My Name is Mary

Mary was threatened and harassed repeatedly by a man in her PhD program. She isolated herself and fears he will kill her or her loved ones. Mary’s bright side was spending time with her dog during graduate school. Mary declined to provide a photo. Photo from Pexels.

My Worst Moment: This is a long term story. A lot of the things I realize now were not easy to understand as they happened. I have known the guy for a long time (10+ years). At first I thought he seemed quirky. I was warned not to hang out with him but brushed it off as bullying. I was never close to him, however, during many years he chatted with me from time to time, always telling me weird stuff:

-That he always carried a huge knife in his car to defend himself (illegal here)
-That he uses his strong karate skills to defend himself (notably from a woman who he said tried to rape him in a park)
-That he likes to collect weapons 
and so on…

Back then I thought it was quirky, now I see that when a man is describing things like that to a woman, he is demonstrating his power to her, and implying he is not afraid to use violence when he feels it’s necessary. My opinion of him changed from quirky to creepy when a friend told me he once tried to strangle him during an argument when he was drunk.

We got into grad school in the same research team unfortunately. I kept my distances, but it was hard. The guy is literally everywhere! Even the women in sciences groups! He collects experiences for his CV, but people who actually work with him know he rarely gets anything done. He also has some “power trips”. I got annoyed. He was president of the student union, but quit for another position. I got elected as his replacement. I realized he thought that he would be able to manipulate me into doing whatever he wanted for his little power trip. I was more stubborn than he thought. He got super mad about such a benign thing! Vein popping on the forehead mad! Thought I was conspiring against him, got paranoid. That’s when I got scared.

The guy was clearly unstable. A common friend mentioned he said he used to have schizophrenia but that it went away on its own without treatment (I do not want to stigmatize mental health issues! But to my knowledge, treatments are necessary to control schizophrenia). Also mentioned he has a “superpower” (his word) that allows him to understand what people are saying from afar, even in a crowded room… He also burned down his own home and nobody was surprised by that, to give you an idea.

Seeing his rage against me for such a benign problem and connecting it with the years of him telling me about his weapons, my friend who was strangled by him and his instability, I got scared for my life and the life of my loved ones. I did not want to be the one he would think about the day he really went crazy

I stopped going to university to work, stopped being involved in committees because he was everywhere. I told my advisor I was scared of him, and that I did not want to work with him or travel with him ever. I was shaking. My advisor did respect what I asked. Since he was intelligent enough not to pronounce any evident threats, there was nothing more to do. I told friends about it, they made me feel like I was a bully, like the guy is just a misunderstood genius. Even writing this, I’m wondering if I am the bully in this story… I finally spent my whole PhD away from the university.

I Have Given Up On: My PhD’s entire social life. A PhD is already a lonely thing, and mine was very hard for that. It caused me to be like a ghost to my department. I am also normally a social person that likes to entertain. I would have loved it so much to have my research group over at my place for BBQ’s, but I never could, because I would have either had to either include him, or exclude him and risk him getting angry. In my many years in grad school, we ended up having only one group dinner. I hid away so much that very few people came to my PhD defense, but he wouldn’t miss it.

I’m Afraid: He’s going to kill me or hurt my loved ones. Even writing this, I’m afraid he will recognize the story and get mad… Every night I lock my door thinking of him. At the same time I’m so scared to be the bully in this story! I’m taking the chance to share this because I want people to know that violence is not quirky, it has consequences, especially on women. 

This Has Cost Me: The lack of social implication during my PhD has caused me to lose a postdoc grant of $80,000. I am still unsure of my future in academia, in part because of that. The guy also got a department “excellence grant” of $7000 for his PhD, because he hung out with many professors (the criteria for excellence were very unclear). The thing is his own advisor was on a sabbatical and wasn’t even consulted for that. If he had, he would not have approved. Using objective criteria like publications, comments received at my defense etc., I believe it’s possible that I lost that grant because of my lack of presence. Not to mention that a grant like that looks well for future job applications of course. I also spent a lot of money in therapy for the anxiety this caused me. 

Something You Should Know About Me: I’m fun when you get to know me. 

Is There A Bright Side: Got to spend a lot of time with my dog during my PhD!

My Fight Song: Is there life on Mars? -sorry not very “fighty”! [YouTube Link]

Secret Weapon: Working super hard and hoping it gets recognized. Possibly moving away.