I met Will in the spring of 2005 when I visited FSU as a prospective graduate student. Will stood to greet me when I entered his office, and he shook my hand. He was wearing a wrinkled pink tee-shirt, white tennis shoes, and a braided, multicolored belt.
Will asked me about my research interests; I didn’t have any. He referenced his work on refugee flows; I hadn’t had the sense to read it. And so we engaged in small talk, which I knew was painful for me; I wouldn’t have known at the time that it also would have been painful for him. We talked about my job in DC. We talked about his travels to Zimbabwe. In later years, Will and I would laugh about our first impressions of one another. I thought he was weird, which is far more telling of who I was that day than who he was in life.
Will taught the “math” class my first semester at FSU. He taught from drafts of chapters that would—after being heavily edited that semester by Andy Beger and transformed over time by Dave Siegel—become a textbook. The class was pretty easy. Actually, the whole first year of grad school felt unexpectedly easy. Outside of class that year, Will and I had limited interactions, and I was feeling (very temporarily) good about my progress. Will asked me for a copy of my first-year paper—the one that Joe Young said FSU grad students are expected to publish—and he ripped it to shreds in all the ways you might expect. The paper was about comparative health policy (I know, I know), and Will also systematically went through it, crossed out non-political science citations, and wrote in the margin, “Do you want to be a political scientist or a policy analyst?” I didn’t realize there was a difference.
Sometime during my second year of graduate school, Will asked me to come by his office. We hadn’t talked since he commented on my first-year paper—which had since taken its rightful place in the trash can. I nervously walked into Will’s office. He didn’t waste time, and he didn’t mince words. He told me that I needed to decide whether I wanted to get a PhD in political science. He told me that I was probably smart enough to do it, but that I was wasting time. My own time and the time of the faculty members around me. He told me that going to class and going home right after class wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t? I thought he was off base. I thought he was mean. I was wrong. In the years since, I’ve recounted a version of that story, several times with Will in the room. I hope he knew how transformative that conversation was for me and how much I appreciated it.
Following that conversation, Will asked Sona Golder, an assistant professor at the time, to work with me on a project. Will didn’t suggest that I work with him—a decision that I attributed to him finding me unworthy. As was made clear in his last blog post, Will worried a lot that he wasn’t able to effectively communicate his thoughts and his feelings—and he would have been upset to know my perception. Because it wasn’t that. It was that Will was empathetic, and he was kind. He knew that I was shell-shocked after our conversation, and he was worried about me. Not worried about me as a PhD student who might one day get a job. But worried about me as a human being. As a result, Will is responsible for my valuable—personal and professional—relationship with Sona. Will had a knack for bringing people together, for making connections, for creating community—which makes his own loneliness all the more heart wrenching.
When it came time to select a dissertation advisor, I wasn’t sure it would be Will. Several students had come to FSU specifically to work with him. I wasn’t one of those students, and even though I had become interested in substantive topics related to political violence, I was not confident that Will was my cup of tea. I talked to Jackie DeMeritt and Joe Young about it; they weren’t confident that Will would be my cup of tea either. I was grateful for Will’s advice, but several interactions with Will gave me pause. A particularly memorable example saw Will explaining to me in a presentation that I should wear a higher cut blouse lest people focus on my chest and not my research. In retrospect, the comments were well-intentioned—messy and fumbling and awkward and uncomfortable, to be sure, but well-intentioned.
I decided that the pros of having Will as an advisor—his insatiable curiosity, his willingness to let his students have agency in their research, his keen understanding of science, and his commitment to using social science to help both the people being studied and the people doing the studying—far outweighed the cons, which honestly, were as much a function of my weakness as his. As a defense mechanism, though, I decided that I didn’t want to know Will as a person; I would only get to know him—and let him get to know me—as a scholar. For much of the time that I was in graduate school, it worked. Will and I talked exclusively about work—my dissertation, our co-authored projects, various professionalization issues—for several years. I am incredibly grateful for all that he taught me during that time. Any of the good there is in me as a scholar I owe to him.
All the while, he maintained close, seemingly personal relationships with several other graduate students in the “Will Mafia”—Joe, Jackie, Andy Beger, Danny Hill—but not with me. We never had a conversation about it; I never told him that I had made a conscious choice not to get to know him as anything more than a scholar. But Will knew, and he respected my unspoken boundaries.
When I was on the job market, I fell apart after giving a practice job talk to the faculty in FSU’s political science department. I was so much of a wreck that I cancelled a previously-scheduled mock job talk at another institution. Will counseled me and encouraged me to give several additional practice job talks to work through my nerves. But, first, he let me cry in his office. He hugged me. And he didn’t make it weird, which is saying a lot given the person he was hugging. I am not good at emotion. I am not good at allowing people to support me when I’m hurting. I viscerally want people to think that I have my shit together—a trait in which I took great pride as a young person and in which I actively try to suppress now. But he let me fucking fall apart. In his office. On a Tuesday. And on Wednesday, he didn’t mention it. Outside of my husband, Will is the only person with whom I’ve ever done that. And I know I am not the only person to have crumbled in Will’s office or in his arms.
Years later, Will would share his recollection of another meeting in his office. I don’t remember this one. Apparently, I was in his office to talk about a project—I don’t know which one—and he noted that as I talked, I curled my legs up under me and sat cross-legged in the chair. Apparently, this was notable to him as an indication that we might be able to be friends—that I might get to know him and let him get to know me. I left Tallahassee before Will and I really became friends, but I am thankful he thought he saw a window into it earlier. I wish I had been more confident—less scared of the unique tour de force that was Will—and that I had allowed a friendship with him to happen sooner.
I got a job. And without a single misstep, Will made the transition from my mentor and advisor to my coauthor. I got (a little) more confident, and he allowed me room to take real ownership over our joint work. He made it look effortless, but it had to be challenging. I chose to keep working with Will on a few projects because I liked having him as a coauthor—not because he was my advisor, but despite it; I knew people would discount our joint work, and it was worth the tradeoff. Our work styles were compatible, and I realized more how valuable that was as I worked with other coauthors. Will was brilliant and tireless and fearless in his research, and he challenged me to think in different ways as a coauthor than he had as a student.
During that time, I let myself get to know Will as a person. I realized that he was a spectacular human being, and I felt regretful for waiting so long to build a friendship with him. I found out that Will and I were alike in many ways; he was the first person to introduce me to the concept of “imposter syndrome,” something with which I still struggle. Like Will, I hate small talk. I often dread social interaction outside of a small group of people. I hope that isn’t obvious to people who interact with me in social settings; but Will knew, he understood, he provided invaluable counsel, he made me feel less alone. I hope that his knowing I felt similarly also made him feel less alone, even if only briefly.
I also learned that Will and I were very different. And in most of the ways that we were different, I wanted to be more like him. I wish he’d known that. Will was a relationship-builder. I don’t think he saw himself that way, but he was really good at it. Though Will and I talked about our dislike of small talk, I never told him that I thought his innate reaction to it—to be honest, to be vulnerable, to allow people in—was better than mine—to continue to engage in it and to shut people out. I have heard people describe me as “cold” and hard to get to know. No one would describe Will in those terms. Chris Sullivan told me recently that he felt like he knew Will after just a few hours, and I’m sure lots of people felt that way. Will said that lying hurt, and that made him want to be—need to be—authentic. Authentic in being himself and authentic in how he loved and interacted with others. He wasn’t perfect; he messed up a lot, and he was clearly frustrated by it. But he was open and he was always trying to build relationships—even messy ones. I wish he knew how many people saw that in him and valued that about him; I don’t think he did.
Will was also intellectually tireless—in a way that often made me tired. I am not intellectually tireless. Will had seemingly boundless energy for talking about ideas—long after I just wanted to go home and go to bed. Before he died, Will and my husband spent many a late night talking about science and community and research design in seemingly esoteric ways that made my head spin. Nate is full of energy for science; so it made me chuckle to see him yawning in the wee hours of the morning at our kitchen table as Will excitedly gestured to make yet another (good) point.
Several years ago, my personal life fell apart and yielded what felt like very public and professional ramifications. I was broken; I am sure that people had a hard time knowing what to say to me and how to say it. Will didn’t. The irony of his not knowing how to communicate his feelings meant that he just tried—and if he misstepped, he tried again. He was present when other people were absent. He tried when other people didn’t. People who understand social niceties and live by them censored themselves. But because of Will, I didn’t feel alone. He didn’t say the perfect thing; but he always said something, and that meant everything. I tried to learn from him and to offer him the same support at times. I wish I had done more.
A couple of years ago, Will and I had a falling out. I don’t know if he knew it was a falling out; I never told him how I felt about it, but I held him at arm’s length. After a time, I eventually decided that getting the good parts of Will was worth embracing the frustrating parts—ten-fold. I wish I had done so sooner; I wasted invaluable time.
I’ve been trying to make sense of Will’s final decision and his last blog post. I’m not sure there’s sense to be made, but I wish I could tell him a few things. It wouldn’t be to change his mind; it seems selfish to ask someone who was in so much pain to live with it to alleviate the sadness and anger we’re all feeling right now.
First, I would tell Will that I’m sorry. Not because I think my actions could have changed his decision, but because I wish I had made him feel a little less alone a little more often.
Second, I would tell him—with the same straightforwardness he used in evaluating social science theory—that his final decision may have seemed a logical implication of his assumptions—but his assumptions were terribly wrong. Even if he was right about the frustration and anger he sometimes left in his wake, he underestimated the good—and he underestimated many of us in our ability to care for him as the whole, albeit broken, person that he was. He would have laughed and told me that it’s easy, low-hanging fruit to criticize the assumptions of a theory, and as usual, he would have been right. His assumptions were made—and solidified over and over again—through the fog of mental illness. Even if, to the very end, he remained invested in finding the rationality in it.
Third, I would tell him that the way yesterday felt and the way today feels and the way I expect tomorrow to feel fucking sucks. It sucks more than any cost-benefit analysis he could have done would tell him that it would suck. And it sucks for many people just as much or more than it sucks for me. But if he was in that much pain—for whatever reason, no matter how little sense it made to me—I would happily share the burden of some of that pain today.
Will was an excellent political scientist. And he was a passionate advocate for people who could not—for whatever reason—advocate for themselves. As time passes, those will be the legacies for which he is most remembered. For that and for the fact that science is best done through community, I am thankful; he wanted to leave those marks and was often frustrated by limits on his abilities to do so.
But I won’t primarily remember Will that way. I will remember him as a kind, generous, thoughtful soul who took care of people—and did so through the fog of a pain that prevented him from taking good care of himself. I will remember him as a mentor and a friend and a teacher—a teacher of political science, yes, but also of kindness and generosity and fiercely loving your people despite and because of their flaws.
Whenever his students would thank him for his help, Will would smile and shrug and tell us to “pay it forward.” It’s a lot more than political science to pay forward, my friend. Thank you for helping prepare us for the task. I selfishly wish you would have stayed around to see it through. I hope you found peace.