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Belonging: A Memoir – The Oberlin Years

I recently published Belonging: A Memoir. The memoir covers the experiences that inspired The Rowan Tree, while the novel imagines those experiences playing out in different ways. Both the memoir and the novel explore the universal importance of preserving human dignity. The Rowan Tree recently cracked the Amazon Top 20 Best Seller list for Literary Fiction ebooks.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 12 of Belonging, which discusses my years as president of Oberlin College, when the stage was being set for social and political battles that are still being fought today.

Rowan Tree

Rowan Tree

A Smiling Public Man

During my first week in office at Oberlin, a professor, twenty years my senior, had dropped by my office to wish me well. As he left he said, “Good-bye, Dad”—those very words! I thought it was a joke until I saw the expression on his face: it was that of a little boy. The words that had escaped his lips had nothing to do with me as an individual, everything to do with my office and title. It was an example of the same transference that had made it so hard for me to call Professor Wheeler by his first name. Transference is defined by psychologists as the redirection of feelings and desires, especially those from childhood, to a new object, often an authority figure.

Psychologists see the awe that people have for the rich, famous, and powerful as examples of transference. VIPs who are insecure in their status, can even have transference on their idea of themselves, revealing their self-doubt in their touchiness over how they’re treated by subordinates.

Ruth Gruber, an Oberlin student, was either free of transference or determined not to be intimidated by the trappings of authority. She approached me one day as I walked across the Oberlin campus and declared “Unless you learn to dance your growth will be blocked. If you like, I’ll teach you.” She explained that she had noticed me at a party enviously watching students dancing to rock and roll. I showed up at her dorm room at the appointed hour and, with her coaxing and musical accompaniment from the Four Tops, I self-consciously danced my way out of a strait-jacket of inhibitions.

It was as if Ruth had finally given me that private singing lesson promised by my seventh grade teacher. The same self-consciousness that had prevented me from singing, had kept me from dancing. I think it stems from a propensity to stand outside myself as a witness from which remove I experience existential embarrassment. The feeling is one of sticking out into the universe and, like a tortoise under attack, I want to tuck my head into my shell.

Ten years after she coaxed me into dancing, I ran into Ruth in Warsaw, where she was reporting for United Press International on the Solidarity-led revolution in Poland, and we danced all night.

The flip side of undue deference is gratuitous defiance. To compensate for feelings of transference some make a habit of resisting anything that issues from authorities. Subservience to rank and habitual rebellion against it are both manifestations of transference. Dependency and counter-dependency constitute a double-barreled threat to mature rational governance.

My presidency at Oberlin coincided with Nixon’s abuse of presidential power so people were even more inclined than usual to view officialdom with suspicion—a predisposition that I shared. But Oberlin’s problems stemmed from the monopoly on power held by the faculty. When power is in the hands of one constituency, it tends to interpret institutional goals in ways that perpetuate its own status and privilege, and can be late to address the grievances of stakeholders whose views are unrepresented.

Even more aggravating than the climate of distrust that pervaded campuses during the Vietnam era, was that, as president, I had to repeat the same arguments and speeches, again and again, to different audiences. I should have foreseen that administration would not be exempt from my gold-silver-mud progression. Burnout was a constant threat. Staying alive, the supreme challenge. [cont’d.]

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