No Self To Begin With

It is a long story in The New Yorker – The Price of Admission, published on April 4 2022. It is a long, sad story of abuse and gaslighting, beginning in locations involving St Louis Missouri (our urban center). It is the story of a former foster care youth and the agendas of higher education. Mackenzie Fierceton has been a brilliant student, once accepted for a Rhodes Scholarship, and is a committed activist.

I encourage you to read the entire article as I did this morning. Necessarily, I am only pulling out a few concepts I jotted down related to Mackenzie’s situation.

If trauma creates a kind of narrative void, Mackenzie seemed to respond by leaning into a narrative that made her life feel more coherent, fitting into boxes that people want to reward. Perhaps her access to privilege helped her understand, in a way that other disadvantaged students might not, the ways that élite institutions valorize certain kinds of identities. There is currency to a story about a person who comes from nothing and thrives in a prestigious setting. These stories attract attention, in part because they offer comfort that, at least on occasion, such things happen.

“. . . Mackenzie is being faulted for not having suffered enough. She was a foster child, but not for long enough. She is poor, but she has not been poor for long enough. She was abused, but there is not enough blood.”
~ Anne Norton, Political Science Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who has provided a home for Mackenzie

Regarding the question about being a first generation student at a university – Mackenzie had e-mailed the associate director of admissions and recruitment at Penn’s social-work school to ask how former foster youth should answer the question. “I personally believe the education level (or/and financial status) of the biological parents would be irrelevant,” the associate director responded. “The youth should select into the option that provides them access to the most funding—which would be to indicate that they are a first-generation college student.”

“When we allow stereotype to be our stand-in for disadvantaged groups, we are actually doing them a disservice. That’s what scares me about this case. It’s, like, ‘You’re not giving us the right sob story of what it means to be poor.’ The university is so focused on what box she checked, and not the conditions—her lack of access to the material, emotional, and social resources of a family—that made her identify with that box. Colleges are in such a rush to celebrate their ‘first Black,’ their ‘first First Gen’ for achievements, but do they actually care about the student? Or the propaganda campaign that they can put behind her story?”
~ Anthony Jack, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies low-income and first-generation college students

“There have been moments of almost panic where I am just cognitively questioning myself, like, ‘Did I misremember something?’ It’s easy to slide back into that state, because I want anything other than the reality—that it is my bio family who has caused so much harm—so I will do backflips to try to make it not true.”
~ Mackenzie Fierceton

It is a very real case of gaslighting – “You start to think that maybe you had it wrong and that maybe it actually did happen the way that they say it did,” Mackenzie wrote. “And then you just throw away the real memory, the true one, and replace it with the one that they have fed you a million times, until that is the only thing you can remember.”

As an addendum, Penn did release her Master’s Degree. From The Daily Pennsylvanian.

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