Kenyon’s Empathy Exam

This post was guest authored by Amy Bergen ’04 in response to this article. 

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The open letter’s a strange form; the audience named, the rest of us on the periphery, eagerly eavesdropping. I read Annaliese Milano’s “An Open Letter to Kenyon: On Being an Inadequate ‘Performer’ of Mental Illness” via my Facebook feed, where 40% of us get our news nowadays. I graduated from Kenyon eleven years ago, in an era where we communicated mostly via the “all-stu”, an e-mail address that allowed you to send missives to the entire student body. We used and abused this function, debated and consoled, commiserated via in-group signaling in a way that only an insular community can. Passion, pain and reason vied for space, Facebook-style. The only filter was the one you gave yourself before you hit Send. All-stus were our Internet, our open marketplace.

Now the landscape’s changed to allow anyone invested in the Hill, such as myself, to commend Milano’s courage and risk-taking in being so open about her experience. I was diagnosed with depression at Kenyon and dealt with the symptoms there, as many, many, many of us do – so many that Kenyon covered the disorder extensively in its Alumni Bulletin. The Bulletin’s coverage is thoughtful and ultimately inconclusive. The College’s health team quotes anecdotes, statistics. Yes, it’s a challenge; yes, we’re doing the best we can. A reader can sense the public relations gloss of a piece like this, a subdued acknowledgement of the difficult questions – Do students self-mutilate, take their own lives? Can transference happen among professors, who at Kenyon interact with students on a deeper level than most colleges, and may suffer from mental illness themselves? – and a quick veering back to the talking points.

Kenyon can do better. Hopefully it will. I was disappointed to hear that the director of Student Accessibility and Support Services prioritized policy over Milano’s well-being, even after receiving documentation from professionals familiar with her case. But I wasn’t surprised. Colleges, hospitals, any institution where there’s a hierarchy, tend to invoke twin dictums – evenhandedness (if we do this for you, we have to do this for everyone) and safeguarding of reputation. Anyone who’s received mental health treatment for long enough or for a severe enough condition knows the word liability. And we all know the acronym CYA – cover your ass. Institutions go to great lengths to protect themselves from legal repercussions, at the expense of what’s best for the individual. I’m not certain that’s what Kenyon did in Milano’s case, but the emphasis on a “more substantial burden of proof” and the oddly circuitous excuses offered to her (how cold central Ohio gets in January?) lead me to believe that the staff didn’t respect her intelligence enough to be entirely honest.

Schools will compromise students’ education, and sometimes their recovery, for liability. Or for the best interest of the student, depending on who you ask. Earlier this year, BuzzFeed News reported on the phenomenon of colleges placing depressed students on medical leave only to prevent them from returning. The story discusses the confounding case of a Brown student barred from campus, and links to several similar cases at universities across the country. Author Katie J.M. Baker says: “No school wants a suicide — or, even worse, another Virginia Tech — on its campus. But those types of tragedies are rare, and under federal civil rights laws, schools can only remove a student with mental health issues from school if they pose a direct, significant threat to others that can’t be eliminated byadditional supports and services.” [Italics mine.]

Though I’m not a medical professional, I understand the importance of clinical boxes being checked. We all serve some master. Administrators are making tough decisions, and I understand erring on the side of caution, even reverting to the comfort of rules, when discussing a student’s life and health. That said, the student – the patient – is the one who must continue living their life when the meeting is over, when the case is closed.

I should mention here that I had a genuinely positive experience with Kenyon’s doctors, counselors and other staff during my therapy, though others I know did not. I’ve been hospitalized for depression several times in what passes for my “adult” life, and it made a world of difference, to my treatment and to my recovery, how the doctors and nurses and therapists spoke to me. When treated like a competent adult whose time was valuable, I felt like one. When made a partner in decisions about my therapy and medication, I returned to day-to-day life more effectively – ostensibly the goal. When power was taken out of my hands, I regressed. At times the concern was not if I would commit suicide, but where. “If we released you now, it would look bad,” said a doctor at one of the top teaching hospitals in the nation, during my three-minute audience with him. (A psychiatric hospitalization feels like an audition for a reality show. You wait in line for days to meet for less than five minutes with those in authority, who decide your fate based on that brief window then move on to the next in line.) I’m not absolving myself of responsibility, but pointing out that how things look is unfortunately a priority for many professionals, within Kenyon and without.

If colleges are enacting philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s Greatest Happiness Principle, “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong,” in their treatment of students with mental illnesses, they may have temporarily pacified a large student, alumni, and donor body by centering their energies on the students that are doing okay. Which, of course, is a callous misdirection. No one is doing okay. When the New York Times discussed the University of Pennsylvania’s competitive culture of perfection and rash of suicides, they described the “Penn Face” – “an apothegm long used by students to describe the practice of acting happy and self-assured even when sad or stressed…While the appellation is unique to Penn, the behavior is not. In 2003, Duke jolted  a report describing how its female students felt pressure to be ‘effortlessly perfect’: smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular, all without visible effort. At Stanford, it’s called the Duck Syndrome. A duck appears to glide calmly across the water, while beneath the surface it frantically, relentlessly paddles.”

The inadequate performance of mental illness that Milano cites can in fact be a coping mechanism –dress nicely, smile, pretend all is well and perhaps it will be. If these students are dismissed, the outcome doesn’t seem much better for students who perform mental illness within its more conventionally imagined paradigms.

So how can Kenyon’s staff step up? Believing a student’s words is a start; being transparent about specific steps they’re taking to accommodate all students’ needs would also help. Bear in mind the entire spectrum of invisible disabilities, chronic illnesses, the entire diversity of Kenyon’s community as it is and as we would like it to be.

Major news outlets are fond these days of discussing student “coddling”, trigger warnings in academia, and so forth. I’m reminded of an essay Writer-in-Residence P.F. Kluge published during my time at Kenyon, excerpted in the Chronicle of Higher Education as “Kamp Kenyon’s Legacy.” This legacy, in which every Kenyon student has a stake, centers his thoughts of the Hill – how will the College stand against mortality, transience, time? How will these four years change its scholars? Kluge didn’t invent the term “Kamp Kenyon” but in the astute and controversial piece, he defines its duality: “Kamp Kenyon is that part of the college which deals with campus life, student problems, drugs, date rape, housing, harassment, gender bias, dyslexia, dysfunction, disorders of all kinds, homesickness, seasickness, angst and anger…Kenyon College is about challenging and testing students, Kamp Kenyon is about accommodating clients. Kenyon College keeps students busy, Kamp Kenyon makes them happy. Kenyon Colleges trades in requirements, Kamp Kenyon in appeals that become entitlements. Kenyon College has rules, to which it makes rare exceptions. Kamp Kenyon trades in excuses which become the rule.”

“I see some students,” Kluge told me during his office hours, hastening to add “And you’re not one of them, Bergen…who I’d describe with the three Ms. Mopey, medicated and manipulative.” To succeed outside of the Kamp, he said, I had to meet the world on its terms (where everyone’s a little manipulative for survival’s sake, but that’s a digression). Yes, I know the type he’s describing. I believe they exist. No, I don’t think students are concocting disorders or filing false assault claims. But – stay with me here – I think there’s a cachet to depression and anxiety, perhaps especially for women, that may seem attractive without having to experience depression. Those of us prone to open self-pity know the pleasure of seeing someone’s face soften in sympathy and it’s seductive. I’ve done my share of moping and I’ve had my share of true, slicing major depressive disorder and they couldn’t be more different. Having your mind turn on you is torture. You lose faith in everything. Your bank account drains, your credibility erodes, you say things you can’t take back. Everyone expects a recovery arc, including your doctors, and when you don’t fulfill the happy-ending narrative they become angry. By the time you ask for help, you’re pleading with an open hand. You don’t simply want your horse at school because you feel entitled. Trust me, you feel fucking worthless.

Or, if your mind is clear enough, you assess the situation and do your homework. You know what to request and why. You’re not taking advantage of goodwill; like Milano, you have clinical backup. Perhaps you’re prepared for no. Your demands are simple: Respect me. Do not condescend to me. Do not offer a consolation prize in place of lasting change.

Kamp Kenyon’s consumer-pleasing juggernaut, Kluge argues, pre-empts genuine acts of goodwill on the part of the faculty and staff. The difference is between true compassion and the performance of compassion; an administrative initiative to distribute free hugs or a dialogue between a professor and a student that helps both understand the course material better, challenges their worldviews, leaves them changed. Which is more Kenyon? At NYU, where I did my graduate work, students passed out chocolate chip cookies in the library where a young man had jumped to his death a week earlier.Cookies were a cheap shortcut to the real, hard work of a healthy community – work from which none of us are exempt.

It’s tempting to resort to dictates here: Don’t assume anything about others’ pain. While indeed we shouldn’t, we are still creatures of assumption. Partly because our brain’s used to processing information through these easy pathways or it would explode with sensory bombardment; partly because we’ve internalized the racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and other paradigms lingering in our culture, and educating ourselves against them is lifelong work. We’re also solipsists. Even when our jobs require caring for others. When writer Leslie Jamison worked as a medical actor, asked to rate the medical students who assessed her imaginary conditions, she was told to pay particular attention to whether the medical students “voiced empathy for her situation/problem.” In “The Empathy Exams”, she dissects the word itself: “Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard – it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing…Empathy means realizing trauma has no discrete edges. Trauma bleeds.”

Jamison needs two real operations in the course of the essay, and she encounters one doctor who’s curt and dismissive. Surprised by how upset the doctor’s bluntness makes her, Jamison reflects on what was missing. “I needed people…to deliver my feelings back to me in a form that was legible. Which is a superlative kind of empathy to seek, or to supply: an empathy that rearticulates more clearly what it’s shown.”

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy invokes the concept of validation. It’s not a concept limited to therapy; it’s something we do all the time. More basic than sympathy, validation is acknowledging someone, hearing what they say, respecting it. Validation doesn’t require you to acquiesce or agree. A parent who validates a child may not give the child what they want, but they still listen to what the child has to say. On a fundamental level, validation seems the cornerstone of empathy: acknowledging that another person’s reality is as real as yours. Repeating back to them: You had a horrible experience. You had a shitty day. You are real. You are heard.

“I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about,” said David Foster Wallace in his famous Kenyon commencement address, “how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.” We emerge from the College stronger, freer people, but not necessarily happier. As Wallace goes on to explain, empathizing is some of the hardest work we will ever do.

I don’t think we want Kamp Kenyon. Happiness, pure contentment, isn’t the goal. That’s impossible. For a deliberately thoughtful, growing community, everyone – the students, the Student Accessibility staff, and everyone else – has to exercise compassion and hold high standards at once. The true Kenyon exists somewhere between rules and exemptions. Either extreme infantilizes students. I chose Kenyon, and maybe you did too, because the community of learning allows both rigor and grace. Professors who gave me deservedly poor grades listened and answered my questions during office hours. I didn’t expect an A on a D paper if my medication wasn’t working. I expected not to be alone.

Whether or not the College accommodated Milano’s request, the staff did not appear to validate or respect her. Whether or not one considers mental illness a disability (I am torn on this question), it’s a crushing reality for many of Kenyon’s high-achieving students and alums, who may carry the conditions, however well managed, for the rest of their lives. Kenyon: ask the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Use inquiry, use imagination. If you do this you will be beating the hell out of many physicians in many hospitals across the country.

When all-stus were our comments section, we validated one another. We upheld one another’s voices. Discourse holds power, around a seminar table or in the media. In the unfolding century the Internet is skewing the balance of power towards those who have not held it before. Which means, current students, you shape Kenyon in a way previous classes didn’t. Student activism at Yale and the University of Missouri, and the responses this activism has engendered, redefined discussions of safety on campus. Safety is not always defined by physical and creature comforts, or the financial privilege that may permit a student to attend a school like Yale or Kenyon (white reporters, bewildered that they can’t control the discourse, get stuck on this point). Credibility is a crucial aspect of safety, and part of credibility is the knowledge that others accept you’re telling the truth. “By its very nature it is a kind of gaslighting,” Larissa Pham writes in Guernica of systemic racism at Yale, “excruciatingly difficult to pin down because to report it is to open one’s self to being accused of crying wolf, to immediate disbelief.” She offers as well, devastatingly: “Universities select students and they choose to attend in return; don’t institutions owe their students the courtesy of paying attention?” I can’t speak firsthand to the realities students of color at Kenyon face. I can say this. If you are regarded as fundamentally “other” or “less than” by those who sit at the table with you, if your reality is up for their debate, you are not in a safe space.

As an alum who witnessed Kenyon’s community come together through the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the tragic death of Emily Murray (and, for those who considered it a travesty, the 2000 election of George W. Bush), I know the strength of the Hill. At its best it’s a place that helps you decide who you are. This decision shapes how you interact with the rest of the world. A name on the paperwork. A cog in the machine. Another irritating patient the doctor has to see today. A person, healthy or not, who deserves dignity and respect and will offer the same to others. A thinker, a scholar, an adult. Staff, which students would you like?

3 responses

  1. using this opportunity to suggest that everyone read pf kluge’s essay and shoow it to all their friends.

    “it is also true that diversity can divide, that to enrich a place is also to dilute it”
    “In the name of happiness, a student’s or a student’s parents’ happiness…we admit and readmit students with profound problems…serious disorders, suicidal tendencies…and to the extent we engage those students, we attract more of them, with results that are costly, sometimes tragic”

    “Novelist, journalist, professor:
    a trifecta, a hat trick, a trinity.”

  2. Meh. Bergen has mastered the great, wonderful, marvelous, perhaps necessary art of saying a great deal without saying much beyond the existing emotional appeals so pregnant with cachet and cliché in this marvelous marxist utopia.

  3. Disability, in the realms of mental health, is a legal term. A person can have depression for 10 years or 20 yeats and never be considered disabled, and yet someone else could suffer for 4 and have a professional declare it a “disability.” I lived with a severe mental illness (schizoaffective disorder) for almost 20 years, working and paying taxes like many American citizens, I was declared mentally disabled last year when the mental illness rendered me unable to work, drive, or use public transportation (among other things). I needed two mental health professionals to file paperwork to declare my disability, and an insurance company to agree. It was never a word I wanted to bestow upon myself, and was even a harder word to legally obtain. I thought you would want to know as you said you were unclear on “disability” vis a vis mental illness.

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