I feel a strong, emotional connection with Kat and Maria, best friends who are just beginning their fifth year of medical school in Northern England. They are very grounded in their femininity, very earthy, compassionate and capable. Both of them are strikingly beautiful, although quite different, like the sisters Rose-White and Rose-Red. Kat has pale, milky skin, light blue eyes, and long, waving golden hair. Maria has olive skin, large, luminous dark eyes, and long, thick, black hair. Kate is delicate, somewhat nervous, and compulsive, while Maria is steady and athletic. They are both skilled, intelligent, strong and able to bring about the good that they seek.
They remind me of best friends in my family history. My grandmother, Solveig Kristoffersen immigrated from Oslo, Norway to Rosebud, Alberta, Canada, and went to nursing school with Hilda Hanson. Solveig later worked as a nurse in British Columbia and California, while Hilda became a midwife and eventually opened her own obstetrical clinic in the tiny farming town where she was born. Solveig married Hilda’s quiet brother, Alfred at a double wedding with Hilda and her beloved.
Observing Kat and Maria at the beginning of their careers has given me a lot to think about. I’ve been asking myself where my zeal for scholarship disappeared to. When I was 23, as they are now, I was living in cold-water flat with a poorly functioning coal oven at the top of a pre-war building in Hamburg, and applying to graduate school in Comparative Literature. I got accepted at Columbia U, Washington U and Berkeley. Washington U even offered me a scholarship. I chose Cal because I was so homesick. I should have gone to St. Louis. At Berkeley I suffered a catastrophe that set me back. One of my professors, who was and still is very famous both for his scholarship and his habit of sleeping with his students, raped me and then threatened to destroy my career if I told anyone about it.
Yes, it was rape. He pushed himself on me and I said no. He said, “you American women say no when you mean yes” and then did what he wanted to. I deadened my mind. I was 23 years old and taking a course with him. I wrote a crap paper on Pride and Prejudice. He gave me an A.
I dropped out of graduate school for 8 years, during which time I wrote legislation and speeches for a U.S. Congresswoman, and became the Assistant Director of Government Affairs and Director of State Affairs at New York University, taught part-time at Vassar College, got married, and had a baby. I returned to graduate school when my son was 2, whizzed through the program and got a job my first time out on the market.
My marriage did not survive my academic career, and my academic career did not survive my separation from my son. I became so depressed living apart from him that I could not focus fully on my work, even though I spent all my time doing it. My manuscript is about 600 pages long. Much of it is quite good. I loved writing it but could not figure out how to finish it, nor could I see the point of publishing it, other than to jump through the hoop I had to clear to get tenure. No one would read it. It no longer seemed to be a means to effect positive change in the world.
I left the university and started to volunteer full-time as a legal advocate for women whose boyfriends, husbands, and fathers routinely demean and beat them up. Now I’m trying to get a women’s center going in Nepal. It’s not quite the glamorous life I had imagined. I fantasized about saving Nepali girls from the clutches of slave-traders and pimps, policing the borders and invading illegal orphanages to rescue forgotten children.
Yet every morning I help little girls who used to be slaves get ready for school. They greet me at the gate of the orphanage, kiss and clutch my hands and pull me into play with them.