What Peggy Taught Me

By Os Keyes

One of the most important lessons I ever learned came via Peggy Phelan. The backstory is this: I had a then-mentor who adored Phelan’s work, particularly “Mourning Sex”. I wanted to do something nice for said mentor - and so I wrote to Peggy. Politely, but awkwardly, I explained how much my mentor meant to me, and how much Peggy meant to her, in turn. And I asked if, as a favour, Peggy would be willing to sign a copy of “Mourning Sex”. I’d buy it, ship it to her, and handle retrieval via some friends on campus to minimise the work for her (I mean, it’s Peggy fucking Phelan): all she’d have to do is sign it.

Being as Peggy is a professor, and a fancy professor at that, my expectation was that she’d reply either in three months or not at all. Instead, she sent me a message the following morning. Not only would she sign a copy, it would be one of her copies; she’d buy it, sign it, ship it. I was blown away and incredibly gratful, and although I couldn’t (and still can’t) imagine what I could contribute to her life, I begged her to please let me now if I could ever help her out in return.

Her reply, practitioner of feminist ways that she is, was (in part):

I hope you can see that you and your mentor are doing me a favor here too - reading my work, making it a gift, having it serve as an expression of love and thanks. That’s already such a beautiful gift to me there is no need for you to ever do more.

What’s the point of this little anecdote? The point is about joy and reciprocity and exchange. A lot of being in relation with others (and that’s what academia is, since that’s what everything is) consists of offering, giving, exchanging. It’s helping former students find jobs, writing thoughtful and supportive reviews, putting together letters of reference and recommendation. And when I do these things, people often come back with expressions of how much they meant, and with asks: can I do anything for you? A reference in turn; a review in turn?

And when this happens, I remember Peggy, and try to channel her - and try to explain. Don’t you see? Telling me it helped is already doing me a favour.