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.”