Is My Mentor Hitting on Me?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Oct. 4 2011 7:04 AM

Is My Mentor Crossing the Line?

We talked on the phone for five hours, and now I want to redraw a boundary—but I don’t know how.

Illustration by Jason Raish.

Illustration by Jason Raish.

Dear Friend or Foe,
When I was in high-school Model U.N., I befriended the keynote speaker, a journalist I’ll call “Stan.” Since I was interested in becoming a journalist myself, I was delighted to get to know him in a professional capacity. Over the years, we maintained a mentorlike relationship. But when he started to want to talk about personal instead of political things, I drifted away. Recently we made contact again for the first time since 2005. I was driving across the country and was happy to have someone keep me awake by talking on the phone for five hours. During the conversation, I also offered to volunteer as a researcher or editor for his upcoming book, thinking it would be great experience for when I apply to law school. I was also hoping he’d recommend me to the top-tier school from which he obtained his legal degree. I also believe his book is visionary. However, no amount of résumé boosting or intellectual edification (never mind the recommendation) is worth the commitment that this offer seemed to imply to him.

Lucinda Rosenfeld Lucinda Rosenfeld

Lucinda Rosenfeld is the author of four novels, including I'm So Happy for You and The Pretty One, which will be published in early 2013.

Since then, he has left me multiple emails and calls, wanting to catch up more and talk about my role in his book. Now I’m dreading having to talk to this man for another five hours, since I know it will become either a personal or one-sided conversation. That or an alarmist rant about foreign affairs. Now I need to find a polite way of drawing a boundary. I’d still help him with his book if we could correspond via email, and I'd be happy to have a one-hour phone conversation every few months if it affords me the opportunity to work with him. How do I articulate exactly what I'm willing to commit to and make it clear that I’m only interested in a professional relationship? Or should I just sever the friendship and apologize for not following through on my offer?

Sincerely,
Professional not Personal

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Dear PNP,
First of all, I hope you used a headset! (That’s one loooooooong conversation.) Second of all, forgive the nostalgia trip—but you remind me of myself in the early (and frequently confused) stages of my own career. I’d go on what I thought was a job interview and wind up having drinks with the so-called “employer” in some hotel lobby bar, wondering whether this was “just how business was done”—and baffled, later, to find that I hadn’t gotten the job. Except, wait—was that the same guy on my answering machine calling to say “hi” and “see what [I was] up to? Unfortunately, young women are easy prey in this department, eager as they are to climb the ranks, reluctant as they are to offend, and flattered as they are (who wouldn’t be?) by the attention.

Here’s the deal with Stan. He doesn’t need a research assistant for his book. He’s lonely and thinks you’re cute. That doesn’t make him an evil rapist. But it means that, if your only interest in him is professional, you should tell him you’re busier than you thought you’d be and are therefore unavailable. (No apologies necessary.) Why? His law-school recommendation will get you nowhere. Nor will you learn anything if you agree to be this man’s researcher—except, maybe, where he buys his socks. I can also guarantee that the pay will not amount to minimum wage—if you factor in all the hours spent listening to the man prattle on. Still convinced the work is visionary? You can recognize the genius by buying a copy of the book when it’s published.

My advice: Apply to law school on your own merits and see how the dice roll. As you’ve learned for the second time now, if you give this man an inch, he’ll take a football field. A final note: I’m sure you were a very mature 17 (weren’t we all?), but a bona fide grown-up befriending a high-school student of the opposite sex is—I’m sorry—Creepsville.

Sincerely,
Friend or Foe

Dear Friend or Foe,
As Indian-origin teens, my friends “Amy,” “Sasha,” and I were racial minorities in our school. I came to appreciate my culture mostly through our shared experiences. Amy is competitive and would go to any means to garner a win. (She has seen great success as a lawyer.) Sasha is gorgeous, finds that everything comes easily to her, and is content to put family ahead of career. In high school, Sasha moved across the country and we lost touch. Sasha re-entered our lives six years ago, after she got married (though arranged, it was of her own choosing). A short while later, I moved out of the country for an extensive graduate program. By the time I moved back this year, both Amy and Sasha had moved to New York City, and Amy had also married (by arrangement) a doctor from India.

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