Dr. Katie Pryal and the Life of the Mind Interrupted

Today on the blog, we’re delighted to bring you a Q-and-A with Katie Rose Guest Pryal (@krgpryal). Katie is a novelist, attorney, freelance journalist, and erstwhile law professor in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She is the author of novels, including ENTANGLEMENT and CHASING CHAOS, and nonfiction books, including her most recent, LIFE OF THE MIND INTERRUPTED: ESSAYS ON MENTAL HEALTH AND DISABILITY IN HIGHER EDUCATION. She is also the co-author of two popular law school textbooks: CORE GRAMMAR FOR LAWYERS (with Ruth Ann McKinney) and THE COMPLETE LEGAL WRITER (with Alexa Z. Chew). As a journalist, Katie contributes to QUARTZ, THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION, DAME MAGAZINE, WOMEN IN HIGHER EDUCATION, and other national venues.

Katie earned her master’s degree in creative writing from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, her law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill, and her doctorate in rhetoric from UNC Greensboro. After law school, she clerked for the Honorable Terrence W. Boyle of the United States District for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

My questions to Katie are in bold; her answers follow.

RG: Katie, you were a law professor when you started writing the column that formed the basis of this book. How did law teaching inform the writing in Life of the Mind Interrupted?

I taught legal writing in some form or another for over a decade before I sat down to write my first column for the Chronicle of Higher Education—for what would be my Life of the Mind Interrupted column. Over the years, I watched colleagues and students struggle with addiction, mental illness, disability, and more, while rarely receiving the care and assistance they needed from their institutions, professors, and colleagues. Oftentimes, the challenges were institutional—there simply wasn’t enough money to support the need. Other times, the problems grew out of ignorance—colleagues didn’t know how to support each other, or they didn’t realize that their actions were alienating or hurtful. Furthermore, as a legal writing professor, I worked one-on-one with hundreds of students over the years, often serving as a first line of care for those who were struggling.

My area of research is in disability studies, and with that research I could theorize what I was seeing in practice—the troubling trends of institutional barriers, lack of support, ignorance on the ground, and prejudice. No wonder faculty, staff, and students hate disclosing their disabilities if they can help it. It’s a miserable experience no matter how you look at it.

RG: You chose disclosure as the topic of your very first column—now the first chapter of this book. How did disclosure feel? What made you decide to take that step? 

I did not disclose that I had a psychiatric disability until after I had taken a sabbatical from teaching with a strong feeling that I was not going to go back. Indeed, one of the reasons I did not want to go back to the academy had precisely to do with how faculty with disabilities were treated by the institution where I worked. I never sought out accommodations, even though I qualified. Instead, like most people in my shoes, I just coped as best I could and pretended to be a normate. The consequences of sharing my disability seemed too risky.

But after I left, I didn’t care anymore about the negative consequences to my academic career. I didn’t have an academic career any longer. The irony of working for years as a disability studies scholar while keeping my disability a tight secret really started to bother me—it seemed less like irony and more like hypocrisy. So I wrote the “Disclosure Blues” column, and talked about feeling afraid, and the reasons why a person in the legal academy might feel afraid, and then I advised people still in the academy to probably not disclose like I did, not unless they had bulletproof job security.

RG: Here are some standard Practice Tuesday author interview questions.

Great.

RG: First: What do you hope to achieve by putting your book out in the world?

I have a couple of goals with this book, but the most important one is to normalize mental illness. One of the faculty I interviewed once said something about how she would never disclosure her psychiatric disability because in the academy you are valued for your mind—why would they want her if they knew she had a broken brain? And those words stuck with me over the years. In a place where mental capacity is supposedly prized above all, anything that might call that capacity into question must be kept secret, right?

Wrong, of course. That’s societal stigma talking. But that stigma is a powerful thing. Our colleagues believe it, and disabled people know that our colleagues believe it. Either we are incompetent or we are dangerous, and there is no middle ground. With those kinds of prejudices entrenched around us, we can’t do what normates take for granted. Take a sick day (when our disability flares up). Make a doctor appointment (without lying about what kind of doctor). We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard so that we do not stand out.

These behaviors, learned by law students in law school, are carried into the legal workforce—with dire consequences.

RG: How can practicing attorneys use your book?

Although the book is geared toward higher education, lawyers and law firms can benefit from it. The book is divided into four parts. Part 1, Disclosure, talks about how to cut through stigma against psychiatric disability and live your life. I interview and talk about many lawyers and law professors in this part of the book and why they’ve chosen to disclose their own disabilities. Their stories can help others decide whether and how to share their own disabilities.

Part 2, Collegiality, talks about how to be the best colleague to disabled people. There’s a lot of great advice in their about how to run a supportive workplace for disabled people. Part 3, Teaching, talks about teaching (obviously) but also mentoring more generally. If you are an attorney who mentors or supervises younger attorneys, you will find this part helpful—especially in high-pressure situations where young lawyers might need help.

Part 4, Beyond the Academy, tells slightly more personal stories about how living with a disability can affect one’s life in ways that normates might not be able to imagine. I hope that those stories can help build empathy in all readers of the book.

RG:  Katie, we’ve arrived at the end of our #PracticeTuesday author interview. Thanks so much for joining us. Readers: buy Katie’s fascinating and important book here

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