Queer + STEM PhD + Mental Health: Seeing parts of my own journey in Morgan Rogers's "Honey Girl"
One of my best friends excitedly texted me in March 2021 about the new book “Honey Girl.” He said: “This book is about finishing your PhD and not knowing what is next, making sense of family expectations, mental health, AND the protagonist is queer. It is perfect for you!” And so, I quickly ordered it on my e-book library platform, and then when I didn’t get to borrow it fast enough, I bought a hard copy.
Morgan Rogers’s “Honey Girl” has three major plot premises. (1) Grace Porter got married in Vegas to a woman she met hours before and did not remember the name of the next morning. (2) Grace Porter having just received her PhD in Astronomy does not know what to do next professionally. (3) Grace Porter is a Black, queer, cis woman and knows that these identities lead people to question her credentials. Number one is not very believable, but numbers two and three definitely are.
The book starts with Grace Porter waking up in her hotel room in Las Vegas alone in her bed, but with a handwritten note and business card from her overnight guest. We quickly learn that this overnight guest was her new wife! We also learn that getting married to someone you met hours before is completely out of character for orderly, scheduled, meticulous Grace. This premise is pretty far-fetched, but it doesn’t ruin the book, and it works largely because her wife, Yuki Yamamoto, is such a cool, smart, sassy, brave character that you immediately want her in the story and married to Grace. But the best thing about this plot line is that even though Grace experiences periods of uncertainty and fear about this relationship, none of it has to do with Grace having married a woman. There is so much that Grace struggles with and questions in this book, but she never questions her lesbian identity. And, it isn’t that this identity is incidental, it’s part of a major plot arc. I read the book during the most single period of my adult life. It’s also been a period where I have found deep comfort in my queer identity. Unfortunately, I didn’t have an incredible accidental wife when I was in the throughs of my during, and post, PhD depression, but I did hold onto my queerness as something that I knew to be true while in a pit of wanting to tear so much else in my life apart.
The real arc of the book though, is how Grace responds and starts to heal in the wake of realizing that her long-honed coping strategies and ways of achieving success are no longer working for her. When Grace returns to Portland from her crazy weekend in Vegas, we learn that she walked out in the middle of an interview for the job that she and her PhD advisor saw as the next step of her career. Grace left the interview because she realized that the people at the company were more interested in grilling her about her membership in Queer and Black Astronomer organizations than discussing her future astronomy work at the company. She is tired of constantly proving herself, she is tired of working twice as hard as everyone else, and she knows in some part of her that this next step she thought she was going to take is not the right one. But now she doesn’t have a plan, and she is overwhelmed by this uncertainty. We learn that Grace has completely devoted herself for eleven years to gain a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and now PhD in Astronomy. We learn that she has approached every step of this with the unwavering belief that nothing less than the best is acceptable, and that she chose this path even in the face the considerable disappointment of her father (he wanted her to become a MD). Soon her friends are worried about her, she is engaging in self harm, and she starts wondering whether she should take some time off. Grace has hit her breaking point.
You do not need to gain a PhD to run into the wall that is your breaking point, but it was in the process of gaining my PhD in Systems Biology that I did. In the fall of 2019 I realized, seven years into my PhD, that I was not on track to complete my degree. This was a really necessary realization, but it was hard to face the truth of my PhD journey being so different from what I had expected. And, I didn’t have the ability initially to respond to in a healthy way. Instead of taking some time to consider the situation that I found myself in thoroughly, I worked even harder, and soon I was experiencing hypomania, and then a month later I crashed into depression. Eventually, with the help of counseling, psychiatric medications, and support the of family and friends, I realized that the first step to figuring out how to successfully complete my PhD was to prioritize my mental health. Eventually, I was able to identify a path to successfully complete my PhD, and in the summer of 2021, I defended a thesis that I was deeply proud of. But part of what I realized in the process was that even though the challenging circumstances and fundamental realities of a PhD lead to me hitting my breaking point, the story began much earlier with my development of unsustainable coping mechanisms in my youth. Later in the book we learn more about challenges that Grace has faced - her parents’ divorce, her mother’s absence as a parent, her father’s overbearing and protective parenting - and the story of her ending up in her current juncture makes even more sense.
A major difference between my story and Grace’s is race. Grace is a Black woman, and this has affected her journey at multiple points. For one, her father is a Black man and he has never in his life had a chance to rest. He wants to protect his daughter from the unfairness of the world, and the only way he knows how to do this is to push her to do what he has done: choose a path and not stray from it. Being a Black woman has also made Grace’s PhD harder. The additional pressure of proving that she belongs has taken up mental space that she could have allotted towards caring for herself, and she doesn’t have any mentors that are also Black women in Astronomy. Developing unsustainable coping mechanisms is not something that can be attributed only to bad luck or genetics, pervasive systems of oppression play a huge role.
The story of Grace’s path towards healing is filled with so many richly developed, warm characters. One of my favorite things about this book is how seriously its takes friendship. It becomes clear that one of the reasons Grace was able to succeed academically despite the pressure she faced was that she had an incredible chosen family. Later, we meet Yuki’s awesome roommates. The book also explores the different societal expectations for commitment in friendship versus romantic relationships, which I really appreciated.
I have rarely read a book that has as many parallels with my own life arc. For the amount of emotionally agony being a PhD student can cause, I am surprised how few fiction books explore the experience – especially in STEM fields. (I would be remiss not to note two recent books that do: Brandon Taylor’s “Real Life” and Yaa Gyasi’s “Transcendent Kingdom.”) Certainly you don’t have to be in a PhD program to find yourself face-to-face with the reality that your coping mechanisms are not serving you, or to realize that you need to separate your parents’ expectations and dreams for you from your own, or to find yourself at a crucial juncture in your life and have no idea what the next step is – but I do think these are experiences that many PhD students face. I am also thrilled that this book increases the representation of Black women scientists in contemporary queer literature. I am still hoping to accidentally marry the woman of my dreams, but for now, I am grateful for this book.