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The Trials of the Young: A Semester by MARY GAITSKILL

In 2014 I was hired, for two consecutive spring semesters, to teach writing and literature at one of the officially happiest colleges in America. The place was located in a beatific, temperate environment, with mountain views and imposing, elegant architecture; extraordinary foliage and trees burst from the very pavement, flowers were everywhere. There were outdoor swimming pools, conveniently placed grills and fountains, the latter to be drunkenly danced in on graduation or really whenever somebody felt like it. Upbeat music emitted from invisible speakers, wafting constantly across enormous athletic fields; artistic performances and lectures were available almost every day or night. The faculty were erudite, dedicated, and inspiringly strange. Students were receptive, hard-working, and very well-prepared; they were the best undergrads I had ever encountered. They were also, with few exceptions, remarkably easy-going.

There was something intimidating about the opulence of the place, and also a little eerie; to me, that kind of apparent perfection invariably holds the secret of its inevitable ruin. I knew it was perverse to feel that way in the midst of a wonderful opportunity for which I was grateful — but I did feel that way, almost on arrival. The stark rectilinearity of the architecture, the Triumph of the Will plazas, the huge terraced terracotta buildings — if you aren’t used to that scale of things it is disorienting, especially if you are the only human walking the huge expanse between the huge structures. So, at the end of what turned out to be a lovely semester, when one of my favorite students, a kid from India named Chetan (not his real name; all names in this essay have been changed) caustically informed me that this was “the happiest college in America” and that it got on his nerves, I sincerely replied, “Yeah, I know what you mean. What’s wrong with them?” 

But whatever was wrong wasn’t wrong with all of them; some people apparently were not so happy at all. By the fall of 2015, the Dean of Students had been essentially forced to resign after a humongous campus-wide protest about her alleged racial insensitivity, which somehow got combined (in the media) with a Facebook photo of two grinning blonde students in Halloween costumes that featured ponchos, sombreros, and glued-on mustaches. A quivering apparatus sprang up to attack the unhappiness: more multicultural clubs, more diverse hiring, a mentoring program, and an administrator to oversee diversity came into being.

But when I returned for another engagement in 2019 I noticed that students were no longer so easy-going: they were positively touchy. A higher percentage per class needed mental-health disability dispensations and a couple of students had to take time off due to breakdowns. During the semester a student published an essay in the school paper titled “On Being Unhappy at One of the Happiest Colleges in America.” The writer identified his experience of racism as the source of his discontent, but towards the end of his piece he broadened his focus to note that the happiness itself could create mental health stress across the student body. He mentioned the deaths of two white male students that had occurred within the same week that year, one a suicide, the other a drug overdose.

An anecdote about those deaths that is minor but which seems relevant: in conjunction with mass counseling services and a candlelit remembrance, a community gathering was also held featuring a free food truck, board games, and coloring supplies.

Fast forward to 2021. The unhappiness was continuing its upward creep, for obvious reasons: the pandemic, the exponentially growing climate crisis, political madness culminating in the attack on the Capitol, the ever louder voice of white nationalism, the murder of George Floyd, the vicious street attacks on Asian people which seemed to loom larger and more horrible in contrast with the extra anti-racist vigilance on campus.

Anyone who isn’t living in off-grid isolation is aware of the tireless efforts by hyper-conscious campus administrations to create classrooms where everyone feels safe and as few people as possible will be made “uncomfortable,” let alone unhappy. Some institutions require “trigger warnings” to be announced before “problematic” material is read, and some classic texts might not be taught at all — for example, professors of literature might hesitate to include a story by Flannery O’Connor (featuring the n-word) on their syllabus. Title IX protects everyone from rape or harassment, and mandatory training “modules” educate faculty about proper codes of conduct and speech. In response to the stressors listed above, the response at the now less-happy campus was to double down on such efforts: fewer white male authors on the syllabus, please, and more instructional modules on how to engage students over Zoom, more anti-racist teacher trainings, more refinements of language (the n-word should not be uttered aloud for any reason by any not-black person, not even if the person is reading it from a hundred-year-old text), more polls on how more diversity might be achieved.

Such strenuous gesticulation has been so widely mocked (even by academics who do it) that it is easy to forget why it started. Campus assaults and sometimes horrific drunken rapes were a part of campus life for decades and I don’t doubt that they still occur. (For a recent example, see the Hobart and William Smith frat rape, 2014.) In the almost thirty years in which I have taught as a visitor at various universities, I have witnessed or heard about disgusting and demoralizing racial insults (in 2005, for example, a program on the student TV station at Syracuse University featured images of an actual lynching on a comedy show) as well as the more subtly painful experience of isolation faced by minority groups — experience that professors could unintentionally exacerbate or not notice or not know how to address if they did notice. 

But still, even people outraged by such cruelties might fairly mock the corrective apparatus, not only because it is ridiculous (which it often is) or dictatorial (which it often is, even if people on the ground are usually reasonable in its application). The deeper trouble is that it is ineffectual and confusing. It is confusing to conflate the reading of a hate word in a book from one hundred years ago with its actual use in the present time; it is confusing to treat the fictional expression of misogyny as if it is the real thing. It is desensitizing to hear a routine “land acknowledgment statement” read before every gathering. Anyone who thinks it’s funny to broadcast the image of a lynching victim or who would take part in a gang rape might grit their teeth and undergo the retraining, but I can’t imagine that their racism or misogyny would be moved by it.

On a less drastic level, such statements and modules are too easily parroted and thus absorbed into the status quo that they are trying to challenge. In 2019, one of my male students repeatedly used the phrase “toxic masculinity” in an essay on Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, and while the words were not completely inappropriate, they struck me as empty. I asked him in a private conversation what he meant by the phrase, and he basically said that he learned it at a talk held during his freshman orientation; it meant entitled men treating women badly. I said I didn’t think that those descriptors applied to the character in the book exactly, that there are more interesting ways to talk about him. At some point in the conversation I asked him how he felt about the neutral trait “masculine” being linked with poison. He shrugged affably and said it was okay with him, he didn’t mind.

Of course he didn’t mind. He was a handsome young guy with a perfectly good mind and a winning combination of confidence and politeness. I wonder, would anyone tell this guy that he had “toxic masculinity?” Maybe a girl angry because he failed to text her back, or a girl flirting with him—and now, courtesy of the mandatory talk, he can win points by saying it first, plus he can use it in papers and get points that way, too. Easy peasy! 

But less confident, less sophisticated young men — those with the most vulnerable self-esteem — might find it disconcerting to be told, no matter how sensitively it was put, that the trait that they have grown up considering desirable, their most basic default identity is now toxic. This does not seem to me a minor side effect.

So. My recent fiction writing class in this complicated environment was quite small, partly because a few of the people that I accepted had read an interview I did with The New Statesman in Britain which made them think that my “stance” regarding “SA” (sexual assault) would make them feel “unsafe” in class. But I was pretty happy with my group of eight, including one very animated and bright guy named Luke who on the first day told me that he couldn’t sit still, he needed to pace. He assured me that his pacing would not indicate disrespect of any kind; it was just part of his personal energy and he had to do it. But when I explained that pacing was okay during a Zoom class but in person he had to sit still, it turned out that he was able to do so.

He could not refrain from pacing, however, when he came back to my office with me to discuss his first project. During that conversation he paced and paced, taking books off the shelves and commenting on them before focusing on his main question, which was: could he write his first story about someone who rapes, murders, and jerks off on the body of a little girl — in the first person?

I replied: “No. Not in this climate. It would cause a big fuss and frankly I don’t want to deal with it. People would go nuts, the dean’s office would get involved, it would be a crisis. I mean, maybe later on you could ask the class how they would feel about it? Maybe if they got to know you? But — “

In case you are wondering why the equivocation instead of a loud clear no, it was because I used to believe — it is almost instinctive for me to believe — that anything is fair game in a writing class, that even the most offensive subjects are open for exploration in the free country of art. But years of teaching experience (most specifically the year 1997, about which more in a moment) have persuaded me otherwise, at least when it comes to undergrads. Still, it was hard to be immediately clear-cut with this extremely enthusiastic, friendly, and intelligent kid. It was actually hard not to get up and start pacing with him.

“The other issue with writing on that subject,” I continued, “is that it’s really hard to write anything good, especially in the first person. Because no one really understands why people do those kinds of crimes. The people who do them especially don’t understand why they —”

“You’re completely wrong,” Luke replied. “They do understand why they do it.”

I asked why he thought so; he cited an interview that he had read in which a high-IQ serial killer explained the causes of his murderousness (basically, Mom Rage). I said, “Okay, I get that. But I don’t know if those explanations really explain anything and anyway I think you should come up with something else to write.”

Eventually he did. He wrote about a double suicide featuring hallucinatory and extremely violent images of self-harm, the most violent thing about it being the total unreality of anyone in the story but the narrator. As writing it was good, even powerful in its efforts to render the self-hate it described, in layers of dreamish, hellish pictures that were truly painful to read. But the other students who expressed strong feelings about it disliked it for its solipsism; they disliked in particular that the female character in particular was a voiceless prop. That feature got some critical attention from me as well. But I think mostly the class, including myself to a degree, were unnerved by the sheer, unrelenting, unvaried rage-pain of it. Luke took it all pretty gracefully, even if the sexism part plainly irritated him.

Minutes after the class ended, I got an email from Luke in which he described hitting himself in the face; he said he thought I would enjoy it. I wrote back, I’m sorry to say a little flippantly, that I hoped this didn’t mean he was upset by the reception of his story. He indignantly replied that it meant no such thing. Then he emailed again, attaching what he said he would really like to submit to the class though he knew it was too edgy for them. It was, basically, a description of a guy preparing to torture a younger guy who idolized him, including a detailed description of what he meant to do plus a vivid description of what some serial killer had done to his mom. I replied that he was right, this would not go over well.

Then I emailed an administrator to tell her that I was concerned about a student. I met with her in person in an outdoor setting — covid was surging — which was as usual spectacularly beautiful. She asked me if I thought the student was presenting a “safety issue” for the class; I said I was not a hundred percent sure — you can’t be these days! — but he probably wasn’t going to come to class with an assault rifle and start shooting. I believed that he was more likely a danger to himself. She said she would put out feelers to see if he had “set off any alarm bells” for anyone else, or had in any way “gotten on the radar” of the mental health apparatus.

We talked a little about the student body in general. She said mental health issues were “through the roof,” that a number of students had already been sent home in that calendar year to receive care; in some cases, their parents had to be persuaded to accept them back. She expressed the opinion that even before the pandemic, student mental health had been declining for… I don’t recall the number of years she gave. We talked about why this might be; our ideas were not original. She thought upper-class parents were so over-protecting their children that the kids could not deal with even a managed environment on their own. I thought they were disconnected from their own bodies because so much social life had migrated away into the digital ether. I thought they could not sit still and be with themselves or comfort themselves. We agreed that the world was going to shit.

My mind was not put to rest by the conversation. Luke had disturbed me and I didn’t know what I felt: anger or compassion or real interest in his mind. And he was not my only concern. Another student had turned in a story about suicide, specifically an attempted suicide, which I foolishly assumed to be completely fictional because the protagonist was female while the writer was male, and because the details of the hospital in which the character recovered were completely unconvincing, as was the dialogue assigned to therapists and staff. Several other people in the class also felt that part of the story was unconvincing and, apparently, they spoke from personal knowledge. Almost half the class had spent time in a mental institution, enough to know what the experience was like. And the author, upon being critiqued, revealed, seemingly out of sheer exasperation, that he too had experienced this. The story was in part autobiographical, he said.

It was a startling moment. It was also a softening moment. There was a beat of silence during which I felt the room become gentler, more empathic, a feeling so palpable it was akin to touch. It was natural for me to take advantage of the soft moment to say that I appreciated the writer’s will to tackle such a difficult subject; not only difficult personally, but, owing to the depth and the perversity of it, objectively hard to illuminate. Which made Luke protest loudly, insisting once again that I was completely wrong about the difficulty of the subject, and that writers should not hesitate to go there. I responded crabbily that of course writers could go there but they should understand that it was not easy, and they should not be surprised if they failed the first or second or third time.

We then moved on to the next startling moment, which arose from a discussion about technique. The discussion concerned a moment of dialogue during a scene when the protagonist’s parents arrive at the hospital, right after she has come to consciousness; it was trite and emotionally flat. I allowed that sometimes in terrible situations people do say things that are trite, because they are overwhelmed. I suggested that the writer could add depth by describing the parent’s facial expressions, their voices and movements. “When the mother hugs her daughter, what does the hug feel like?” The student asked me what I meant. I tried to explain: her body could feel hard and tense, it could feel soft and warm. It could feel weak or strong. There are a lot of different gradations of touch, I said; a person’s body can say a lot of things that they don’t say in words. And the student replied, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’ve never felt anything like that in a hug.”

The thought popped into my head: “That is why you felt suicidal.” Later, more sensibly, I thought that the student was possibly just being defensive. But I wondered. I meant what I had said to the admin person. I think people are becoming crazy because they have become too estranged from their own bodies to feel them. Or to feel other people.

I am not alone in thinking that the pandemic made such estrangement worse. But I remember becoming aware of it many years before, during a discussion of internet porn with a nearly all-female class. The discussion was triggered by a story about the inhibiting effects of porn on girls who, because boys have become so habituated to it, feel obligated to imitate the actresses. Eventually I said that performance could never replace genuine bodily response. One beautiful young woman in her late twenties looked at me with troubled eyes and said, “But how do you know if it’s genuine?” I smiled and said, “You can feel it. Its unmistakable.” She just looked at me, her troubled expression deepening.

After the suicide workshop, I emailed Luke and asked him why he was so sure he could understand a subject like suicide or murder. Really, I asked, you think you understand a serial killer? Can you explain that to me?He didn’t answer. He didn’t come to class. I reached out to the administrator to ask if she knew anything more about him. Before she responded I got an email from Luke telling me that he was going to be taking a leave of absence. He apologized for any inconvenience that he had caused; he said he was probably going to be kicked out. “You must be relieved,” said a friend. But I wasn’t. I was sad.

I was even more sad — incredulous, actually — when another student wrote about suicide. During the course of the semester, four out of eight students wrote about suicide. Two wrote about attempts they had made themselves, the other two about friends, one of whom actually died. Something to be noted about these stories: there was nothing inert or passive about them. The despair that they expressed was vivid, intense, sometimes outraged in a focused political way, sometimes in a personal and flailing way. I had never experienced anything like it at this school—or any school—before. I asked the only other creative writing teacher in the department what his experiences were like that semester, and he said no suicide but lots of violence: siblings stabbing each other, a guy poisoning his mom, animal abuse.

Which actually seemed more normal to me — not for that school, but over the course of my almost thirty years of teaching. People can let it all hang out in writing classes and sometimes “it” is very unpleasant. Prior to this particular semester, the record for unpleasantness had been held by an undergrad class I taught in Texas in 1997. By 2022, the experience of that class had become a distant, grotesquely comic anecdote. But during my most recent semester, the memory of it came back a lot. The students in both classes — the one twenty-five years ago and the one last spring — were unusual as a group (in the Texas case you could say actually kooky). Both included a strange maybe/maybe not menacing guy obsessed with violence. Both had the feeling of a controlled surface under which something awful and incoherent was making itself felt, demanding to be known. The “strange guys” in question were very different in character, behavior, and talent (which in this context matters). The more essential differences were about time and culture: these differences say a great deal about what was once not only tolerated but embraced.

At the university in Texas in 1997, there was no concept of safe spaces regarding feelings, no idea of trigger warnings or racial sensitivity. The school was good, with a highly regarded MFA program, but otherwise not prestigious or physically opulent; there was no special claim to happiness. I was there for three semesters, and in all three of those semesters it was typical for undergraduate students, especially males, to write stories about murder. It was also normal for students, especially females, to write very sexually explicit stories; I had one girl who wrote something that was basically porn. Since she was older than average and frankly not attractive, I was afraid people would make fun of her, but to my relief they read and discussed her efforts politely.

The thing about these stories was this: they were not disturbing to me or to anyone else, because, regardless of the content, readers sensed in them no malice or aggressive desire to shock. Plainly the writers just thought they were cool stories. In the class I am writing about, however, something different happened. There were the usual boys writing about murder; there was a woman in her fifties writing about rediscovering her sexuality (protagonist joyfully masturbates on lawn while husband looks on admiringly) and a thirty-something woman writing super-degrading sex stories (bisexual boy sodomizes heroine with a carrot while declaring “I can’t believe I’m attracted to such an ugly girl!”).

And then there was a guy named Don — large, silent, pumped up, bald, in early middle-age — who wrote exhaustively, convincingly, and in the first person, about a sadistic killer of women. To say that one could sense malice in this project would be an understatement. His “novel” was carefully thought out, detailed, and realistic. I use scare quotes because the thing could barely be called a novel, it being rather a series of murder episodes void of character or dramatic tension.

And the kids loved it. More specifically, the girls loved it. I remember the boys looking down nervously while the girls enthused:

“I loved the part where he killed the middle-aged jogger! It was so specific, like the part where he stomped on her head and her eyeball started to come out? It was just better than when he killed the stripper because she fought back.”

“I really loved it, but I thought it would be more sexual for him, and I wanted to know more about that” — meaty bald guy earnestly nodding and taking notes — “like before he kills the stripper, I thought it might be good to describe her dancing some more?”

I had actually prepared a response to Don’s story that was meant to make the girls feel safe, and de-fang the narrative, and lead to a thoughtful discussion about the difficulty of writing well about violence. I don’t remember the actual words of my planned response; instead I remember the students’ comments, especially the following exchange:

She: “So how old is this guy?”

He: “I was twenty-five at the time.”

Class: high, delighted laughter.

She: “So, Don have you ever really killed anyone?” 

He: “No, but I’ve known someone who did.”

She: “Really?”

I found the reaction very weird, but I decided to roll with it. This wasn’t sheer passivity: as noted, my ethos at the time, something I had spent energy on in classes, was the idea that art was a place to explore feelings and acts that we would avoid in life. I made a point of periodically reminding kids that some of the greatest art is about terrible people doing terrible things. In 1997 this ethos was, if not mainstream, well-represented: Natural Born Killers had been made only a few years earlier, Marilyn Manson was claiming in a print interview (in Spin, I believe) to have lit women’s breast implants on fire, and Dennis Cooper had become famous for writing novels about men sexually abusing and killing boys. In truth, I disliked all of the “art” listed above, found it shallow, grating, and gross. I felt the same way about Don’s writing. But it would have gone against my grain to tell him that he could not write it.

And write it he did, getting ever more titillated reactions from the class, which I sensed were also becoming more anxious. I was definitely becoming more anxious, even fearful. I was also angry — furious, actually. I felt he was, if not exactly hijacking the class, distorting its focus. If he wants to be uncensored, I thought, then I get to be uncensored too, free to use his story as an example of failed writing about violence, comparing it instructively to work by Cormac McCarthy and Genet, among others. In a way those comparisons were quite respectful, as they indicated that I took him seriously which, actually, I did. There was something genuine in his writing — horrible, but genuine.

Still, after the second workshop he came up to me and said, “I don’t understand your criticism.” I told him he could come to my office hours if he wanted to discuss it. He said, “You should’ve seen the first draft. In that version I kill everybody in the class including the teacher.” I said, “That’s very funny Don.” He laughed.

I think that was when I went to the administration with copies of his story. The woman I spoke with recognized his name immediately. She said he was a strange guy: had been attending classes at the university for about ten years, changing his major with some frequency. Sometimes his grades were excellent, sometimes he just about flunked. He also changed his appearance radically; the last time she had seen him he was very thin, with shoulder-length hair, the opposite of how he looked at that moment. I explained my concerns; I showed her a few pages of his writing and repeated what he had said to me after class. I asked her if I could kick him out; I hadn’t decided that I wanted to do that, but I did want to know if it was an option. To my astonishment she informed me that no, it was not an option, not unless he “did something.” She told me that a similar situation had occurred a few years back, not in the English department but in History. A student had made a threatening remark to a teacher, was expelled from the class and went on to successfully sue the school. I don’t exactly remember who this administrator was in the hierarchy; now I wonder if I might have gotten a different response had I pursued the matter further.

But I didn’t pursue it further. I gritted my teeth and hoped for the best, and well, at least something interesting happened. During our final thoughtful exploration of Don’s violent narrative, the woman in her fifties, probably the least popular person in class, had finally had enough. “I don’t know if I should say this,” she ventured, “because I don’t want to end up dead in a ditch somewhere”—tolerant laughter from the class—“but I am sick of this shit. This is like porn. This is like”—pounding the table with both fists—“FUCKING FUCKING FUCKING!” The kids rolled their eyes at the uncoolness; Don glared malevolently.

And I, finally, said the most sensible, possibly the only sensible, thing I said during the entire episode: “Margery raises a valid point. Writing like this creates fear. That is its purpose.” In response, every single girl on one side of the room, girls who had been enthusiastically expressing their admiration for Don, turned to me with wide, childishly frightened eyes and mutely nodded their assent. It was astonishing, because just a moment earlier they had rolled their eyes as if what Margery had said was beneath them. Their feelings of titillation and fear were that connected and that labile. The semester was almost over, but somehow the admission of this more natural response defused the tension in the class at least somewhat; reality had been asserted. I felt chastened that it had taken another student (albeit an older and more mature one) to get us there.

I left Texas shortly after the semester ended. Over the next twenty-five years or so, teaching at various universities, I had a few weird, even scary students, and a scattering of gruesome stories, including two about suicide. But I never encountered anything like the instability of that class in Texas, with its fascination for violence that almost amounted to longing, but with such terror underneath, it was almost as if the fascination was an attempt to neutralize the terror by becoming its friend. As time went on, I came to think of the experience as a relic of a particular time — louche, careless, and ridiculous. After tragedies such as the Virginia Tech massacre, the climate changed radically; I didn’t think a guy like Don would be tolerated for two minutes on the happiest campus in America.

Luke, however, was another story. He was not kicked out; after only a few days in a hospital he returned to class with the full strength of the mental health apparatus behind him. I was encouraged by the apparatus to cut him as much slack as possible, which I was willing to do, and he seemed genuinely to appreciate the forbearance. I asked if he thought he could turn in the story that he had scheduled for workshop; it would be tight and no one could switch places with him. He said he would try his best. He also let me know that the piece he was working on described sexual situations and used words like “faggot.” He did not mention that it was a first-person murder narrative, but since the murdered character was a rich white guy who had sexually exploited the college kid who killed him, I didn’t expect anyone to be offended. And they weren’t. They showed real goodwill. It helped that the story was good and the killer likeable (a subjective concept with absurdly high currency in college workshops), with “relatable” self-esteem issues. My main criticism of it was its uniformity of tone and the lack of the physical world rendered descriptively.

But that wasn’t so bad, given that few of them seemed able to describe anything. It is harder than it seems to accurately and evocatively “see” the world through a character’s eyes. It is even harder if your own eyes are so often fixed on a tiny screen that you barely register what is actually happening in front of you. I have seen people walk into traffic while scrolling on their phones. I have nearly walked off a sidewalk platform that suddenly came to an end because I was scrolling on my phone. I know, everyone knows, that traffic accidents have happened because of people screwing around on their phones.

But there are more subtle effects. Fifteen years ago, even ten years ago, when I took a long walk, either in the city or in the natural world, it was a kind of mediation that happened without my trying. I became wholly absorbed in what was around me, in textures and shapes, in the human imprint of buildings, sidewalks, backyards, grasses, trees, fungus, worn roads, crushed leaves. It was a profoundly calming and rejuvenating reminder of the greater world and my own animal connection with it. When I go for walk now, it is different: even if I only look at my phone once or twice, the experience, while still soothing, is not as deep. My consciousness is kept from full absorption in the physical world by its neurological attunement to the electronic portal in my pocket — or back in my house, if I didn’t even bring the thing with me. My bodily connection to the environment is thus weakened. And I cannot believe I am the only one being affected in this way.

I was surprised by the final suicide story. It was written by a seemingly temperate girl who had previously written subtle, quiet stories set in small towns; I wondered if — I hoped that — she had written this thing about a guy blowing his brains out in front of a girlfriend under the influence of her peers. But in a private conference she told me that she chose the subject because four people she had known in her small town had killed themselves or tried, and she was attempting to understand it. I asked her why she thought this had happened in her town. She replied that people now find it impossible to be satisfied with themselves, that no one thinks they are good enough, that girls in particular suffer profoundly over how their bodies look and cannot separate appearances from character. She named the usual suspects: social media, particularly Tik Tok and Instagram. We talked about how crippling this distorted mirroring can be, how ephemeral the sense of self can become when electronic images are more important than the actual human bodies around you. 

Towards the end of the semester, Luke started missing classes; when he did show up, he looked and acted pretty out of it. He said he was so busy with other things that he completely forgot his final workshop date, and asked if he could turn something in after the semester ended. Annoyed by his attitude, I didn’t respond right away. The next day he sent me a late reply to the email that I had sent over a month earlier asking him why he thought he could understand serial murderers. He agreed that you could not know the precise reasons that individuals kill, but felt that the abstract reasons could be located in a nexus of power, domination, and control. He referred to a forensics expert who believes that murder can best be understood not by the killer’s words, but through forensic analysis of crime scenes, scenes that this expert compares to a kind of art. In fact, this expert, according to Luke, thinks that serial killers’ crimes “must be thought of as art.” Luke seemed enchanted by this idea and expounded on it at length, choosing as his one specific example “young men who rape old women,” women they often know. He went on to opine about what it meant when the hypothetical young men mutilated the hypothetical old women, before or after death, etc.

There was more to the email which was, actually, polite and earnest in tone, that is when it wasn’t weird and desperate in tone. But the old lady rape/mutilation scenario was like an infuriating noise that obscured anything else. I wrote back (politely and earnestly) that I thought the forensic expert was wrong, that murder is in no way like art, and I dutifully expressed concern for his well-being — and then I reached out to the mental health apparatus. I had no idea what to expect, but I was surprised by what happened.

The woman with whom I spoke — I believe she was an assistant dean — seemed very thoughtful and kind. She said she had been keeping tabs on Luke — she had lunch with him just a few days ago — and she thought he was doing very well. She asked if I thought there was a “safety issue” for me or anyone else. I told her that I didn’t think so, but that I had found his email disturbing. I described it to her; and I may have read from it, I don’t recall. She said it wasn’t really enough to act on. I understood — what kind of action would one take? — but I asked her if she would like me to send the email to her just so that she would have it. She said no, she preferred that I not send it. I asked why. She said, “Because if I see it, I’ll have to do something.” I asked her what she would have to do. She said she would have to report it and then Luke would be hauled before some committee or other, which in her opinion would just make the situation worse. I could actually see the sense in this. But I hung up wondering, where in hell is the safe space around here? I want a safe space!

I also wondered why the only options were inaction or hauling the student before a committee. I wondered what would happen if he was instead required to sit down with the assistant dean and myself and answer certain questions. What exactly are you thinking? Why are you writing to your old lady professor about young men raping old ladies with whom they are acquainted? I didn’t suggest this for the same reason that I didn’t respond to that part of the email; I did not want to feed it. But I think a face-to-face sit-down that was not about a personal relationship between him and me but which involved university personnel — someone supportive — would have been different. It could have been exactly what I think students — not just students, but most people now — are missing: physical engagement requiring that you look the person to whom you are speaking in the eye.

Of course, he could have gamed his way through it. He could have felt trapped and walked out. He could have gone back to his dorm and jerked off thinking about me and the dean raping each other. Such a meeting could have made the whole situation weirder. But given how weird it already was, I wish that I had at least made the suggestion.

I emailed Luke to tell him that he could give me his final story late, approximately a week late, on the same date that I gave another student who needed a late date due to Covid. He wrote back saying that he didn’t have time to do the story at all, and that he didn’t care if he got a D-, since he was probably going to drop out anyway. I replied that the option was there if he changed his mind and wished him the best going forward. It was a perfunctory response, but it was also sincere: as exasperating and disturbing as he was, Luke was plainly suffering. I was fed up, certainly, but in spite of myself I also had empathy for him because, unlike Don, I felt that he was trying, in his own twisted way, to work with something essential; murder and despair are not bugs but essential human features.

 Fascination with murder and despair is also an essential human feature, and the young have been ever-famous for their raving misery. I spent much of my twenties feeling miserable; I thought of suicide fairly often. Two of my friends attempted it. The culture of that time — the ‘70s and early ‘80s — was a delirium of insistent belief in total happiness and an exuberant fixation on violence and stylized pain. I’m thinking of the ridiculous hipster cult of the serial killer, the ironic popularity of films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, songs such as the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” or the Pretenders’ “Tattooed Love Boys, the latter an ecstatic ode to gang rape. I’m thinking of the laugh riot racism of Archie Bunker, the comic nihilism of punk, and the transformative genius of Richard Pryor, who, in making comedy out of his own childhood abandonment, abuse, drug addiction, imprisonment, and racist consignment to a low-status social category, located the life-force behind the cruelty and anguish of America and repurposed the crap out of it. All of it was rude, and sometimes casually mean and self-hating on purpose; it was silly sometimes not on purpose; but it was finally healing. By allowing the ugliness in and acknowledging it as part of our humanity, that cultural moment created a kind of spaciousness, even balance. It was its own kind of corrective to a false story of virtue and niceness. This privileging of darkness, I’m pretty sure, informed my Texas students’ seemingly bizarre forbearance towards someone who actually frightened them. 

But these days that breed of forbearance is looking like an indulgence that we cannot afford. These days, niceness is looking pretty damn good; these days, the darkness is just too overwhelming. Young children are being slaughtered in schools, and mass shootings of all description take place weekly for weeks at a stretch, while Congressional leaders treat gun ownership as sacred; black people — actually, white people too — are being murdered by the police; white nationalists are plotting a race war; lies and disinformation are everywhere; nuclear war in Europe suddenly looks possible; the West Coast is perpetually burning and Pakistan is catastrophically flooded, as the impending wave of hell nicknamed “climate change” rises over our heads. Yes, terrible things were happening in the 1980s, and terrible things have always been happening, but…not like this.

That young people, including my students, are reacting to all of the above with fear, anguish, and rage is appropriate, even rational. (The reaction makes particular sense in a cohort that has been encouraged to believe that happiness is an expected norm.) That they are fixating on problems they can control and maybe solve (the pronouncement of offending words, gender madness, “shitty” men, “problematic” assigned reading material) is understandable. That they want the safety — or the illusion of safety — provided by the corrective apparatus is also understandable. Only a fool would not crave safety in the face of what is happening now. But while the corrective apparatus is providing a measure of control, it cannot really provide safety. Metaphorically, it is making sure that the crusts are cut off all the sandwiches and that no dishes are left in the sink while zombie hoards beat on the walls and stick their hands through the windows.

I would like to end with a ringing conclusion of some kind, or at least a helpful suggestion. But I’m afraid that I can’t. The only thing I can say for sure is that the young deserve better. It has become standard to complain about how inept and spoiled the young are, but my students were in some ways pretty great. Their stories confronted not only suicide and violence but also dilemmas of artificial intelligence, gender animus, caring for a sick parent and sibling during the pandemic, the tenderness of asexual love, the awfulness of age, the timelessness of war — they were ambitious, humorous, and bright in the face of everything. But even if they weren’t, they would deserve better. Not only them, not only the other young people whom I met at the colleges where I taught, but also the working-class kids and the poor kids who spend hours alone in apartments that their single mothers have forbidden them to leave because their neighborhoods are dangerous, possibly sitting glued to the same Instagram accounts that make their more privileged counterparts feel so inadequate they want to die. All of them deserve better. I wish to God that we knew how to give it to them.

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