On Classics, Madness, and Losing Everything

Editor’s note: The following essay is by Stefani Echeverria-Fenn, one of the founders of the Sportula. We are hosting it one year after the overt racism of the SCS Annual Meeting in San Diego.

When I was teaching Intro to Greek Literature, it was sometimes easy to tell the students who had lived a life of privilege, of safety. They were the ones who kept suggesting ways Oedipus could have averted his fate, bootstrap his way out of catastrophe if only he read the signs carefully enough. Not the ones who hated or judged Oedipus, but the ones who were genuinely confused, who kept earnestly suggesting better possible responses to the prophecy and all the devastation that would follow.

I imagine that some of these students might have the same deep bewilderment to see me now. Exactly one year ago, I was at the height of my fledgling career in Classics: I had just passed my penultimate PhD exam, founded the Sportula, and was heading down to San Diego to accept not one but two major awards for this work at the SCS/AIA Annual Meeting. More precious to me than both those awards was my hard won stability after a lifetime of mental illness. On the road trip down I sent a long euphoric email to a former undergraduate mentor: “Two of my grad friends from Berkeley invited me on a road trip there!” I wrote. “This is also so meaningful because….they’re the kinda ppl who i feel never would have invited the crazy/unpredictable me of three years ago to be in a car with them for many hours/days—so I feel like I’m finally gaining some trust from these years of good behavior.”

The very next day, my co-founder would be racially profiled and Sportula embroiled in “political scandal” and deluged by racist trolls. The very next day, I would write to that same undergraduate mentor: “Again, we’ll never be believed bc I didn’t catch the worst of it on video and god knows the word of two psychiatrically disabled POC isn’t enough for credibility…I’m killing myself on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall anyway.

I would spend the next six months destroying my relationships with my Sportula co-founder, that mentor, and everyone else around me. On the 50th anniversary of Stonewall that June, I would be publicly wrestled to the ground and thrown into psychiatric restraints in front of several fellow grad students, after the person I had road tripped to the SCS with called the cops on me and told them I was a danger to myself.

This sounds awfully sordid and dramatic, but really, the details are mundane. Mental illness runs on both sides of my family. I was going to Break the Cycle, go to therapy, get on meds. I pursued all that, but even as I say it to myself I’m struck with a memory of both my parents mouthing the same thing.

Isn’t that why I fell so hard for Classics to begin with? In a cultural moment of the new, the innovative, a hyper-individualistic notion of “choice” and “the self-made man” within neoliberalism, it was the old poems that spoke to me. The ones that acknowledged that we are who we are only in the context of community, lineage, the heavy weight of both personal and collective histories. How sometimes, we lose: profoundly and without recourse.

François-Émile Ehrmann, Oedipe et le Sphinx.jpg
François-Émile Ehrmann, Oedipe et le Sphinx

Contemporary capitalism despises the loser and praises only continued productivity and denial of grief, under the guise of “resiliency”. The Greeks and Romans sunk deep into these entanglements, probed them as deep as one possibly could using only language, and then somehow found ways to use language that allowed them to then go *even deeper.* AIDS-era artist David Wojnarowicz titled one of his paintings “History keeps me at awake at night.” That was so much of what sung for me in Greek tragedy, in early Christian martyrdom texts, in Latin elegiac poetry.

Long before I even knew I was mentally ill, I was translating Latin and Ancient Greek to self-medicate. Long before I identified as disabled, disabled Classicists attracted me into the field and offered me a reflection of myself. I didn’t yet have words like complex trauma, or executive dysfunction, or emotional dysregulation, but I knew that sometimes my brain would feel on fire, and that reading ancient literature helped me cope like nothing else. Recent studies have shown that doing math, my other major hobby, can ease anxiety and depression via its stimulation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is also associated with the ability to regulate emotions. I wonder whether translating Greek and Latin works the same way: at the very least it induced a profound state of flow that allowed me to survive the worst moments of my life.

One of my fondest memories remains struggling my way through the CUNY upper level Greek workshop with a stern and sardonic martial arts master as a teacher. He would bark at me lovingly whenever I was crying about financial or emotional crises like an old-school 12 step sponsor: “One line at a time. Sit down and just start translating one line at a time.” Trauma disrupts linear time: past, present and future become confused by its symptoms: flashbacks, sense of a foreshortened future, a hypercathexis around the moment of trauma that keeps the moment feeling continuously “present” and emotionally activating long afterwards. To be in a state of flow putting things in order: primary vs secondary sequence, parsing out the form of participles, holding in mind an entire long indirect statement, was a way to mentally organize a brain that struggled to access a sense of safety and predictability.

I imagine sane people might scoff at this: tell me Classics is a profession and not for some crazy girl who looked at it as therapy and couldn’t hold it together after one little conference brouhaha, that someone who has experienced chronic mental health problems has no place teaching and researching. Yet the dramatic decline above is only one picture of the time since my last SCS.

All true, but what is also true is that I excelled in seminar that spring semester; my PhD review came back unequivocally positive; that I gave well-received talks about Sportula at several universities, that I spoke at the Langford conference and got deep into a paper on Afro- Pessimism and queer reception of Medusa. I also taught African priests Latin in a summer intensive program where I did my best pedagogical impression of that old CUNY Greek instructor. And when my negative experience with cops/lack of access to support on Stonewall showed me the importance of building alternative systems of care, I successfully began an entire village on my block for homeless disabled Black elders that is still going strong months later.

This last project was what drew me back into my best self post-SCS: building and living in a community full of people with life experiences like mine was profoundly healing. Working the land, planting gardens and cleaning up the abandoned, trash-strewn lot, got me out of my head too. All summer and fall I woke early, 5am, to study for my final PhD exam, then worked the land after the afternoon heat subsided. Each evening I went to bed exhausted in a sublime way—feeling like I had worked both brain and body to the marrow.

Founding and working #37MLK also began to estrange me deeply from Classics. Living in a community that was nearly entirely composed of disabled Black and Latinx folks made me feel profoundly normal in a way that only highlighted the oddity I felt myself to be in Classics. Together in friendship and solidarity, our camp was able to successfully deal with a host of extreme situations, from an anti-homeless hate crime to housing and rescuing a mother and her infant twins from a knife-wielding abusive father, without involving the police.

In comparison, the world of Classics felt small and cowardly. I increasingly resented the fact that my Classics friends had claimed they had “no other choice” but to sic the police on a non-violent disabled woman, yet continued to loudly expound on Foucault, trans theory, disability theory in academia—reaping the social capital of radical theory when it was safe, but wholly unwilling to risk materially instantiating these ideas in the world. When I reached out to fellow grad students to try to express this, I was met with a resounding silence.

Our department was in the midst of enthusiastic grad student meetings on forming new diversity initiatives, but I, as a diverse individual, as the founder of arguably one of the most successful recent diversity initiatives in Classics, was disposable: just a crazy woman being too “mean” to the folks who had had my very body violated and violently locked up (then released with no potential for long-term care).

What happened to Djes and me at the SCS hit me so hard because it seemed the most dramatic instantiation of something I had felt all along in the field: that Classics is invested in loudly expounding upon diversity (we were there to receive an award after all) but at the end of the day our actual individual bodies, minds, and lives were too inscrutable and disturbing to embrace: somebody call security. I began the Sportula with a $300 microgrant limit because that was the amount my former undergrad mentor, who earns six figures, had refused to spend on me in a moment of personal crisis.

The success of the Sportula had been bound up in my feelings of grief and personal
unworthiness from the very start, and SCS ’19 only cemented the inability of the former to ever heal the latter. None of this is unique to Classics of course. Academics worship Audre Lorde, but she was left penniless and without health insurance by CUNY Hunter College after she was fired during her treatment for breast cancer. Queer non-profits name themselves after Sylvia Rivera now, but Rivera’s mental health disabilities and addiction were evoked to fire her for letting homeless queer people sleep in the basement of New York City’s LGBTQ center.

I’m no Lorde or Rivera, but that’s precisely the point—if the most excellent of those of us within disability culture will never be able to be excellent enough for an able-minded and able-bodied world, what does that say? If a tenured Princeton professor couldn’t escape a similar fate at the SCSAIA last year, or my very best Latin student ever couldn’t escape a horrific instance of police profiling on the Berkeley campus just one month before I was kicked out of grad school, where is there a place for just normal, mediocre ass POC in academia—the type of normal mediocrity that is enough to allow abled white folks career success at a dime a dozen?

Berkeley Classics knew nothing of all this; I kept a polite distance from the department after my one attempt to explain to them what SCS 19 had meant to me was politely rebuffed by the faculty member closest to me and instead forwarded without my permission to a professor who despised me. She was trying to be supportive, but like my Greek literature students seemed genuinely baffled: “I don’t think I have any wisdom or advice to offer on that point, at least given what little I understand about the situation right now…”

I imagine some faculty are equally baffled by why I am so undone by what would ultimately end my career: paperwork. I’m awful at paperwork. I always have been—it causes me extreme anxiety for reasons no therapist or doctor has been able to explain despite years of seeking help for the matter. To give you an idea: I almost didn’t graduate from college because of a ridiculous paperwork failure. I ate a $600 flight cost this fall because I was too anxious to fill out the reimbursement form in time. I have cried for days over a job’s shift to a new grade input system that required a new paperwork process. I have sacrificed hours of paid tutoring because I was overwhelmed by the electronic input process. I was like this ever since I was a kid, and my abusive mother’s cruelty over my failures only led to more panic and difficulty completing such things. Her voice calling me a slob and a spaz still echoes when I try to begin, despite all the therapy, all the meds.

This fall, I was supposed to be on fellowship: I had finished all my coursework and my only obligation was reading Greek all day to prepare for my final translation exam. Generally, grad students doing that register for BS independent study or exam studying unit for credit purposes. I couldn’t register at first, because I had a registration block from various university fines: by the time I had scrapped together that money, I would have to register late which involved doing a bunch of paperwork that quickly overwhelmed me.

The loss of my undergrad mentor in my mental health crisis had robbed me of the one person who had supported me through paperwork struggles since I was a college freshman. I still wasn’t particularly worried, since I was done with coursework, and studying consumed most of my attention along with launching a new Sportula initiative and attending some Classics conferences. Since my last PhD review only a couple months early had been entirely positive, when I finally did get around to seeking department help with the matter in late October, I assumed they’d be annoyed at best, might not pay me out my fellowship for fall at absolute worst, but all would be well once I passed my Greek exam in January.

On November 6th, I walked into the office of the faculty member I had reached out to about the paperwork problem. It was just her and the current department chair, a woman I had dropped as my personal advisor after a series of frictional encounters relating to my class politics and her chastising my talking back to a white man about decolonial theory in too “aggressive” a manner. Just an hour earlier, she had forwarded a Paideia Institute email to the grad list, and this was shortly after Sportula had called out Paideia (something I had no part in beyond having founded  Sportula). My personal advisor was not there, the PhD committee was not there, and at least two professors hadn’t even been informed I was going to be kicked out, including the professor who had most recently supervised my coursework. I was neither given then nor had ever received any oral or written explanation or warning that my position in the program was at risk.

Referring to a 5 year-old readmissions document written about the conditions of my returning from a voluntary leave a few years ago (a document that my last PhD review had explicitly praised my following successfully), they summarily dismissed me from the program for failing to register for credits as if this was supposed to be self-apparent from one casual postscript in the document, tacked on after the series of academic benchmarks like exams that I had fulfilled, and pertaining to the paperwork for my master’s degree, which I HAD completed. “A note on documentation typically required by the department: we recognize that dealing with paperwork is something you find particularly difficult….it is nonetheless the case that locating, completing, collecting any necessary signatures…is the student’s responsibility. The DSP program is available to help you make academic progress.” Despite my begging, they refused to let me sit for the Greek exam to prove that I had been doing what I was supposed to the past two months. They never paid my fellowship, so I was also left wholly without financial resources.

And just like that, my entire career in Classics was ended. At first, I was in total shock and began to argue back. Quickly though, I stopped myself: my final words through tears were “no, I’m not going to try to defend myself.” I was aware of how ridiculous anything I could say would sound: how could I have been able to read the entire Greek canon, found a homeless village, manage Sportula, and then claim I just “couldn’t” overcome my paperwork anxiety. That’s just what disability is, I would argue: a sticky and uneven web of immense strengths, immense weaknesses, and weird random competencies/ incompetencies based on all the strategies we’re forced to patch together to survive as disabled people in this world.

I still bear enough self-hatred of my own messy garbage brain that the email I had sent about the paperwork was an anxious self-indictment of how much I had screwed up—so they quickly trotted that out as proof that I “knew” I was in violation of grad student standards. The very worst part of disability for me is not the way the abled world betrays me. It’s the ways that living in that abled world has continuously led me to betray myself.

When my apartment burned down freshman year of college, it was a couple weeks before a Latin recitatio assignment in my Virgil class. We got to choose a passage to memorize and recite, and I chose the scene of Aeneas meeting Dido in the underworld. Only a few days earlier, I had received news that our landlord had successfully argued in court that our leases hadn’t been valid and thus we had no right to return after the fire damage abatement. I knew it was bullshit, but didn’t have the money and education yet to prove it, to speak back to him in court. At the recitatio we were given a few minutes to introduce our passage, and tears welled up as I spoke something like the following.

‘Virgil Reading his Aeneid to Octavia and Augustus’ by Angelica Kauffmann

I chose this passage because I always wondered why Dido didn’t just curse him out. But lookingat the language I see how for some people, people without power, the harshest indictment is the power to stay silent—to not argue with people who will never care for you, but to remove yourself from them—to disappear. To say you can have your empire, you can have your justifications, but I will not dignify them with a reply. I will not dignify them with my presence. I will not argue back against a fate and a success that was always predicated on my disposability. I will condemn you with the only power I still hold: my silence.

I want my friends in Classics to hear and remember my silence. My EOS paper last night, not given. My dissertation on Augustine, never to be written. My teaching and teaching awards, never to be back in the classroom again. But I am not a victim– #37MLK reminds me every day how extraordinarily privileged I am that the worst thing in my life right now is an inability to access the luxury of being paid to study dead languages due to my own inability to more successfully manage my anxiety after a series of many chances given to me by my former department.

Still, I want Classics to hear my silence and the silence of everyone like me pushed out of this field. In a state that is more Latinx than White, Berkeley Classics hasn’t graduated a single Latinx PhD student in at least 10 years. It’s had at least 5 of us, none who finished. Ironically, it was precisely the attrition rate of diverse students in our program that the grad students were having all those meetings about last semester. Berkeley’s only tenure-track professor of color, her presence the reason why I chose Berkeley, was also the only professor in 10 years denied tenure and pushed out of the field.

I was as foolhardy as my Greek students advising Oedipus: it wasn’t going to happen to me despite all the signs. As a prospective student, a professor trying to poach me away from choosing Berkeley passed on the number of a fellow psychiatrically disabled working-class Latina who had been pushed out of Berkeley classics a year earlier behind a mental health crisis. I talked to her, we’re still Facebook friends, but I wasn’t going to be like her. I was going to keep my sanity and it wasn’t going to happen to me no matter what the oracles said.

When I think of the oracles, I think of seeing Raul Zurita speak at Berkeley, shaking with brilliance and fury. Shaking with disease. The poetry and Parkinson’s inseparable as he burns himself and us alive with his words.

“My poetry comes from a body that bends, trembles and stiffens under the throes of Parkinson’s. But I consider my disease beautiful, I have felt my difficulty in holding a piece of paper beautiful. I have written about pain I caused others and myself. Only the sick, the weak and the wounded are capable of creating masterpieces…”

Like Oedipus, Zurita tried to blind himself—did time in a mental hospital after pouring ammonia in his eyes because he couldn’t stand seeing the suffering in this world anymore. I will never get to be a Classicist again, but I will never stop hearing the old poets. Just like I hope an introject of myself will remain unmetabolized in this field as the Sportula continues on without me, an introject of them and all I learned in Classics will always remain in me. I began #37MLK when I was reading the Antigone for exams and couldn’t bear to see the woman who once saved my life out and uncovered on the street, homeless, and that is no coincidence. I have been obsessively teaching myself Ruby and Javascript in preparation to enter a coding bootcamp, because the syntactic exactitude and doing things with words element of programming excites me, and that is no coincidence.

I do not regret, at all, pursuing Classics. I still love Classics. I regret that, as classical literature taught me of love, there are so many harsh things in this world, within me and within the other, that are stronger.

Stefani is a fat femme dyke of mixed heritage who founded Sportula: Microgrants for Classics Students and #37MLK. She received her BA in Classics and Women’s Studies from Brooklyn College, and her MA in Classics from UC Berkeley. She is an adjunct instructor of ecclesiastical Latin who in her spare time is teaching herself how to code and working on a series of short stories about “capitalism as felt experience” (Cvetkovich). If you liked this piece, please consider donating to her community of homeless folks at #37MLK by going to the website and making sure to earmark the funds “for #37MLK

8 thoughts on “On Classics, Madness, and Losing Everything

  1. OMG that hurt, I am so sorry for us, for all of it.
    I’m white and male, but I managed to screw my life up so well that all I have is my silence also, I totally get that, you don’t need to believe me. I’m not saying I’m as bad off as anyone else, just that detail, that anything I say will be some crap some bullying made me say. To talk is to say “despite it all, I’m still stupid or sycophantic enough to stay in the conversation, no matter what.” Whatever I say, it sounds like “uncle.” You said it much better.

  2. God, I’ve never read such an honest explanation of the power of Latin and Greek to keep one’s brain feeling that there’s some semblance of order and control. I felt for years that reading Latin was crucial to my limited grasp on sanity, but no one understands that concept if they don’t read Latin—and even most people who do know Latin don’t understand, because they don’t use Latin for that purpose. Ultimately, Latin couldn’t save me from my own administrative and organizational weaknesses. I realize that I have only survived and rebounded at all because of my social and economic privilege, which makes the discipline’s failure to support Stefani that much more shameful and painful.

  3. Stefani, thank you for your brilliance and support and fire. I remember sitting with you in the BC common room and being astounded by your intelligence. I remember having you next to me as I opened an acceptance email from grad school. Your arms flung around me and gave me the greatest hug of congratulations, like we had “made it.” This field was and still is flawed and exclusive and I thank you for so eloquently, deeply, and fiercely expressing that. Thank you.

  4. Stefani, thank you for your brilliance and support and fire. I remember sitting with you in the BC common room and being astounded by your intelligence. I remember having you next to me as I opened an acceptance email from grad school. Your arms flung around me and gave me the greatest hug of congratulations, like we had “made it.” This field was and still is flawed and exclusive and I thank you for so eloquently, deeply, and fiercely expressing that. Thank you.

  5. Did you register for DSP? (Did they ever DISCOURAGE you from going to DSP? They should have told you to go the second you disclosed a disability to them, and if they didn’t, they violated your civil rights and you may have legal recourse here.) This by no means displaces, excuses, or otherwise condones the cruelty of your teachers and mentors. As a Berkeley Ph.D. student with a disability, they were the only people who took it as their responsibility to help me. Courage, support, and peace to you.

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