Last night I went to see the play Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp Through MIT’s Male Math Maze, written and performed by Gioia De Cari. Gioia and I were friends at MIT – we both started the Math PhD program in 1984. She left a few years later with a Master’s, moving on to pursue music and acting; I held on, staying halfway in and halfway out of MIT, finally finishing my PhD in 1992. The play helped us reconnect after twenty years.
For the past few months I’ve found myself thinking about graduate school a lot. Working on this website has been the catalyst, as it’s an attempt to put my work out in the world on my own terms, to say explicitly, “This is what I do,” and implicitly, “I think what I do is worthy.” In making myself more visible, I find thoughts leftover from my graduate school days bubbling to the surface, “The only thing that matters is research math,” and “If you’re not doing research math, it’s because you’re not good enough. You failed. You wasted our time. You let down all women.”
Of course, if I took a poll, the vast majority of people would agree that helping future elementary school teachers better understand and enjoy mathematics (i.e. what I do now) is worthwhile. A nontrivial number of people would have no idea what research math is (my favorite quote from a non-math-person on the topic, “Haven’t all the numbers already been discovered?”). So, it seems a bit silly, even to me, that my MIT thoughts get so much airtime in my head. Yet they do.
While watching the play and for hours afterward, I felt intense sensations in my chest – moving between grief, openness and connection, and pure rage. The play is brilliant. Gioia inhabits dozens of characters including an incomprehensible professor, a depressed graduate student who professes his love for her, the Dean of Women who tells her that having only one male student bothering her isn’t that bad (another student has fourteen), and most importantly the younger Gioia, trying to figure out who she will be as an adult, in the often cold and hostile environment at MIT.
Gioia and I had different experiences at MIT, and watching the play I was struck by how blurry my own memories are. One character was even inspired by me, but I didn’t remember any of the specific scenes involving this character. For other characters, I found myself thinking that not only didn’t I remember who she was talking about, but that I mostly only remember a few students specifically – the ones I was friends with; the others have lost most of their individuality for me.
Yet, for every moment of the play I felt, “This is what it was like being there.” There is such emotional authenticity to how she recreated the atmosphere that I found myself viscerally there. My stray thoughts from graduate school don’t seem so silly when they are accompanied by the intense emotions in which they were incubated.
Grief: I wanted to cry when Gioia described having trouble connecting with the other women. I wondered if I was a good friend; mostly I don’t remember. I remember being surprised to find out that Gioia was a feminist. I had somehow mistakenly assumed coming to MIT that, as women in a traditionally male field, most of the other students would be aware of sexism and other forms of discrimination and would want to fight them, but most didn’t want to talk about it. Gioia dressed in a much more feminine style than most of the other women, and I prejudged based on her appearance, but was delighted when I found out I was wrong, that she was both the most feminine and the most feminist of the other students.
I grieve for the ways it was hard to connect as women – that we had a certain amount of status as token women; the fewer women there were, the more “special” we were. Then there was the contradictory impulse that we had to do something for all women, to prove that women could do high level math. I grieved for the young Gioia, talented in so many ways, yet feeling compelled to force herself in a box where some of her greatest talents were taken as distractions from the important task at hand, and where her ability to bear children was viewed as a negative.
I also grieve for the young me. I went to MIT as a twenty-two year old who loved math and wanted to learn more, who was newly out as a lesbian, and who was terrified that the world was going to blow up any day due to all the nuclear weapons. I’d had some very rough and chaotic periods in childhood and was running from that pain, and I still couldn’t quite imagine myself as an adult. I had no idea what graduate school would be like or what it meant to be a mathematician. I grieve for how I was welcomed, not, “We’re so glad you’re here, we will walk with you as you struggle, as you must,” but more like, “Prove you’re worthy of our time.”
I grieve for my shock at finding out that graduate school had nothing to do with learning to be a teacher, that in fact, if you cared too much about teaching, many thought that meant you weren’t serious enough to do research. My advisor once told me that mathematicians view being good at teaching as something like being good at golf – a fine thing to do in your spare time, irrelevant to the real endeavor.
In the play Gioia talks about her father’s suicide while she was at MIT. I remember being horrified at the ineptness of many of our classmates’ responses (but, again I don’t remember many specifics). I never met Gioia’s dad, but his suicide changed my life. Gioia told me how hard his childhood was, and how he had never been able to deal with it, despite his great success in the work world. I had always assumed that being successful would take away any remaining pain from my childhood, but I was terrified that if the PhD ended up not being enough, I could kill myself, just like he did, and I didn’t want that to happen. I went to therapy for the first time.
Pure Rage: In the car on the way home from the play, I got in touch with the rage that goes with the grief: The world should not be this way. There’s no need for such dehumanization. I say “pure rage,” because the rage feels cleansing – the kind of feeling that answers my vestigial voices.
When I am in touch with this rage, I know that lack of support for good teaching is the problem; not that I’ve chosen to focus on teaching. I know that denigrating human traits such as empathy and good communication skills, and pretending those traits are exclusively or primarily female, is the problem, not that my work involves those skills too and not just the skills that got me into MIT. I certainly do not let women down by valuing qualities seen as female.
Openness and Connection: Beyond the grief and rage, there is connection; however imperfect. Gioia’s pain and her father’s helped me find guides to navigate my own, and neither of them knew it (well, until last night when I told Gioia).
Over half the audience stayed for the discussion after the play. One of the speakers started by asking how many of the women in the audience had science degrees, and there were a significant number. The audience was thoroughly engaged throughout the play. Afterward, many people struggled to articulate their comments and questions, as if perhaps Gioia had found some of the words for what they were feeling or thinking, and now they needed to find the rest of them.
Gioia portrays the complexity of her experience; there are no clear-cut villains. The professor who refused her an extension on her oral exams after her father’s death comes across as genuinely believing he was acting in her best interest, offering work as a coping mechanism, since that’s what always helped him. Several characters come off as deeply disturbed, and not likely to get help any time soon.
I kept thinking, “Look what she did with all that!” I felt such awe at the power of art to take something difficult and complicated and often wrong and to turn it into something else; something that can connect people, something that tells the truth and creates an opening for both individuals and the world to get better. I also thought, “Look what I did!”
Ultimately, both Gioia and I were able to find our way, using our MIT education in ways far different than our professors intended. I often think that the best thing I got from MIT was a deep empathy for my students, many of whom experienced the same sorts of frustration and humiliation I did, albeit in third or fifth grade, not graduate school. I don’t know what’s the best thing Gioia took from MIT, but she sure got some amazing material, that she shaped masterfully into this play.
Again, the play is called Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp Through MIT’s Male Math Maze. It’s only playing in Cambridge for another week, but hopefully it’ll get picked up and Gioia can take it on tour. Highly recommended – maximum number of stars! See it if you can.
Update: The show has been extended for another week!