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.