I made a mistake, I was being told. The dim fluorescent lights swerved a little as my stomach lurched. I leaped back out of the cubicle-sized office, pivoted, and pushed myself into the tiny bathroom next to it to lean over the toilet and wretch. I tried to calm down, put myself back together. Go back. When I stepped back into the room, the furious curator berated me again. I explained I had stepped out to throw up (being plain-spoken was one of my faults too). “You don’t have the luxury of feeling sick about it,” the curator fumed and stormed out.
I never doubted my place there. I knew I was at the bottom. I also knew I hadn’t made a mistake; I was too careful, too paranoid. The Director had changed his mind and I was caught in the cross-fire. Of all of the horrible, humiliating things that happened there, this one sticks out because it demonstrated so clearly that I was not human. I only vaguely understood the pressure that the curators faced, this one, in particular, to keep the institution, the director, the donors, the artists, the galleries, the critics — to keep them all happy, to balance on a blade and not make the kind of mistake that could cost you your career. It was easier if it cost mine.
I remind myself of this story, of this time, when I start to lose sight of the human or when the context is blurred and it’s hard to see the entire system. I know what it feels like to be the person least regarded, most expendable. I don’t even blame the individual curator — the behavior was a symptom of the dysfunction across the entire system.
Why am I thinking of this incident that happened 15 years ago now? Because I’m trying to make sense of how things have changed for me. I used to think I was just a horrible, incompetent person and that no matter how hard I tried, I would always fail because I was fundamentally flawed. No one would ever see my value because I had none. This despite all evidence to the contrary. The grades, the prestigious internship, the resulting jobs, my success — all dumb luck. I always felt like any success could all be wiped away if I slipped up. I lived in fear, crying every day after work out of sheer exhaustion.
I made a mistake. It would take a few more months before I was asked to visit HR in the basement. My performance evaluation was stellar, I was getting a raise and in the same breath, I was told, “your position is being eliminated. We’ll be escorting you out of the building now.” Mistakes can be liberating.