Sadness as a Ghost in my Throat

What would happen if one woman told the truth about
        her life?
     The world would split open
                                                       Muriel Rukeyser


“Do you want your WIU job back?”  Because I am so openly critical of Western Illinois University’s current administration, I get this question often, always with the emphasis on the WANT.  I have been so angry, that this question has been harder to answer than it should be.

Sadness over the loss of my teaching position at WIU emerges at night.  Since the current administration terminated my contract in May 2017, I sometimes dream that a ghost is lodged in my throat and choking me to death.  Then, half awake, I flip over to my hands and knees, widen my throat and attempt to gag out the ghost.  Nothing emerges.  I have swallowed the ghost and it will kill me, I fear, but then, fully-conscious, I feel my heart pounding fast.

This dream often haunts me when I have been journaling about losing my students.

For 12 years I invested myself, emotionally, psychologically, and professionally, in WIU’s classroom. I have longed to teach my students from my perspective, and with my philosophy of teaching.  I have never longed to teach at a more rigorous institution, where students prepare the reading and attend class faithfully. Those places do exist, and those students are easier to teach.  But I have invested myself here.  I want to teach my students.  My students are Western students.

Four or five years ago, I began to meet student skepticism with personal stories.  In the WIU Women’s Studies classroom, doubt is common and can be quite harsh on feminist professors.   95 percent of my students were women and at the beginning of a course, they would intuit that if they identified how, on a daily basis, they are targets of sexism and misogyny, they would be angry all the time. They resisted knowledge that would make them angry.  Men resisted the awareness that being male confers privilege:  the powerful want to remain powerful.

One day in 2013 or 2014, we were discussing a slide about blaming the victims of gendered violence.  A young man raised his hand.

“But aren’t these girls responsible? If they don’t want to be grabbed, why do they wear leggings? Why aren’t they more careful about where they go?”  His tone and the harsh lines of his jaw projected privilege.

I could have brought up more slides or opened our textbook to a key passage.  Instead I took a risk.  I turned off the screen and came out from behind the podium.  I stood right in front of them, so there was nothing between my students and me.

I was sexually assaulted in 8th grade.  What do you think I was wearing?  What do you think I was doing?”  Every single student looked at me and I was embarrassed, but I stood there anyway, making myself vulnerable to them.

“Calvin Klein jeans like most girls wore,” I said, moving my eyes from one student to the next.  “I was on my way to Algebra.”

The room was so quiet and still.

I looked at the young man who was learning how to blame the perpetrator and believe th victim.  “Does that answer your question? I can take a different approach to the answer, if that would be helpful.”

“No.” His tone and expression softened.  “I understand what you’re saying.”

The tiniest of fault lines had split the ground beneath our feet and we looked in. After that, our faces were softer when we greeted each other before class.

So YES.  The answer is yes.  I want my job back.









Witchy Feminist Mass Hex: Multiple Guess

Are You Prepared for the Witchy Feminist Mass Hex?  Take this quiz to find out.

Optional:   read the story  from Breitfart News.

  1. A Witchy Feminist Mass Hex is
    1. A crafty internet plot by feminist witches to assassinate misogynist patriarchs far and wide.
    2. A story that’s totally legit because a Breitfart news reporter broke it.
    3. A 2-ton manivore bitch whose DNA is emerging from melting arctic ice.
    4. Mansplain:  Let me tell you what a Witchy Feminist Mass Hex is. I can tell you about your vagina, too.
  1. The best way to prevent a Witchy Feminist Mass Hex is

    PROOF that Breitfart is right:  2 witchy feminists out hexing in Chandler Park.  Left sign reads: JK Rowling @jk_rowling, How Horrible. Voldemort was nowhere near as bad.

    1. Don’t layoff your tenured Women’s Studies prof.
    2. Apologize for protecting rapists.
    3.  Ban all pink wool.
    4. Himpathize.
  1. When the Mass Hex peels off  thick slabs of your skin, you should,
    1. Resign.
    2. Pop fat bombs:  mix equal parts MCT oil, butter, egg yolk, coconut oil, and pink salt.  Form into balls, roll in bacons bits.
    3. Re-assert your claim over the sidewalk: “Hey baby, wanna go on a date?
    4. If you are sitting in one of those linking black chairs in a meeting, manspread now.
  1. In order to minimize the apocalyptic impact of a Witchy Feminist Mass Hex already set in motion,
    1. Clean the toilet
    2. Order a bunch of huge red signs that say “I ♥ Women’s Studies.”  Place them in front of the president’s parking spot, in the football locker room, and in front each fraternity house.
    3. Write a love song to Title IX and sing it Karaoke-style at the Board of Ed meeting.
    4. Where’s my mancooler?
  1. In the event of a Witchy Feminist Mass Hex, take shelter in
    1. Miss Vera’s Finishing School for Boys who Want to Be Girls
    2. Iceland–it’s already been hexed
    3. The shooting range next to the preschool.
    4. My $500 billion New Zealand mancave.  I’ve invited Putin to take cover with me.  He’s a tremendous man.
  2. The only way to counter a Witchy Feminist Mass Hex is
    1. Take a Women’s Studies class and learn to acknowledge your privilege.
    2. Cook low-carb/high fat chili for the witches. One with mushrooms and the other with grass-fed beef.
    3. Pass the Equal Rights Amendment.
    4. Train your school district to understand and comply with TITLE IX
    5. Manterrupt it.


  1. D.  C has “man” in it, so I’ll accept it too.
  2. D.  If it has the word “man” or “him” in it, it’s correct.
  3. D. See explanation, #2.
  4. D.  Duh.
  5. D, but Miss Vera is tremendous–here’s how to enroll.
  6. E, If you chose A, B, or C, you deserve to be boiled alive and eaten by the Witchy Feminists.


Thank You, Time for Recess #metoo #mac185

Thank you, Macomb, for coming out to support our students after news broke that Macomb 185 is being sued for  violating Title IX and the Illinois Premises Liability Act.

Monday night, in front of a crowd in the Board of Ed meeting, the 185 superintendent narrowed his eyebrows, stared me down, abandoned his previously chummy tone, and spoke in an authoritarian manner of his disapproval of my blog and the questions I’ve raised about the Board of Ed agenda. (If he had bothered to read the full threads on Facebook, he would have known that my questions were genuine —no one on the thread indicated they thought I was attempting to “prove” something).

The superintendent’s role at the BoE was to listen only, and since he stepped beyond that, it’s been traumatic for me, because when someone in a position of power adopts such authoritarian tone and words, I worry that he will retaliate against me or my family.  The superintendent is the individual most responsible for the school district.  It is alleged that his district has violated the rights of students.  I feel like he’s trying to violate my rights as well. I don’t like being bullied.  I haven’t slept well.

But then I remembered how the audience in the BoE meeting erupted in applause, after my daughter told the Board that “A school is supposed to be a place where my classmates and I can walk down the hallway without worrying about being sexually assaulted.”  And then BoE member Jim LaPrad thanked folks for coming out and showing we cared.  I am astonished that not one other BoE member thanked us for coming.

I am so relieved that we are not Steubenville.  I don’t cry easily, but if I take a breath and look away from this page, I feel so much relief that the heart of this community stands on the right side of the law, on the side of our students.

My history with Macomb goes back to 1987.  My late brother went to school here, as did my late sister-n-law and my husband.  Macomb is the closest place to a permanent home I’ve ever had. I want this town continue to be a good place to live. But we’ve suffered so much under corrupt leadership.

As I compose this post, I attempt to read it aloud.  It’s really hard.  I know my readers understand.

In a recent Facebook post, I said that, after the slog of winter death day anniversaries in my family were over for the year, I intended to take a break from this blog.  Then the news of the lawsuit emerged.  It has been like another death day to mourn–the damage that has been inflicted is so profound, but I have good reason to hope and believe that community solidarity is more profound.

For now, I want to focus on the manuscript of my dystopian novel and other types of writing and activism.  Today, marks 7,000 views to my blog!  At some point, I’ll resume this blog again, but I’m taking a break for a while.

Thanks to all my readers.  Thank you to all those who have reached out to tell me my blog is courageous!   Thanks to everyone who has come out to support victims, students, and a safe 185.

Holly A. Stovall

I wanted Laura to solve the riddle of my layoff.  She wanted to say goodbye.  

Two years ago, before my first layoff grievance hearing, I invited Laura to Yummy Chin’s.    Laura was my sister-in-law.  I wanted to be with someone who did NOT view her job as a  a calling or a source of personal fulfillment.  I wanted to be with someone who kept the towels in her linen closet folded evenly, who was never in a hurry, who kept 8 or 9 souvenirs on her keyring, and who would write down, each night, exactly how she spent her day outside of work.

Going to lunch with Laura the Thursday before the Monday she died, I did not notice how frail she was– she covered it up by smiling and expressing gratitude:  “Thanks for driving– I’m so glad we’re having lunch.” She walked from the car to the restaurant so slowly, but I thought it was because she was enjoying the sun.  I did not notice that the color under her skin had changed—had become green like the sky before a tornado.  I did, in fact, hear the urgency in her voice, like a plea, but, in my state of shock from being laid off, I could not make sense of it.  She must have been in pain.  She must have known.

My layoff was a riddle and I wanted Laura (she was so quick and witty) to solve it for me. Instead, she kept asking about Maya and Mathew.  She had seen them only two days before, but she kept asking.

“Maya goes from school to track to home for dinner and back to school for musical rehearsal. And Tom will take her to drive in the parking lot this weekend,”  I said.

“And Mathew?” She asked.

“He likes his teacher and friends and reads a lot now, and moves along quickly with piano.”

“He’s so talented.  What about sports?”

“I will be happy if he runs cross country and track, like Maya.  I don’t want to deal with any concussions.” Laura already knew all of this, but she wanted me to say it anyway.

I resumed my trash-talking of WIU–their actions were so unbelievable.  Laura listened and supported me.

What makes my eyes sting now is that my answers were so inadequate.  I want so much to have been able to give her more.  My layoff had depleted me even more than the tenure process had.  The more time passes, the more I realize that. When I am in pain, it is so hard to tune in to how others are doing and feeling, so hard to have a relaxed conversation.  And so it’s not just about Laura, and how I could not be present for her in a way that I might have and that now feels like such a missed opportunity, but also, what comes out in the story of lunch is how I wasn’t present for my children either—I could only speak about them in the most general of ways–couldn’t tell her something she didn’t already know.

I wasn’t even fully present for my own pain.  It should have been a happy time—completing the work of tenure after 20 or 30 years of dreaming about the life of an academic and working towards it!  Travel and study and travel and study and accumulating experience and more experience and the rejection letters from editors, and the re-submissions!  Only now, two years later, do I dare begin to feel the loss of my dream and the loss of Laura in the same winter.

Tom and I take walks around Compton Park and try to practice “couple compassion” (a rif on Dr. Kristin Neff’s Self Compassion). The circumstances of our marriage have been quite challenging—PhDs are hard on marriages; sudden deaths are hard on marriages.  We’ve had two of each of these.  Layoffs are hard on marriages.

I often feel I’ve done my best to cope with a death and a layoff and the grievances for that layoff that occurred at the same time.  I also feel that my best is lacking.  My best leaves me with such regret.

There is nothing Laura could have done to solve my layoff, and nothing I could have done to stop the cancer I didn’t know she had.


For Christmas one year, Laura gave me a magnet with this New Yorker cartoon on it. Laura was not impressed with the work world.  It’s funny that we had lunch on a Thursday.  That was the only time ever.


AAUP Committee ‘A’ finds WIU violated Tenure Standards

Yesterday, Western Illinois University administrators  received a letter from The Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the Illinois Chapter of the American Association of University Professors.  Committee A has concluded that WIU has clearly violated the standards that are articulated in the AAUP Redbook (Policy Documents and Reports).  The AAUP’s Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic freedom and Tenure is a national model for academic due process across the academy.

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A screen shot of the page with the link to the letter on behalf.

If Committee A finds a violation, it means that the institution has failed to protect academic freedom and tenure.

Committee A’s Chair, Peter N. Kirstein, says that “Tenure is a sacred commitment on the part of and institution and cannot be arbitrarily revoked through layoffs without a determined, good faith effort at relocation.”  He’s referring to the fact that I am easy to relocate within WIU.  I don’t need retraining:  I have two advanced graduate degrees in Spanish and more than ten years of teaching Spanish.  Dr. Kirstein is also referring to the fact that two of my colleagues teaching Women’s Studies resigned after I’d been given notice that I would be laid off.  He’s referring to the fact that I have not been reinstated.

If tenure can be arbitrarily revoked from one professor, as it has been in my case, then  not one professor at WIU can count on the institution to uphold tenure.  If we must self-censor or risk losing our jobs, that’s not academic freedom.   Tenure was not created to reward those who are complicit–rather, it was created to protect those who dissent.

Two  verdicts are in.  And the verdicts come from recognized authorities in Education and Academics. This administration is guilty.


When I lost my Foil

Twenty years ago, hundreds of sympathy cards arrived.  One was from an old church lady:  “I enjoyed Chad and his devilish ways,” she wrote.  Chad was very kind. He was also roguish.

Cry with Us Macomb 1

Christmas Eve, 1997. (Yes–I had short hair.)

I’ve spoken and written (p4) about Chad and his death, but I don’t really dig into it.  I’m still not ready.  But I will tell you why our TV in Tennessee had a bullet mark:  when Chad was 5, after the Dallas Cowboys lost the Super Bowl and everyone left the den, Chad shot the TV with his BB gun.

I will tell a little about how Chad and I learned to foil each other:  One Sunday after church, I beat him to the bathroom.  I peed in the toilet.  He peed in his bedroom vent.  I played the piano.  He played the rogue. I was the good girl and he was the bad boy.  When he died, I lost my foil.

Yesterday, the dentist told me I have a dying molar.  Of course my tooth would throb on my brother’s death day. The dentist and his assistant speak with caring and empathetic voices.  My molar has too many cracks from all the tooth grinding of the last two years (my layoff caused tension and anxiety).  Tomorrow, a specialist will attempt to save my tooth.  I had fantasized about saving Chad.  At night, I would be beamed from New York to the edge of the Bernadotte dam, where I’d pick up a long stick.  Chad’s canoe would have capsized right next to shore, so he would have been close enough to grab the other end of the stick.  In the fantasy, the stick and I were stronger than the force of the dam.

Some months before Chad died, I lie on my psychoanalyst’s couch and said, “If Chad can make it to age 30, he will be fine, but the risks he takes.  He keeps taking them.  One of these times, he won’t be lucky.”

Chad made it to age 23. For Chad, a Trump Presidency would be dystopian.  We are living the dystopia now.  As Ruth Bader Ginsburg so sadly understates:  “We are not experiencing the best of times.”  The justice looks sad and defeated.

I am worried about the dangers Donald Trump is exposing us to.  Trump takes so many childish risks–he taunts a dictator who owns nuclear weapons, he says he’d love to see a (government) shutdown, he has authorized the police to use weapons of war against communities of color, he has, without hearings, sentenced to death hard-working young mothers,  he has handed over state secrets to Russia, and he has alienated our allies.  Trump and the Republicans are exposing most Americans to risks and insecurities we do not choose.

One of these tweets, we’re not going to be lucky.  Trump’s going to sacrifice us.  We just need to make it until we can restore the balance of power in the top branches of government.  We may not get there.  Especially if Trump keeps taunting North Korea.

Two days after Chad died, I piled in a mini van with my closest family members and we drove out to Bernadotte.  It was daytime,  but it felt dark.  A man from the Bernadotte cafe approached us:   Chad should not have taken the canoe out on a cold day when the river was rushing from melting snow, he said.  Perhaps I should have told him to leave us in peace–to get the hell away, but we were a preacher’s family.  We were polite.

When Tom, Maya, and I moved back to Macomb in 2005, it would often occur to me that I should visit the Bernadotte dam–that was the only grave Chad had.  I didn’t go until last month. I waited twenty years.  The Spoon River has shrunk so much that the shape of the top of the dam is now exposed.



Cry with Us Macomb

The community filled the church–upstairs and down.

Eights of Winter

The death days of my three family members who died while working or studying at WIU fall on the same day of the week–this year on a Thursday.  The death days occur within a 28-day span.  Each death day lays two weeks apart.  Today is the Thursday between Charles’s and Chad’s.  fullsizeoutput_1524

8 is the number I never confuse or forget.  Each winter, 8 haunts me like a ghost. Charles died in 1985, Chad died on the 8th in 1998.  Laura died 18 years after Chad.  There are 28 days between the death days of father and daughter (Charles and Laura).

I like the perfect figure 8 symmetry:  Charles’s day is the bottom of the bottom loop, Chad’s is the middle, and Laura’s is the top of the top loop.  If you fold the eight in half at its narrowed equator, the death days of Charles and his daughter meet.

The number eight is now associated with another anniversary of great loss.  December 8th is the day that WIU President Jack Thomas and his provost announced their plan to lay off 50 faculty.

The word university is derived from the Latin concept of a “community of scholars and teachers.”  Now that the administration has laid off tenured faculty, now that morale has been dropping for more than two years, now that the adminsitraiton is doing everything in its power to eliminate fair and equal pay among faculty, it’s a stretch to describe WIU as a community of scholars.  Especially if we compare our current “community” to what we had once been, to what we might have become, to what we might recover if the the current administration were to leave.

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President Thomas called us to the Grand BallRoom for a devastating announcement.

Sometimes I think of  December 8 as the death day of the “University” in Western Illinois University.


Charles G. Sadler, Death Day Anniversary

Tom and Charles

Dr. Thomas R. Sadler in early 1980s with his father, Dr. Charles G. Sadler.  Tom is now a professor of Economics at WIU and the treasurer for the UPI.  Charles was a history professor known for his dynamic lecture style.

Today is my husband’s father’s death day–the anniversary of his death–January 25, 1985.  Charles was a history professor at Western Illinois University from 1969 to 1984.  This blog is the first of a 3-part series about my family members who died, each in January or February, while working or studying at WIU.

I didn’t personally know Charles G. Sadler, but I knew the grief from his loss,  and I knew about the great education WIU dreamed of during Dr. Sadler’s career here.

I met Tom on the courthouse lawn two and a half years after his father died of cancer. Summer was easy.  But the cold arrived, and snow piled up.  Across the street from Macomb’s fire station, at the back door of what used to be the church parsonage, Tom would knock, or maybe he would just step inside, onto the square of linoleum, that place where you had to choose–either step up or down.   Tom’s grief filled the landing immediately and I breathed in its heaviness.  I was afraid of his sadness.  I understand that now.

I long for Tom’s father’s presence at the Thanksgiving table, but I also long for that 20th Century historical period when state governments reached towards public greatness.  During Charles’s tenure at WIU, faculty ran the university.  Charles and his colleagues founded the professional union and the Western Organization for Women.  They were public activists and intellectuals at once. When students occupied Morgan Hall in protest of the Vietnam War, Charles went in to talk to them, to keep the lines of communication open.

When Charles was teaching here, people valued education for education’s sake.  Now, ideology has replaced values.  Then, it did not occur to anyone that faculty had no basis “for determining what an education is,” as a WIU retiree recently wrote on social media.  Most of the time between 1987 and 2007, I was getting an extensive education, at various levels and in different fields.  I invested nearly 20 years enrolled in educational institutions, but, according to many folks today, I don’t know what an education is.  Academics has always demanded discipline and focus, but now, it also demands a determination to take a stand when what you do is unpopular.

If the faculty-degrading comment on social media were an exception, it would be funny. It’s not an exception.  The WIU administration has been belittling and degrading faculty for a decade.  When I was on the President’s select inner circle of faculty, he told us that professors are lazy and spoiled (I’m paraphrasing).  He saw the shock on my face, and he said he was speaking of people who were not in the room, and by that, I believe he meant faculty who had taken leadership roles in the University Professionals of Illinois. Belittling some faculty in front of others was unprofessional and wrong.

We have fallen so far from Dr. Sadler’s generation.  Next to the red peppers in Hy-vee, I crossed paths with Charles’s closest colleague:

“I feel bad that I had such a great career and that WIU is so terrible for your generation of humanities scholars,” he said.

Then I felt bad that he felt bad!  None of us have any power to choose the historical period we are born in.


You can visit a memorial brick for Charles G. Sadler at the east entrance to WIU’s Rec. Center.


Stone or brick memorials for my dead family members are half buried on each of the points of this triangle I walked last fall: Charles’s and Chad’s at the Rec Center (next to Q lot), Laura’s in the tree grove on south-east corner, and Chad’s Interhall Council brick between Sherman and Simkpins hall, in the bottom, left corner of this map.














Today, Facebook presented this selfie (right) to me as a memory from 2014.  Then, I was searching for images of what students were wearing at Western Illinois University in 2006 (a lot of body-hugging scoop-necked t-shirts left untucked over curvy jeans and brightly-colored cardigans), and this image (left) of Lori Baker-Sperry, actually from 2003, appeared.

For fun, I put the images next to each other.  Mine was a selfie and hers was a professional photo to accompany an article about her work on gender roles in fairy tales.

Lori was my mentor for 10 years at WIU!  We even published an article together on feminism and food.  Lori’s office was always much neater than mine!

Our perspectives often diverged, but as department colleagues, we worked as a team.  I write today and feel a force from inside pressing up on my throat.  I suppose my readers feel it too.  Sadness and grief are so hard.

Swearing Against

To feel calm in Arbitration Hearing Number 2, I did three things.

First, I kept my spine straight with my shoulders back and down, like the yoga teachers instruct.

I had to sit on the edge of my seat—because I am petite, that’s the only way my feet will reach the floor flatly, and to keep my spine straight, I need to be able to plant my feet firmly on the floor.  If I scoot back, my feet don’t reach.

Second, I wrote down what I heard and saw:  the square-ish arrangement of tables and chairs in the Capitol room, what people said, what they wore, their drinks (bottles of Mountain Dew and Diet Coke, a bright red Coke can, and stainless steel coffee tumblers) how they held their hands when swearing in, and the line of their spines. Moving my pen across paper–forming humps, then loops, words, then sentences, lends me a calming sense of control.

And Third, I have a mantra that I learned from Dr. Kristin Neff’s work on Self-Compassion.  I saved this for the hardest part–when I took the witness stand (actually just a foldable table) and waited for the Arbitrator to reconvene the hearing:

This is a moment of suffering

Everyone suffers

May I hold my pain with tenderness

Reciting the third line almost made me cry.  I have so much pain that I am afraid I cannot hold it–not with tenderness, not with steadfastness, not with anything.  When I felt that pinch in my eyes, I went back to the beginning of the mantra, and continued to repeat only the first two lines until the arbitrator reconvened the hearing.

“The reason I’m qualified to teach Spanish is I have a PhD in Spanish,”  I testified.  It doesn’t matter.  I mean, for the sake of our students and our values, it matters, but Western Illinois University has already told me they don’t need my skillset here.  Though deeply valuable, all those fancy degrees I’ve earned and the tenured status I jumped through hoops to achieve, do not do for me what I have thought they would. This lesson hurts.  I try to hold that pain with tenderness.

It helps to remind myself that suffering is part of life for everyone.  I saw and heard various forms of suffering on the witness stand.  A voice died out, as if the witness had left the room, leaving a mute body at the table.  A head sunk into its shoulders, as if afraid.  When swearing in, a hand was closed, as if swearing against or swearing at.

My body also betrayed pain:  on the witness stand, I kept having to re-straighten my spine, and at one point,  when the administration’s attorney asked me a question that insulted my academic values, I took a breath in, held it, and turned my head towards the Union’s attorney.

Body language leads me to conclude that both sides have suffered the last two years. Dr. Kristin Neff makes a compelling argument that everyone suffers.  Who does not suffer?  Suffering makes us human, she says.