Before I share things I’ve never spoken about, I want to state that I love where my life has landed me at 56 – a great marriage, kids that are growing up to be extraordinary persons, a fun job, time freedom, the ability to write and produce art, and to teach and direct plays. My experience of being emotionally and mentally abused and “broken down” by a teacher had a part in shaping who I am today, so I accept it was part of my journey. I fervently hope it is NOT part of yours, you don’t need it to become a wonderful performer or person. Sexual predators harm on many levels, not just physically but emotionally as well. With their perceived power, they create an environment that encourages ostracism and shaming and silence. My long-silenced story comes from my time as a theatre major at Northwestern University. The happy, confident freshman who went in to the theatre program there came out a toughened pretender with large interior cracks, lots of defenses and a drinking problem.
I still wouldn’t trade going there – I made lifelong friends, got a kick ass education in all aspects of theatre, along with a great general education and a football team I can cheer for. There were exceptional teachers who were kind and supportive. There were others who were not. At Northwestern, there were teachers who were reputed to be “the best”, and there was a pecking order dictated by whose acting class you got into. At the beginning of freshman year, we auditioned in front of all the acting teachers with a monologue. We were led to believe our lifetime success depended on getting one of those “superior” acting teachers to let us into their class. I had a friend who didn’t get into the acting teacher’s class she wanted and slept on the floor outside his office door for 3 nights in a row to prove she had “what it took” to be in his class. I was lucky, and got in a “superior” class.
My acting class was a competitive and talented group. I’d been a big acting fish in a smallish midwestern pond prior to Northwestern, but in there I was — at best — middle of the pack. Early on I knew that I was never going to be the best, not in acting talent (certainly not in singing or dancing), but I had hope of getting better. Within the first week, I was informed that I would never LOOK good enough to be a real success. I was told I might be “beautiful when you are old”, but that currently I was nowhere near pretty or thin enough (I was a size 6). One of the “in-crowd” students told me that I was “sort of unconventionally, marginally attractive”, and that she thought I might do okay with character roles. It hurt. A lot.
“Theatre in Context” was the name of our program, which meant that not only were we taking acting class but were required to be on different construction and running crews. I learned a lot about lighting and sewing and that I should not be allowed to use power tools or hot glue guns. Those were highlights for me. I was in freshman performance group, “The Company”, so got to be on stage throughout my freshman year, but landed on the periphery of that talented group. They were more adventurous than I was; freer. My sheltered upbringing was not ready for it, so I isolated myself. Things got worse after I rejected the sexual overtures of the female grad student in charge of the group. I was relegated to marginal roles and given the clear message that I wasn’t daring or fun enough to make it in acting.
As we went into our Sophomore year, I was handed the kiss of death by my teacher when he gave me the play “Miss Julie” to work on – all of us were given a classic play, but that one just has two characters, Miss Julie and Jean. Lucky for me, my acting partner Steve was a kind and gentle person. It was known that Miss Julie was the role that our teacher handed the actress in any given year that he was going to beat up on the most psychologically. And he did. I grew to dread class, and would cry at the drop of a hat. I started having trouble memorizing lines and became self-conscious of every move I made on stage, developing a weird out-of-body critical mind that prohibited me from being spontaneous and in the moment. My inability to get through a scene without crying got worse. My perception was that my classmates hated me as much as I had learned to hate myself as I struggled along. “You must be broken down”, was the rationale given to me by my revered teacher as I cried in his office about my failures. Yes, even with the emotional abuse, or perhaps because of it, I still revered him. I took my needing to be broken down as fact, just like I took to be fact that he was sexually involved with some of the petite blond students that were in his classes. We all knew about it. God help me, I didn’t think it was particularly awful, but that it just was. Instead of being relieved I was not his “type”, and therefore never a victim of sexual abuse, I felt I was not worthy of being special to him. I carried that feeling of not being worthy for many years afterwards. It took me a long time to trust that I was good enough for any kind of healthy relationship.
By the time Senior year rolled around, I was mentally and emotionally defeated. I anaesthetized in the only nearly-legal way I knew how, and got good at holding my liquor and showing up hung over. I shut down emotionally and just got through my senior year. I’d completed most of my graduation requirements, and so spent my days sitting in the back of classes that interested me. Astronomy, Art History, Myth and Symbolism. Silver lining: I remember more from those classes than any others. I went to acting class, but my heart wasn’t in it. For years after I pursued an acting career, but never really succeeded – I had learned my lessons well — that I was not good enough, not thin enough, not pretty enough, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As I write this, brave women and men have started to come out against the predators we have all known live among us in the performance world. I have hope that the culture is changing for the better. Being preyed upon and broken down has NOTHING to do with developing your talent, or your passion to create art. Nothing at all. I wish someone had told me that when I was 18. If that is you now, please know you are amazing and special and can do marvelous things, and that you are perfect, just the way you are.
*photo by Kallie Gay, Catch the Wind Photography. Glass Menagerie, JCCT