Blake Bailey’s 900-page biography of Philip Roth had been on shelves a matter of days when women began stepping forward to accuse Bailey of sexual assault, harassment, and grooming. Bailey, who has denied the allegations, was quickly dropped by his literary agency. His publisher, Norton, announced this week that it is permanently putting the Roth biography out of print and donating the equivalent of Bailey’s book advance to “organizations that fight against sexual assault or harassment and work to protect survivors.”
In the case of Bailey’s alleged predations, some of the survivors are his former students.
In a deeply reported piece, three authors at Slate — Josh Levin, Susan Matthews, and Molly Olmstead — describe how, as a middle-school English teacher in New Orleans, Bailey encouraged kids to bear their souls to him in class journals, won their trust, and then exploited it:
The teacher’s massive stack of teenage diaries gave him a kind of classroom omniscience, which he didn’t hesitate to deploy. “If you mentioned a crush in your journal,” Sam says, “there was a chance that Bailey would think it was a good match and drop a note to her.” That worked for Sam. Nothing he could possibly say or do, he felt, carried nearly as much weight as an endorsement from Mr. Bailey.
Some students were not as keen to have their private information shared. “The journals were kind of like emotional blackmail,” says Amelia Ward, who was in eighth grade in 1996 and 1997. “He knew a lot about what was going on with the kids, socially.” Jessie Gelini, who took Mr. Bailey’s class in 1998 and 1999, remembers the teacher publicly airing a negative journal comment—something a male friend of Jessie’s had written about her boyfriend. “Here’s this adult, getting involved, and making it a class discussion,” Jessie says. She was humiliated.
While Mr. Bailey told Sam that he was just like him, Jessie remembers hearing the teacher say something very different to eighth grade girls: “I would have been your boyfriend in high school.” At the time, the casualness of that kind of remark felt thrilling, even though she knew it wasn’t quite right. “I was grossed out by him,” Jessie says now. “But at the same time, I was enamored.”
Bailey kept in touch with former students, and more than one has now alleged that, when they became adults, Bailey initiated sexual relationships with them, or raped them. One of them is Eve Crawford Peyton, whose personal essay accompanies the Slate article:
The one line I keep reading in different news accounts is a line that’s haunted me since the night he raped me in June 2003. As he dropped me off that night, while I was still shaking all over, he looked over at me, his eyes sad and sort of pleading, and said: “You really can’t blame me. I’ve wanted you since the day we met.”
At the time, that line almost broke my heart more than anything else. I couldn’t fathom that he could possibly have actually wanted me since the day we met—because I was 12 the day we met. Instead, I thought, he was just using the line on me that he used on all women.
“I’ve wanted you since the day we met,” I could imagine him slurring as a Tulane frat boy, pulling a young coed into his bedroom. I could hear him saying it to a colleague after weeks of courtship and flirtation. I figured it must be a habit, and the fact that he said it to me—someone he met when I was a child and he was in his 30s—made me feel like he didn’t even know who I was, like I was just some nameless, faceless woman.
That was hurtful. The truth was worse.