“The Best Time I was Publicly Humiliated by a Colleague,” this weekend’s guest feature, highlights abrupt confrontation with identity and the realizations, doubts, and affirmations that come with that confrontation. You can read the essay here on its own or at the end of this post.
A few notes about the author, Anna Cherry:
Anna befriended me in southwest Spain by committing my attendance to a local church service after meeting a group of missionaries very early in the morning on the sidewalk near her apartment. The missionaries were on their way to church. Anna was on her way back from a night out. There’s something to be said about experiences found through contradictions.
Anna is an adventurer. She grew up in Arkansas and spent time teaching in southwest Spain and later Madrid before returning to the States in 2013. She’s outspoken, slightly disorganized, and immensely pretty. Once a photographer stopped her in the streets of London just to take her photo. She’ll talk to anyone. If there were only a ham sandwich in the room, she’d talk to that.
About a year ago, I sent Anna a video of Lily Meyers performing her poem “Shrinking,” a poem about wrestling with social pressures and identity. Anna responded with “The Best Time I was Publicly Humiliated by a Colleague,” an essay she wrote for the literary magazine Penumbra. I asked Anna if I could share her essay on The Unfamous, and she agreed.
“In an immediate sense,” she explains, “the piece started as a way to vent about something that had stirred up a lot of feelings—of injustice and resentment, of inadequacy and concern about the person I was. I was pissed off that this girl had felt entitled to publicly condemn my personality and accuse me of being inauthentic, especially since authenticity was a state I’d long worried over and strived for, and who was she to take that away from me? There’s some quote that has stuck with me for years but which I can’t remember the details of. I may be conflating authors, but there was one who had lost a large, or perhaps his entire, body of early work because his wife had left his portfolio of pages on a train. At first he’d been really messed up about it, but then he was like, Ah, probably for the best anyway; the first ___ years of a writer’s work is just revenge-seeking against those who’ve wronged him, and it isn’t until he’s gotten that out of his system that he produces anything of worth. So that comes to mind when speaking about motivation for much of my writing, and this essay in particular. But I also wrote the piece for the same reason I write most of what I do—as a method of working out the ways in which I’ve experienced the world in a more structured, analytical, and distanced context. A context wherein I’m granted control over the situation, and can have the space, time, and freedom to examine it from many different perspectives that might’ve been unavailable to me in the moment. In the meat of some pieces of my writing, there are a lot of emotions I try to process, as if I might be able to pin down a moral or lesson, but often I’ll come out on the other side of writing feeling much less judgmental of everything and everyone in the situation. Arriving there is therapeutic and feels like achieving a sort of justice or balance.”
Anna has since come to terms with and embraced her character as well as the evolving nature of identity and existence. Her currently philosophy she describes as “amorphous and fluid.” She is focused simply on “prioritizing meaningful human connections.” Somewhat spontaneous and always vibrant, Anna is currently freelancing near New York, “living the dream on a pullout couch,” the result of an epiphany she had one day while straightening her hair in her apartment. “I needed to write down a solid timeline for the places I wanted to live in the world or I might not do it,” she realized.
Like many of us, Anna is living and doing, finding her way. She is currently editor of ¡Vaya Madrid!, an online magazine for English-speakers living in Madrid, and contributes essays and travelogues to publications around the world. (For a particularly entertaining example (and might I add typically chaotic series of unforeseen events), see her travelogue about a week she “accidentally” spent in Greece.) Anna lives and works around New York.
The Best Time I was Publicly Humiliated by a Colleague
I sometimes say that a woman feels most vulnerable when she is either a.) naked, or b.) eating, so when the sentence dropped into my silence, I was afraid.
“You’re so much hotter than you let yourself be.” She was studying me with a look that felt penetrating, pan-searing.
I’d done an editorial internship the summer after graduating college, and she’d been one of my rope-teaching superiors. While I was no longer associated with the magazine, I was still hanging around town and so continued to be included in the party e-vites. These were events I went to with gusto, and some fear. They were stocked with all the culture I’d generally accused my hometown of lacking; but for all the import beer, Whole Foods, obscure music, and tantalizing literary types, there was the inkling that I was an imposter in such a circle (and furthermore knew nothing about anything). Also, side-room pep talks with the editor—a sporadic mentor—could equal parts inspire and deflate me; telling him that I was still living at home and working at T.G.I. Friday’s was not at the top of my to-do list.
My ex-superior and a guy I’d never met with the Mississippi River system tattooed on his forearm had started speaking French on the back patio, at which point I retreated to the kitchen. Ginger beer (alcohol-free, I would discover after it was too late) required no author opinions nor grungily-romantic hobo stories. Somehow they’d found me here, though, my eyes full of fear, my mouth full of lemon cookies.
“Uh,” I said, laughing, because she was joking, right? “I’m not sure if I should take that as an insult or a compliment.”
I remember it like a matriarchal face-off before a rumble—her directly across, the only other female in the room, flanked by strange men. There was the new associate editor, a gentle-voiced guy from New York; his friend with the tat, who’d come here to write a novel; and a visiting author from New Orleans, camera in tow. I was meeting them all tonight for the first or second time.
“I just mean, you could be so much more attractive than you allow yourself to be.”
Coughing-laugh noises from the audience.
“I disagree, for the record,” the new associate editor offered from his corner of the bar top.
I was regretting my decision to wear the 80s-lesbian-power-suit jacket. I’d wanted it to say “casual and bold!” But I wasn’t all that bold, and maybe I looked better in skirts. Maybe it, along with antisocial snacking, was not becoming. (“Not becoming”: words the editor would use to describe my current lack of direction.)
More nervous laughter from my side. She finally indicated her beef: I didn’t act as intelligent as I was. I only dated dumb, traditionally attractive guys.
I might have pointed out here that her boyfriend had the jaw structure of a 90s rom-com heartthrob and that she had never met a single one of mine. But I had grown up in the Bible Belt and was inclined to submit. Maybe she had my best interest at heart.
“Really? Do you think so?” I did seem to have a thing for men who were into sports instead of reading. Men who snapped, “Spit it out!” in a no-nonsense way that felt justified, if a little jarring.
“Yes,” she said like she was blessing my heart. “You act like a dumbass.”
There was something about the word—dumbass—the texture of it in the room. Toothed, slapping, like a big, cold fish hitting me in the face. I’d noticed that breaths and voices had been sucked up, as if the vents were hoovering tension. Mississippi River guy had made a quiet exit.
“I don’t think that’s fair…” I began.
I’ve been told there’s something about me that invites destruction. Friends and lovers have corroborated the claim, in one way or another. When explaining it to me, my college roommate used the illustration of sibling rivalry. Her younger sister would cry, recoil, fumble words—and this made my college roommate angrier. It fed something in her, a mean little flame.
“You do. You act like a dumbass so boys will like you.”
I might’ve begun with the defining infatuation of my youth: an aloof boy three years my senior who listened to indie music and wore church polos ironically. I’d tried to become more sophisticated. Affect the alluring melancholy of Sylvia Plath. Later I would swear off trying to win the approval of someone who would throw the fourteen-year-old version of myself out on her heart. (Sure, she was bubbly, and posted Avril Lavigne lyrics on her AIM away messages—not ironically—but in many ways she was more earnest than I could ever hope to be.) I might’ve mentioned the time my (female) tenth grade English teacher took me out in the hallway to ask, had I used the Internet for the poem analysis assignment? Had I gotten outside help, maybe a family member? Was I sure? The time my (male) political science professor told me I was a talented writer, but called me a flake and advised me to step up and “stop being a goofball.” (I’d been making As in his classes. Did he possess some sixth sense for my all-nighter crams, my serial procrastination? Or was this just his shtick to keep students on their toes?) I might’ve mentioned that, during the internship, I’d taken to reading articles with titles like “Subtle Ways Women Undermine Themselves in the Office” and trying to be aware of how often I cocked my head or said statements like questions during magazine meetings.
Instead I opted for the panicked, soupy, “I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but I suppose it’s possible—”
“You act like a dumbass, and it’s sad.” She was collecting momentum or righteous indignation. I remember being surprised at the number of times and with what delight she seemed to wield the word.
My mother is possibly the most hard-working, self-sacrificing, kind, and all-around genuinely cute woman I know; taking advantage of her had been like second nature. She’d surrender her portion of dessert, never demand help with the dishes, habitually allow her sleep to be interrupted by us, the dog, my dad’s snoring. It was like her life was spent in hopeful waiting that other people would be benevolent enough to restore her, and the older I got, the more I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and tell her to stop being so ladylike before she withered away. I considered aloud the possibility that I had inherited some sort of learned helplessness.
“Isn’t your mom, like, a professional housewife?” she asked.
Once, I’d noticed this ex-colleague silently wiping tears from her eyes while sitting at her desk, catty-corner from mine. I’d felt for her an intense tenderness, the kind that occasionally punctuates resentment. I’d found her irritating—her frequent use of the word “gauche” and predictable disdain for Kings of Leon songs—and intimidating. She talked back, achieved a charming balance of fierce wit and self-deprecation, seduced hipsters at music events. I thought she was ridiculous and incredibly cool.
“Maybe I do do that, I don’t know. I mean, I could spend forever trying to analyze how much of my personality is authentic,” I said. “But at some point you just have to accept that you are the way that you are, you know?” She had no idea how many times I’d taken this train of self-reflection; it could only wreck itself in the is-your-blue-my-blue? pretentiousness of an intro philosophy class, the kind that could move one to extol the virtues of an Adam Sandler movie.
Here, her boyfriend chimed in. (He’d started listening from the doorway at some point.) He explained in a consoling psychologist’s voice the importance of examining and challenging aspects of yourself in order to improve. This was the second time we’d met.
“I had to spend three months in a room with you, trust me, you do,” she said. “And, I mean, I liked you—but god, you were so annoying!”
I wondered if she’d forgotten that we were still talking about me. My entire personality.
Before leaving with her boyfriend, the associate editor, and the friend, she and I agreed that that we had to have a Guinness milkshake party. After she was gone I was surprised to discover that, more than share in a Guinness milkshake party, I desired to never see her again.
She never apologized, unless you counted the curious embrace before her exit wherein she held my face and assured me that she “didn’t mean it bad.” Later, the author from New Orleans would admit he’d thought we might kiss. It would’ve struck me as an appropriately bewildering finale to the evening.
Monday I got an e-mail from the managing editor of the magazine with a link to an article by the author whose piece I’d obsessively fact checked and co-edited during my internship. It was an ode to fact checkers in which he admitted to taking my work for granted, even apologizing to me by name. I was thrilled by the validation. I even relished his earlier depiction of me as a ruthless, meddling force, since “brazenness” was something I possessed in my face-to-face professional dealings only in my most ass-kicking daydreams. In the forwarded e-mail, I was able to see how the managing editor had been alerted to the piece’s existence. “I don’t have a sub, but is this about what I think it might be ?!?!?!” my ex-colleague had written. It felt deeply satisfying, her discovering the article, one that contained someone’s perception of me as competent, dignified. And, if not like an apology, at least a shared nod—even if there would be no milkshake party in our future.