Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Kelly Oliver

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the fifty-fifth installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and post to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY on the third Wednesday of each month. The series is designed to provide a public venue for discussion with disabled philosophers about a range of topics, including their philosophical work on disability; the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession; their experiences of institutional discrimination and personal prejudice in philosophy, in particular, and in academia, more generally; resistance to ableism, racism, sexism, and other apparatuses of power; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.

I acknowledge that the land on which I sit to conduct these interviews is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg, covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and directly adjacent to Haldiman Treaty territory. I offer these interviews with respect and in the spirit of reconciliation.

My guest today is Kelly Oliver. Kelly is W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt, specializes in Continental Philosophy, feminist philosophy, and film, and has written on topics such as women and war, animal ethics, and refugees. She is the author of sixteen scholarly books, most recently Response Ethics (2018), and over 150 articles, which have been translated into seven languages. Kelly’s work has appeared in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Review of Books and she has been featured on ABC News. Her book, Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape, won the Choice Magazine award for outstanding title. She is also the author of seven novels, including the Jessica James Mysteries, the Kassy O’Roarke Pet Detective Mysteries, and the Miss Lemon Mysteries. Kelly (when not writing) loves to go to mystery-writers’ conventions, to cross-country ski, and to play with her cats, Mischief and Mayhem.

Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Kelly! Although you currently teach at a prestigious university and have taught at other prestigious universities in the past, you do not come from a privileged social position. Please tell us about your background, how you came to philosophy, and how you ended up in graduate school.

Thanks for inviting me, Shelley!

When I was born, my parents lived in a homemade clapboard house in rural Idaho with my father’s parents. My father was a logger and my mother had just turned twenty. With three kids and another on the way, my dad went to college in Bozeman, Montana and earned a degree as an engineer. We all crammed into married-student housing for those four years. After graduating, my dad got a job working for Washington State and we moved to Spokane. That’s where I went to high school and college.

My mother was a depressed housewife with a wicked temper, and I was raised during the “spare the rod, spoil the child” era of childrearing. My mom was generous with the rod—along with wooden spoons, hairbrushes, her open palm, or whatever else was handy. My dad preferred a belt, or a freshly cut “switch” from the side of the road. Stuck at home with four kids, my mom acted out by throwing Pyrex baking dishes, hurling insults, and threatening my dad with a knife. I spent a lot of my childhood cowering in a corner, trying to be invisible.

Expected to get good grades, and wanting to please, I did well in school. When it came time to apply to colleges, the school counselor advised majoring in something that I loved. He asked me which was my favorite subject. I realized that I didn’t really love any subject, but I liked school. I decided what I liked about school was thinking. … I was already a budding philosopher.

At the time, I had a biology teacher who was taking night classes in philosophy. He would tell me about how philosophers would ask questions like, “Is this chair real?” and “How do you know other people aren’t just projections from your own mind?” I thought that sounded really cool. I decided philosophy must be about thinking and that I wanted to major in philosophy… even though I had no clue what it was.

Luckily, I got scholarships and went to Gonzaga, a small Jesuit school in Spokane, now known for its basketball team. My parents wanted me to major in accounting and then go to law school and become a tax lawyer. As an incoming student, I was probably the only undergrad to declare a philosophy-accounting double major.

Accounting was so deadly boring that eventually I quit going to class and put the class on pass-fail. With philosophy, it was love at first-sight. In my second semester, I talked one of my professors, Wayne Pomerleau, into letting me take a master’s level course on Kant. I crammed for the final exam by reading the Critique of Pure Reason in one weekend. I didn’t understand it, but it was like jumping into a cool lake on a hot day.

The next semester, Professor Pomerleau taught Hegel’s Phenomenology. He talked really fast and I had to sprint to keep up with my notes. My friends in the class hated it, but I was hooked. Hegel was my first philosophical love. I held my breath and dove in.

Forget accounting, forget law school, forget tax law, a new world was opening up… something I’d never heard of or imagined: graduate school in philosophy. In a hurry to get there, I graduated with a philosophy-communications double-major in three years. Professor Pomerleau suggested that I apply to his alma mater, Northwestern University. When I was accepted with a full fellowship, he handed me copies of Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” and Davidson’s “Truth and Meaning,” and mentioned something else that I’d never heard of—the Continental-Analytic split.

Philosophy was both my escape and my return to my roots. My paternal grandfather didn’t even finish grade school, but he was the first philosopher that I knew… a home-grown philosopher curious about the meaning of life.

I’m lucky. One of my sisters lives below the poverty line and the other sister lives just above it. My nephew has been in and out of prison and my niece is a stripper in Las Vegas. I help support them.

Kelly, in graduate school, you personally experienced and observed considerable sexism and misogyny. Please give us a snapshot of these experiences and how they affected your career path and research. How, and to what extent, have things changed for graduate students in these regards?

Not even old enough to drink (legally), I arrived at Northwestern. I had only been on an airplane once before. I had never been to a city as big as Chicago. I’d never seen a foreign film. I’d never eaten Thai food. So many things I hadn’t done. So many things I was introduced to in graduate school… but that’s another story.

Like most women of my generation, I was one of the only women in the program. There were no women on the faculty. In fact, in my entire college and graduate career, I never took a class from a woman professor because there weren’t any.

[Description of photo below: Kelly, a white woman, sits in a café, staring at something in front of her. She is wearing large plastic glasses, a collared shirt, and suit jacket with a brooch, looking very professorial.]

I’m pretty sure that I was the only graduate student in the bunch who, as a kid, had lived in a trailer park or in a converted chicken coop. At first, I resented my parents because—unlike my peers—I hadn’t gone to prep school or learned Latin and Greek in high school. I came from folks who didn’t even speak proper English. Eventually, I learned to value my roots in the wilderness of the heart, for that’s what gave me my determination and grit. And, when the prep school boys with their Latin and Greek were dropping out or leaving the profession, my grit kept me going. They may have been more prepared, but I was more determined.

I had some strange experiences in grad school. Looking back on it now, I realize (or hope) these were anomalous. At the time, I just accepted them as normal. One of my professors didn’t know my name, so he called me “the pasty-faced blonde girl.” Another professor would call on me, and when I answered, he’d yell, “Stop, stop, stop.” He did the same thing whenever I had to give a presentation. Five minutes in and he would yell, “Stop!” He also liked to comment on my looks and my clothes; and at my qualifying exam, he exclaimed, “She’s got you by the balls now!” after one of my responses to my advisor. My first dissertation director wouldn’t read chapters, only a completed dissertation. He also told me, “You’re not cut out for graduate school” and “This isn’t a good place to look for a husband.” I wrote two full dissertations for him by the time Nancy Fraser joined the faculty at Northwestern as an assistant professor. Thank goodness for Nancy, or I probably wouldn’t have gotten my Ph.D. In the end, she was my dissertation director, and I was her first Ph.D. student.

I have a lot of horror stories from those days, but I’ll just mention one more: I was a teaching assistant for a professor in the German department (who went on to have a brilliant career). He offered to read my dissertation (which was on Nietzsche) and then he offered to write me a letter for the job market. Given that he wasn’t on my committee, and that I’d never taken a class from him, I thought that was very kind. Little did I know… A few weeks later, I got a call from the placement office that I had a “very bad” letter in my dossier. They recommended removing it. It was his letter! He’d volunteered to write a letter for me and then wrote a bad one. I don’t know what to call that except sabotage. To paraphrase Nietzsche, “What doesn’t kill you, sends you to therapy.”

Thank goodness for student health services. Going to therapy at the student health services in grad school was my first experience with therapy. I remember then talking a lot about feeling empty, like there was nothing inside me, like I was no one. Only much later, when I got out of graduate school and discovered writing did I find a way to fill that void. I don’t just live to write; I write to live.

A turning point in my graduate career was in my third year when I was accepted to the School for Criticism and Theory, which was at Northwestern that summer. Inspired by a seminar with Gayatri Spivak, and in a seminar with Edward Said, I presented some of my dissertation work on Nietzsche. Said seemed stunned. And my fellow classmates, Robert C. Young in particular, encouraged me to publish it; it was my first article, “Woman as Truth in Nietzsche’s Writings.”  That was the first time, since I had arrived at Northwestern, that anyone told me my work was good.

I dumped my original dissertation director, along with the other old phenomenologists on my committee. Nancy Fraser agreed to direct my dissertation. Under Nancy’s direction, my work on Nietzsche came under the influence of “French Feminism.” John McCumber, also a new assistant professor at the time, agreed to be on the committee. The department chair offered to be the third member just to get me through. But when he read the dissertation, he said he was “offended” by it, and we had to find someone else and reschedule my defense. Nancy’s friend, the brilliant Michal Ginsburg from French, agreed to be my third reader. The defense was held in secret, and afterwards, Nancy invited me to her apartment to have a glass of champagne with her and Sandra Bartky. Less a celebration than a trading of “war-stories,” we drank our champagne and commiserated.

In the last few years, I’ve turned to writing fiction—I’ve written seven novels so far—as a way of working through some of my experiences in the profession, especially the extreme misogyny of graduate school. In fact, if you want a fictionalized account of some of the most unbelievable things that happened to me in grad school, check out my first novel, WOLF: A Jessica James Mystery. Hopefully it will make you laugh to avoid crying. When I think back on those who tried to hold me back, I only half-jokingly say, “Success is the best revenge.” Of course, a fictional murder of an evil professor by an undergrad who has read too much existentialism helps, too.

I hope things have changed for women in the profession. There are more women teaching now. And, hopefully, professors can’t grossly mistreat graduate without repercussions. My own commitment to my graduate students, and to mentoring women in the profession, comes from my political commitment to overcome the wrongs of my/our past and encourage women to succeed.

How have migraines affected your career and your writing?

By the time I got my degree (1987), I was already teaching full time at West Virginia University, and I had a book contract to write a book on Kristeva: my first book, Reading Kristeva: Unraveling the Double-bind. That’s when the terrible headaches started. But only once and a while, mostly during thunderstorms.

From there, I moved to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; then to George Washington University; and then to the University of Texas at Austin, where I got tenure, barely. Although I had two books in print, one edited book, and fifteen articles, the vote on my tenure was split in my department and at the college level. By this time, my work was decidedly feminist, and I’d learned that as a woman working in Continental Feminism, I would have to publish twice as much to get the same promotions. Like most women in the profession at this time, I suffered microaggressions from colleagues on an almost daily basis. It was stressful.

While I was in Austin, I started getting terrible headaches regularly. For the first few years, I was diagnosed with chronic sinus infections. But, in my late thirties, I was diagnosed with chronic and debilitating migraines. By then, I had moved to Stony Brook University, where, in spite of tensions in the department, I felt that, for the first time, I was respected and taken seriously. I became the first woman chair of the philosophy department and one of only two women chairs in the college at that time. I was also suffering daily headaches.

Embarrassed about the headaches, and not wanting to show weakness, I hid my pain as best as I could. I powered through, sometimes lying on my office floor in between classes, and then collapsing in bed on the weekends.

Also, during this time, I discovered Levinas, whose work was the inspiration for my book Witnessing: Beyond Recognition. I was moving away from my graduate training in German Phenomenology and towards the French post-phenomenological philosophers Fanon, Levinas, and Derrida, while continuing my interest in psychoanalysis and Kristeva.

By now, I was seeing a neurologist regularly and trying a lot of different medications for the daily migraines. Nothing seemed to work and some stuff had unpleasant side-effects. After years of daily headaches, I fell into a cycle of working when I could and despairing when I couldn’t function. I was still hiding my headaches from my family, friends, and colleagues as much as I possibly could. My downtime was spent in a dark room.

As I got older, I found it more and more difficult to hide my headaches. The pain was debilitating and I simply couldn’t power through any more. Reactions to my confessing to having chronic migraine varied, but no one seemed to understand. Administrators ignored me when I declined taking on more service, even when I had a letter from my neurologist. Even some of my feminist colleagues belittled my migraines, or blamed them when I chose not to take on certain responsibilities for other reasons.

[Description of photo below: An out-of-focus selfie taken by Kelly who is sitting with her left arm embracing her cat, Mayhem. Kelly says that this photo aptly represents her experience of migraine.]

Even now, when I admit to chronic migraines, the university is not accommodating. I’m still expected to do everything as if I did not have chronic pain. In fact, because I’m one of the only senior women in my department, I’m expected to do more service. And because I’ve been socialized as a woman, I have trouble saying “no” to service or disappointing others’ expectations of me. So, I often end up doing extra service.

After nearly three decades of migraine, I’ve gotten better at managing the pain, but I still don’t know how to manage the shame, despair, and lack of understanding.

As you’ve now indicated, the migraines you experience are misunderstood and not adequately addressed in terms of accessibility in your workplace. In August, I interviewed Joe Rachiele who also addressed how migraines are (dis)regarded in academia. What are the most salient ways in which departments and the university need to change in order to remove constraints to your participation in your department, university, and the profession more widely?

I very much appreciate that Joe talked about the stigma associated with migraine headaches. The studies that he mentioned confirm my own experience of migraines, that is, how they are not taken seriously. The work that he cited also explains why I feel shame and embarrassment that I have headaches, since the stigma revolves around something like female hysteria and psychosomatic symptoms that are “all in your head” and, therefore, your own fault.

Some basic changes that could be made would be for colleagues and administrators to take seriously chronic migraine, and not criticize, chastise, or penalize migraine sufferers when they miss events or meetings, etc. I feel under a lot of pressure to attend everything, but I am physically not able to do so even if I want to do so. My colleagues don’t understand. They don’t understand that chronic migraine is debilitating and limits physical activity. Sometimes I can’t drive or even step outside into the light because I’m so nauseous and dizzy and my eyes are so sensitive to the light. I worry that some of my colleagues think I’m just a bad citizen. Understanding and adjusting expectations would go a long way; it would also help reduce stress-induced migraine!

How supportive have feminist philosophers been with respect to your migraines and your requirements for self-care?

Although not everyone has been understanding about my migraines, throughout graduate school and my career, I’ve relied on support and comradery other women in the profession—sometimes that meant the staff since they were the only other women in the department.

To my great disappointment, I have had one notable experience where a feminist colleague did what now I would describe as “gaslighting” by insisting publicly that what I saw as a lack of cooperation and dissimulation on her part was in reality a product of my migraines. And, of course, some of my feminist colleagues have the same unreasonable expectations as other colleagues, expectations that do not take seriously the debilitating effects of migraine headaches.

For the most part, though, my feminist colleagues have been more supportive and tolerant than others. A few of them who also have chronic migraines totally “get it,” and go beyond the minimum of tolerance and have been understanding, even compassionate.

Thank goodness for the other women in the profession, especially my students, who’ve inspired me and buoyed me up. Teaching and mentoring graduate students have been among the most rewarding parts of my life.

You and Melinda Hall, my co-blogger on BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY, are co-editing an exciting collection on philosophy of disability. Please tell our readers and listeners about the book and the motivation to publish it.

I actually came to disability studies through my work on animals, specifically through debates between, Eva Kittay, my friend and former colleague, and Peter Singer. My first extended engagement with disability studies came when I researched my article “Service Dogs: Between Animal Studies and Disability Studies.” Like Melinda, I’ve done some research on genetic engineering, although not in the depth that she has done it. I was approached by Sarah Campbell, an editor at Rowman & Littlefield about putting together a volume entitled New Perspectives on Disability, and I immediately thought of Melinda.

Originally, I wanted to write a contribution about my personal experience with migraine called “Not Tonight.” But, I chickened out. In fact, this interview is the first time I’ve talked publicly about my chronic migraine…and I have to admit, it is scary and I feel ashamed just talking about it. The level of shame is profound and baffling. So, part of my personal motivation to take up disability in my philosophical work has been to talk about types of disabling experiences that are not readily visible or readable by those who don’t pay attention.

On a more scholarly level, Melinda and I both are interested in working across the—hopefully now outdated—Continental-Analytic divide. We wanted to put together a collection of philosophical approaches to disability that derive from different methodologies to nurture conversations across what sometimes can seem to be incompatible positions.

In addition, we want to challenge the notion that philosophy of disability is applied philosophy or that “disability” scholars simply apply philosophy or philosophical frameworks to the issue of disability. Indeed, we want to consider how disability/ability is at the heart of philosophy and of thinking about what it means to be human.

Melinda, I’m proud to say, is a former Ph.D. student of mine. As you know, she’s written very important work challenging bioethics of genetic engineering from a disability standpoint. We’ve teamed up with another brilliant recent Ph.D. student of mine, Sarah Gorman, who works on disability, particularly mental illness. Together, the three of us are putting together what promises to be a cutting-edge volume on philosophy and disability, in which your wonderful contribution, Shelley, is central. We’re in the final stages of assembling the volume now. Since the amazing Sarah Campbell has left Rowman & Littlefield, we may be looking around for a new home for the volume, which hopefully we will have very soon.

Kelly, would you like to say anything else about something that we’ve discussed in this interview, or recommend some books or articles on any of the topics that we’ve discussed in this interview, or mention something that we haven’t discussed?

Thank you, Shelley, for suggesting that I talk about my experiences in the profession, especially with respect to chronic migraine. You’ve encouraged me to speak out, which is terrifying but also feels important. And, thank you for the tremendous work you do, including this blog!

Kelly, thank you very much for your kind remarks about my work and BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY. Thanks, too, for your provocative remarks throughout this interview. Your interview makes an important contribution to the Dialogues on Disability series. I look forward to meeting you at the philoSOPHIA conference at Vanderbilt in May!

Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Kelly Oliver’s remarks, ask questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted. And to learn more about Kelly and her books, go to her website at http://www.kellyoliverbooks.com


Please join me here again on Wednesday, November 20th, at 8 a.m. EST, for the fifty-sixth installment of the Dialogues on Disability series and, indeed, on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews planned. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), please feel free to write me at s.tremain@yahoo.ca. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, race, gender, institutional status, nationality, culture, age, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.

Follow BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY ON Twitter at @biopoliticalph

3 Responses

  1. Caleb W

    Thank you, Shelley and Kelly, for an illuminating interview! Kelly, thanks for sharing your own story…your pathbreaking has been so important on many levels. (I can also say first hand that your feminist leadership has left an enduring mark on the Stony Brook philosophy department.) I’m coming away from this conversation with a better sense of being an ally to my own migraine-suffering grad student colleagues.


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