teach your stuff and I use your work in the textbooks I write. I affirm you – not that you bloody well need it, right?
    Keep doing what you do.
    If you are interested the book is Marchbank, J & Letherby, G (2007), Introduction to Gender: Social Science Perspectives, London, Pearsons

  11. Thank you Kate, for exactly what I needed to read this morning. I’m always teetering on the precipice of depression (no matter how perky I get)and if it wasn’t for low self-esteem I’d no self-esteem at all. I often feel like an aging failure who other people tolerate but don’t take seriously, but you remind that there are a few out there whose life is better(or at least more interesting) for having met me.

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