Rebecca Schuman

Columnist at vitae

When ‘Academia or Else’ Goes From Unfortunate To Unthinkable

Full don t look back 1

It was the fall of 2009, and I was neck-deep in my dissertation. I was lucky enough to be on a fellowship and, as such, so I split my time between St. Louis, where my partner lived, and Irvine, Calif., home of my heavily immersive, deeply isolating Ph.D. program. When I was on campus, the incongruous combination of intellectual intensity and vapid, sterile surroundings sometimes resulted in unusual hobbies.

Case in point: To entertain myself while I scarfed down my lunch, I often perused my favorite section of the student newspaper: the police register, which was always printed verbatim without comment.“Marijuana smell reported near Pippin Commons.” “Youths with skateboard sighted at ARC.” “Bobcat spotted on the loose at Palo Verde.” And then, as always, the litany of identical noise complaints, fired off on the weekends like clockwork at 12:01 a.m. — the second a local “quiet ordinance” took effect. Oh, how funny it was to live somewhere with no crime.

Until, that is, a graduate student in physics shot and killed his ex-wife in front of their 4-year-old son.

When Brian Benedict, then 35, murdered Rebecca Benedict, 30, in the middle of Verano Place — the shabby but tranquil housing complex where I lived along with almost every other graduate student I knew — those who heard it thought someone was shooting off fireworks. (Those who witnessed it directly heroically detained Benedict until law enforcement arrived, and attempted to revive Rebecca.)

The murder shocked the campus and surrounding area. (Here is a short but trenchant rundown about it from the late Scott Eric Kaufman, who sadly passed away last year.) It was — and remains — the only homicide in UCI history. The details were tragic, and to those outside academe, they will seem near unfathomable.

Benedict’s horrific action was unusual and unacceptable. Those of us who have spent time in the depths of the totalizing, reality-warping “life of the mind” community may never fully understand why he chose that particular resolution over any number of other similarly awful options. But we understood all too well the desperate thinking behind it.

What happened, according to court records and the Los Angeles Times, was this: Before beginning his graduate program, Benedict had worked in the private sector, earning about $85,000 a year, significantly more than his modest annual graduate stipend of $26,000. At the same time, Benedict’s marriage ended, and he and his ex-wife entered a lengthy custody and child-support battle. Ultimately, the judge raised Benedict’s monthly child-support payment to $920.

Anyone outside academia — especially anyone living in the wealthy Southern California cities of Irvine, Newport, or Laguna Beach — would see that amount and shrug. But Benedict didn’t make an OC salary anymore. His stipend barely covered his basic living expenses. Still, the presiding judge in the custody dispute, Nancy A. Pollard, was unmoved: “The care and maintenance of the child,” she argued, in support of the $920 amount, “is more important than the care and maintenance of the father’s schooling.”

Again, for someone outside of academia, that might not seem like such an awful thing to say. But I remember reading those words in the newspaper in 2009 and feeling my blood just boil. How could a judge — a learned person herself — be so dismissive of a Ph.D. program? It wasn’t just “schooling.” It was his whole life.

Make no mistake: Benedict deserved to go to prison for the rest of that life (and, thankfully, that’s what he’s doing). But at the time, as far as I was concerned, Pollard was equally responsible for Rebecca Benedict’s death, for effectively forcing him to abandon his program — a fate akin, at the time, to a metaphorical death for me. The 10 degrees of mental instability necessary to literalize that metaphor? Also not impossible for me to fathom (not for myself, but for others), given the staggering rates of depression, anxiety, and other afflictions in the academic community.

Now, eight years later (and a parent myself), I don’t know what I find more abhorrent: That a father could murder the mother of his child in front of that child, or that any part of me whatsoever understood a single iota of that murderer’s motivation.

Brian Benedict couldn’t have predicted either the demise of his marriage or the global financial crisis, but the speed at which he seemed to lose all rational capacity to put the import of his Ph.D. program into context in his life was remarkable — and even more so, given how unremarkable his fellow graduate students found it, however little we supported the horrific choice he made.

One of the most difficult things to explain to anyone outside of the hallowed halls — aside,from what exactly one’s dissertation is about — is why the idea of leaving a PhD program, or leaving academia altogether, is not simply unfortunate but downright unthinkable. In a way, I am glad that I went through my own withdrawal from the academy in public, documenting (and sometimes publishing widely) every cringe-worthy rant.

Because — a mere four years later — I cannot now, for the life of me, even begin to wrap my head around why the idea of leaving a (largely unrewarding) job in a field that wanted nothing to do with me was anything but a gift. Why, exactly, I spent the first three months after quitting the academy flopped on my couch in tears — informing everyone who would listen (a dwindling number, unsurprisingly!) that I wanted to be killed in an accident, so that I wouldn’t hurt my loved ones by committing suicide but would also not have to hurt myself by continuing to live — is now as mysterious to me as the inner workings of the mind of someone who points a gun at the mother of his son.

The “academia or else” mindset is unfathomable to outsiders, even outsiders such as myself, who were once insiders. This we know. But for those deep in its throes, this mindset can result in phenomenal pain. In rare cases, that pain can be deadly — and the sphere of its poisonous influence can destroy the innocent, as well as the guilty.


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