What are we to make of the bizarre story of Avital Ronell and Nimrod Reitman? She’s a superstar deconstructionist professor at New York University, teaching in the German and comparative-literature departments. He’s a graduate student who came to NYU to be her advisee. In 2017, two years after getting his PhD, Reitman claimed that Ronell had stalked him, sexually harassed and assaulted him, and sabotaged his job search. After an 11-month Title IX investigation, the university found Ronell guilty of sexual harassment, both verbal and physical, and punished her with a one-year suspension without pay.
Ronell denies everything. To me, her hundreds of histrionic e-mails read like a humorless novel of obsessive passion. Not so, she claims; they were lighthearted fun “between two adults, a gay man and a queer woman, who share an Israeli heritage, as well as a penchant for florid and campy communications arising from our common academic backgrounds and sensibilities.” Well, all you queer Israeli academics out there, do you address your grad students as your “sweet cuddly baby” or warn them that “‘I love you too’ does not cut it darling,” if they fail to respond with sufficient enthusiasm?
The truth behind the charges and countercharges isn’t easy to discern. I’ve read Reitman’s 56-page legal claim against NYU, which he’s suing—reportedly for millions of dollars (according to his spokesman no amount has been specified)—and came away thinking that if even one page is true, she was way over the line. Her constant demands—for attention, affection, time, loyalty, reassurance—seem unhinged: “I am a bit weepy and confused, a normal aftermath I suppose, and also a response to the separation from you…. But I will try to gain some ground with a visit to shrinky-winky.”
I’ve also read Ronell’s 136-page formal response, in which she claims that she was doing her best to save Reitman from serious emotional problems and attacks him for “duplicitously” pretending to share her intense feelings. (That he was faking it is the one thing both agree on.) In her legal submission she quotes e-mails like this one, written around the time he was badmouthing her to a friend, as proof that he has “a bifurcated personality”: “Mon Avital, beloved and special one, I only now relieved [sic] your beautiful and special message.… I thank you for your infinite understanding and sensitivities that are always beyond measure, all of which I reciprocate with tenderness and love. I thank you so much for walking me through this catabasis [descent]. I don’t know how I would have survived without you. You are the best!!! I love you so much. You are the best, my joy, my miracle. Kisses and devotion, always. Yours—n.”
Not being an academic, I was puzzled that a gay man turning 30 would—or even could—spend three years returning the extravagances of a woman he derided to friends as “psychotic,” a “witch,” a “monster,” and a “bitter old lady.” (Ouch! Ronell was in her early 60s at the time.) But numerous people in academia have told me that an adviser whose ego isn’t properly fed can destroy your career. When I asked Reitman over e-mail why he stayed under her wing, he wrote back, “Ronell often told me about her capacity to “make or break” the careers of young academics, as well as her network of personal and professional connections.… Throughout my time at NYU, I was advised by various other faculty and students in the department to power through and lay low if I wanted to have a career. In fear of retaliation and retribution, I decided to stay in my chosen program.”
A broader window into the corner of academia that is “theory” is provided by the defenders of Ronell. In May, some 50 prominent academics signed a pro-Ronell letter that was sent privately to NYU’s president and its provost. Co-written by the renowned philosopher Judith Butler, the letter asserted that some of its signers found Reitman “malicious” and stressed Ronell’s achievements and fame. It even invoked Jacques Derrida, the founder of deconstruction, who once tried to stop the sexual-harassment investigation of a colleague. That these smarties thought they could e-mail hundreds of academics about signing the letter without having it leaked tells you the kind of bubble they live in. (Butler has since expressed regret for portions of the letter.) As others have pointed out, Ronell’s defenders sound a bit like the friends of Harvey Weinstein: He’s made so many great movies. That’s just Harvey being Harvey. Those actresses were no angels. As the novelist Chris Kraus put it recently: “Those outside this world don’t seem to realize that Reitman—or any PhD student at NYU—is hardly an innocent.” Really? Any PhD student?
For many in the mainstream media, the story line is simple: Feminists are hypocrites. Women harass men—as the Asia Argento case suggests, they may even rape men—and feminists defend them in the deluded belief that all women are peaceful and good. Excuse me, Bari Weiss (whose recent New York Times op-ed instructed us that women can be “abusers and bullies and manipulators”), but the last feminist who believed that women were all sweetness and light retired years ago. The whole thrust of women’s studies has been to reveal that women are “fully human” and “just like men.” Well, not just like men, who—inconvenient fact—commit the vast majority of rapes, murders, assaults, and, yes, sexual harassment.
Ronell’s supporters have done their best to change the subject. It’s not about sexual harassment; it’s about neoliberalism (Lisa Duggan), or stamping out “all but the most technocratic pedagogy” (Kraus), or singling out queers (Jack Halberstam), or attacking a rare and original person (Slavoj Žižek). It’s a violation of due process (Joan Scott), and an attack on feminism, the humanities, and the left (many, many).
And in one way, Ronell’s defenders have a point: Maybe sexual harassment isn’t the best lens through which to judge this complicated and rather weird situation. As the political scientist Corey Robin has argued, even if there was nothing sexual in their relations (as Ronell claims), her demands were outrageous, because as Reitman’s adviser she had all the power. Perhaps an accusation of sexual harassment is the wrong instrument with which to challenge professorial bullying. But, unfortunately, it’s the best tool that graduate students have right now.
Some of those who initially defended Ronell have faded away. I wish I felt those who still support her were surprised and troubled by her behavior. Instead, they seem to find it delightfully provocative. As Abby Kluchin, who teaches at Ursinus College, asked in a much-circulated Facebook post, “What is at stake in the bizarre doubling down on the idea that the rules of professional behavior exist to be playfully transgressed? Why is there no recognition that one person’s playful transgression is another’s traumatic nightmare?”
Ronell’s work strikes me as a big bowl of word salad. But I understand that the general project of deconstruction is the analysis and dismantling of conscious and unconscious structures of power. How odd, then, that these professors could see domination operating everywhere except the one place they could actually do something about it: in their own relations with students.