Santiago Zavala


“You are not like the other professors.” Students have said so for about twenty years and it is a compliment, while at the same time it is not a criticism of the other professors. I am less conventional, more daring, and more versatile, it seems, and I am more critical and analytical than most. (This last observation surprises me, but if it is accurate it might help explain why I am disconcerting.) Most strikingly, the perceived difference is that “They are suited to be professors, but you would also be suited to other things.”

In the opening scene of Vargas Llosa’s Conversación en la Catedral Santiago Zavala looks out on the gray roofs of Lima’s Avenida Tacna, “sin amor.” At what moment did Peru screw itself up? he asks himself. At what moment did he screw his own life up? That is of course the question I ask myself on my other blog, and this post should be there. But there are too many people who know it, and I do not speak there as openly as I might.


Unlike Zavalita, I know when screwed myself up: in “psychotherapy.” Whatever there may have been, was well on its way to healing when that happened. From the same era there is that first book I did not write, and could not write because I refused to allow myself to think about it except to say to myself, write it! And I am slow now because that book and the issues around it are a sort of cuenta pendiente. And bad things come in threes, and I can list three bad things: my first job, psychotherapy, and that book contract.

With the help of Jennifer I came to understand “psychotherapy” at last. I have not yet figured out, entirely, how to analyze and contextualize the elements which, especially once I was weakened and confused by psychotherapy, I allowed to contribute to the underdevelopment of my career and perhaps my life. I am better able to list them now, though — or able to list more of them.


1. Having been raised to feel that whatever money I earned would never be my primary source of income. I was constitutionally unable to support myself (or so it was alleged), and from the point of view of self preservation it was far more important for me to care for those who would be or provide my primary income than it was to “play at having work.”

2. Having been trained to believe academic writing was ventriloquism. To receive our salaries, everyone had to say what the conservative white men would say, and reserve our own ideas for our private use after hours. Survival depended upon not developing one’s own voice.

3. The family wanted us to be in the humanities at least, and ideally in art or music. The social sciences were bad and the natural sciences, worse, and professions involving business, engineering, medicine, or law were beyond the pale because of their crass commercialism. My brother was very concerned about introducing his wife to us because she was a scientist.


So what was my “demotivation” or (was it even demotivation)? Let us sort this out, because some elements are general conditions and others correspond to distinct periods of time. I tend to think of it all as a single conglomeration of issues but I think that separating some of the strands will help to clarify matters.

Importantly, in the later period — the one which includes the present — a great deal has had to do with the fact that I am in field and in state for others’ sake, not for my own. My colleagues and family wanted me to remain an academic at any cost. I acquiesced, but did not feel I was living my own life or that my life was my own. This has made things difficult.

Of course the feeling that I was not living my own life was due in part to the way I was trained to think about what life was for professors: a series of exercises in obedience where success was required for survival.


There was also a great deal of misogyny in most of my academic workplaces, much of which I did not recognize as such.

Misogynist idea #1 –  That I should not be an intellectual (my first job, my therapist)
Misogynist idea #2 – That I should be more motherly, feminine, weak (my first job, my therapist)
Misogynist idea #3 – That I should not have sovereignty over my time, be in control of my life, go places by myself (my therapist)
Misogynist idea #4 – That I should not work like a professional (my first job, where I was expected to be a mother, and this one, where we are in many ways Wal*Mart clerks)
Misogynist idea #5 – That I should not trust my own ideas (my father, a professor).

In graduate school, I had not yet been exposed to ideas 1-3. This is why my first job and my therapist, which together comprise “Reeducation” (although they did not take place at the same time) were so traumatic to me. During the same period idea #4 came into view as well. I discovered I had been trained to be a true professional and was already used to this, and wanted it — and that where I was now, it was a liability. This still shocks me.

Idea #5, I always had; I never expected to be allowed to write my own ideas, but I did expect to be allowed to write in a professional atmosphere. When it turned out that my own ideas really wanted to break through, and at the same time I was under fire for working like a professional or at least for wanting to. So I now found I wanted one thing I had not wanted before (to write my own ideas), and expected something I did not realize I did (to work in a professional atmosphere).

So, large parts of the reason I have wanted to leave academia for so long are so that I can work like a professional in a professional atmosphere, and so that I can write my own ideas. This is very interesting.


I have many times, in many ways, been invited to join the profession in ways I have refused, because my father would not have believed me competent for it or I suppose, would not have believed himself competent for it.

After deciding to leave, and then staying, I was invited in a deep way many times and I felt each invitation as a blow. That was in part because these were kind but unwanted gestures — what I wanted was another profession, another field, and I responded to kind invitations from my own field laden with guilt. And I must do this, but I do not have the circumstances which would permit it. Yet I should not want to do this. And I should have already done this. But I should not dare do it.

In the end this all comes down to the things my father said were so difficult or would be so difficult for me. I do not feel I should be doing them, or I feel I should be doing more of them or I should have already done them, and I feel I should be too weak to do them, and the burden of all these exhortations about how one should be makes me weak.


To do academic work I need somewhere to hide, I feel. I must not to be seen doing it because all of the bricks and sticks my envious, hurting parents will throw at me. I must work in secret.

I have so internalized these bricks and sticks that the person from whom I must hide is actually myself.

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5 Responses to Santiago Zavala

  1. Z says:

    Note how I was raised with this idea of powerlessness. It was said I kept “hurting” my parents and I did not understand it … but the “hurt” was forgetting to be powerless enough, and that was what brought on all the violent speech. So this is why I have this dilemma, that if I do the things I need to do to live, I will be killed.

    That is not news but what is news is how many ways the powerlessness theme comes up in this post. And then I am “not like the other professors” in that I have MORE personal power than the average. And I keep trying to find ways to diminish that, so as to be more acceptable, so as to be allowed to survive, when really I should harness and develop it!🙂

  2. Z says:

    …important: the influence of the idea that leaving academia means you are a failure as a person. This idea, I did not invent it, it was pushed upon us all.

    …also: all my father’s disempowering advice, even when it was technically true. (He was good on how to do research, but complete doom on everything else.) I am a marginal academic basically because the family was so against my doing anything at all. Very destructive, them, even though they consider it “protective” and “helpful.”

  3. Jennifer says:

    The problem with psychotherapy is quite simply the issue of original sin, which looms in the background of all psychotherapy sessions. A correlate is the theological notion of “fallenness”. All experiences, whether positive or negative are viewed in these lights. That is how positive experiences, including independence of mind or finding one’s own way of out difficulties are recast as inappropriate arrogance and pride. Negative experiences are individualised and attributed to inherent weaknesses. Positive experiences (insofar as they differ from those of the herd) are put down to delusion, (inappropriate) aggression and so on. Whereas males may be permitted a certain amount of aggression, women are not. To speak too self-confidently invites the condemnation that one wishes to be male. Thus, everything one thinks of does is interpreted as having been corrupted by original sin.

    Read the following, which barely touches the surface of the problems intrinsic to a Judeo-Christian field or ‘discipline’:

  4. Z says:

    Yes. And I am fascinated by the concept of that book.

  5. Z says:

    Or is it the opposite? Is it that I DO put, or want to put my own work first and professordom as I have mostly known it, is not my work?

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