I didn’t have much cash. I didn’t have transportation. I didn’t have time to create another identity. Why hadn’t I planned for this? Why was I spending my energies cooking fussy meals for a cranky old lady who barely noticed what she was eating, or spending hours writing comments on terrible essays dashed off in ten minutes by over-privileged kids who weren’t even trying? I should have focused on saving my life. What an idiot.
My thoughts were banging around inside my head seeking an escape route. The old lady might be cranky, but I had a feeling she was trustworthy. If I left her a note and told her where I would leave the car, I could probably drive it to Minneapolis and then… something. Or I could call Oak. He would help.
Another email pinged into my inbox.
I’m sorry. I know I sound a little crazy. I’m just kind of upset right now. Could I give you a call?
Hell, no. She would recognize my voice. She would say something that would trigger a response from me and she’d figure it out and what was the point of all this if I couldn’t continue being Maggie?
Sorry, but the volume on my phone is messed up. Until I get a new phone I can’t really use it for calls, and I can’t afford a new phone right now. Also—look, I realize you think the woman who died was your friend and you want to blame someone for whatever happened to her, but I was there. It was definitely an accident. It put me in the hospital for three weeks. I still limp and I get headaches and I just started a new job. I’m barely holding it together.
Another thing: I found your website. You’re a gifted writer. I really liked the essay about your daughter and the ducks. But please, please don’t post anything about this online. I told you I was in a bad relationship. I’ve been able to get some distance from him, but I worry every day he’s going to come find me. So you can’t write about this. About me. Seriously.
Are we done now? Will you leave me alone? I skimmed the message I’d just sent. I didn’t sound like Maggie anymore. I sounded desperate. I was desperate.
The computer hummed away, nothing happening other than the old Toshiba’s fan muttering about giving up for good. Every now and then the hum got louder, as if it was angry at having to work overtime. I suddenly had a raging headache, as if my body had decided to validate what I’d written to Allie. It had been a long, difficult day, and I was so tired my bones actually hurt, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep.
My heart gave a jolt when an email pinged in, but it was from a student who’d skipped class, asking if she had missed anything important. Why did they always ask that? So rude. I almost sent a sarcastic reply, something along the lines of how carefully I had designed the course so that most class meetings had absolutely nothing of value in them, but I stopped myself. She wouldn’t get it, anyway. Better to drive her a little nuts by not answering for a couple of days.
I lay back on the bed, rubbing my temples, wondering if it was too late to sneak into the study and grab that whiskey, realizing I probably needed to drink some water instead. Didn’t dehydration give you headaches? I had just decided to sneak down the stairs to the bathroom to get some water, avoiding the noisiest treads on the stairs, when Allie’s final message arrived.
I will respect your privacy. But I can’t promise I won’t write about this after I’ve done more research into what happened to Emily at Eventive. There’s something really bad going on.
Well, shit. I’d better get my escape plan in order.
I slept in the next day, since I hadn’t been able to get to sleep until the sky began to grow light. I had decided not to replied to Allie’s last email, but that didn’t stop my brain composing endless drafts of things I couldn’t say. Girl, write another story about ducks. Think of your kids. You have no idea what you’re getting into. Let an actual journalist tackle it and take the risk of having their lives ruined by a ruthless company. And for god’s sake, get someone to fix your website security, your WordPress install is way out of date and you registered your domain with your home address and phone number. Not that a proxy would be any defense against Eventive finding out where you live, but jeez, whoever built that site committed malpractice.
Dr. Mishkin gave me a raised eyebrow when I finally stumbled down to the kitchen to make some coffee, but she finished making the sandwich she was having for lunch and took it into the study, giving me the kind of space she usually demanded in the morning. I made it to campus for my so-called office hour, looking forward to shooting the shit with Oak, but the department chair called out my name as I reached the head of the stairs. He beckoned me into the admin assistant’s office where he was collecting his mail from the row of mail cubbyholes. Shirley Anderson, the admin assistant, was frowning at her computer screen, pretending not to eavesdrop.
“I’ve been hearing about your podcast assignment,” he said with a strained smile. “The other sections of 101 are all assigning a standard research paper. Your approach is very creative, so… contemporary. But I’m a little concerned. These are first semester students, after all. Digital natives. They hardly need instruction in all this technology stuff.”
“You’d be surprised. They actually don’t know much. I mean, even basic word processing. It blew their minds when I showed them control-z.”
“Well, that may be, but 101 is meant to prepare students new to college for academic writing. How to craft an argument, how to cite sources.”
“We’re definitely working on that. Their show notes have to include sources documented in MLA style.”
He nodded, not listening. “Because college is so different from high school, and so many of these students are under prepared. I really think it would be better to assign a standard research paper.”
“This is kind of a research paper. They have to do a lot of research.”
“But it’s not a paper at all. They’re making a…” He flapped his hands, and dropped some of the mail he was holding. “A recording.”
I scooped up the fallen envelopes and fliers and handed them to him. “Most of the grade will be based on the script they hand in. Like, printed out on paper, with citations. The recording itself only counts a few points. And it won’t be public, it’s just for the class.”
Professor Perv came in to gather up his mail. He stood beside the mailboxes, leafing through papers while listening for gossip. When I glanced at him he raised his eyebrows, as if to say “you’re in trouble,” then waved toward the recycling bin. “Pardon me, I’m just going to…” He mimed nudging me aside, even though he had plenty of room. I stepped back and he edged around, bending away from me, ostentatiously keeping his distance. The department chair look puzzled as he watched his colleague scuttle away.
“That’s reassuring, but still. They need to practice academic forms of expression, and a podcast is simply not academic. Besides, isn’t it a group project? Those are always… well, you know. They’ll divide up the work for efficiency.” He framed the word with air quotes and nearly dropped his mail again. “They’ll pick the strongest writer to do all the work. How can you ensure each student gets sufficient writing experience?”
“They have to hand in individual essays every week, a draft and then a revised version. Also, I conference with them.” Well, I might at some point. I hoped I had the right word. Wasn’t that what it was called on Maggie’s syllabus?
Apparently it was, because he nodded. “Good, good. We want to develop each student’s abilities, and conferencing is a well-established pedagogy.” He kept nodding like a bobblehead as he thought up what to say next. “And revision, that’s good. The revision cycle is so critical. I’m glad you’re building that in.”
“Okay.” I glanced at the clock on the wall, which was pointless. None of them told the same time, if they worked at all. “I should get to my office hours.”
He finally came to the point. “I strongly advise you to scrap that assignment and, as I’ve said, have them write a research paper instead. A standard research paper, like the other sections. It will be less work for you in the end.”
“Wait. Just to be clear—you’re ordering me to drop the podcast assignment?”
He made a stuttering noise that was a combination of a sigh and a dismissive chuckle. “Of course not. I can’t order you to do anything. It’s just, it’s for the best. You’re so early in your career, you don’t want to do anything that would derail it.” He lowered his voice. “The thing is, some of your students have asked to interview faculty about sensitive matters.”
“You’re talking about Michael Knutson’s group.”
“His father is on the—”
“The board of trustees, you told me. I don’t think Michael would be too happy if I told him the podcast was being canceled by the college.”
He reared back, triggered by the word. “We’re not ‘canceling’ anything. I’m just recommending — for your own good, mind you — that you avoid trouble and give the students a more appropriate and conventional task.”
“But I ran it by you, I thought it was okay.”
“What do you mean?”
“I put a copy of the syllabus and assignment in your mailbox a week before classes started.”
“I figured since you didn’t say anything, it was good to go.” I had to think. Maybe it would be better to assign papers that didn’t involve poking hornets’ nests. I could even make a rule their papers had to have a national focus, they couldn’t write about the college and its policies. That would make it less likely Knutson and his minions would take to social media with cherry-picked quotes from faculty, manufacturing a controversy that could pull me into some social media meltdown. All I’d have to worry about is students downloading pre-written papers from the internet, and I didn’t give a shit about that. Less work for everyone, and a lot less risk for me.
But I pictured how the students would react if I told them their projects were going to be replaced by a research paper. They’d already put in a lot of work. They were into their research, they were writing up a storm. It was really working. Maggie would have been so pleased. I could hear her burbling happily beside me in the car, excited to see how it would go.
It’s going great, Maggie. You did good.
He had given me an excuse to opt for a safer option, but something stubborn stiffened my spine. How dare he try to undermine Maggie’s teaching? “So, um, thanks for the advice. I appreciate it. What I’ll do is I’ll talk to them about how to conduct their interviews without putting people on the spot.”
“But I can easily find some research paper assignments for you,” he said desperately. You could just swap them out.”
“Thanks, but they’ve been working so hard on these projects, I’d hate to disappoint them. We’ll stick with what we’re doing.”
For a moment I thought he was going to argue with me, or maybe have a stroke, but after doing a fish imitation, eyes bulging and his mouth opening and closing, he just sighed dramatically. “On your head be it,” he muttered as he left.
“You ‘ran it by him’?” the admin assistant said to me. “Nobody does that.”
“Nobody does that,” Beasley said, amusement mixed with outrage.
“At least I’ve never had to do it,” Oak said. “Not at any of the institutions where I’ve taught. Was that required where you worked before?”
How should I know? “I just figured he’s the boss. He’d want to know what his employees are doing.”
Beasley laughed incredulously and Oak looked confused. “You’re not his employee.”
“Okay, but he’s my supervisor.”
“No, no, no, dear child.” Beasley clutched the side of her face as if she had come down with a sudden toothache. “Goodness no. He’s your chair. The first among equals.”
“That doesn’t even make sense. How can you be first if you’re equal?”
She had to think about that. Oak said, “you did the right thing. He has no right to challenge your academic freedom.”
“Huh. That’s sounds like something Michael Knutson always says.”
“Ridiculous. Academic freedom applies to teachers, not to students,” Beasley said firmly. “I wish these children would look things up before they spout them.”
“I’ll have to figure out how to talk to them about doing interviews diplomatically,” I said. “Ways to avoid freaking out the faculty they talk to.”
“I might have something that would help.” Oak grabbed his laptop.
“Not that it will stop Michael Fucking Knutson from starting a ruckus. It’s his mission in life.”
“Tell me about it. See if this might work,” Oak said. “The handout I’m emailing you is on conducting oral histories, but you could easily adapt it.”
I downloaded the document and skimmed it. “Thanks. I can definitely use this. Knutson’s probably a lost cause. He wants controversy, but the others are at risk of stepping on toes without meaning to. They have this weird mixture of confidence and cluelessness.”
“So true,” Beasley agreed.
“And not much experience with creating original content,” Oak added. “So much of their education has been a matter of finding the right answers, filling in the blanks. College is challenging. You can’t expect them to avoid every pitfall when all they’ve had to avoid in the past is wrong answers.”
Fair enough. But given how excited students were about their projects, and how often they blabbed impulsively on social media, that original content could call attention to itself even without being produced as public podcasts. Which, no big deal, except it could call attention to me, as their teacher and instigator. And I had Michael Knutson on top of that, as eager to hunt down leftist professors as Joe McCarthy had been to find Communists under every bed. All the more reason to be prepared to vanish at any moment. I waited until the end of the hour, then headed home to Dr. Mishkin’s dilapidated Victorian to start packing a digital go-bag.
That night I assembled the rudiments of two fresh identities. They weren’t very solid, just basic information about two people who, conveniently, had died in infancy, but they would likely work as a patch until I could do the slower work of obtaining birth certificates and getting legal IDs. All of that could be bought off the shelf if I had enough cash, but I didn’t.
Once I took flight I would have to rely on shadow jobs that paid under the table and informal housing options, the kind of ad hoc living arrangements that you resorted to when you were on the edge of broke, with no credit cards, bank accounts, or a fixed address. It wasn’t comfortable, but I knew I could do it. I’d been doing it for more than a year, until we hit the moose.
I also made a list of ways I would send Maggie’s identity off on a wild goose chase to confuse pursuers. My first paycheck from the college had been deposited at the local bank the previous week, and I signed up for an ATM card. I would drop it and the pin number in the mail addressed to a cypherpunk I met online when I was a teenager hanging out on IRC channels. We’d kept in touch over the years, bonding over shared interest in writing code, reading manga, and fucking with surveillance systems. She traveled a lot and knew how to evade security cameras. I could count on her to use the card to withdraw money from cash machines in different cities to throw anyone hunting for me off the scent. It was easy money for her as well as a fuck-you to the surveillance-industrial complex.
Using an encrypted account for note-taking, I composed email drafts that I would paste into messages from Maggie’s official campus email when the time came, ready-made good-bye messages to be sent to Dr. Mishkin’s daughter, my department chair, and (the hardest one to write) to Oak that told them I was feeling overwhelmed and had to go, sorry about that. Oak’s draft message took the longest because I was just realizing how much I liked him. I ended up deleting the whole thing and wrote something short and efficient, if cold.
If I ever had to send it, it would be for the best. He’d have less reason to want to look for me.
My classes met for a final work session in the archives. Zoe was wearing a tee that said “Do Not Make Me Use My Archivist Voice” on it. As I took roll, I noticed my best writer was absent. Again. “Has anyone seen Sidonie lately?” I called out. Blank faces.
“I think I saw her a couple of days ago,” someone said. “I waved, but she didn’t see me.”
“We had a meeting on Sunday, but she didn’t show,” someone from her group said. “Maybe she’s sick.”
I jotted another quick what’s-up email to her before starting the class. “Okay, remember you have revisions due on Friday, and I’ll collect progress reports from each group on Monday, so get your sh-, your stuff together.” Zoe made her own set of announcements, including rules about not spilling coffee on historic documents, and then the groups got to work while Zoe and I circulated.
“Oh my GOD!” Ashley squealed halfway through the hour, pointing at her laptop. Since she was usually scrolling through Instagram instead of working, I tuned her out.
“Wow,” one of the Madisons said. “Did you guys see this?” A crowd began to gather around Ashley’s computer.
“They used blackface. Actual blackface. Here, at Magnusson!” Ashley pointed at the screen, excited and appalled. I strolled over and leaned in to see. Yup, there was even a grotesque photograph, four “coeds” singing and dancing and being extremely racist. “This is from 1959. My grandpa was a student here then.”
“Does it give their names?” One of the students peered at the screen, trying to read the photo’s caption. “We could get their info from the alumni office and call them to—”
“Whoa, time out!” I shouted. “Remember what we talked about? You can’t just ambush people and ask them about touchy stuff. How would you like someone calling up your grandma to ask why she’d been a flaming racist when she was in college?”
“Not my grandma,” Madison said. “She’s a Democratic Socialist.” But Ashley looked suddenly thoughtful.
“Do some research on the history of blackface,” I said. “Think about why it seemed okay to do it at a college in Minnesota in 1959. Just don’t cold-call old ladies, okay?”
There was some performative grumbling, but they seemed to understand. After class Zoe and I looked at each other. “Blackface?” I asked her. “For real?”
“I’m not surprised. This was a super-white college in 1959, and it hasn’t changed a whole lot. But I’m glad you stopped them from contacting alumni. The first year I worked here I got in a lot of trouble when we made a digital exhibit about Greek life on campus, hazing and drunken parties and all. It got a lot of pushback.”
“But the worst was the personal attacks. Being Asian, and a woman… We had to take down our post about the exhibit from the archives’ Facebook account, the comments got so nasty.”
I felt a sympathetic shudder. It was no joke, having violent threats show up in your accounts, rage-filled venom from people you didn’t know crowding into your online world, attacking in coordinated packs. “That’s why we’re not putting these podcasts online. Stuff like this? It would be asking for trouble. As it is, my chair wanted me to scrap this assignment, even though I ran it by him in advance and assumed he gave it the okay.”
“You ran it by him?” she asked.
“I know, I know. Nobody does that.”
It must have been Dark Secrets of Magnussun week because in the next section of the class, another group uncovered something that had been erased from the official histories. Dr. Arvid Bjelland, a beloved biology professor who became college president after World War II, was literally a campus icon. A cartoon version of his portrait appeared on the masthead of the student newspaper and on t-shirts in the bookstore. He was a safe if boring topic for a podcast. Or so I thought.
“Zoe?” Steve waved the archivist over to his table. “Was President Bjelland like, a Nazi or something?”
“No?” Zoe said it like a question. Where are we going with this?
“It’s just, I’m reading research papers from when he was in the biology department. This one from 1931? It’s about improving American genetic stock by sterilizing the unfit. Which seems a little Nazi-ish. Naziesque, or whatever.”
“That’s odd. I don’t think I’ve seen that article among his research publications.” She turned to a book truck laden with boxes of materials she’d pulled for the group, scanned their labels, opened one, and started flipping through the manilla envelopes inside.
“This article is in a regular science journal, but it sounds so…”
“Racist?” Devon suggested.
“Ableist?” Maya said.
“Fascist?” two other students said in a duet.
“Hey, Knutson.” Liv crumpled up a piece of paper and tossed it at his table to get his attention. “Was Bjelland one of your relatives?”
“As a matter of fact, he was not,” he said with a feral smile, picking up the ball of paper and bouncing it in his palm. “Though I can see you’re ready to tarnish his entire legacy over an article published in a reputable journal. What ever happened to academic freedom?”
“Freedom to promote genocide?” Liv crumpled another page and threw it at his head.
He caught it, enjoying her anger. “I haven’t read the paper, and neither have you. Don’t you think you should check it out before you jump to conclusions? You lefties are so driven by feelings instead of facts.”
“Enough, you guys,” I said. Knutson began to juggle the two balls of paper, his entourage sniggering. “We’re here to work on your projects, remember?”
Steve was still scrolling through his document. “He’s got a chart here for the number of ‘feeble-minded’ people in institutions and how much money could be saved if they were prevented from reproducing.”
“There’s nothing in here from 1931,” Zoe said. “Can you send me a copy of that article?”
“Sure. Most of his articles are about plant science, but… here’s another one.” Steve stared at his screen intently. “He’s talking about the ‘Indian problem.’ He wanted to sterilize Native American women on Minnesota reservations. This is nuts.”
“Look up ‘eugenics’ in Wikipedia,” Zoe told him. “It was a big movement in the late nineteenth century right up through World War II, and it directly influenced Nazism.”
“But… I don’t get it. Nazis? He was American.”
“People had naïve ideas about genetics based on agricultural sciences. At the start of the twentieth century it was considered progressive social policy to apply it to improve the human race. That doesn’t mean it’s okay, because it’s not, but read up on eugenics. I’m sure we have books on the subject that could be helpful.”
“If you want to be balanced, check out The Bell Curve by Charles Murray,” Michael Knutson said, and Steve dutifully wrote it down. Zoe opened her mouth, then closed it.
“You could interview my history prof,” Anna said. “I just remembered he said something about it in class. It was a big part of passing anti-immigration laws in the 1920s.”
“I’ll see if my advisor can do an interview, too,” Steve said. “She talked a little about racism and genetic theories in a bio lecture, so she probably knows about… what’s it called again?”
“Eugenics.” Zoe was looking a little sick as she spelled it for him.
“I’m a bio major, so I thought it would be cool to read President Bjelland’s research. It’s mostly boring stuff about sugar beets, but this… do people know about it?”
“I don’t believe they do,” Zoe said, closing the box and lining it up neatly with the others.
A burst of laughter rippled around the room. One of the students had sent a classic GIF to the class alias, a British actor in a Nazi uniform looking puzzled, asking “Are we the baddies?” on repeat.
“Your podcast is going to be lit,” a student in a different group said, holding up a palm to high-five one of Steve’s group.
“Thanks for all your help with this course,” I told Zoe after the students left.
“It’s been fun, and so educational. Who knew Saint Arvid was a eugenicist? Blackface and eugenics.” She fanned herself. “Whew, what a day.”
“I’ll use the next class meeting to talk about how to handle stuff like this without sensationalism. Is it going to cause problems for you?”
“If it goes viral on Twitter and Facebook? I doubt the marketing people will be too pleased.”
“Michael Knutson will be. He’s always grandstanding.” And well-connected online. I felt a familiar knot of anxiety in the pit of my stomach.
“And his father—”
I nodded. “Yeah, I know.”
“But all the same, it’s great your students are so into it. This is what archives are for. This college needs to confront its own racism. It’s part of our collective past.” She shrugged. “And our present. The messages I got after our exhibit on Greek organizations were ugly.”
“Well, this assignment is strictly for our class, not for the public.”
“Excellent plan.” We were laughing by the time we parted, but as I looked back, she was gathering up the last of the documents scattered on tables, looking worried.
With reason, as it turned out. The student-run weekly newspaper put it on the front page on the following Monday.