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Better Than Fiction

Heartache in the Groves of Academe: The Two Bodies Problem

by David Blumenfeld


In 1963 I was a twenty-five-year-old philosophy graduate student in Berkeley. Newly divorced and bereft without my three-year-old son, whose mother had moved with him back to the Midwest, I was on my own in heady, hippie, pot-smoking, free-love/flowerchild, soon-to-become-very-political Berkeley. Apart from letting my hair grow long, getting the required 1960s sandals and shades, and participating in civil rights and Free Speech Movement marches, I concentrated on my studies. A love of philosophy and Telegraph Avenue’s potent atmosphere kept me stimulated and happy. But the world didn’t shine until I met Jean. Then everything became wonderful and my heart fluttered at the mere thought of her. Jean!


Jean Beer, a beautiful, starry-eyed seventeen-year-old undergraduate, had emigrated to the US from England as a child with her Viennese parents who very narrowly escaped the Holocaust by fleeing in 1939. Now because of her high scores in mathematics Jean was admitted to Berkeley without finishing high school. At seventeen, with a dreamy, head-in-the-clouds manner and an intense interest in rock-and-roll and R&B, she might easily have been taken for an attractive but intellectually unremarkable teenager. Attractive she certainly was: she had shining, deep-brown eyes; tender crimson lips; a radiant complexion and a sultry way of moving so sexy it stopped me in my tracks.


Best of all, behind the facade of her head-in-the-clouds manner, there lurked a razor-sharp intellect that left me hopelessly smitten. When bored in high school or at home with nothing to do, Jean would have mathematical reveries, amusing herself by juggling complex numbers in her head, exploring their connections, finding interesting relationships between them or solving problems they suggested. It was a platonic world she could enter at will, a place to explore joyfully when things in the mundane world were dull. In her first semester at Berkeley, Jean was placed in a section of calculus/analytical geometry taught by the world-class mathematician Raphael Robinson, who really put his prodigious group through the hoops.  As homework, he required students to prove a difficult theorem every day. It wasn’t the mathematical play Jean was accustomed to. It was math boot camp designed to separate the men from the boys. Literally. There wasn’t another girl in the class and the boys were nerdy, crewcut types, with slide rules hanging from their belts, who wouldn’t even have recognized the names of the Rolling Stones, James Brown, or Aretha Franklin, Jean’s favorite singers. Jean tuned out, made a C and lost interest in mathematics. I wonder if things would have been different if Julia Robinson, Raphael Robinson’s math luminary wife, who also taught at Berkeley, had been the instructor.


Fortunately, Jean had talent in philosophy too and eventually decided to pursue it as a career. It was a love we shared and a source of intense and gratifying conversations. When we married in 1966 and I landed a job at the newly formed campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz, Jean was just finishing her B.A. and on the brink of entering Berkeley's philosophy graduate program. When I told my businessman father that Jean would be getting a philosophy doctorate, he was bewildered. “Why do you both need that? he asked. “Shouldn’t you diversify?” Besides being unable to understand how the two of us would want to pursue such a mystifying subject, he figured it would be risky to put all our eggs in that one odd basket. It was a sound business principle, but philosophy was as much a passion for Jean as it was for me, and it didn’t seem right to us to abandon our passions. So we took the risk.


It was a big risk whose consequences set in immediately. We were living in Santa Cruz ninety miles from Berkeley and Jean still needed two courses to graduate. Back then, Santa Cruz was a small town with little to do but surf and we lived in the nearby mountains, where the nearest store was a tortuous, five-mile drive away. Jean was alone and unhappy in the cabin while I was in class or working on my dissertation. She hadn’t yet learned to drive and wasn’t able to attend her courses regularly. I drove her to Berkeley once a week on a day when I wasn't teaching and she borrowed notes for the rest of the lectures from one of her classmates. Since this wouldn’t work when she began graduate school, we moved back to Berkeley and I commuted to Santa Cruz. I taught a Tuesday/Thursday class schedule, sleeping overnight on Wednesdays at a friend’s home and then beating it back to Berkeley to be with Jean and get some writing done on my thesis. This annoyed some of my colleagues. “Why do you get to live in a city with good bookstores and wonderful places to eat, while we’re stuck in this one-horse town?” one of them asked, not considering that this wasn’t exactly my ideal arrangement.


Jean was six months pregnant when she took her doctoral prelims: two days of tests with a break for lunch, in a room that was a four-floor walkup. Whoever scheduled the exam didn’t consider that its location might be taxing on a pregnant woman. Bulging heavily in front and listing forward, Jean trudged up four flights of steps twice a day and dutifully delivered her spiel on the great philosophers. She passed with high marks and at the end of March 1968 gave birth to Rebecca, our first child. Shortly thereafter the Provost at Santa Cruz wrote to me saying my living arrangements couldn’t continue. This was a residential college and I could either move back to Santa Cruz or forfeit my job.


What to do? I had to work: We certainly couldn’t get by on the $2,800 Jean earned as a teaching assistant. Jean could return to Santa Cruz, learn to drive and commute to Berkeley but then how could she get a job near me when she finished her doctorate? It was virtually impossible in those days that the department at Santa Cruz would hire a spouse and there were few other colleges in the vicinity. Our best chance, we thought, would be for me to get a job in a big city where there were several universities. In any case, I had to get out of Santa Cruz.


I applied for every big city job I could. I had a paper accepted at the Eastern Division meetings of American Philosophical Association and was pleased to learn that my commentator was well known. I thought he would attract a decent crowd and my presentation would enhance my job prospects. I was partly right and partly wrong. The crowd was big, a couple of hundred people. But my hopes for this to enhance my job prospects were dashed when I read my commentator’s remarks. His critique was the kind of demolition job in which the reviewer delights in twisting the knife. And his comments, which were due to me two weeks before the meetings, arrived only two days beforehand. I panicked and spent the entire two days working furiously on my response. For forty-eight hours adrenalin coursed ceaselessly through my veins, and I didn’t sleep a wink the whole time. The night before the paper, I tossed and turned in the hotel room bed going over and over my response in my head. I had a job interview with Johns Hopkins after the paper but didn’t give it a thought. If I blew this performance, my job prospects were dead, and Jean and I were in a real mess. So I focused on my reply, forgetting entirely about the interview.


Fortunately, everything at the presentation went my way. When my commentator saw how young I was, he took pity on me and omitted his nastier language. My response received a favorable reaction from the crowd. When I got an idiotic question from the audience and was gearing up for a harsh retort, the moderator calmed me down by grasping my knee under the table and whispering, “Easy, there. Don’t let a dumb schmuck rattle you.” All-in-all, I survived the ordeal of the paper with my dignity and self-confidence intact. But not the interview afterward.


When the session ended, the adrenalin on which I had been running drained away and I instantly went from being totally wired to feeling like a zombie. I just wanted to go to sleep. It was then that I saw four men heading my way and I remembered that I had an interview.  Although they were perfectly pleasant, I saw the interviewers as The Henchmen from Hopkins, who were out to get me. They led me to the bar, where we sat at a booth and got a round of scotch. When I reached for my drink, my hand was shaking so violently that its contents went flying out of the glass and onto everyone at the table. Ice cubes hit the chairman in the forehead, and I saw him wipe his eyes vigorously with his napkin. The scotch must have burned. Another interviewer had a big wet spot on the pretty silk tie he was wearing. If I had tried to hit everyone at the table, I couldn’t possibly have done it. But my trembling hand somehow managed the task. When questioning began, I understood nothing and found myself spouting gobbledygook in reply. On the train home, I spent my time in its tiny bathroom puking my guts out. I didn't get the job.


Despite my appalling performance with Hopkins, I received two job offers, one from NYU, the other from the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, as it was called at the time. I leaned toward NYU. I had never lived in New York and thought it would be exciting to be in Greenwich Village, where NYU is located. Jean preferred to go to Chicago. Her parents lived in Queens, and since she didn’t always get along with her mother, she feared that a job at NYU would be too close for comfort. By contrast, Jean said, she got along famously with my mother Milly, at least in the few contacts she’d had with her. Besides, Ruth Barcan Marcus, the famous modal logician and one of the few prominent women in American philosophy, was building a hot new department in Chicago, which would be an excellent professional opportunity for me. So we opted for Chicago.


This dragged Jean, who had barely begun her dissertation, two thousand miles from her doctoral committee, with whom she needed to confer. Once again, she was isolated. Not that New York, which was even farther from California, would have been better. Ironically, my mother began to drive Jean crazy. Milly assumed that her new daughter-in-law would become part of her crowd of home-decorating, shopping and canasta-playing friends. While Jean was at our apartment caring for one-year-old Rebecca and trying to find quiet time to work on her dissertation, Milly plagued her with phone calls several times a day to join her and her friends. Milly didn’t seem to understand that a philosophy dissertation required sustained concentration or that Jean just wasn’t made for a routine of shopping, card playing and lunching out. My two job options — New York and Chicago — not only stranded Jean many miles from where she needed to be, but also wedged her between the Scylla of Elly and the Charybdis of Milly.


In April 1970, Julie, our second child, was born and now any move we made would be with two kids in tow. After a year or so in Chicago, Jean felt that if she was ever to get her PhD, she had to be near her dissertation committee. I took an unpaid leave of absence from Chicago, we packed up the kids and went to Berkeley. For the next couple of years, we took turns following one another: me to Berkeley or her to Chicago. When I was in Berkeley, I did whatever I could to bring in income: one summer I got a fellowship; one semester the Berkeley philosophy department gave me a course to teach; in another semester I taught at an institution nearby. When I wasn’t teaching, I spent full-time — apart from childcare and housework — trying to get things published so I could increase my employment prospects. During those periods, I was what people called a “househusband.” Then Jean packed up the kids and followed me to Chicago, where we reversed roles.


In 1973, Jean got her degree. Unfortunately, this only complicated things further. In the early 1970s women were a fairly rare commodity in philosophy. Many philosophy faculties had no tenured or tenure-track women and most departments were averse to hiring couples. Occasionally, a department would hire the female member of a couple in a low-paying/no-benefits/part-time position but for the most part that was it. To complicate matters, the philosophy job market had dried up. Even graduates at top departments like Berkeley, Harvard or Princeton often went begging, not uncommonly changing careers in order to find employment.


Philosophy had long been a discipline in which there were few women and despite the rising tide of feminism, there was still open resistance to women entering the field. One of Jean’s male classmates testily asked a female philosophy student: “What do you need a job for? Don’t you know you’ll be taking it away from a man who needs it to support his family?” In the previous generation, it was even worse. Ruth Barcan Marcus told me that when she was a graduate assistant in a logic course at Yale, it was held in a building where women were not allowed to attend class. The professor felt obliged to observe the rule. “How am I supposed to do my job if I can’t attend the lectures?” Ruth asked. In an act of magnanimous flexibility, the professor stretched the rule. Ruth was allowed to stand outside the classroom and listen in.


The difficulty of couples getting jobs together became so acute it got a name: “the two bodies problem,” word play on the "mind/body problem” in philosophy. (Mind/body problem: How do the conscious mind and the purely physical body manage to "get together," or affect each other? Two bodies problem: How do philosophy couples — two bodies — manage to get jobs together? A bad pun about a lousy situation.)


When Jean got her degree, our two bodies problem went into high gear. Despite the fact that I had a good job and a decent record, and that Jean wrote her dissertation with H.P. Grice, one of the best-known philosophers of language in the world, we couldn’t find positions together. The upshot was that Jean received a job offer at the University of Texas at Austin, but I was unable to find anything nearby.


Much as we abhorred the idea of living apart, it seemed we had to. I was tenured and Jean wasn’t, so it would have been too insecure for me to give up my job. Besides, what would I do? On the other hand, after all the sacrifices we had made for Jean to get her degree and her good fortune in landing a top position in a barren job market, neither of us was willing for her to give up now. Finally, we were told that Jean was the first tenure-track woman to be hired in this very old, very large department. Should a feminist woman who is the first to crack the barrier turn the job down because she can’t be apart from her husband? We decided to live apart and see what happened.


A couple we knew casually had gotten two jobs in the same department, a rare piece of good fortune. We also learned, to our surprise, that despite their lucky break they had what back then was called an “open marriage.” When they realized that our jobs would be a thousand miles apart, he asked me in front of Jean and others: “What will you do about SEX? Are you going to have an arrangement?” A lump came to my throat and I thought I was going to cry. We had two kids, loved each other deeply, and didn’t have any damned arrangement. I wanted to say: “It’s none of your business, ASSHOLE.” But I was too shaken to muster a strong reply. My only thoughts were: “What will we do without one another?” and “How will Jean get along with two kids, a high-pressure job and me a thousand miles away?” Mercifully, someone changed the subject.


We packed up the kids again, got Jean and the girls settled in a rented house in Austin, and I went back to Chicago. To save money and have company, I lived with my parents, who resided on Chicago’s South Side. I slept on the couch in their den, teaching during the day, and (very uncharacteristically for me) drinking myself to sleep at night to stave off the depression of being separated from Jean and the kids. I flew to Austin every couple of months, which was all we could afford, until I couldn’t bear it anymore and got another unpaid leave of absence and went to Austin.


To avoid having to return to Chicago the next academic year, I looked for jobs in the Austin area and applied for an NEH fellowship. No jobs turned up but I got the fellowship, which enabled me to stay in Austin for another year, writing and doing research. Miraculously, the next year Texas offered me a visiting position, which Chicago allowed me to accept and which I snapped up with as much joy as if I had won the lottery.


Hoping that Texas would offer me a permanent job, I did everything I could to make myself attractive. I went out of my way to befriend everyone in the department and be gracious and charming without going so far as to seem a toady. I presented a paper to the departmental colloquium, which went very well and shortly thereafter was accepted for publication in The Philosophical Review. I polished my lectures to make sure my student reviews would shine. They did. Especially in the course that counted the most, a large introductory lecture with two hundred students. The course had once been taught by a star teacher who raised the enrollment to a thousand students, thereby increasing departmental funding from the dean. But the star died and enrollment dropped dramatically. I was told that the chairman would love to see enrollment return to its previous level. This was my chance, I thought: If I can wow the students, maybe the faculty will see me as a star and make me an offer. So I did everything I could to make the course a hit: I chose topics I knew would excite the undergrads; I trotted out all of my most intriguing philosophical examples; I told my funniest jokes; I let students know that my office door was always open and that I would have doughnuts and coffee at the ready. Although I’m chagrined to say it, I even flirted with the young women in the class, all the while thinking of Jean and how, crass though my flirting was, getting a job at Texas and reuniting permanently with my family excused my shameless behavior. I had heard of a teacher who got rave reviews by lecturing dressed up like the philosophers he was discussing. He held forth in sandals and a Greek gown when lecturing on Socrates; delivered his academic shtick in a bushy black beard with suit and vest when lecturing on Marx and so forth. The costumes were a sure crowd pleaser, people said. But desperate though I was, I couldn’t go that far. Even sellouts have limits and teaching in a Greek gown or fake beard was mine. My strategy worked and it didn’t work. I got rave reviews but didn’t get the job. The chairman just patted me on the back and we again faced the question of how to stay together.


This time Jean took a leave of absence and brought the girls to Chicago. The next year, when it was my turn to follow her, my luck getting leaves of absence ran out. When I asked for what by then was my fifth unpaid leave, the dean understandably said no. In despair, I asked my dad if he could think of anything. The university wasn’t his bailiwick but he knew the ways of the world and I’ll be damned if my old man didn’t save the day. One of his friends who had financed the teaching of Serbo-Croatian at the university went to the administration and had the decision about my leave reversed. Maybe it was wrong to use a connection like that. But right or wrong I know that if time were turned back and I had the choice, I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. Short of grand larceny or murder, there probably wasn’t anything I wouldn’t have done to stay with Jean and the kids.


During this leave a position for an endowed chair in philosophy opened up at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, thirty miles north of Austin. I applied instantly. And lo, God smiled and I received the offer. To maximize our options, when I had the offer in hand, I asked Myles Brand, the philosophy chair at Chicago Circle, if the department would consider Jean for a position, which they graciously did. Jean had the impression that her paper presentation went very well but she didn’t get the job. Later a friend in the department reported that someone had objected: “She’s got two kids. She’ll never be around to talk philosophy with.” Nevertheless, we felt we had been treated more than fairly and left without resentment.


I was grateful to Southwestern for making me the offer. A private, strongly Methodist school had offered an endowed chair to me, a Jew, when it undoubtedly could have found a highly qualified Christian. To be sure, the job at Southwestern had some drawbacks: my teaching load more than doubled and, unlike Chicago Circle, there were no teaching assistants; I was the only person on the faculty with a degree in philosophy; and there was no graduate program, all of which severely restricted my opportunities for research. But Southwestern had many overriding advantages; it had a beautiful little campus with a fine humanities faculty, congenial and accomplished colleagues, good students, and an enlightened administration. Most important by far, I was convinced that a job at Southwestern meant that Jean’s and my two bodies problem was over at last.


Unfortunately, I was wrong. A few years later, Jean was denied tenure. Never mind that she had strong teaching; had nine publications in top venues, which would have been more than enough for tenure in many departments more distinguished than Texas’s; and was the first and only tenure-track woman in a large department. I thought Jean should sue on grounds of gender discrimination but she wasn’t prepared to do that. Some years later, when the department voted to deny tenure to another woman, she contested the decision and had it overturned. When I heard about it, I cheered.


After a couple of false starts at resetting her career path, Jean settled on a plan. Initially, she began looking for jobs in philosophy again but a frustrating on-campus interview put an end to it. After a paper she delivered at one institution, a department member who knew us asked in front of his colleagues: “But Jean, what will David do if you teach here?” “Who is David?” someone else inquired. “Oh, you have a husband who is a philosopher? Will he just hang out here or what?” Jean knew then that she wouldn’t get the job and decided that our two bodies problem was too difficult to cope with any longer. She resolved to give up philosophy and try something else. First, she enrolled in “Careers in Business,” a new program at University of Texas designed for PhDs in other fields who wanted to switch to business. It was a crash curriculum in MBA-level courses in finance, accounting, marketing and management. Jean graduated first in her class. Despite her success, a career in business didn’t seem to be the thing. Fortunately, law school, which came next, filled the bill. She entered the University of Texas School of Law, made Law Review, graduated with honors and took a prestigious one-year job clerking for the Honorable Thomas M. Reavley of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Austin.


With Jean now able to find employment almost anywhere, the onus to find a suitable position was on me. Our hope was that a departmental chairmanship would open up. Since most faculty view administrative work as something to be avoided like the plague, we reasoned that if I were willing to be a department chair, competition wouldn’t be as keen. When a position as chair at Georgia State, in Atlanta, was advertised, I applied immediately, and the department eventually recommended my appointment.


By that time, Jean had five offers in hand in Atlanta and was stalling until I had signed on the dotted line. As I learned, however, the departmental recommendation didn’t make the offer a fait accompli. Georgia State’s President had the unusual policy of interviewing senior faculty before approving appointments. Moreover, as I was informed sotto voce, the President was paranoid about two things, either of which could kill an appointment. He didn’t want to hire political radicals or homosexuals and he would sometimes ask job candidates about these proclivities. Strangely, my informants added, the President frequently employed a coded question when inquiring whether you were a radical.  “Do you have a messiah complex?” he would ask. The idea was that, like a messiah, a radical wanted to save the world. Since I wasn’t gay, I was OK on that one and, in my view anyway, I wasn’t a radical. But I did have Berkeley in my background, which might automatically be taken as indicating that I was a radical. Several faculty members therefore instructed me to be careful about politics. They also stressed that the President was extremely voluble and frequently made bizarre statements. “If he says anything weird,” they insisted, “be sure not to laugh.”


On the morning of the interview, I was ushered into the President’s office and seated in one of two handsome leather armchairs placed face-to-face near one another. The President had not arrived yet. I was nervous. I was about to be interviewed by an eccentric and wanted desperately not to bungle the interview. Keep cool, I said to myself. You’re not gay and you don’t have a messiah complex. If he says something outrageous, keep a straight face.


When the President arrived, he was as advertised. A massive man, six feet tall and a good two hundred and thirty pounds, he had once played football for Alabama’s Crimson Tide. An article in the Atlanta Journal/Constitution described him as “a yard-wide, bull-necked, granite block of ex-football tackle.” Dressed in an expensive dark blue pinstripe suit and vest, he cut quite a figure with his long, flowing silver-grey locks and an umbrella dangling casually from his arm. Apart from his somewhat too portly belly, he would have been a perfect model for an older gentleman in a stylish men’s magazine. Until I noticed a truly madcap feature of his attire. Pajamas were protruding about two inches below each of his pantlegs. The good man had apparently put his suit on over his PJs!


After greeting me, he plopped into the chair facing mine and the interview began. Leaning forward so close to me that I could hear his every breath, the President stared into my eyes and ponderously inquired: “DOCTOR DAVID BLUMENFELD, DO YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS FOR ME?” I asked the most innocuous question I could think of: “Sir, how well do you think the legislature will fund the university next year?” He leaned back, drew an enormous breath, lunged forward and held forth with what seemed like a ten-minute tirade. I think it was a single sentence. There were many large words and much extraneous verbiage. I understood only about half of what he said, which worried me since if he asked me about it, there was a fifty/fifty chance I wouldn’t know what to say. Fortunately, at the end of his blustery discourse, my huge interlocutor merely bellowed again: “DR. DAVID BLUMENFELD, DO YOU HAVE ANY FURTHER QUESTIONS FOR ME?” “No sir,” I answered, “I think you’ve covered things very well.” To which he replied more softly but with evident satisfaction, “Dr. David Blumenfeld, this has been a most interesting interview.” I got the job.


At last, our two bodies problem was over. It took more than twenty years, much heartache and a change of careers on Jean’s part to put it to rest. Only mutual self-sacrifice and a very deep love kept our marriage together for so long. Brilliant and resourceful, Jean quickly became a highly successful litigator and in time I was promoted to associate dean for the humanities. Eight years after we moved to Atlanta, Jean died unexpectedly, at age forty-nine, of a cerebral aneurysm. In 1996, she was memorialized with the establishment of the Jean Beer Blumenfeld Center for Ethics at Georgia State University. In 2003, the Jean Beer Blumenfeld Center for Ethics received the American Philosophical Association’s award for being the most innovative Center of its kind.

David Blumenfeld (aka Dean Flowerfield) is a retired philosophy professor and associate dean who now writes nonfiction, humor, and children’s literature. His publications appear in a wide variety of journals.

The Jean Beer Blumenfeld Center for Ethics fosters scholarship, reflection, and discussion about the ethical values and principles that frame our lives. Visit the website here.

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