Liz* had hired me as an editorial assistant at the small press founded by her husband. A quirky pair, they’d brought their German shepherd and Siamese cat into my interview to ensure the animals “approved” of me, but publishing jobs like this were rare in small-town New England, so I went with it. Besides, the company specialized in New Age and occult titles. A little weirdness was to be expected.
After years of juggling bartending and waitressing gigs with my adjunct position as a college writing instructor, this would be my first 9-to-5 job. I loved teaching, but my twenties were winding down. I needed a dependable salary, health insurance, and a more grown-up existence. When Liz and her husband offered me the job, I accepted with gratitude.
Initially, I did well — so well that Liz promoted me to editor-in-chief within a couple of months. As editor, I felt at home polishing manuscripts and coaching authors, but floundered when it came to book design, production schedules, and dealing with vendors. I’d received almost no training, so I started working longer hours to compensate, trying to figure things out myself.
I got to my desk by 7 o’clock every morning to put in a couple of hours before Liz arrived and began her serial interruptions — and insults. If I was editing a book, she’d make me drop everything and call the typesetter about a different title. If I was on the phone, she’d tell me to hang up and put together a photo layout. If I was writing a letter to an author, she’d pull me into an unscheduled meeting about book cover design. The constant intrusions left me flustered, so I resorted to working weekends.
“You wouldn’t last five minutes in a New York publishing house!” became her daily refrain. Those words didn’t wound me — no big publishing house would’ve hired someone with my limited experience — but Liz’s constant haranguing only compounded my exhaustion. It made it harder for me to rise to the challenge.
One Saturday I braved a pummeling snowstorm to head to the office, eager make some headway toward looming deadlines. I found Liz pacing beside her desk with a cigarette. She wasn’t happy to see me, and offered only a glare and a grunt as hello. I scurried to my desk anyway, but as soon as I’d gotten into the flow, Liz erupted.
“Get out!” she screamed. “I don’t care how quiet your aura is, I need privacy! Get out!”
I grabbed a stack of papers and fled. Once I’d safely reached my car, I allowed myself a laugh at her bizarre outburst, yet my heart continued pounding like I’d been chased by a barking dog. I spent the rest of the day working at my kitchen table, pretending that I could salvage this job and my relationship with Liz if I managed to improve. I told myself that if I improved, she’d back off. Looking back, I see that I was rationalizing her abusive behavior by blaming myself.
As time went on and Liz’s verbal attacks escalated, her cat began jumping into my lap as soon as I sat at my desk in the morning, and she would sleep there all day.
“That cat always tries to protect people when I’m too hard on them,” Liz said. “But the cat doesn’t run this company.”
I started groping for an exit strategy.
When Liz brought me to a trade show in Boston, I did my best to circulate out of her earshot during the cocktail hour, hoping for a lead. I got one, though it wasn’t the kind I’d expected.
“You heard what happened to the editor before you, right?” asked a woman I’d just met.
“She got a better job?” I asked, suddenly nervous.
“Yeah, she got a better job,” the woman replied. “After she got released from the mental hospital. Liz literally drove her to a breakdown. You seem like a nice girl. You should get out.”
Leaving felt like failure. I wouldn’t get another chance to work in publishing unless I moved to Boston or New York, and Liz would never give me a decent reference anyway. The college classes I’d taught had all been handed off to other struggling adjuncts, so waitressing and bartending again looked like my only immediate options. I knew that with a little time and support, I could grow into a strong editor-in-chief. I loved my authors and didn’t want to abandon their books, yet my thirtieth birthday was looming and I couldn’t bear to start my next decade trapped in that toxic workplace.
Days before my birthday, I offered my two-week notice. Liz flared into a rage. She threw me out of the office without letting me finish my two weeks. I’d lasted six months.
Liz hovered over my desk as I gathered my things, as if I might steal the red pens and Post-its. My colleagues stared as she shoved me out the door. I sobbed as I started the engine of my crappy Mazda. I sobbed through the traffic on Route 1 South. Then, somehow, my sobbing shifted to laughter.
Even though it was the middle of winter, the sun was shining, making the snow glisten. The world suddenly felt so much bigger and more beautiful than that tiny office. My life felt bigger. I’d make a new start in my thirties, and make new mistakes instead of repeating the old ones over and over.
“I quit my job!” I sang, with tears still flowing. “I quit my job! I’m so happy I quit my job!”
In that moment, I didn’t know if I would ever forge a brilliant career, but I felt certain that from that day forward, I’d never allow myself to be bullied on the job again.
I left the publishing house with no savings and no leads, yet by the time I’d reached my front door, the fog of shame that had surrounded me during my tenure as editor had evaporated. I felt giddy and strangely powerful. I knew I’d be okay, because at least I wouldn’t have to be beaten down every day.
When my roommate came home that night, she told me about an executive assistant job at a nonprofit. Within two days I was employed again, moving quickly from secretarial duties to writing brochures, articles, and other marketing materials for the organization. The woman from the trade show who’d warned me about Liz heard that I’d quit and tracked me down to offer me steady work as a freelance manuscript editor. Soon I was making just as much money as I had at the publishing house — not much, but enough to restore my confidence.
Twenty years later, after stints as a freelance editor and copywriter and a decade as a mom, I’m finally coming into my own as a writer. All the disasters and false starts and professional failures along the way are now just small stories from a bigger, more beautiful life. My old boss, Liz, has been dead a long time. I remember her as a sad, complicated woman who taught me a little about publishing and a lot about myself — mostly, that no job is worth abuse.