An Impossible Grief

Reckoning with a beloved teacher’s complicated legacy

Amy McDaniel
Mar 30, 2020 · 15 min read
Illustration by Carmen Johns

Truth: This essay is supposed to be about an impossible grief.
Truth: This essay is supposed to be about power.
Lie: This essay is about what it’s supposed to be about.

We’ve all heard famous women defend famous men who have been accused of abuse, of rape, of sexual harassment and violence.

We blame the men, the abuser himself, but we also blame, or call out or in, or “cancel” the women who defend them. We remind them that abusers don’t abuse everyone, that your story, your experience of a person doesn’t negate someone else’s story or experience of the same person. It doesn’t mean the story of abuse is a lie.

We’ve heard the women’s apologies. We’ve heard that they can’t reconcile the man they know and love with the man described in the accounts of abuse.

The truth is, there are truths that can’t be reconciled.

Truth: At Pomona College, I took an intro fiction workshop and an advanced nonfiction workshop with David Foster Wallace.

Truth: Professor Wallace (I could never call him Dave) was the best teacher I’ve had before or since.

Lie: The line between truth and lie, nonfiction and fiction, is clear and distinct.

The first day of fiction workshop, we played a round of Two Truths and a Lie, except Professor Wallace changed it to Two Lies and a Truth and introduced a new feature: after reading our three anecdotes, we would be cross-examined about each one by the rest of the class. I wrote and defended a lie about a dream I never had, a lie about a funny thing that never happened at a Braves game, and the following true story: Two weeks ago, I got my Mustang convertible stuck in a ditch in southern Alabama. Four men came to my rescue with a rope, a 2x4, and a shovel.

After I read and defended my anecdotes, the class voted on which they thought was true. Just over half voted for one lie, and everyone else chose the other lie. At the last second, Professor Wallace switched his vote, remarked on the brilliance of including a dream, and split the vote evenly between the two lies.

When I revealed that they were all wrong, I felt impressive. I felt that I’d begun to distinguish myself among my classmates. But mostly, I felt powerful.

As a teacher of writing of over a decade, I find it genuinely mystifying when a student treats our relationship as a power struggle. It serves nobody. I want to empower my students in their learning and in their voices, not wield power over them. I think of teaching, perhaps especially teaching writing, in terms like nurture and support and partner and love.

But as a student, at least as Wallace’s student, I struggled for power. Another student in the workshop apparently thought of me as his secret rival, which came as a surprise to me: I wanted to best our teacher, not the other students. Before the class began, I found a mistake in A Girl with Curious Hair. I knew from Wallace’s previous students that he implicitly forbade talk of his own work, so I never told him about it, but I held it close like a secret little dagger when he picked at my errors.

Mostly, it was all in good fun. Despite his unsexy voice and truly dorky haircut, I had a massive crush on him. I knew that he saw (by that time, at least) relationships between professors and students as an egregious abuse of power, so I challenged him as a way of flirting. He complimented me on writing convincingly in the POV of a man, I told him to stop gendering me, and he told me to stop using nouns as verbs. Months later, he wrote, in the second out of seven footnotes in his nearly five-page response letter to my nearly five-page story, “Teacher-wise, I appreciate the fact that ‘Texture’ is by a female, and a young female at that — since some of the integral sadness of Todd is closely related to aging and social irrelevance, which situation you have imagined (not lived, yet) with both compassion and eerie accuracy. Sorry if this is gendering you — and, apart from the fact that a generic reader would see a female author’s name, it’s probably irrelevant w/r/t the piece’s power — but it’s true.”

But later in the same letter, he hurt my feelings. I could have sworn he used the term “semi-literate” to describe the mistake of writing “overall” as two words, but he must have said that during the workshop. In the letter, he wrote, “In general, it would be good for you to pay more attention to the construction and semantics of individual lines (and to do so consistently, not just when you feel like it).” It was the allegation that I didn’t care, that I wasn’t trying, that crushed me.

And at the end of the letter, he said those mistakes were “kind of insulting” to “the extraordinary talent and craft and attention exhibited in your pieces’ structure, characters, and style.” Then he wrote, “Next term, I will be exerting more pressure on you to turn in only clean, well-wrought, and carefully proofread sentences. I’ll be using the only real pressure-exerting tool I’ve got, which is grades. Turn in an essay with something like ‘over all’ or ’could give off the impression’ to me next term, and the very highest grade the essay will be eligible for is a B+, no matter how off-the-charts good it is in other respects. See you in January.” The last footnote ends tersely: “Buy a usage dictionary.”

All I can say to defend what I did next is, I was very young. An older, wiser person might have taken strength in the great compliment he paid me, in the “extraordinary talent” part, in the time and care he took crafting his response letter. An older, wiser person might’ve felt moved by his belief in me to work harder.

Not I. I waged war. I fired off a (very long) aggrieved letter of my own. The crux of it, as I recall, was the injustice of it all. That he would punish me that way, and grade me more harshly than other students. Thankfully, I didn’t keep a copy of the letter I sent, so I don’t ever have to confront the details of my callow outrage and misplaced sense of being wronged.

Instead, I have his response, which he slipped to me on the first day of nonfiction workshop. A very different start to the semester than the previous, triumphant one. Even now, when I read his deservedly angry, at times cutting, ultimately forgiving and generous letter, shame ravages my insides.

I didn’t drop the class. I did what he asked of me. I bought a usage dictionary. I proofread relentlessly and fine-tuned every sentence. At 11pm the night before I turned in my first essay for the advanced nonfiction class, I took him at his word in Footnote 1 and called/asked/bounced off him literally twenty questions about grammar and usage and diction.

I ended the power struggle. I trusted him.

Truth: Depression killed David Foster Wallace.

Truth: The thing that Professor Wallace taught me to believe in couldn’t save him.

Lie: Those truths cannot coexist.

I trusted him totally. He taught me that art was worth the trouble, and I believed him. I trusted his belief in my work. As my friends applied to law school and fancy internships, I trusted him when he said I shouldn’t get a publishing job, or any career job at all. I trusted him when he said I shouldn’t get a PhD in history if I really wanted to write. I trusted him when he said it might take ten years or more to get published, that I might get an MFA and not get published, or take a year off and fix up a house to sell it at a profit and not get published, or work some “shit job” and write every night and not get published, but I should try all of it and eventually something would work. I trusted him when he said he didn’t tell everyone to try.

Of course we were dazzled by his genius and his fame. Of course we revelled in the fussily hyphenated titles of his grammar worksheets (“Your Liberal-Arts Dollars at Work”), in knowing his private phone number and his even privater, delightfully corny email handle (OCapMyCap), in the way he once shouted, “I’m so unhip!” because he couldn’t understand the concept of away messages (“How can you be online if you’re not at your computer?”). Of course no other teacher measured up. Pomona gave him a million dollar signing bonus and a six-figure salary to teach one class of ten or twelve students at a time. Of course he had more time and incentive to write long, sensitive, foot-noted response letters, copyedited by hand, and to mark up every line of our drafts in three different pens, and of course he had more energy to create a serious, democratic workshop culture, and to assume a position of humility in the way he shepherded but never dominated the discussion. But he also didn’t have to do any of that. He could have phoned it in. He didn’t have to bring the full power of his genius and his empathy to his teaching — to us — but he did. So we trusted him.

In September 2008, I’d just begun my first semester of teaching college comp 101. I thought more about Professor Wallace in those early weeks of teaching than I had in four years of trying to write a novel. I never hoped to write like him, but I did hope to teach like him.

Truth: Fame warps.

Truth: I knew Wallace as a teacher, as a person, not as a famous writer.

Lies: The line between public and private is clear and distinct.

On September 13, 2008, I learned of his death a few hours before it was public. I couldn’t be alone with the news and with my grief, so I called a few people. I called my best friend, who’d also studied with him. We talked about how we would honor him in our own ways. I called my closest friend from grad school, who’d never met Wallace and who wasn’t an especially avid fan of his work, but to whom I’d shown, years before, the folder from his class, with all the grammar worksheets and drafts and response letters. Then I told my family. My father instructed my brother to see if it was on Google. They didn’t ask how I was doing. Fame warps.

The next day, the friend from grad school messaged me. He said he’d been asked to write a tribute to David Foster Wallace on Ed Champion’s blog. He said he was thinking of writing about my folder. I told him not to. I said that was my story, not his. He didn’t ask how I was doing.

Truth: Every time I tell someone, especially a man, that I studied with David Foster Wallace in college, I end up regretting it.

Truth: I keep telling people anyway.

Lie: This is the last time I’m going to write about it.

People, especially men, tell me that I’m lucky to have studied with David Foster Wallace, to have known him. I disagree. I don’t feel lucky. I feel sad. People, especially men, tell me that I can’t feel betrayed by him. They tell me about chemicals in the brain, neurons misfiring. I tell them I know about all that. After a long argument that seems to energize them, I feel sad. There’s nothing in the literature about how to grieve a mentor who kills himself. It isn’t supposed to happen.

I try to honor him in a very small way by posting one of the grammar worksheets on a lit blog I write for, as a little quiz contest. The post gets 30,000 hits. People, especially men, go insane in the comments. In corners of the internet far away from the lit blog, linguistics men call me a half-wit for buying into Wallace’s prescriptivist grammar bullshit. I try to explain: it’s not about prescriptivism for its own sake; it’s about knowing everything you possibly can about language and how it’s received so that you can be intentional as a writer in developing your characters and, in nonfiction, establishing your persona as, for instance, either being someone who’s fussy about grammar and uses expletive thats or — consistently — not. But people, especially men, don’t listen. Years later, I can convince a student to stop using the word utilize only by showing him Wallace’s diatribe against it in the Oxford Writer’s Thesaurus. He won’t take my word for it.

Fame warps, and I’m not immune. I exploit my connection with Wallace’s tragic genius. I work it into cover letters for teaching jobs and query letters to agents. He wrote me a recommendation letter to grad school on the condition that I’d never try to read it, but after he dies, I scheme. I wonder if the admissions office keeps a record. Maybe I could use part of his letter as a blurb one day. Partly out of something like vengeance. Like, if he were alive to blurb my eventual book, I wouldn’t have to betray the promise I made. But partly it’s just pure and simple exploitation.

It gets worse. For a while, I tell men to attract them. Certain men, writers, find this whiff of fame on my breath, this closeness to their fallen hero, particularly alluring. There is a kind of exclusive maleness to their fandom that soon begins to unsettle me. I tell them stories. I remind them that he was my teacher, not my favorite writer, not an idol or icon. That he was a person. The men don’t listen. They are not interested in my stories. The kind of men I attract because I studied with David Foster Wallace are the wrong kind of men to attract. One of them publishes something terrible about me, something sickening and untrue (and badly written) w/r/t to Wallace and his means of dying. I nearly have a panic attack the next time I see him. I stop dating writers for a few years. Then I do marry a writer, someone who doesn’t care at all that I studied with David Foster Wallace.

Truth: In 2018, following stories of Junot Diaz’s mistreatment of women, Mary Karr tweeted about Wallace’s violent, prolonged abuse of her and others and said she’d been near-silenced by his biographer and The New Yorker, both of which parties called the abuse “alleged.”

Truth: I believe Mary Karr and other women who came forward.

Lie: The Wallace who abused Mary Karr is not the same Wallace that I knew.

Two truths that can’t be reconciled do not equal a lie. There is no equation there. One thing I’ve learned in the last few years is that if one or two women come forward about an abuser, he probably had other victims. Mary Karr tweeted that he “preyed on his students.” To my knowledge, he no longer preyed on students by the time I knew him, in the last years of his life. Does that matter? I’m not sure it matters.

I stopped teaching Junot Diaz, or recommending his books to my students. I stopped teaching Sherman Alexie. In teaching circles, when this issue comes up, someone always lists a bunch of long-dead authors, men who were sexist or racist, and asks if we’re going to throw out the whole canon while we’re at it. It’s my contention, during those arguments, that when the abusive writer is still alive, buying their books condones their actions. It sends the message that their books and our curricula matter more than the women they abuse. It allows their careers to thrive, intact, without any consequences, without any justice for the women.

I ended a friendship over a lack of consequences, of justice. There was no reckoning with my friend because there couldn’t be: I learned of his abuse privately, from a woman who didn’t want anything to do with coming forward. I believed her instantly — though not because it squared with what I knew of my friend, or how he treated me — and then it took me over a year to figure out how to end the friendship without betraying her confidence. It took me over a year for less honorable reasons, too. Cowardice among them.

And what of teaching the writers who are not alive, but are not so long-dead? What of celebrating their books? What of our unending awe, our near-worship of their tortured genius, right in the faces of the still-living women they abused? Our “alleged” and our “accusations?”

It is easy to say that I mourn and remember Wallace as my teacher, and not as a famous writer. His suicide didn’t unshape the parts of me that he shaped, even though I thought it did for a long time, and the belief he once expressed in my work, and the faith he taught me to have in my own work and in art didn’t die with him, nor will that faith die with the knowledge of his cruelty to women. And learning that he abused women in the past doesn’t mean I have to unlearn the lessons he taught me about teaching, the ones I carry with me into the classroom every day.

But the truth is not so easy. The truth is, I can’t separate Wallace the teacher from Wallace the writer any more than I can separate the Wallace that I knew from the Wallace who abused Mary Karr. I can’t separate them, and I can’t reconcile them. And the fact is, I still teach his work.

I first read Mary Karr’s elegy for Wallace, “Suicide’s Note: An Annual,” upon its publication in 2012, the year after a man wrote a terrible thing about me, four years after Wallace’s death, six years before she tweeted about his abuse of her. Then, reading her poem of wild bereavement, of anger and betrayal at his suicide, of her tenderness and love for him, I saw my own wisps of confused grief — the inarguably minor grief of a student for her mentor — enlarged by orders of magnitude and at the same time crystallized into something I could hold onto. Like: “I wonder does your /death feel like failure to everybody who ever / loved you.” In one of his letters, Wallace wrote to me, “Don’t use ‘validated’ that way. It’s something Dr. Laura would say,” — but if I were to ignore his advice, I’d say that Karr’s poem validated what so many people — men — said was invalid about my grief.

Now, I read and reread “Suicide’s Note,” as if the poem will forgive me the way it seems to forgive Wallace. “We sigh you out into air and watch you rise like rain.” I cling to the idea — I swear I read it in some interview — that he made amends to her. Admittedly, in my experience of alcoholics making amends to me, they tend not to cover the half of it. It’s not really for the person to whom they make amends, anyway. It’s one of the steps in their own recovery.

Then again, isn’t that the whole idea? If Wallace did recover from his addictions, and if I’m right in my perhaps willfully naive belief that he stopped preying on students, then I could reasonably go on to argue that he made real, true amends in a more cosmic, important sense, within his foreshortened lifetime, in his boundless devotion and generosity to his students — and, one might say, to his readers.

Lie: It’s not up to me to forgive Wallace. There are teachers everywhere, most of them women, who, without a million dollar signing bonus or any recognition at all, give to their students every bit as much care and deep attention as Wallace gave to us. And there are more abusers than we know (and probably more who we do know, intimately, but pretend otherwise), and they are surely emboldened by the pass that Wallace and others get.

Lie: It’s not up to me to condemn Wallace, either. I’m too deep in it, too implicated. Art, abuse, genius, monsters, death, redemption, what and whom we value and what and whom we don’t: these are important questions, and they are also delicate questions. Too delicate for the blunt power of this impossible grief.

Truth: He asked me to trust him, and I did.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Amy McDaniel

Written by

Essayist, poet, writing teacher. Mom. Very good cook. Web: StudioFriend.co. Twitter/IG: @amysmcd

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Amy McDaniel

Written by

Essayist, poet, writing teacher. Mom. Very good cook. Web: StudioFriend.co. Twitter/IG: @amysmcd

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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