Sharing your truth with the world can be risky – lesson from “the eggplant incident”

I have found it cathartic to share my stories in this blog. As I have noted, I have been writing for years, writing is one of my forms of therapy, and it feels good to finally put these words out into the universe, in case they resonate with other people. And I have always valued sharing my life lessons with others. It has been a major focus in my teaching and mentoring for years now.

But I want to acknowledge that sharing your truths can be risky. So risky. Because you never know how your stories will land, how someone else might interpret them. Today, I will share an example that negatively affected me once, called “the eggplant incident.”

When I was a professor at Boston College, I used to take 5 minutes at the beginning of most classes and share lessons that I had learned on my academic path. One of the lessons that I had learned late in life (compared to most people) was that drinking alcohol socially played an important role in networking. I had been rather uptight during my youth, almost never wanting to “break the law” by drinking underage (I was a “good girl,” after all)…I think maybe I only drank three times before I turned 21. And even after I could drink legally, I did not do it very often, in part because I had major social anxiety and did not like being around lots of people. So, I never got that drinking experience that many young people get. And I rarely drank or socialized in grad school.

By the time I became a professor, I had finally learned that drinking socially at scientific conferences was a very important part of networking. And networking was important to becoming successful. And I was going to do everything that I could to become successful. So I went to the parties and “drank.” I learned that when I would make an effort to still show up at the bar but only drink water, my colleagues would almost always question me or tease me. I assume they did not intend to make fun of me, and instead, I think that they simply felt more at ease if everyone around them was drinking too. So I began making a point of just holding a glass of wine in my hand for most of the night, sipping it as slowly as possible, and that worked quite well.

Over time, as I became more comfortable, I decided to loosen up and drink more. But, since I had not had the drinking experience that many have, I was quite the lightweight. And one time, I made a mistake. I was at a conference party that had an open bar and I had too much to drink that night. 

I found this out the next morning, when I woke up in my hotel room and I received a text from a science friend of mine, who was not at the conference that year. His text was, “Is this Laura? Why are you texting me eggplants?” I was dumbfounded. Not only did I not remember texting him an eggplant, but I honestly had no idea what texting an eggplant even meant. (Some might scoff at this ignorance, but look, I was an almost 40 year old married college professor, mom of two young kids, and I was not hip with the whole emoticon lingo. I had absolutely no idea that an eggplant is a phallic symbol for a penis. I mean, why not a cucumber or a banana? I’m still confused by this, actually.) Anyway, I looked at our texts and indeed, shortly after midnight the night before, it appeared that I had texted my friend an eggplant. I didn’t understand. So I wracked my memory for an answer, and then I remembered what happened the night before. After I had too much to drink, I was socializing with two science guys that I had just met, who were friends with my friend. We were talking about how our mutual friend was not there at the conference, and what a shame, and we should tease him about his absence, and then they told me that I needed to text him an eggplant. I do distinctly recall me asking them why they wanted me to do that, as I had no idea what it meant. And they said to not worry about it, my friend would know what it meant, and I should just do it. And so, in my inebriated state, I obliged.

Of course, once I found out what it meant the next morning, I was horrified. And also thankful that at least it was a friend that I had texted, and not some other science colleague that might be offended. I realized that I could have really negatively affected my career, if I had let people that I did not know well convince me to text someone a potentially-offensive sexual symbol. I thought that I had dodged a bullet, and I made sure to not make that mistake again. I was much more careful about drinking at scientific conferences, and never again did I do something that I regretted at a conference because of drinking. And so I included that story in my life lessons that I shared with students when I talked to them about how to behave at science conferences. I told them that yes, drinking socially is an important part of scientific networking, but it is critical to not drink too much, because you could end up doing something that could harm your career.

Unfortunately, sharing this story with my students ended up leading some of them to get the impression that I was bragging about “sexually harassing” a male colleague. I learned this a few years later, after I left BC amidst disgusting rumors and insane lies that I had been sleeping with students. The gossip mill was running amok, and one of the stories people shared was how I bragged to students about sexually harassing a male colleague by texting him an eggplant.

::sigh::

Well, so be it. If some people take my cautionary tale, where I intended to be vulnerable with the truth that we all make mistakes sometimes and I once drank too much at a conference and some male colleagues convinced me to do something stupid, and they choose to see that as me bragging about “sexually harassing” someone, well, there isn’t much that I can do about that. I can’t control other people’s opinions and ideas and thoughts and feelings. I can only control mine.

Once I found out about that twisted impression that some people had of me, I withdrew from the world for a while. I stopped sharing stories, I stopped sharing myself. Because sharing our truths, our vulnerabilities, it is risky.

Ultimately, though, I decided that it’s worth the risk. Because sharing my stories and being authentically me and connecting with others through my words, that is what I am here for.

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