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.
I 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.