Help Desk

Help Desk: Extracurricular (!) Activity

Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving. Help Desk is cosponsored by

This week our intrepid columnist is traveling, so we’re reprinting one of our very favorite questions:

I have a strange question involving an incident I witnessed two years ago when I moved to a new city. Some friends set up a welcome dinner for me at a trendy restaurant. Upon entering the bathroom I came upon a woman in her late-30s, sobbing hysterically. She begged me to help her and revealed that her husband was cheating on her and she was absolutely going to do something desperate if I didn’t help her at that moment. I called a cab and helped her outside and waited until she was picked up. I never knew her name, but I do have a remarkable memory for faces. Fast forward, two years: I am a recent grad of an MFA program and I’ve had a close relationship with my adviser all along. I knew he was married and had children, but it wasn’t until our MFA show that I met his family. Imagine my shock when I saw that his wife was that drunk lady I had helped. My real issue lies in my relationship with my adviser. He has helped me greatly and until this revelation, I would have continued our communications, which are still frequent. This information has severely altered my impression of him, and I’m just not sure how to proceed. Any advice?

Can you trust this man, or not? I’ll accept your avowal that the weeping restaurant inebriate and the advisor’s wife are truly the same woman, but before you un-friend this man on Facebook and delete his name from your phone, let’s look at another possibility. How do you know she was telling the truth? She may be bipolar, delusional, or simply mistaken. She may be a pathological liar, desperately needy for attention from strangers. Let’s remember that the world is full of broken people who say and do aberrant things—just look at reality TV.  Perhaps the only way to know the veracity of this story would be to ask him, which you are not going to do. My rule is that you can only inquire about a person’s sex life if you are currently sleeping with him or her; and if you are now sleeping with your ex-advisor, you’ve asked me the wrong question. But I digress.

Kate Gilmore, Main Squeeze, 2006. Still from video

Even if you do have all your facts straight (same woman, definitely an affair), the matter of another person’s extracurricular nookie is really none of your business. I understand why you’re in a muddle and why your view of this man is shaken. Of necessity, when you are in school you must put your faith in your relationship with your advisors. After all, these men and women are charged with nothing less than overseeing the personal, intellectual and artistic growth of the students that they work with. You probably looked up to this man for some good reasons: he is wise and has been generous with his time and energy. He helped you focus on your work to make it better, and if you’re still in touch it means that you had a good personality match. While you may not have articulated it to yourself, you probably assumed that because his professional behavior was congenial, all his actions were above reproach. And now you’re also in the unsteady transition period from graduate school to real life, one in which very good mentors slowly develop into friends. Your trust in this person has been altered by the revelation that he is, or at least was, weak and unreliable to an important person in his family. The higher your former regard for this man, the more profound your disappointment is now.

Yet his marital iniquity doesn’t have anything to do with his ability to act as a friend and mentor. Yes, the moral transgression of adultery is ugly and wounding, but it doesn’t mean that he is completely evil. If you have other, undivulged, reasons for cutting this person out of your life, then do so. But consider that a person who has been kind to you but who has issues in other parts of his life may need a little compassion. A marriage is a complicated and private alliance and this incident with his wife occurred two years ago. If they are still together, then perhaps she has forgiven him and he has become a better husband. Why should you condemn what his own wife would absolve? An advisor-advisee relationship that evolves into a true friendship is a rare thing. If he hasn’t done anything vexatious to you personally, then don’t throw your advisor out with his dirty bathwater.