When the story of the hard life and lonely death of former Duquesne University adjunct Margaret Mary Vojtko first lit up the Internet (prompted by labor lawyer Daniel Kovalik’s September op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), attention focused on the harsh treatment of adjuncts by universities in general, and the supposed Grinchishly unChristian treatment of this adjunct by Catholic Duquesne in particular. Beyond tweeting #IAmMargaretMary in righteous solidarity, very few saw Madame Vojtko as anything more than an elderly poster child for unionization.
That’s why I am so grateful to read (H/T to my friend Jean-Francois) L.V. Anderson’s long, nuanced and compassionate Slate profile of Margaret Mary Vojtko, “Death of a Professor.” I recommend it to your reading and your prayers.
I took a bit of flack for suggesting, in my reflection on Madame Vojtko’s story, that she showed classic signs of hoarding disorder. I didn’t make that speculation out of thin air, or as a distraction from the very real vicissitudes of the adjunct’s life and livelihood. I wasn’t being, as some claimed, viciously uncharitable by defaming the memory of a brilliant woman who fell on hard times. There were parts of her story that simply set my hoardy-senses tingling. #IWasMargaretMary. I’ve been there, and there but for the grace of God went I.
Madame Vojtko lived in the house in which she had been born—to a Steelworkers’ Union hero. She had an intense devotion to (obsession with) her home town’s role in the battle for union rights. Anderson highlights the thin line between historian and hoarder.
Once she had possession of an artifact—a billy club used in the Battle of Homestead, or scrap metal from the mill—she refused to part with it. “She would say she had them in her home, and we’d say, ‘Margaret, they really shouldn’t be in your home. I mean, there’s an insurance issue, and they need to be catalogued in, and they need to be public property,’ ” said Jan Carr, one of the founding members of the Homestead Historical Society. “She wouldn’t surrender them.”
At one meeting, Vojtko held up the billy club and refused to let anyone touch it. When other local historians tried to talk about moving her collection to a local museum, she always rebuffed them. The Homestead Historical Society stopped meeting in the early ’90s, in part because of other members’ frustration with Vojtko. Around the same time, she stopped letting anyone enter her house.
Houses, actually. Vojtko lived with her sister and brother, Anne and Eddie, in their two-story, yellow-brick childhood home, on Sylvan Avenue, until Anne died in 1980. At that point, Eddie (who, like Anne and Margaret, never married or had children) bought the house next door so he and Margaret could use it for storage. When Eddie died in 1993, Margaret inherited both houses and continued filling them with her belongings, piling boxes against the walls and windows. Along with her artifacts and historical documents, she kept newspapers, magazines, photographs, books, and much more.
L.V. Anderson details the larger context that hoarding disorder gives to Madame Vojtko’s story: the lifelong pattern of accumulating objects and investing them with the emotional resonance ordinarily reserved for interpersonal relationships; the inability to carry out the basic financial, health and organization tasks of everyday living, even while functioning on a high level intellectually and creatively; the essential secretiveness that gradually becomes pathological; the deterioration of home and health and finances due to chronic neglect patched over with a veneer of vehement denial.
Duquesne was not, as Anderson makes clear, responsible for Margaret Mary Vojtko’s death, or for the series of calamitous events that preceded and most assuredly precipitated it. Yes, this Catholic university and all institutions of higher education must look squarely at the injustices of the adjunct system, and make changes. But it was not true that Madame Vojtko had no help, no options, no support from the university community and the many people who knew and cared for her. What she lacked was not the grace of charitable outreach, but the hard grace to receive. Hoarders who have managed to live with their disorder as long as Margaret Mary did lose the ability to trust, to accept, to let go. The prognosis is rarely hopeful.
That’s why I took issue from the start with Daniel Kovalik’s conclusion that resorting to prayer for Margaret Mary, when she refused care or intervention, was an inadequate response. Some demons, we know—and hoarding disorder is a devil of a mental illness—require prayer, fervent intercessory prayer, to make room for grace to enter. A year ago, I was trudging in Margaret Mary’s footsteps, uphill to dying on a sidewalk. Because people who did not know what the problem was, but knew there was a problem, prayed very hard for me, something loosened inside. I received the grace to the open the door, to trust, to let go.
Those prayers came from people whose numerous attempts to help I had taken advantage of and then dismissed or blocked or refused to follow up with over decades. The help was never withdrawn, no matter how frustratingly ungrateful and stubborn I remained. But it was the prayer that made the difference, that wedged a crack in the armor to let grace in.
I don’t know why Margaret Mary Vojtko resisted to the end. I only know her story is more than an illustration of employment injustice. It’s a strong reminder to pray without ceasing. Pray for greater understanding of mental illness, and better options for identifying and helping the Margaret Marys in the classroom, in the pew, on the job, down the street. Pray in thanksgiving, as I do every day, for those who persist in reaching out, who shine a light of compassion into the dark hoarded hallways, who take no shit and give only love.
Pray for the hard grace of receiving in each of our lives, for we are Margaret Marys, all.