Even with 2020 hindsight it’s hard to explain exactly how the events of 2016 spiralled so far out beyond anyone’s control, from that early storm in an academic teacup.
A media story in March drew ripples of concern in Canberra and Melbourne. And in London there was umbrage. Which then morphed into a complaint. Which mutated into a nebulous legal threat. Whose implications were elevated by a disconcerting drip-feed of third party decisions, revisions and reversals. Which eventually metastisised into a widening spread of professional distrust and personal distress.
Much later that year, I was informed that a remote tribunal of indeterminate membership had arrived at the view that in my work I was guilty of something seriously inappropriate – that did not need to be specified in any kind of detail. The more I pressed for review and clarification, the less clear things became.
At one point I was advised, in a polite but cryptic email, that the decision was “based on advice” from a third party “which in turn was based on advice it had received”. And that since this was, in the final analysis, nothing to do with the people I’d been relying on for advice, after all those months of deliberation they could have nothing further to do with it. As the collegial cones of silence descended, they hoped I would appreciate the enigmatic delicacy of their position. There really was nothing further to discuss.
Apparently I had stepped in something sticky, slipped up rather badly and stumbled from an Orwellian thoughtcrime into a Kafka story. Having shrugged their shoulders, shaken their heads, washed their hands and covered their backsides, the people I’d been relying on for guidance backed away. As far as possible, any further requests, appeals or challenges from that point would receive minimal responses, or be studiously ignored.
All along there had been signs of other forces at play, somewhere off-stage. From the outset I was getting the silent treatment on some fronts, blank refusals and mixed messages on others. And what felt like an obstacle course of advice about how (and how not) to proceed.
In Canberra, I’d heard, my work had been “much discussed!” – after the media story attacking it. Meanwhile in Melbourne I was urged not to give the story any “oxygen” by responding to the media story. My situation was already bad enough – defending myself might make it worse.
Best to let it rest, and keep a lid on it. “Can’t you see the big picture?” Whose big picture was I being asked to pick was less than clear. If only there had been subtitles to help parse all the subtleties. Or maybe Google Translate could do it. As the one being gagged, oxygen was fine by me. As was an open exchange of views with anyone concerned.
By May I decided that I’d had enough. In June, I finally got my side of the story out, in a public forum. Then in August, the March media story was finally corrected. After the months of blockage, this felt like progress. At that point, I thought, any remaining concerns with those I’d heard from could be resolved.
But having pressed Pause on the problem early on, those now in control of the process had shifted to Cancel. And then to Mute. For them, a decision had been reached elsewhere, already: and despite my own concerns about who had made the decision, and on what basis, there was nothing more to discuss.
Meanwhile at the University, the academic year progressed steadily. But I did not. At home I became distracted and withdrawn. A sleep deficit had left my nerves permanently frayed. Any sudden noise – a door slamming or a teenager’s knife-scrape on a plate of French toast – would trigger a jolt of adrenalin, like a scene from Psycho. Each morning as I shaved, the face in the mirror had morphed a little more. My eyes were bloodshot. My skin had turned a whiter shade of pale. My thin grey hair grew thinner. And greyer.
By December, at the graduation ceremony, I was catching frosty glares from unrelated parties, including the Dean. Without anyone saying anything, the subtext seemed clear: career-wise, I was a dead man walking.