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English professor’s past struggles help him empathize with students

English professor Blake Allmendinger said literature helped him cope with his struggles growing up, when he had to deal with a turbulent family life. Here, he is photographed in his office. (Hannah Ye/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Simran Vatsa

Nov. 1, 2016 12:56 a.m.

Blake Allmendinger would go up to his room when he was a child and escape to the world of mystery novels every time his parents began to fight.

“Literature was the only thing I ever really liked,” Allmendinger said.

Allmendinger, who has been an English professor at UCLA for 27 years, teaches a detective fiction course and a variety of courses on American literature. His love for literature developed partly as a means of escape from tensions in his family, he said.

Allmendinger grew up with parents who were on the verge of divorce and a mother with bipolar disorder. He said his mother felt his birth had prevented her from having a successful life and career.

He said his experiences growing up help him relate to his students’ struggles now. He added he likes to provide moral support and guidance to any student who needs it.

“(Allmendinger) takes an interest in his students’ personal history and what they’ve gone through,” said Sean Bennion, a 2016 alumnus who took three courses with Allmendinger.

Allmendinger said he disconnected himself from his mother after his parents reacted negatively when he came out to them as gay in his first year at Harvard University.

“They were going to disown me,” he said. “My mom threw up. My dad got very quiet and said ‘I won’t let this destroy me.’”

In 2009, Allmendinger decided to return to his hometown in Colorado and visit his mother for the first time in 40 years. His mother died before he returned, but he still made the trip to reconcile with his past, he said.

His memoir “The Melon Capital of the World: A Memoir,” published in 2015, detailed the four months he spent there, interwoven with threads of his past. In the memoir, Allmendinger detailed how his emotionally unstable mother affected his childhood.

Allmendinger added his mother was also physically abusive. When his sister was a child, he said his mother beat her with a leather whip in places the marks would not show.

He said his mother became a recluse toward the end of her life. When she was found dead, her body had been there for several days, he added.

“(My sister) found a secret diary my mom had written,” Allmendinger said. “She began the diary the night my dad left her and talked about how she was either going to kill herself or him.”

Allmendinger’s grandfather’s lung cancer diagnosis had prevented his mother from attending Cornell University. She dropped out of Colorado State University when she got pregnant with Allmendinger in her first year and married his father.

“For the rest of her life, she was very bitter,” Allmendinger said. “‘I could’ve had you aborted, but I didn’t,’ she would say. … She identified vicariously with my academic endeavors and put a huge amount of pressure on me.”

He said his four years studying English at Harvard were very traumatic. He struggled a great deal academically because of his personal trials.

When Bennion was in Allmendinger’s class, he went through personal issues regarding the health of a loved one. As a result, he had trouble attending and excelling in classes.

“(Allmendinger) asked me whether, when I looked back, I would want my struggles to be part of my narrative of senior year,” Bennion said.

Bennion said that simple sentence caused him to put more effort into his classes.

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English professor Blake Allmendinger’s classes are among the most popular classes taken by students in the English department, said Lowell Gallagher, chair of the English department. (Rohan Kumar/Daily Bruin)

“On one of my midterms he wrote, ‘I have nothing left to teach you,’ with a smiley face beside it,” Bennion added. “That was the best compliment I could ever receive from a professor.”

[Related: English TA allows students to pursue multiple ways to earn their As]

Abigail Jones, an English student at the University of London, spent her third year studying abroad at UCLA.

“He made me feel really comfortable,” Jones said. “(He is) such a confident and kind professor. … That’s why I took him again.”

The years Allmendinger spent escaping into books translated into his career now, he said.

Lowell Gallagher, chair of the English department, said Allmendinger’s classes, especially detective fiction, are among the most reliably successful English courses in terms of popularity.

Allmendinger’s focus is literature of California and the American West, but he said he enjoys teaching the course on detective fiction because of his emotional connection to the subject material.

As a child, he bought cheap detective novels at the drugstore since there were no bookstores in the small town he grew up in.

“My first novel was (an) Agatha Christie,” Allmendinger said. “I then started writing mysteries – it was a way to escape, in my mind.”

Allmendinger said he stays connected to his undergraduate students because that humanizes the job for him. Former students have told him he helped them accept themselves.

“He is one of our most charismatic professors,” Gallagher said. “He comes across as straightforward, in a very approachable manner.”

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