“During that class, I did not feel like a teacher; I only felt like a woman, a body in danger.”
Editor’s Note: The name of the student in this essay has been changed.
I taught at UC Santa Barbara, and had been on campus earlier that day. I had also been an undergraduate student there years before. I was at home during the shooting, far enough away that I heard it on the news like the rest of the country, close enough that I drove past the massacre site on the way to teach every day.
The killer’s manifesto, in which he spelled out his plan to kill every “slut” who had ever denied him sex as “retribution” for still being a virgin, went viral. With a chill, I recognized his sentiment, a heightened version of various experiences I’d had with men who thought I existed for their gazes alone. Sometimes it came from male students, whose eyes I couldn’t duck.
The question that rattled in my head that day was not How do we escape violence? It was How do women avoid being blamed for it?
The year before the shooting, one of my students, Lucy, came to my office and told me a student named Joe had told a roomful of students that I wanted to sleep with him. “No one believed him, though,” Lucy told me when she saw my agitation. “I just thought you’d want to know.”
I flipped through my memories of conversations with Joe, a quiet, imposing student, trying to pinpoint when I might have been too nice to him, smiled at him too long, been too encouraging about his work, given him the wrong idea.The familiar feeling—of living as prey—grabbed my throat, rendering me silent. To be discussed as a sexual object rather than as a lecturer left me guessing, grasping at Joe’s intentions. I wondered if it was difficult for many of my students to be taught by a young woman.
I am contingent faculty, which means my job is subject to chance. It exists only if there is enough money and sufficient enrollment. I spend each day of my working life in a state of impermanence, depending on others to decide I am worth keeping around, worth protecting. It means playing defense with every word and movement in my classroom, and not being able to explain why I’m so tired of trying to navigate students who need more from me than just feedback on their writing. A misstep can be ruinous.
A week or so after I learned to be afraid of Joe, he came into my office and closed the door. “I have something personal I’d like to talk to you about,” he said.
“Will you please leave the door open?” I asked, noting how my voice changed when I was afraid and pretending not to be.
He ignored my request. “You don’t know me,” he said, his words slow and swimming in malice. “You don’t know my life, so I don’t appreciate you passing judgments on me.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Your lectures are obviously passing judgment on my lifestyle choices.” He lorded over me, blocking the open door with his body, pointing his finger at me. I could smell his hot breath on my face. I was too scared to remember to look at his hands, or his pockets, for anything that might hurt me.
Again I looked to the door, trying to determine whether I could slip under his arms and run outside, and whether he would chase me. “Can you give me an example?” I knew the rolling chair between us could be a weapon if I needed it to be.
“It’s obvious to everyone!” he shouted.
A colleague heard him and looked in. Over Joe’s shoulder, I used my eyes to communicate: Please. And help. He understood.
“You’ve got to get out of here,” my colleague told Joe. He was taller than Joe and surer of his words. He did not appeal to Joe’s better instincts to leave me alone. He appealed to his masculinity by being bigger, by speaking louder. It was a powerful tool and one I’d never be able to brandish.
When Joe left, I sat down and let myself cry quietly for thirty seconds. My colleague stood and waited.
“I’m fine,” I told him. “He didn’t even touch me. He just scared me.”
Ten minutes later I walked into my next class and saw Joe sitting in the back, silent, looking at his desk. I shuffled papers around, asked students some questions about the reading, looked at the clock often, and cast my gaze toward the door and the window to see if they were open. During that class, I did not feel like a teacher; I only felt like a woman, a body in danger. I let my students talk about Djuna Barnes while Joe sat against a wall, arms folded across his chest, andI was careful what I said about the Lost Generation writers, aware that Joe apparently thought any reference to them—their writing, their sexuality—was a coded message, a judgment of him. Once I saw that the sun was slanting through the blinds into his eyes; without stopping my lecture, I walked over and lowered the blinds, shading his eyes from the sun. Appeasing him felt like a way to keep myself safe.
After class I went to the front office to ask what I should do. One of the older professors in my department had told me the best way to job security was to slip under the radar. “Don’t try to be a golden girl,” he told me. “Don’t draw attention to yourself.”
“Did he touch you?” the woman at the front desk asked when I told her what happened.
“No,” I said. Not exactly. Not with his hands. There are lots of ways to be touched, is what I wish I had said. But I didn’t, because I wanted to keep my credibility and my job.
That is why I got the phone number for distressed students and called to ask for a wellness check for Joe, pretending I was concerned about his safety rather than my own. That is how I slipped into adjunct personhood—by being quiet, by not drawing attention to myself, by ignoring my own instincts and safety so fully I do not recognize the self that did it.
I did file a campus-wide restraining order, which meant Joe could no longer take my classes. I looked the other way when I saw him in the halls. It was the smallest means of protection, but I clutched it like a shield and tried not to feel sorry I had done it, or histrionic because he never actually touched me.
The shooting threw my close call with Joe into relief, reminding me of the thin membrane separating me from danger. I had not protected myself against Joe, and after the Isla Vista shooting, remembering the fear I had felt that day in my office, I worried I was one of the people Joe would come for first if he ever snapped.I worried that by choosing my job over my life, it might be possible to lose both.
Joe felt blamed, victimized, scared, and alone, just like the shooter. Joe, too, later wrote a manifesto and posted it online, one in which he claimed the FBI was trying to pin the Isla Vista murders on him and Amnesty International was not returning his calls. When I saw this, I felt both relieved that I had not imagined the full danger Joe could have posed, and guilty for not making a bigger deal out of his threat to me. The relationship between Joe and the real shooter was not only in my mind—he had made that connection as well.
A few weeks ago, while writing this essay, I received an eight-paragraph Facebook message from Joe. “So apparently Your Daddy tried to get me murdered with a soundbyte,” he wrote. “He intentionally misinterpreted Othello and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in order to manipulate everyone into thinking I’m an asshole.” Joe wrote that the university and all his professors had exploited his schizophrenia, murdered his parents, and abandoned him.
This time, I picked up the phone and called the police.
Officer Power guessed the student’s name before I’d even finished the backstory, and said he’d add it to Joe’s file. “We consider him an empty threat,” he told me. Joe was now homeless, he explained, confined to a three-mile radius on his bike, without a cell phone or any other means of transportation. “He doesn’t want any treatment,” the police officer told me. “He just wants people to hear him. There are two hundred miles between you—the worst that might happen is an angry internet comment.”
Rather than reassuring me, it scared me to learn the the exact distance between him and me. It wasn’t enough. But by speaking up and writing it down, I felt that this time I had claimed my own body and the voice it contains. I had been believed. I could name the ways in which my life is not wholly contingent on what someone else says or does.
Secondary trauma describes what someone experiences when they hear about the firsthand trauma of another. My students and colleagues were so angry about the news vans outside the classrooms in the week after the 2014 shooting, because we did not want to be filmed in our shock and grief. We wanted to sit in silence and figure out what had happened, and why, and how to stop it from happening again. I wanted to think about the choice I made the first time Joe scared me—to keep my job safe over my body—and determine why it had felt like the only choice.
What happened in Isla Vista affected me as adjunct faculty, as a former student, as a woman. It is still the lens through which I experience the possibilities or realities of violence around me now. It is what drives me to take them seriously.
Once I chose my job over my physical safety. I’m reminded of that choice each time I worry about believability, permanence, and chance in my life as a woman and an adjunct on campus. I think about the gifts of both life and teaching as often as I remember their fragility. If life were not fragile, we would not protect it so. With three years between that spring and now, I try to remember that deserving to be here, feel safe here, should not be dependent on anything other than my existence.