In the opening pages of Philip Roth’s novel “I Married a Communist,” from 1998, Nathan Zuckerman delivers a panegyric on his first high-school English instructor. “His special talent was for dramatizing inquiry, for casting a strong narrative spell,” Zuckerman, Roth’s frequent alter ego, explains. Mr. Ringold “brought with him into the classroom a charge of visceral spontaneity that was a revelation to tamed, respectablized kids.” Zuckerman continues:
“I Married a Communist” was Roth’s direct reply to “Leaving a Doll’s House,” the memoir by his former spouse, the actress Claire Bloom, who portrayed him as an adulterous misogynist with a merciless fixation on her teen-age daughter, Anna Steiger. In Roth’s novel, it’s the brawny, sainted Ringold, a nonagenarian survivor of McCarthy-era purges, who delivers prolonged diatribes towards Eve Frame and her daughter, Sylphid, the barely disguised stand-ins for Bloom and Steiger (e.g., “Nothing is clearer than how uncurbed the two of them are with their overwrought emotions”). Roth translated his emotions of victimization at Bloom’s arms right into a story of HUAC-era paranoia and persecution, by which Murray Ringold is one of the martyrs. As Blake Bailey writes in “Philip Roth: The Biography,” Roth primarily based the character on his homeroom instructor at Weequahic High School, in Newark, who received his college students’ admiration with what Roth referred to as his “combination of braininess and masculinity,” and who, similar to Ringold, misplaced his instructing job for six years after invoking the Fifth Amendment at a HUAC listening to. “Maybe they came after me,” Ringold muses, “because I never behaved the way a teacher was supposed to behave.”
It is unclear if, or to what extent, Roth knew that his biographer, too, had as soon as solid himself in the position of the unorthodox, forcefully charismatic high-school instructor. Last week, Norton withdrew “Philip Roth: The Biography” from print, following reports that Bailey had groomed college students as an eighth-grade English instructor at Lusher Extension, in New Orleans, and later raped two ladies, one of them a former pupil; one other previous pupil has accused him of tried rape. (In an e-mail to me, Bailey wrote, “I have categorically denied these libelous allegations, and my denial stands.”)
Then Slate printed a devastating pair of items—one of them a report by Josh Levin, Susan Matthews, and Molly Olmstead that drew on in depth interviews with Lusher alumni, the different a first-person essay by one of Bailey’s alleged victims, Eve Crawford Peyton—that compiled a forensic account of how Bailey methodically received, manipulated, and betrayed the belief of the younger individuals he taught. “He made his students feel like grown-ups: He cursed in front of them, told off-color jokes, and acknowledged the existence of sex,” Levin, Matthews, and Olmstead wrote. Chillingly, Bailey assigned them to maintain journals, and scrawled copious, usually suggestive responses in purple pen, prying into their crushes and insecurities. “Our homework was to bare our souls to him,” Mary Laura Newman, a former pupil, advised Slate. “In eighth grade, you are craving that sort of attention that says, I am not just a kid anymore. I am a person. I’m somebody who’s becoming an adult. And so to be treated that way is very satisfying, and very seductive.” Years later, after Newman had graduated from faculty, Bailey reached out to her; throughout their subsequent assembly, in line with Newman, he made unwelcome sexual advances, together with kissing her towards her will.
In the hours and days after the Slate items went up, particulars fanned out on social media and in numerous group texts, in what felt like a collective avowal of a long-held open secret: that Mr. Bailey was a sort, a inventory character; that maybe each American highschool has its model of Mr. Bailey—passionate and bumptious, electrified with Ringold’s identical selfless want to dominate his college students—and even a couple of, some of them completely harmless, others merely creepy, all of them now suspect.
It could be a mistake to conflate Bailey and Roth, or Bailey and any of Roth’s fictional creations: Ringold, whose worst transgression is to throw blackboard erasers at unruly college students, is in any other case a mannequin of rectitude, a loyal household man—which is why he makes a reliable mouthpiece for the novel’s denunciations of Frame, the Claire Bloom stand-in. Roth behaved badly on many events, however his private shortcomings (enumerated in exhaustive element in Bailey’s e-book) don’t strategy what Bailey stands accused of. What the two males seem to have shared—which hardly made them outliers amongst their friends—was a reflexive perception in a sure type of male impunity, one which formed, albeit to very totally different levels, their conduct, Bailey’s biography of Roth, and Roth’s personal writing.
In current years, a number of novels written by ladies have centered the dynamic male instructor who preys sexually on his teen-age-girl college students, together with “His Favorites,” by Kate Walbert; “Trust Exercise,” by Susan Choi; “The Question Authority,” by Rachel Cline; and “My Dark Vanessa,” by Kate Elizabeth Russell. (I’ve additionally written such a novel, which was printed earlier this yr.) The trope is frequent sufficient, in truth, that it might demand defamiliarizing—Choi achieves this by a collection of formal backflips that upend the reader’s maintain on identities and narratives. Perhaps it’s simpler to confront the teacher-groomer in fiction, which grants the author the security and privateness to animate what should in any other case go unstated. It could also be grimly helpful to novelists, too, that the instructor in query appears so usually to be an English instructor, somebody who can acquire psychological and emotional entry to his college students partially by how they interact with the assigned texts—who can steal inside a teen’s head whilst she is absorbed in the ostensibly solitary acts of studying and writing.
One of the saddest linkages in these tales, from each artwork and life, is how the groomer coaxes his college students to specific themselves, by writing or efficiency, as a shadow intelligence-gathering mission. The journaling assignments are one diabolical instance. In one other, which Caryn Blair recounted to Slate, Bailey allegedly pressured her to sing “I Feel Pretty” as half of a category skit, regardless of her protestations, and “had Caryn practice, just for him, in the stairwell outside of the classroom.” Seven years later, Bailey reportedly tried to rape her. (In my novel, a instructor repeatedly forces the pupil he’s grooming to sing: in entrance of him, alone, as an intimacy—and, later, in entrance of her classmates, as a humiliation. When I reached the “I Feel Pretty” passage in the Slate piece, the room round me started spinning, and I needed to cease studying for a second.)
The profitable and sharing of belief is central to instructing and biography (and journalism). In any of these realms, although, the sharing of confidences can shade into complicity. As Parul Sehgal factors out in her Times review, Bailey stated that he clinched the job as Roth’s approved biographer when the two males bantered about Roth’s regrets that he had not dated the actress Ali MacGraw. Many ladies will acknowledge this particular variation of masculine chumminess, one which each objectifies and excludes. Bailey evidently supplied his feminine college students one thing totally different: he introduced himself as their pal, their champion, the one that honored their maturity with a naughty joke. He was on their facet. Newman, in line with Slate, “remembers writing in her eighth grade journal that she might want to be a flight attendant, and him joking back that it was a job that lent itself to promiscuity.” As a thirteen-year-old changing into extra acutely aware of intercourse and need, Newman stated, such acknowledgment of adolescent sexuality by an grownup made her, and her classmates, “feel more seen, and more respected.” “Ah, Eveness,” Bailey wrote in Eve Peyton’s journal, “PLEASE don’t worry about middle school. You’re destined for better things. As Nick said to Gatsby, ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.’ ”
As with the cascade of #MeToo revelations in late 2017, what’s dizzying about the Bailey story is the unusual and contradictory shock of the acquainted: the factor you’ve spent years or a long time turning away from stays the factor that’s all the time in entrance of you. Under these circumstances, a lot of life turns into avoidance and deflection—or, to an unsympathetic observer, a refusal to see the world as it’s, a sickening naïveté. “What is wrong with you? You just don’t know how the game is played,” Bailey allegedly seethed at Peyton after he stopped raping her. Roth, responding to Bloom’s accounts of his philandering, wrote, “This is what people are. This is what people do.”