Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain, and I’d like to welcome you to the twenty-third installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and post here on the third Wednesday of each month. The series is designed to provide a public venue for discussion with disabled philosophers about a range of topics, including their philosophical work on disability; the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession; their experiences of institutional discrimination and personal prejudice in philosophy, in particular, and in academia, more generally; resistance to ableism; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.
My guest today is Whitney Mutch. Whitney is currently an adjunct instructor at the University of Alabama and a professional translator of ancient Greek and Latin. Her primary areas of interest are ancient philosophy; philosophy of race, class, and gender; and philosophy of law. She is especially interested in Stoicism, with a focus on Stoic causation, ontology, and determinism. Outside of academia, Whitney is an activist in her community.
Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Whitney! Please tell us about your educational background and aspirations, as well as why you chose to become a philosopher.
Thank you, Shelley. It's an honor to contribute to a series that I've read since you started it—almost two years ago! Doing this interview has been a thoughtful exercise, leading me to reflect on various experiences that I’ve had.
I grew up with very loving and supportive parents and a younger sister, in Gainesville, Florida. I am the first person in our family to be born in “the South.” Despite growing up in a university town, I knew by high school that I wanted leave my hometown for college. I ended up attending Agnes Scott College—an all-women's college, in Decatur, Georgia—with the help of a hefty academic scholarship. At the time, I didn't think that I was making a political statement by attending an all-women's college. College is college, or so I thought. As soon as a high-school peer heard about my decision, I was teased with: “Oh, so, you're a lesbian?”
This question was genuinely confusing and irritating to me. My sexuality didn't matter and was none of their business. I was confused because my thinking was simple: I am going to this school. You are going to that school. Why is it so different? I quickly learned that if you attend an all-women's college, you can expect to be asked a plethora of questions about your sexual orientation; you will be told that you are going to have a hard time adjusting to the “real world” because there are men in the “real world,” whereas an all-women's college is perceived as convent-like; you will be asked annoying questions like this before, during, and after college by people you’ve just met.
There are no “freshmen” at Agnes Scott; there are, however, first-years. As a first-year, I was required to take either a religious studies course or a philosophy course. None of the religious studies classes seemed interesting to me; but, there was an ethics class that looked interesting. My high school had offered a philosophy class, but, during my senior year, it was offered at the same time as Latin. I chose to stick with Latin so that I’d have a solid five years of the language under my belt. I decided to take the first-year ethics course, which was such a good “fit” for me because it was designed as an historical overview of ethical reading. We covered Plato, Epictetus, Epicurus, Kant, Hume, and Nietzsche.
I was an over-achieving student before I took the ethics course and had enjoyed all the other courses that I’d previously taken. In this course, however, I wasn't just enjoying philosophy: I was thriving and flourishing. I loved it so much that I was taken aback when classmates weren't as enthusiastic about it. I remember that a friend in the course quietly complained to me that it wasn't an “issue-based” ethics course. In many ways, it was her comment that made me realize how much I was learning in the course, and how I felt refreshed, energized, and challenged by it.
How did your autoimmune illness condition your experiences as an undergraduate and graduate student?
I should first explain my autoimmune illness. It's not very common; most people have never heard of PANDAS. PANDAS is the acronym for Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections. The onset of the illness occurs in childhood. PANDAS is an over-reaction to strep and possibly some viruses, including influenza. When a person with PANDAS is exposed to or has strep, the autoimmune system of the person not only fights off strep, it then attacks parts of the brain, changing their neurochemistry which can cause tics and phobias, among other things. For me, this change in my neurochemistry affects my mood and results in treatment-resistant major depression, as well as anorexia. My doctors and I understood that I had major depression and a history of anorexia when I entered college, but everyone considered them to be under control. I do not mean that I was healthy; but, I ate enough to not draw attention to myself or be hospitalized. It wasn't discovered until my senior year of college—shortly after 9/11—that I had this autoimmune condition.
When I am depressed, I am a melancholic depressive. I may cry and that's relief. Mostly, I cannot cry, but wish I could. My mind goes down an interesting path. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, no freedom from Plato's Cave allegory—which, as a classical literature and language and philosophy double-major, I very much relate to. Living in my thoughts can be good, but dangerous, when depressed. I never missed class—that would draw attention to me. But I didn't see the point of it all, the meaning in life. Everything was morbidly futile. I don't feel like eating when depressed—I feel like a burden, that I take up too much space—so I know my eating habits went downhill for a bit. I tend to be very rigid when I'm depressed, so that I stay “on track.” But that rigidity feeds—pun not intended—into my eating disorder, which in turn thrives on my depression.
I negotiated college by obsessing over reading and re-reading. I know a good part of some works of philosophy by memory because I read them, re-read them, and then read them again. It wasn't good enough—for me. I would walk across our small quad, my legs shaking with anxiety and need to sit down before I went to my two-student, Descartes lecture. And, I would re-read something that I knew by heart, anxiety gripping me. My parents provided a lot of emotional support over the phone and instant messaging: “Wait, how many times have you read this?” and “No, you don't need to read it again. Put it away, get out of the dorm for a bit, and call me when you get back.”
In my senior year, my depression came back, stronger than ever. I watched 9/11 occur, and I was almost numb. My most prominent thought was, “Why is everyone surprised? The world is terrible.” Suicide suddenly seemed like a possibility; I felt capable of acting on it. THIS scared me. I immediately called home and was honest with my parents about how I felt. Nobody panicked. They asked if they should come up and be with me until a new doctor could meet with me. I promised them that I would push through. And I did. It was only a week. I continued with my usual coping mechanism: studying, translating, writing, reading, researching topics of interest that I was not studying at the time. The doctor was kind. She took a very long and detailed general health history. A trend started to emerge. Every time I had had a minor stomach bug, my mood plummeted shortly after, generally within two weeks. She suggested that I have PANDAS and explained to me what this autoimmune disorder is.
Throughout all the internal struggle to just exist, I threw myself into my studies. I translated. I read and translated different ancient Greek and Roman philosophical treatises on my own. It was routine, methodical. I read more about genocide, which is a topic that has always intrigued me from a “HOW? WHY does this STILL happen?” standpoint. I read about the worst of humanity, while translating Plato's Symposium. I was semi-withdrawn, but content with my books, with volunteer tutoring of refugee children from Sudan, and with activism that I did with groups like Amnesty International and protests at the School of the Americas every November.
By the end of my penultimate semester, I had applied to graduate school in philosophy. I was slowly feeling more...like me. This very thick fog was burning off. My last semester, I was happy. I was actually happy. I began to be less rigid, more spontaneous. I kept up with my work, but allowed myself to have fun. I didn't feel the need to punish myself for existing.
Graduate school was an entirely new world in so many ways. For starters, I left an all-women's college for a department that was over 90% male. I did not expect that to be the issue that it became. I expected to be treated as a semi-equal, at least. A newcomer, yes, but as someone who is capable of philosophical thought and logic. Being talked over in class was new and frustrating. It was confusing the first time that I watched as a professor applauded when a male classmate said exactly what I had previously said. I would momentarily second-guess myself: “I did just say X--> Y, didn't I? Maybe I didn't say it clearly?” That thought was short-lived. I was irritated, and I tried to do what I could. I sat as close to the professor as I could in most courses. A male peer noticed this and sat by me in classes that we had together, offering to speak up if and when someone spoke over me. I was also the youngest student for much of my time in graduate school, and I looked younger than I actually was.
Nevertheless, I forged ahead; my depression was at bay, my eating disorder was at bay. I learned that the person that I wanted to study under was generally rather respectful of my ideas. One of the first things that I did in his course was challenge a translation that he presented to our class. Afterward, a peer who also studied Greek sent me a nasty email for challenging a tenured philosopher. But the tenured philosopher himself seemed to enjoy our exchange. He explained our translation disagreement to the class, but acknowledged that I was correct: ”aner, andros” is Greek for “man, mankind,” while “anthros, anthropos” is Greek for “human, humankind.”
During my graduate studies, my newly diagnosed autoimmune disease was finally managed. I knew what signs to watch for and was pro-active about taking care of myself. I did, however, undergo a period of traumatic stress my second year in graduate school that required outside treatment. I wish that I had felt comfortable asking to instruct a different course that semester than the one I was assigned; but, I didn't, and ended up leading discussions that were enormously personal and painful to me. After the class, I would either walk to my car and cry, or close the door to my shared office and cry. I shook. I was getting help outside of academia for PTSD; but, I felt comfortable disclosing this arrangement to only one person from whom I asked for a referral to a good psychologist, my voice breaking. My voice breaking was shameful, that I was traumatized and needed outside help felt shameful. I relied on outside support—my partner of the time, my parents.
Again, I threw myself into my work, including more translation: Greek to English, English to second-order logic, second-order logic back to a more polished English; learning the flaws in Stoic logic that I researched; and reading about topics not related to my ancient philosophy studies. I remember a peer noting that I wasn't a “real” philosopher because I focused on ancient philosophy. According to him, ancient philosophy wasn't “real” philosophy. I studied and passed examinations. I cannot say that I have felt proud of any of my accomplishments in academia, and I think that is, partly, due to the autoimmune disease. I recovered from the traumatic event and continued my studies. When I was asked to teach philosophy in Greece, I jumped at the chance. I was hired for this job, in part, because I had studied in Greece over three summers. I kept pushing to be better, to do better. Altius, citius, forties: higher, faster, stronger. That motto of the Olympics ran through my head over and over, like it was a record, but, this time, my partner kept me in check from going overboard.
[Description of coloured photo below: Whitney, a white woman, leans against a wooden fence, looking down to her left. Leafy trees, ferns on the ground, and a clear sky can be seen in the background. Whitney is wearing a white t-shirt that reads: "This is what a philosopher looks like."]
In the interview that I did with Karl Viertel, he explained the ways in which the depression that he experiences is related to his work in classical German philosophy. Whitney, what is the relation between the illness that you experience and your focus on ancient philosophy?
I first read Epictetus' Enchidrion when I was 19, in my very first philosophy course. It made so much sense to me, I immediately started practicing Stoicism. I dug deeper into the texts of Stoicism as well, while trying to practice Stoicism. When I first tried out Stoicism, it was half-jokingly, to amuse myself. I was waiting to get on a plane and an announcement was made on the overhead speaker that we would be delayed. I had just read the opening lines of the Enchidrion. I chuckled to myself and thought, well, let me see how this works. I moved my bag so that I could rest my feet on it, and kept reading. It was quite freeing, to not worry about something that I had no control over. Not being upset by things you cannot control...that's not an easy thing. Letting go of anxiety that a delayed plane can cause was surprisingly easy; I liked how that letting go and focusing on what I could control made me feel. It was appealing to me. My depression makes everything feel overwhelming. Using Stoicism to take stock of what I can actually control—which is not much—frees my mind and my time. I do not worry, for the most part, about things that I cannot control. When I took a graduate course at Emory on fate in the ancient world, we examined the Stoics’ views regarding determinism, fate, free will. I wanted to learn more about this. I started translating Epictetus, Cicero, and others on my own.
I cannot control my autoimmune disease, including when it will kick in, so it's futile to worry about this before it flares again. I can control how I react to most things, and whether it is worthwhile to be upset about a certain thing. If it is something to be upset about, I channel that feeling into activism and giving back to my community. I am no Stoic sage, but I still find their philosophy sadly misunderstood by so many. This philosophy is incredibly helpful for pushing through dark moments. If there is something that upsets me, and I can do something about what upsets me, I'm wasting my energy being upset and not doing anything about it!
In 2008, I was left a single mother of a very young child. A psychologist that I saw said gently, “Don't you understand why you studied Stoicism?” I think that I answered, “because it's interesting to me.” She paused, and smiled. “You've been self-treating your depression all these years with philosophy—and especially with Stoicism.” It was just an observation. I left that session not believing her. Of course, she was wrong, I arrogantly thought. She doesn't understand how awesome philosophy—and particularly ancient and Stoic philosophy—is! Over a few months, however, I slowly realized how right she was. Philosophy, in many ways, helped me live when I couldn't see why. It kept that one part of my brain curious. Stoicism was my self-prescribed treatment.
As for the rest of ancient philosophy, I find it amazingly comforting. It's comforting to be reminded that depression isn't new. Tyranny and authoritarianism aren't new. Almost everything that we are currently facing—personally, professionally, and as activists—isn’t new. People were subservient, people fought back, people survived. There is solace in ancient philosophers and the philosophy that we have from them. Even Socrates being charged and sentenced to death was a political maneuver. He arguably was a victim of the politics of the time.
Due to institutional inaccessibility, ableist prejudices and biases, and other barriers, many disabled students receive less mentorship and support from their professors and teaching assistants than their nondisabled peers enjoy. Did you receive appropriate and adequate mentorship and guidance during your student years, Whitney? If so, what forms of support and mentorship were most effective and most appreciated? If not, what forms of support and mentorship were not available to you, or at least not adequately?
During my undergraduate years, I absolutely was supported for the most part. I think it was during my sophomore year that I went to talk to my adviser for Classical Languages and Literature, the late Sally MacEwen. She didn't make me feel like a failure or any of the things that I kept telling myself I was. She listened. She nodded, and said, “I understand” or “I hear that you're feeling like you're not doing a good job, but your other professors are saying that you are.” Oh, what a gift that was! She listened. No judgment. Real support from someone who saw my potential and believed in me—as she did in ALL her students. Sally MacEwen also recruited me into a diversity workshop organized by the National Coalition Building Institute, where I was trained to help others talk through their differences that could potentially lead to hurt and hate.
SallyMac, as we called her, encouraged me to talk to my philosophy advisor, John Parry. I very reluctantly did, and he opened up to me that he had been through some struggles. I really appreciate both of my advisers’ openness, understanding, and support. I appreciated—but also dismissed—times that they would hold me after class to discuss an idea and would gently say, “You look a little gaunt/too thin.” “How can I help?” “Do you want to talk?” “Just thought I'd let you know some people are concerned and I told them I'd check in with you.” (Strangers or acquaintances saying this sort of thing to me infuriates me; it's like telling me to “just eat.” It's dismissive of the fact that there is a real issue here, and it's not as simple as “just eat.”) Agnes Scott is a small liberal arts college. When I studied there, the student-population was less than 1000. And my majors were even smaller; so, I had more than one seminar with only two people in it. In this sense, it was like a giant family that shared the same academic interests as you.
I didn't disclose my disabilities to most professors during my years at graduate school. I was given some opportunities; but, ultimately, I felt supported by only one professor—and our areas of interest within philosophy weren't similar. I don't feel that I was provided with much, if any, mentorship. Compared to the favorites, I was not offered any sort of mentorship. Professional support was closed off.
Again, I was naïve. I did not realize someone else's decision to send me to teach in Greece would have so many nasty repercussions for me from peers and professors alike. I received several anonymous emails that, I suppose, were meant to intimidate me. I don't know. I didn't think to report these emails or forward them to anyone in a position of authority. Throughout graduate school, one peer sent me an email, at least semi-annually, telling me “all these things are wrong with you and your approach to philosophy.” It would include a line about how “grateful” I should be that the person wasn't going to “report me for being so disgusting.” If I truly was so horrible ethically, they should have reported me. I never responded to those emails, nor did I file a complaint. I simply forwarded the first one to an advisor, who thought it was ridiculous. I was really surprised by the drama.
What is the relation between your upbringing in a family focused on social justice, your philosophical training, and your activism?
I knew my family was “different” from many, but not all, of my childhood peers, but I never really knew how to explain it. In my family, it was unsaid, but assumed, that politics is personal, and that we should do all we can to make the world better. A simple example is that we would volunteer on major holidays at a local homeless shelter, when they had the least amount of volunteers; we would then go home and do our own quiet holiday cooking. “Whoa, this isn't normal?”
My mom was raised Roman Catholic, but that side was more Dorothy Day Roman Catholic. They were at odds in many ways with the Pope. My grandmother would even comment about how the church's stance on abortion and birth control, lesbian and gay rights, etc. was ridiculous. My dad's immediate family was Presbyterian, but many more distant relatives were Quakers. My parents taught us to always give back to our communities, however we can do so. They still live by this creed through their own examples. I believe my sister was about four when she explained to an adult that we were boycotting a local business. The adult was respectful, but amazed that a child so young used the word boycott appropriately. If my mom wasn't volunteering, my dad was. And they were always furthering their own education at the same time, too. My parents have always organized various events, donated whatever they could—including time—to make change and progress possible. I think an unspoken tenet in our household was “sitting back is not an option.”
[Description of coloured photo below: A couple dozen protestors pose for the photo in front of a large sign for Hobby Lobby. Some of them are standing and others are sitting on the ground in front of them. A paved sidewalk in the foreground, surrounded by grass, leads to them. Most of the protestors are holding signs about issues such as access to abortion and misogyny. It is a sunny day, but clouds can be seen across the very blue sky.]
That said, sometimes, taking care of yourself is what is needed to be effective. With an untreated autoimmune illness, I didn't know about or even care about self-care. I still struggle with this. When you are an activist, taking care of yourself is easy to dismiss. I was raised to do something about injustices. To vocalize injustices that I saw. I also learned to work against unjust systems from within, if needed—as a child this was often the safer method; as a white child, this was often the most effective measure.
My parents were always respectful of our differences, too. For example, I remember at age 8, stating that the death penalty was wrong. My parents disagreed with the particular case at hand, but we talked about the death penalty. We would debate issues. They treated my views with respect. I learned through this form of engagement to develop stronger arguments than “It's wrong”—Hey, I was 8! When I look back on my upbringing, I’m so grateful for such respectful, thoughtful parents who really value education and critical thinking and who were excited when I called home to tell them that I was going to major in philosophy and classical languages.
In many ways, philosophy and activism are one and the same to me. I am doing what I can to bring change or challenge something over which I have seemingly little or no control. I volunteer as a clinic escort locally; sometimes I want to go over to the protesters and grade their pamphlets like a philosophy paper: “Okay, this claim invalidates your argument. This claim is unsound. Don't quote this religious text unless you're prepared to cite texts from the other four major religions,” and so on. No, I have never done this; I do clinic escort to help people in need. The thought will inevitably pass through my head during clinic escort, though. I just smile and stay quiet.
Are there resources—books, articles, or videos—that you would like to highlight on the topics that you have discussed in this interview?
I think everyone working on the question of free will should be familiar with the Diodorus Cronus' Master Argument, for fun, if nothing else. Susanne Bobzien’s Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy was challenging, solidifying my work on Stoicism.
I was introduced to Stoic determinism and fate when reading and translating Cicero's De Fato (On Fate). It's rather informative about various views held by ancient philosophers on fate. I recommend Epictetus. All of it. Start with The Handbook/Enchirdrion, then move to the Discourses. Seneca, On Tranquility, is also quite good.
For understanding eating disorders and what happens to a person when they have been in starvation mode: Carrie Arnold, Decoding Anorexia explains what occurs in the brain when a person develops and has anorexia or is in any state of starvation. The Minnesota Starvation Experiment from the 1940's is also of interest.
Both When Abortion was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973 and Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities, and Abortion in Modern America by Leslie J. Reagan expanded my understanding of how recently abortion became an ethical issue and made me realize that there are some very ugly, racist, and elitist roots on both “sides” of this debate.
Martino Traxler, my professor at Agnes Scott, introduced me to Mad Travellers and Rewriting the Soul by Ian Hacking. I forget the conversation we had that prompted him to mention these books, but I’m grateful for the recommendations.
bell hooks—all of her work, but especially Where We Stand: Class Matters, and Ain't I A Woman? were early eye-openers. Dixie Be Damned: 300 years of Insurrection in the American South by Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford explores the numerous slave and labor rebellions in the South.
An excellent book about the lives of everyday women in the ancient Greco-Roman world is Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves by Sarah Pomeroy.
Thank you very much for offering these diverse suggestions, Whitney, and thanks also for a very compelling interview. Your expertise in certain areas of the discipline has shone through your remarks. I’m sure that your remarks have resonated with many of our readers and listeners.
Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Whitney Mutch’s remarks, ask questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are encouraged and preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted.
Please join me here again on Wednesday, March 15th at 8 a.m. EST for the twenty-fourth installment of the Dialogues on Disability series and, indeed, on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews planned. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), please feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, race, gender, institutional status, nationality, culture, age, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.