Editor’s note: A Lovefraud reader, we’ll call her Betty, sent her story. It’s a tale of a run-in with a psychopath who likes to destroy people for the fun of it.
I got divorced and moved from Texas to California. I was 45 years old, and was hoping to transition from my career as an RN. I’d worked in the newborn nursery and the increasing numbers of drug dependent newborns were breaking my heart — I was experiencing burnout. I tried physical rehabilitation for adults, but that too brought me in contact with awful suffering, and I didn’t have enough to give my patients. I had a painful divorce and a painful career, and made the decision to pull myself together and start over. That’s when I met the person I think is a psychopath.
I interviewed in the art history department of a large university, with the then-graduate adviser, Dr. Wilma (not her real name). I didn’t understand then how fragile I was, but I feel certain she knew in an instant. The fixed stare was there — I thought at the time, “What an intent, alert, person with so much energy!” I felt flattered that she seemed so interested in me. Writing that, I still feel a creepiness, sense of shame at being taken in, and a curling fear in the pit of my stomach.
I craved attention, though I would have denied it. Looking back at my life, I can see how I trained over the course of it to be a perfect victim for abuse. My dad was an alcoholic, the mean drunk kind, and my mom was so gently needy. The overall feeling in our house was one of walking on eggshells, and the message to me was, “try hard and fail” because my older brother was the “successful, responsible child” so that left me with the “failure” role. My first husband was emotionally distant, and so was my second — I poured myself into those relationships, and of course, I cared deeply while each of them did not, and the colder they were, the harder I tried, and tried. And I found a job just as destructive and abusive as those personal relationships. So when I interviewed for the art history department, I badly needed some confidence and a sense of achievement. I’d also had a couple of bouts of situational depression, following the death of my parents, and after getting divorced.
Dr. Wilma seemed drawn to me at once: She’d call me to come in early to her office, heap praise on me to other teachers, strategize with me over my academic future (she felt I should get a doctorate and teach at university, “Just like me”) — she acted like a close friend and benefactor, and we’d only just met. Deep down inside, I was uncomfortable. I was making straight “A’s” but I’d done that routinely as an adult, and I genuinely loved art history, and found tremendous pleasure in studying it and discussing it — but still, I was a beginner in the field, and I couldn’t get over the fact that she was talking to me as though I was a peer. The other feeling was slower to surface: She seemed to be looking at me in a calculating, almost predatory way, and it seemed strangely almost sexual and at the same time, had the stamp of ownership. I can’t express it any better than that. She’d compliment me, but then say things like, “You walked into my office with interest, but no real academic talent, but I thought, why not? I’ll give her a class! See how far you’ve come!” Not an insult based in reality, but not a compliment based in reality, either, because I was a solidly good student, and I had achieved a nursing education and professional license, and a bachelor’s in psychology after that.
Soon she invited me to walk her dogs with her in the mornings, and I slowly began to see how controlling she was. The animals were hyper and had to be constantly engaged or they’d get into trouble. I’m a cat person, so I didn’t understand you have to constantly stimulate and over stimulate most dogs to get them to be that hyperactive. She’d ask my opinions, but then she’d make “suggestions,” which meant “do it or else.” Over the next few years, I committed to specializing in art history, on her appraisal of me as an “excellent student who’s going to make a wonderful teacher,” I took on the burden of student loans — and I put my Texas nursing license on retirement, and didn’t activate it in California or take continuing education in that area to keep the license active. Dr. Wilma let me know that nursing wasn’t really a profession, and with a bright future as an academic, I didn’t need it. I had a “mentor” now to take me over the road of thesis writing and guide me into a wonderful teaching career.
I was really so stupidly, inexcusably naive! She told me what I wanted to hear — that I’d have a new career if I continued to work hard, and that I had a mentor I could depend on to help guide me through the intricacies of academia. Exam after exam came back marked “A,” with praise written in the margins for my “fine work.” Papers, too, received “A’s,” and the criticism lead me to believe my writing skills were well up to standard, and constantly improving, as I was striving to do. She wanted me to visit her office almost daily, wrote long and frequent emails, she’d phone me at home for lengthy calls — and one day, I began to feel (though I shoved that down quickly as well) that I was almost being courted in a creepy way…and it felt weird, off and not right somehow. But how could I complain? She was charming, so eager to “help” me find my way, I felt at a disadvantage academically and I worked frequently twelve hours a day writing and reading, trying to master my chosen field of study. I didn’t want other students to know she “favored” me so extensively because I’ve always earned my way. I felt ashamed at possibly taking advantage.
Always a home
She invited me to her house, and told me, “You’ll always have a home here,” and again, it felt off… it was too much, too soon. In addition, there was something there in that the words didn’t match the lack of emotion in her voice and in her expression — her words seemed somehow rehearsed. But how could I be so ungracious? I so longed for kindness, and I so appreciated it…my eyes welled up with tears … and she smiled. It was not a kind smile, but a one-sided curl of a lip, a cruel smile that didn’t reach her eyes. As I mentioned, I have a bachelor’s in psychology, but even at that lower level without clinical study except in nursing, how could I not have known?
She wanted me to house sit and watch her dogs for a week while she and her husband went on holiday. She’d pay me $300, and having put every penny into school, I needed the job. By this time, I’d finished all the bachelor’s level courses and was well into graduate level work — I only had a year and a half left before I could get my Master’s and could begin my dream of teaching art history in community college. I was also $40,000 in debt with student loans.
The dogs were a nightmare to care for and had to be watched every minute because they were so hyper they’d tear up the house and garden. Now I understand they’d been trained this way in response to their owner. I didn’t get much sleep because they required so much attention, but they were fed, watered, exercised, groomed — in response to the 10 pages of instructions she issued, and her house was cleaned, laundry done, and everything left as found. I’d been instructed not to wait for the them to arrive home, but to leave the evening of their arrival, two hours before they returned.
Flier in the driveway
Three days later, I got a phone call from Dr. Wilma. I was instructed to come to her office very early the first day of school following break. I went into her office, and she asked me to wait there while she went to her car and brought her dogs in (she always brought her dogs to school in spite of rules of no dogs on campus). She brought the dogs in, she looked at her watch, she closed the door and I can only say that she transformed entirely right before my eyes. I’ve worked in psychiatric lock up wards in the course of my nurse’s training, and I thought I’d seen pretty much everything, but I saw a self-possessed, controlled and controlling, smooth, charming, poised academic turn into a snarling, spitting monster within literally a second. I feared for my life, sat in a chair backed into a corner, the dogs now cowering and whining at my feet. She advanced on me, screaming at the top of her lungs, “You betrayed me! I can’t believe I brought that (meaning me) from my university into my house!” It seems I had left a newspaper, one of the little local fliers, in her driveway and not collected it and placed it on her kitchen table with the rest of the mail. She went on for a full fifteen minutes, screaming that I was “crazy” (I had confided to her about my instances of depression), and more abuse that I’ve frankly and thankfully blocked out, because what I remember of what she shrieked at me was horrible and I’ll never repeat most of it to anyone. My hand shook, but I wrote out a check for the $300 and returned every bit of her money. It was only my training, and probably experience as an abused child, that allowed me to remain calm, size up the room, locate something that could be utilized as a defensive weapon should the need arise, and calculate that I could fit though the window. She was physically blocking the door. I heard my own voice from far away say absolutely calmly, “I AM leaving now,” and I will never know how I got up on shaking legs and made it through the door.
Swore to ruin me
She swore to ruin me, and she did. Her co-workers and underlings (the department is small and only had two other full-time professors) were so under her thumb and so like her that there was no place to go in the department. I couldn’t get an appointment with the dean to state my case or make a complaint or appeal — I was told I could only see her with Dr. Wilma’s approval, “She’s a very nice lady,” the dean’s secretary said, “I’m certain she’ll help you sort out whatever it is.” Camping out in the dean’s office didn’t yield an appointment, either. The Ombudsman promised help — only to reveal straight away in the meeting that, “I have no real power here and all records of this meeting are the property of the university.” I had taken my qualifying examination, the last step before thesis writing, and waited for 8 weeks to get my results, and still couldn’t find out if I’d passed or failed. Appointments weren’t kept, then they were rescheduled and not kept again. Finally, around the tenth week, the Ombudsman called me for a meeting with faculty. Dr.Wilma had brought the other two full-time professors with her, and they were all in attack mode. For two and a half hours, I was soundly verbally abused and called names — the Ombudsman gave up trying to control or run the meeting, and exhibited shaking hands. “You can’t just pay for a degree — you have to earn it. We owe you nothing — it’s 100 percent all on you now…What do you want from us?” Dr. Wilma demanded. “I want to know the status of my qualifying examination,” I replied, “No one will tell me.” “Well I’ve just decided right now, this minute: you fail!”
After they left, and I could finally cry, the Ombudsman said she’d only done counseling of sexual abuse patients, and this was her first case in an academic setting, and she said she’d never seen anything like it. It left me bereft of my belief in the virtues of the university, of learning, and to a very great extent, in human goodness. I felt my insides crumble that day. I was flat out. I broke.
I tried going to another university, driving three hours to another school. I did well in my classes and applied for acceptance in their graduate program. I was told it looked good because my transcript and submitted paper and interview had all been promising. But I’d told them the basics of the truth when the committee chair asked why I left the previous university. They phoned, spoke to Dr. Wilma, and you can guess the rest. After what I was told by a professor was the longest meeting in their history of considering a candidate (three hours), they decided not to believe my performance, the evidence of my character, my skills, or interest in art history and love of education — they believed Dr. Wilma when she told them I was crazy.
That happened two years ago. I’ve been deeply depressed and felt worthless and hollow since. It truly crushed me, though I wish it hadn’t. I’m broke, and it left me $45,000 in student debts and no degree, so I cannot teach and have nothing to show for a tremendous amount of work. There was no appeal at the school, and lawyers apparently don’t take cases like this, especially on contingency. Reactivating my RN license and bringing it current in California would be tremendously expensive. I began to come out of shock very slowly, and began to meditate, face and recognize the pattern of being a victim — not that I ever deserved this situation, but how I was in fact an ideal candidate for it. I processed the pain of being the child of an alcoholic, an abused spouse, and having survived burnout from a tough profession. I grieved for my lost financial security, my almost new career and how much I truly loved teaching, I grieved for the good will that died in my soul when those three women worked me over in the Ombudsman’s office while the Ombudsman (a certified counselor) stood by and let it happen. I grieved for myself that I didn’t stand up more and tell them off! That I wanted something so badly that I allowed myself to be demeaned by three ethically deficit “teachers.”
I began Tibetan Buddhist meditation, and sought to learn to forgive. I believe in the healing power of forgiveness, but I’m stumped because I’ve seen something evil. I can only forgive as an intellectual act — my spirit is stuck and it’s very painful. I’ve cried buckets of tears and “LET GO” over and over, and I will do until I have healed. I now trust myself to build a new life, but at 55 years, it’s going to be hard to get a job where I’ve no experience, especially in this economy. I could have taught for a good 20 years, paid my student debt, and provided for myself, but things look bleak now.
Armed with knowledge
I know that there are so many people who have lost so much more than I have. I know it, reading these posts, I realize it I’m actually lucky because it could have been so much worse. If nothing else, I am now armed with knowledge, and can hopefully walk on by the next ruinous person I encounter without letting them into my life. But I will always be shaken by this devastation — not by a lover or a spouse, but by a trusted, respected, and admired teacher. And I still feel ashamed, and like it was somehow my fault — until I read your posts.
Thanks you, Donna, for listening to my story. It’s healing somehow, and it heaps me to know that I will recover from this. It has given me understanding and compassion for those who live with this these fundamentally lacking individuals. I so admire their strength and courage to survive and rebuild their lives, and also the genuine love and support evidenced on your site.