This is an open letter to Mariko Silver….
Dear President Silver,
I met you in Boston last March or April, at an alumni gathering. The journey into Boston had been a tough one for me via public transit, and I had trouble finding the correct location. So I arrived late, somewhat frazzled. I remember that all at once, as soon as I entered, I chastised myself for my shabby appearance. I could almost hear my late father’s voice telling me, “Why can’t you do something with your hair?” now nearly 40 years since my high school graduation. I could feel my late grandmother tugging on my collar to straighten it. A flushed feeling rushed into my cheeks remembering the feeling I often had as a young person, that somehow, I was never good enough.
I immediately realized that my late entrance was causing disturbance, so I attempted to stand as quietly as I could even though I was still trying to keep myself in one piece. I remembered how I’d prompted myself for days before my arrival at the alumni gathering, reminding myself that it was possible that some rather important people would attend, so I had to act “okay.” I couldn’t slip into the lingo that I’d adopted as my own, over the years. I often joked with myself that this dialect was “trash talk.”
Language is a funny thing. I remember when I was a child being rather taken by Pygmalion, or, rather, My Fair Lady, the version I saw, that is, the musical. The basic concept was that the way we use language is a dead giveaway of our social caste. Henry Higgins told Eliza she’d never make it in life unless she spoke like a proper rich lady.
I promised myself I’d try as hard as I could not to allow any indication to be apparent that I am a member of the lowest of the lowest caste of USA society. I went to Bennington, after all. I wasn’t from a wealthy family but we weren’t poor, either. As a young girl, I had no idea what poverty really was. It flew over my head completely. It flies over most kids’ heads unless, of course, they were poor. I left home at 17 and attended a large state university before I came to Bennington as a tranfer. I found out, to my shock, that most kids came from far less wealthy families that my own.
When I first came to Bennington in 1978, I was truly amazed. I was a music student whose primary interest was composition. In my previous university experience, composing one’s own music was highly discouraged. A composer never had the opportunity to hear her own works played. These performances were limited to the composer’s imagination, and stayed there. I had boxes of music that never got played. But as soon as I arrived at Bennington, I knew it was no ordinary place. I recall my shock. “You mean we get to have our pieces played?” I was told that not only did student composers get performances, but this was standard, not some exception.
I dug right in. I loved learning and I loved the environment. The faculty were tops and each had a unique approach. I never felt like I was on an assembly line. I took well to self-directed study, and thrived.
I stayed at Bennington for a total of three years. I studied part-time for two years then full-time for a year. I ran into misfortune after that, and had to take time off one semester before graduation. That was 1981. I never returned.
Bennington is a college, meaning it’s an organization. I feel that many organizations work in a similar fashion: There are the beloved elite, and then, there are those left behind. It cannot be helped. I was one of those who was forgotten.
I am grateful that the college recognizes non-graduates as alumni. Many colleges don’t do that. I recall one evening a few years back when I received a call from Bennington. I heard a youthful voice on the phone, saying, “I’m from Bennington College! We’re looking for Julie Greene.” I laugh now, because I recall saying to myself, “Oh, wow, someone finally noticed me and recognized all my accomplishments! They must be calling to congratulate me! Maybe I’ll be featured in their alumni publication.”
Most likely, the caller had no clue how I felt, nor heard the disappointment in my voice when I found out the true reason for the call. It saddens me so much that the only real contact I had with the college since I left was when I was called and asked for the one thing I couldn’t give: money.
I felt sad because I felt marginalized. I felt that I didn’t matter anymore to this college that had initially been so wonderful to me. I had been a shining star there, but suddenly, I was a fallen star instead.
In my opinion, any organization is only as strong as the lowest of their members. I think it’s wonderful that the college is planning to reach out more actively toward its alumni, and is realizing that we are indeed a valuable resource. I hope that this isn’t limited to seeing us as monetary source only. I think all alumni, whether they have money to give or not, share the common experience of having attended Bennington.
I believe that no matter how low a person gets, how destitute or downtrodden or hopeless, their life experience is theirs and can never be taken from them. Life experience is something to treasure. No matter where we have traveled, around the world or around a city block, we take in all we learn, sense, and feel deep in our hearts, and that, to me, is priceless.
After I left Benninton, I spent 18 years in and out of mental hospitals. It wasn’t until I turned 40 that I defied the doctors who were holding me back, wrote my first novel, and rather shortly after, returned to college. It took five years, but I earned my BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing in 2003 from Emerson College at the age of 45. I completed my MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard in 2009. I have now written seven books and am working on my eighth. Two are published.
I suppose my life so far can be seen as bittersweet, but this is true for anyone, is it not? I think my late boyfriend would be mighty proud of me now. He died in 2003. I can imagine my late father, who passed away when I was 39 years old, would feel pride and amazement, too. Both said to me shortly before their death that they knew I’d make something of myself. I wish my former college would realize just where I’ve been all this time.
After graduate school, I began to speak out against the status quo of mental health care. I made the statement that what was called “care” was inhumane, and to varying degrees, abusive. I demanded change. As a result, the doctors who were supposedly treating me reacted rather aggressively to stop me. I was shocked because I’ve always felt that when a person had the ability and ambition to advocate for herself and her fellows, it was surely a sign of improving health.
What I learned, though, was that the mental health system is also an organization. It’s an organization that uses force and coercion to sustain itself. Any insider who speaks out is immediately silenced. One silencing method is to further push the member down into the deep pit of slavery to the organization and its higher-ups. Another is to shove the person out, so long as the member is terrorized enough so that she is afraid to speak out again. Another option, believe it or not, is to kill the member, so long as there’s no public outcry. Who will care about a mental patient? We don’t matter because we’ve been left behind, forgotten.
I had no choice but to do something that perhaps appears drastic. I made elaborate plans in secret. I left just about all my belongings behind, I packed a few suitcases, and obtained special paperwork for my little dog, Puzzle. I had only a few weeks to do this. On May 13, at 5:45 am, I left with Puzzle on an airplane to Miami. The next night, our plane left the USA, crossed the equator, and landed here in Uruguay. I am now free of the slavery of mental health care.
I never needed those doctors. I wish I had realized this when I left Bennington.
I am asking Bennington College, or any college out there, to never forget those alums that have fallen into misfortune, who may not, right now, have a penny to give. I know I myself have much to give, but it’s not going to be monetary.
I have my own life experience, unique as it is. I started my eating disorder while busy with studies at Bennington, and managed to keep it secret. I thought it would only take a few months of mental health care to rid myself of that eating disorder. I was wrong. I am still affected by it, after over 30 years.
I wish I could reach out right now to the young people attending Bennington who are so much like I was: ambitious, energetic, talented, and driven to learn. I yearn to tell my story. I yearn to help others.
I have an intense desire to change the world. I can thank my parents and my wonderful instructors who have guided me though the years for that. They never discouraged me nor tried to silence me. Instead, I was encouraged and cheered on. I believe I can indeed make a footprint on the world.
I recall at the alumni gathering in Boston, which occurred only about a month or two before I left the USA, I saw this new young college president standing confidently and speaking to all of us. I was in awe. At the same time, I felt that the world inside this gathering was one that I could never match up to.
I hope I was mistaken. I am an alumni, too. I matter, whether rich or poor, in sickness or in health. I’m still here, and will be till death silences me.
Julie Greene, Class of 1981