Sarah Ballard's "inappropriate" relationship with Geoff Marcy began in the spring of 2005 and was over by August. According to the PRA documents, she first testified against Geoff Marcy by email in 2011, after attending a Women in Astronomy conference, where she had been encouraged by one of the speakers to share her story. In early 2014, she was given the false impression that a UC Berkeley investigation of Marcy's behavior was underway, and she forwarded the same email. In September of 2014, when an investigation was in fact underway, she was contacted by phone by the investigator and provided an anonymous witness statement. She came forward in public as part of Buzzfeed's coverage of the case in October of 2015.
That is, after the personal relationship ended, Ballard continued to cultivate a professional relationship with Marcy for six years, using him as a reference, and collaborating with him on a number of research projects.* Then, in 2011, she joined forces with a growing underground campaign against him, which would lead to an official investigation, a formal censure, and, after growing public pressure, his forced resignation from UC Berkeley and departure from the astronomy community.
What motivated Ballard to participate in the ouster of Marcy from astronomy? Natalie Schreyer and Jeremy Schulman provide some interesting insights into this question in an article in Mother Jones about her appearance on Inquiring Minds.
Marcy's attorney, Elizabeth Grossman, argued that Marcy's actions weren't serious enough to justify the backlash he's experienced. "There is not a single allegation of sexual assault [against Marcy]," said Grossman. "There is not a single allegation of soliciting sex, of requesting sex in exchange for academic favor. There is not a single suggestion of his interfering with anyone's ability to thrive on campus."
Ballard, however, says she was deeply affected by her interactions with Marcy. "To have [Marcy] say, 'You are talented, you are full of promise'— that is so compelling," she explains. "And then to have all of the sudden the knowledge that ... that message might not have been delivered in good faith: You feel like the rug has been pulled out under you. So does that mean that I'm not promising? Does that mean that all of it was a lie? ... It was profoundly rattling to my nascent sense of self as an astronomer, as a scientist."
Years later, when Ballard heard that allegations against Marcy were going to become public, she made the decision to come forward and identify herself as one of the victims. She hopes that by doing so, she'll make things easier for other women.
"There was one principle which helped me to unravel the tangled knot of my feelings that I could always return to...and that was you have to be the woman you needed then," says Ballard. "You couldn't protect yourself then, but you can protect younger you today, and you can protect women who are 20 today."
Indeed, according to the Berkeley investigation, "She said that she 'felt traumatized' by [Marcy]’s behavior at the time." In my last post, I suggested that her story lacks an "objective correlative" for this feeling. That is, while we might grant that she (subjectively) felt traumatized, it is hard to see how she might have actually (objectively) been traumatized by Marcy's behavior. And the above snippet, it seems to me, makes my point quite clearly. What "deeply affected" (i.e., "traumatized") Ballard was her suspicion that Marcy might not actually find her as promising as an astronomer as he had said he did. Of course, it turns out that he did, in fact, find her promising, and he did in fact support her in her future career. Also, he was right about her promise: she is, today, an accomplished scientist.
What "rattled" her "nascent sense of self" at the time was merely the possibility that he wasn't speaking in good faith. Notice the tortured turn of phrase she needs to express the relevant sentiment: "to have all of the sudden the knowledge that ... that message might not have been delivered in good faith." How much certainty did she need that Marcy actually believed in her in order to maintain her own fragile sense of self? And what does it mean to "suddenly know" that someone "might not" mean what they're saying? It doesn't mean much at all. It means she began to suspect he had ulterior motives.
Now, his crime was not to actually harbor those motives. His failing, it seems, was to not do enough to assure her of his sincerity. Given his "overlarge presence" in her image of herself, he had a duty not just to actually be sincere, but to leave no doubt whatsoever in her mind about his sincerity. I hope it is clear that I find this demand ridiculous. It is not just impossible, but would make human interaction a sad, dreary business. Sometimes a teacher will intentionally plant a doubt in the mind of the student about the teacher's sincerity. It's called irony, and has been part of pedagogy since the time of Socrates.
I've held back from using Ballard's "tangled knot of feelings" against her. But if she really wanted to adhere to the principle she espouses, namely, to protect the "younger her", i.e., twenty-year-old women in the same situation, then she would tell her story matter-of-factly and with compassion not malice for Marcy, her mentor, whose motives she tragically misunderstood, and if she had only talked to him about them, would have learned that his feelings are as (but only as) tangled as the next guy's. She would explain to intelligent, ambitious undergraduates that ambiguity is just part of being alive. The lesson for the younger Sarah Ballard is not, "don't let the bastards grind you down," because Geoff Marcy was not a bastard and did not grind her down. The lesson is simply that human relationships are complicated and interesting and part of a career in science. The lesson is that, if you are too enamored of a professor's power, you make yourself, your identity as scientist, vulnerable to precisely that power, and that can cause undue worry and anxiety. Let your passion to know, not to master, be the core of your identity. And choose your mentors by how they stimulate your curiosity, not your ambition.
The lesson is not to report this sort of thing as "harassment" immediately. It may well be to draw clear boundaries and be reticent about your personal life with teachers who make you uncomfortable. It may well be to forego an opportunity for an easy A or a letter of recommendation from a professor who seems to be blinded by unscientific interests. (I'm not saying that Marcy was thus blinded; I am saying that Ballard thought he was.) In some cases, as I will discuss in a later post, it may be to seek help to document actually harassing behavior—actually coercive pressure, actual abuse of power. The lesson is certainly not to spend five years of your career working behind the scenes to undermine a man's reputation because he didn't make his intentions sufficiently clear to you and nurture your "nascent sense of self as an astronomer", your "tangled knot of feelings".
By reporting Marcy's behavior as harassment, Ballard participated in a campaign that ended up putting him on the sidelines of a field he help to found. It did great damage to his life and immeasurable damage to the field of exoplanet research. These days, I'm trying to figure out whether her participation in this campagin was justified by her experiences, and her relationship, with him. At the moment, it doesn't seem so.
*It's important not to over-interpret these "collaborations". In fields like astronomy, authorship is shared among members of teams in ways that do not necessarily reflect close collaborative relationships. Still, it's worth noting that Ballard published with Marcy as late as 2015.