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You Can Be a Mentor Without Being a Creep About It

Esquire logo Esquire 8/13/2021 Alex McElroy
a screen shot of Andrew Cuomo in a suit and tie: Former Governor Cuomo has stepped aside after allegations surfaced about his conduct, some of which happened while he claimed to be an employee's "mentor." © Pacific Press - Getty Images Former Governor Cuomo has stepped aside after allegations surfaced about his conduct, some of which happened while he claimed to be an employee's "mentor."

The first time I felt exceptional was in a writing class during my second semester of college. The instructor said she loved my work and encouraged me to keep going, validation that felt new and incredibly good. She gave me books to read and feedback that made my work better. This past spring, fourteen years after writing that first personal essay, I published my first novel, The Atmospherians. What would my career look like without her mentorship? It’s impossible for me to say. Nonetheless, she and I have not talked in five years, and that is exactly how it should be.

Mentorship at its best begins in the same way that mentorship at its worst does: A person with power connects with a person who has less. Recent high-profile instances of mentorship turned sour across many fields have made it impossible to deny that respectful mentorship is increasingly rare, and worse, that mentorship is often used to obscure abuses.

I’ve been fortunate. I have shared drinks with former professors and stayed in their spare rooms on vacation. But I’ve also been unfortunate in that I have received mentorship that was a guise to pursue a romantic connection. It seems like it should have been easy to distinguish between the former and latter, but those relationships, especially in their early stages, felt eerily similar: I was encouraged, praised, and made to feel special.

I badly wanted to be recognized for what I hoped was my talent as an artist. This is not specific to me at all. In many fields, finding mentorship is necessary for advancing one's career, yes, but also for developing a sense of self worth. Mentors offer everything from letters of recommendation to dinners in their homes. I think often about an undergraduate professor, who helped me figure out how to cherish accomplishments in a writing career, a field that is naturally defined by disappointments. It’s not a surprise that I, and many others, might overlook blurred professional boundaries as we seek the advice and professional assistance of those who offer to serve as mentors. Seeking them out doesn’t feel optional.

The term “mentor” is traditionally traced to Homer’s The Odyssey. Mentor, a friend of Odysseus, is tasked with keeping watch over his home while he’s at war. Athena takes the form of Mentor to encourage Telemachus to search for his father. In both instances, mentorship appears as a temporary relationship. It does not suggest something inherent in Mentor that makes him a good mentor—in this scenario, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, might take the form of any person of any age, race, or gender. This is a fitting and responsible form of mentorship that’s more about conveying knowledge than developing a particular relationship between two people, one likely more powerful than the other.

There’s a reason the story of the powerful figure who takes someone under their wing and then abuses them is more well known than the story of Mentor. The #MeToo movement helped reveal how the language of mentorship everywhere from high schools to art studios to upscale restaurants have shrouded professional and sexual misconduct. In 2018, contemporary artist Chuck Close was accused of sexual misconduct by former interns. This past spring, Philip Roth biographer and former teacher Blake Bailey was accused of Bailey using his role as a mentor to pursue sexual relationships. Close and Bailey were hardly the first.

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In June, The Seattle Times reported on fifteen women who accused Seattle chef Edouardo Jordan of sexual misconduct against the women who worked for him. One of those women, a line cook who accepted a job at Jordan’s restaurant following the alleged harassment, referred to him as her “mentor,” acknowledging she “would not be as strong of a cook without his guidance and qualified instruction.” For the line cook, the person who could advance her career was the very same who made her workplace unsafe.

The most recent example: Accused of sexual harassment by his former employee, Charlotte Bennett, Governor, Andrew Cuomo defended himself by claiming that he was acting as a“mentor” to Bennett. But Cuomo’s decision to resign following a recent report of the Governor’s misdeeds made it clear he was never a mentor to his accusers. Harassment should not be the price of admission for mentorship—any “mentorship” that crosses this boundary is not mentorship; it is exploitation and abuse.

Yale Law School professor and bestselling author Amy Chua recently faced scrutiny for hosting dinner parties with a select number of students. Students who were not invited to these dinners felt ostracized—personally and professionally—as the dinners seemed to violate Chua’s code against engaging students outside of class. Academic performance likely played a major role in deciding the guests. But it is just as likely that an invitation to dinner at Chua’s house set up those students for further academic and professional success—and guidance from Chua—while leaving those who were not invited, for whatever reason, forced to catch up.

Further complicating matters is that Chua’s husband, Jed Rubenfield, was suspended by Yale for sexual misconduct against students in 2020. Inviting current Yale students to a professional dinner held at the house of a suspended professor seems, at best, awkward, and at worst a violation of the policies the school put in place to protect its students. This is the logical consequence of mentorship that blurs professional boundaries. Chua’s mentorship demands a level of intimacy that assumes her students would support her choice to bring them into her home—that they would ignore their discomfort or feel no discomfort around a suspended professor—and leaves behind all the students who might not be able to hide their discomfort.

In 2019, I came out as non-binary, and I think often of the white male professors who mentored me during my undergraduate and graduate degrees when they assumed that I, too, was a cis white male. I gained a great deal from those relationships, and it pains me to suspect that many of them were based on sharing similar racial and class backgrounds with my professors. For many women in academic, law, and medical settings, it is obscenely difficult to find mentorship, and many men have used the #MeToo movement as a reason to withhold mentorship from female colleagues. Similarly, workers who are sober, for personal or religious reasons, cannot spend evenings at the bar after work, where many professional connections are made.

So what should we do? Avoiding mentor-mentee relationships entirely would be impossible, and it would likely only harm those looking to build their careers who need guidance from more experienced colleagues and teachers. But it is time to recognize that it’s become far too common for mentors to let mentees into their homes, exchange intimacies, jokes, and make personal demands on their lives in exchange, the mentee might assume, for the knowledge and support only the mentor can provide. Worse, too many people who call themselves mentors use the intimacy they have gained to meet their personal needs.

My best mentors were those who would give the advice they gave me to any one of my peers. They made me feel special because I was their student, not because of our relationship. Those who find themselves in positions of power, those with experience to pass along to their colleagues and subordinates and students, should return to the basic form of mentorship outlined in The Odyssey. Don't worry about how you might keep up a relationship with your mentee, this person whose deference to your wisdom and experience no doubt makes you feel good and powerful. Instead imagine yourself driven by Athena—by wisdom—a god with no personal attachment to your mentee. Pass on the knowledge you’ve learned after decades in your field. And pass it on to the next person, and the next, and don’t stick around.

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