It’s like Moses Herzog’s lawyer friend talking about one of his divorce cases:
First she said she didn’t want children, then she did, didn’t, did. Finally, she threw her diaphragm in his face.
The Mackenzie Fierceton story is a mess. From the word go, no one knows who did what. Did a teenager flee her physically abusive mother and spend years in a world of foster care pain? Did her mother’s boyfriend sexually abuse her? If these things happened, her escape from her family and eventual enrollment at an Ivy League school is inspiring, and she’s worth all the rewards (a Rhodes!) she got before various institutions decided she lied about her background, and demanded that she return said rewards.
A New Yorker writer seems to want to leap to her defense, but woe betide the scribe who ventures into this forest of thorns cuz, editorially speaking, she ain’t coming out alive.
The writer tries to make her accusatory headline do all the Boo, U Penn! work – HOW AN IVY LEAGUE SCHOOL TURNED AGAINST A STUDENT – but anyone willing to read all the way through her absurdly convoluted account of liars, fabulators, fantasists, and truth-stretchers is liable to end up in that Woody Alleny space where you’re scratching your head and wondering why everyone in the story seems utterly on the loose wig.
Like if you ask UD one plausible account of things features a hyper-self-dramatizing mother and daughter – two extremely strong, intense personalities having their own super-titanic, uber-Wagnerian version of ye olde crisis of adolescence. These would not be haha/poignant interactions, as in Lady Bird, but truly vile and indeed sometimes physical fights and vengeful aftermaths. (Her mother’s sister claims that Fierceton “deliberately tried to frame [her mother] and planted ‘evidence’ around the house, including her own blood.”) Eventually an angry Fierceton left home in such a way as to inflict maximum legal/reputational damage on her mother.
Even if this rendering is insufficiently sympathetic to Fierceton, it’s beyond question that she went on, in her college life, to lie about her background and circumstances in ways tailored to appeal to institutions seeking out poor (Fierceton came from a very wealthy home) and traumatized students.
See how the NY’er writer dances around not one but two Fierceton problems: 1. Lying. 2. Lying strategically for personal profit.
If trauma creates a kind of narrative void, Mackenzie seemed to respond by leaning into a narrative that made her life feel more coherent, fitting into boxes that people want to reward. Perhaps her access to privilege helped her understand, in a way that other disadvantaged students might not, the ways that élite institutions valorize certain kinds of identities. There is currency to a story about a person who comes from nothing and thrives in a prestigious setting. These stories attract attention, in part because they offer comfort that, at least on occasion, such things happen…
Um, ok. So first we need to agree that Fierceton is a traumatized person. Ok, let’s agree with that. Let’s also agree that people with shattered traumatic lives will try to make sense of them, make them cohere, overcome them, by superimposing some kind of meaningful narrative on all the shattered bits. Think of Blanche DuBois and her desperate grasping at variants on Death of the Old South narratives to account for her catastrophe (think also of the mother in Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything that Rises Must Converge.”). But where does that fitting into boxes bit come from? That search for valorized identities? Now we’ve left the human pathos of Blanche and entered the cold world of Zelig and Catch Me If You Can, right?
Penn had once celebrated her story, but, when it proved more complex than institutional categories for disadvantage could capture, it seemed to quickly disown her…
Not really complex, though. I’m thinking that much of the Rashomon problem here derives from self-aggrandizing embroidering. The obscurity of the originary mother/daughter scene has made plenty of room for attention-getting made up stuff; and indeed we can almost certainly expect, from Fierceton, yet another nightmarish personal trauma memoir which dishes out so much horror that by page 127 we start wondering how much of it is true, and how much of it is simply the sort of thing we like to lap up.
Amy Hillier, a faculty member at the social-work school, took a sabbatical from Penn because she was so disillusioned by Mackenzie’s treatment.
UD adds this sentence from the article to illustrate the little burlesque subplots that attach themselves to narratives that spin out of control. A disillusionment sabbatical?
UD thanks David.
March 30th, 2022 at 10:42AM
This story 100% worked on the academic Twitter crowd though. The Chronicle article led to a lot of mixed reaction – hedging like, “If what the student alleges is true, Penn is HORRIBLE. But even though of course Penn is probably HORRIBLE, I don’t want to jump to conclusions…” This piece though has not met with a single ambivalent response, at least that I’ve seen. It demonstrably proves the student’s case, largely by setting it more clearly into the familiar narrative framework of sexual abuse and ensuing trauma that we’ve been developing for the past decade as the signal female coming of age ritual of the 21st century. (Recall the Chronicle piece didn’t mention the mother’s boyfriend.) Now that it fits under the umbrella of “believe survivors” and MeToo, the ambiguities fade away against the moral imperative to take the politically correct side.
I tend to agree with your reading of this as two intensely self-aggrandizing women locked in battle. The strongest point in her favor in the NYer article is that affluent communities do get really uncomfortable when stuff like this is found to be taking place in them, and they try to downplay or ignore it b/c it obviously looks ugly to them. So I think the claim that if a girl in a place like this was being abused by her parents, a place like this would be likely to look the other way and then to believe the parents if they seem otherwise upstanding and respectable over the kid. But in this case, it sounds like most of the school actually did believe Fierceton and side with her, and only got tired of it after it dragged on for a while.
The two red flags that stood out for me were
1) The mother’s choice of flashy, unhinged boyfriend – state bodybuilding champion or whatever, with a record of women calling the cops on him is not the kind of man that your average middle-aged, divorced, single mom who’s just focused on doing her job and raising her daughter is likely to shack up with.
2) Fierceton seems amazingly skilled at getting other adults to help her in big ways. She’s convinced one of her professors to basically informally adopt her. She’s lived with her for two years, and the prof is making substantial effort to incorporate her into the family. A different(?) prof is PAYING FOR HER CAMBRIDGE MPHIL! I understand professors helping out a student who seems to be having a hard time – giving her a break on assignment deadlines, maybe letting her spend a night at your house, or driving her somewhere she needs to go. But I don’t think it’s common practice for professors to adopt their students and pay for their graduate degrees!
In both cases, these behaviors scream narcissism to me, some extremely high level of obsession with one’s image and effort to manipulate people’s perceptions of it. All the profs that Fierceton got to support her were already very ideologically committed people. The director of the social justice program, the super-leftist prof, etc. In the wake of the controversy going public, she’s created her own hashtag on Twitter, and has a designated address for “media inquiries” listed on her profiles. In other words, she immediately professionalized her cause (which is herself).
March 30th, 2022 at 12:39PM
I think Rita’s analysis is on the mark. Radioactive narcissism and the accompanying manipulation of sympathetic Penn faculty jump out at me. You can be sure that this case is being discussed widely in university fellowship offices. All I can add is that mom’s boyfriend seems to be no longer with us. I assume this is him:
March 30th, 2022 at 12:43PM
And UD’s exegesis as well! I have encountered several similarly self-aggrandizing students at the Fine University where I work.