I used to be a staff member at a small academic department in a major American university. My job was to provide computer and other technical support services to the department, and especially to one lab within the department. The department hired a new assistant professor, whom I’ll call A., and designated her as my supervisor. At first I felt good about A. She seemed to be a good communicator, and I was impressed with her apparent technical virtuosity and thought I would be able to learn a lot from her. But after about a year or so things started to get weird. Once while A. was in my office and we were talking, she happened to mention that one of the professors at the university where she’d done her Ph.D. had done some consulting work for the FBI. OK fine, I thought. Then she asked me, “Do you work for the FBI?” I was momentarily a little stunned but I think I managed to keep a straight face and replied no.

Then in the following weeks she bombarded me with a series of strange technical requests. She wanted to know how possible it would be for malefactors to attack her computer using some kind of electromagnetic pulse attack, or by sending a high voltage through the internet cable, or various other bizarre imaginary scenarios. She asked me to implement a slew of additional network and computer security measures, most of which were unnecessary and inappropriate. It was clear that she had an obsession with security. Finally she came out with the whole story. At my office one day she unloaded her whole paranoid catalog of concerns: she was totally convinced that she was the target of a worldwide conspiracy, involving the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, the NSF, the State Department, and several other government agencies, to sabotage her research, and that this worldwide conspiracy was being masterminded by a former professor of hers at another university, a man she had apparently had some disputes with in the past. She said that this former professor was a master computer hacker, able to hack into any computer in the world and make it do anything he wanted, and that he also had the ability to recruit spies and agents anywhere in the world to do his bidding. She lived in constant fear of this professor and his supposed army of henchmen and their surreptitious attacks on her. She also told me that she knew for certain that all of her phone calls were being monitored.

Sitting there in my office and hearing her pour out this incredible story, it felt like the bottom dropped out of my life. I had the sudden and terrible realization that my boss was a person who was seriously insane, and that probably I would be heading into some really deep shit. I don’t remember what I said to her but I think I probably tried to be tactfully reassuring and to let her know that I would do my best to help her with whatever she needed help with.

At first I think she saw me as an ally with her in her struggle against this imagined conspiracy. She shared her concerns with me, and even though I thought they were pure delusion I didn’t say so, but tried to respond tactfully. I did approach one of the senior professors in the department, C., a professor I had worked closely with for years and who had always been very supportive of me. I told C. the crazy delusional things that A. had told me. At first C. didn’t believe me. She seemed to be trying to humor me but it was clear she didn’t believe it. But eventually when A.’s crazy behavior became more consistent and more pronounced C. started to believe it and started to become very concerned about the department having a real live crazy person on its hands. I continued to work with A. as best I could, hopeful that somehow she would eventually come to her senses and see that there was no conspiracy and nothing to be so uptight about.

A.’s research was not going well. She had committed herself to the use of a new technology that she was not sufficiently familiar with and she had trouble getting it to work the way that she needed it to. Her attitude started to shift. She started to see me as one of her adversaries. She came into my office one time and without speaking handed me a little slip of paper. On the paper was written, “Do you know what’s going on?” I was confused and asked her if she needed help with anything. She just shook her head without saying anything and walked out. Another time she phoned me and asked me to come up to her office and bring a screwdriver. I asked her what it was about but she wouldn’t say. I went to her office and she told me to shut down her computer and open up its case. Again, no explanation. I did as she said and opened up the machine for her inspection. She looked inside and said “Well I guess I wouldn’t really be able to tell if there was something unusual planted in there after all.” She had been afraid somebody had planted some kind of surveillance device in her computer! Several times she complained to me that a hacker had hacked her account and changed her password. Eventually it turned out that she had simply been typing it in incorrectly. This type of incident happened many times during the time I worked for A. Sometimes she would complain that a hacker had surreptitiously changed some documents on her computer, things like changing the margins, or deleting the last page or something like that. The fact she would literally believe that a hacker would take the trouble to hack her account just so he could change the margins of her Word document was astounding to me! How could someone who is intelligent enough to get a Ph.D. be so utterly out of touch with reality?

A. started to become openly hostile toward me. She often hinted that I might try to sabotage some of the lab equipment. Other times she accused me of gross incompetence and negligence. She slandered me to other professors in the department, sending them lengthy emails accusing me of professional incompetence and calling for me to be fired. She bullied, insulted and harassed me regularly, complaining that my productivity was far too low and that I was lazy and unorganized, when the truth was that I was working as hard as I could and getting things done as fast as possible. She assigned me huge, tedious, ultimately useless projects like scanning a collection of thousands of photographs, or entering data from a huge stack of old field reports that no one would ever use. She purchased large amounts of software and lab equipment that were never used for any purpose. She sometimes threw a hysterical, screaming fit at me or at grad students in the lab. To make things worse, A. hired a guy (K.) who was supposedly a consulting engineer to help her with her equipment issues. This guy was almost as bad as she was. I don’t think he was paranoid-delusional like A. but he had something seriously wrong with him. He certainly wasn’t much of an engineer, he was apparently more of a con artist. I think he humored A. and helped to maintain her delusions because it helped him to keep getting paying work from her. He was insulting and arrogant toward everyone. But I don’t think he actually solved any significant technical problems or delivered any kind of engineering product the whole time he was there. He was nothing but a lot of arrogant bluster as far as I could see, but A. kept him on.

It was hard to believe that this supremely crazy nut case A. was actually a professor in one of the top universities in the world. The whole situation was utterly bizarre and unbelievable. I talked with the department chairman about it. He agreed there was a problem but that nothing could be done about it until A. came up for tenure. I talked to a couple of other professors whose judgment and discretion I thought I could trust. Same response. I talked to the HR representative for our academic unit about it, but she said there was nothing that could be done. I was getting frantic. The stress of working for and with this woman and her asshole sidekick K. was becoming overwhelming. I dreaded going to work. I was so charged up with anxiety all the time that I felt like I would explode. Every time I went to work in the morning I felt like a soldier marching into battle.

Eventually A. took a postdoc job at another university. I guess it was clear to her that she was not going to get tenure where she was, so she left, to my great relief. I had worked 6 years for that crazy nut.