The Immortal Legacy of Lisa Laitman

Lisa Laitman retired from Rutgers in January. I’ve long said that she should not only have a statue at Rutgers, but at every college and university that has an alcohol and drug assistance program on their campus. We honored her at the 2022 Rutgers Recovery Graduation in May. I told this story to a room of about 250 people.

Lisa began working at Rutgers in 1983 as the first alcohol and drug counselor in the school’s history. She was asked to cover New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden, and the Vice-President of Student Affairs wondered if she’d have enough work to justify her job. Crazy. Within a year there was another full time staff member and within another couple years there was a full time staff member at Newark and a few years after that there was a full time staff member at Camden. More staff were added. All because of her ability to treat and advocate for students. Thousands of lives saved, family directions altered. She pushed for an on campus recovery house. College officials said, “All dorms are substance free” and “What would this say about Rutgers that we need a recovery house.” Fools. Anyway, the first recovery house on a college campus in the world opened up at Rutgers in 1988. There were growing spurts and pains. Occasionally a moronic administrator would come along and try to stop funding the program. Lisa always won. Rutgers was the first. Now there are over 200 that have program or are trying to have programs. Because of Rutgers. Because of Lisa. I can’t write enough about her, but this story will have to suffice.

Spring 2010. A few students in very early recovery are chatting after a Narcotics Anonymous meeting on the Cook Campus. A car drives by. Slows down. “Hey, look at the addicts. Hello junkies.” An arm is thrust out of the window, holding a can. “Would you like a beer?”

I hear about it the next day. I’m fucking furious. I think how if I were there I would have wanted to chase after the car, open the door, yell at the two assholes and render a furious beating. Hopefully I’d realize that I’d lose my licenses, my job, and get arrested. Luckily, I wasn’t there.

“Did they get the license plate?” I asked, super hopeful.

“Yes,” Lisa responded.

“Great. Fuck them. We’ll get them kicked out of school and have a permanent mark on their transcripts. Let it follow them where ever they go. The fucks.”

“I have a different idea,” Lisa said.

I sighed. “What’s that?”

“I want you to reach out to them.”

I liked where this was heading.

“Call them up…”

Yeah, this sounded good.

“And have them come into your office and listen to them. Talk to them.”

I hated this idea. She could see it on my face.

“And then I want you to introduce them to the students they taunted. Don’t let the students know who they are. Just let them meet them.”

Fuck. She was going to make me work with the people who had mocked vulnerable students freshly in recovery. But she was my boss. More than that. My mentor. Role model. I did what she said. Not because she was my boss but because I respected her so much.

The first guy came to my office. The “look at the addicts” guy. He said he was sorry. Uh huh. Ok. He asked what was going to happen to him. I think I made him nervous. Good. Fuck him. I said I was taking him to lunch with the kids he shouted at. His face contorted. “Don’t worry fucko, I’m not going to tell them who you are.”

About seven or eight recovery students met us at a Skinny Vinny’s Pizza. Average pizza, but close to my office. The students welcomed the misguided young man. They assumed he was struggling and needed help, because he was with me and I brought him to them. They asked him questions. Supported him. Made him laugh. Talked about movies and stupid internet shit and probably bad music.

He came back the next week. Sobbed in my office. Said he felt like such an asshole. Was ashamed. I was glad he cried. But it made me misty a little too. Because I knew he was truly remorseful. Same thing happened with the “do you want a beer” guy. Weeping in my office, about what a fucking insensitive asshole he was. That he mocked people that were so good and kind.

I can’t tell that story without crying. I’ve told it a lot lately. I cry every time. I cried when I told it to 250-some people and Lisa standing right next to me. I wanted to beat them. Expel them. Punish them. She knew there was a different path. A better path. A path towards understanding and redemption. Think of all the horrific people in the United States with their awful political and social values that come from a place of ignorance and misunderstanding. Lisa’s solution might work really well with a bunch of them, but it would require someone like her pulling the string and making it all happen. So, really fucking unlikely.

You might think that the biggest winner in that story was the Rutgers Recovery community. Or that it was the fact that Lisa transformed two shitty dudes into a better version of themselves through a short meeting over pizza. And those are good thoughts. But I was the biggest beneficiary of that lesson, because Lisa taught me that a little listening and conversation and exposure to different people can make people see the error of their beliefs, speech, and ways. I think about that story every week, because I still think about beating on people and punishing them. And I try to remember the lesson that Lisa taught me, all those years ago. And to be better.