There is rage, yes, but also endless disappointment. Before I even got out of bed this morning, I read this long piece in Slate about Blake Bailey, the author of the recent Philip Roth biography whose publication has been frozen amid allegations of rape and sexual assault, as well as grooming young students.
I can’t stop reading about it. There are more stories, memories, allegations surfacing from his former students, and it’s bringing up feelings. I was fortunate to talk to a couple friends who are also women writers about this over Zoom the other night. One of them, Alisson Wood, author of the recent memoir Being Lolita, published a piece about it in Vanity Fair today.
Wood’s piece is about the sameness of this kind of predation, the tricks these men predictably use to flatter and ensnare young girls. But it begins with infatuation. Like so many of us, Wood was excited to receive special attention from her teacher. She was enamored. She writes:
In high school, a teacher gave me his copy of Lolita. But only after he read me the opening lines — “light of my life, fire of my loins” — over french fries in a diner, late at night when I should have been home. When he spoke those words to me, my hands cupped around a mug, my palms warming from the stale coffee, I was as in love with him as any teenager could be.
Reading about Bailey in the last couple weeks has made me reflect on these experiences in my own life. It made me recall (and google) the English teacher I was in love with — Bailey even looks like him — who fortunately never crossed a line. But others did. During junior year, I found one high school teacher’s pornography (two low-budget, hardcore magazines with titles that are imprinted forever on my mind), which he’d brought to school in his briefcase. There was the one who told our history class that Jewish girls have soft breasts. The coach who encouraged us to flash passing trucks (actually, to press our breasts to the windows and show the drivers “fried eggs”) while en route to soccer games on the school bus. Another one left me a dazzling but unquestionably flirtatious inscription in a book of poetry he bought me. And at 17, I had a full-blown, months-long relationship, sex and all, with another teacher, though I wasn’t in his class.
The thing many of these articles don’t say: these things were normal at the time. No one was overtly encouraging girls like me to pursue our teachers, but male desire for young girls was normalized everywhere in the culture. It was reflexively understood that of course, for all time, straight male teachers would want their female students.
Since the Bailey news broke, comments on tweets about “that one English teacher” have revealed again what many of us already know, which is that they’re everywhere. It seems quaint to believe every school has only one.
For me, a Jewish girl raised by literary parents in suburban New Jersey, it’s particularly perverse that Bailey’s subject is Philip Roth, as I considered Roth god for the first decade of my serious reading life. As Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote in her excellent 2018 remembrance of the author, “I didn’t really know what it meant to be a Jew — nor did I know how to be Jewish — until I read Philip Roth.” I felt the same way. Roth illuminated my own world for me — its flavors, its humor, its tyrannical neuroses. The abiding simultaneous sense of inferiority and superiority. The guilt. He made it tender and heartbreaking, savage and funny. He was so funny.
I didn’t mind the misogyny so much. That seemed merely the price of admission to read the Great Men. I read Roth and Updike like I listened to the canon of great cock-rock records. This was culture and I wanted in, even though I understood that these things weren’t made for me, in some sense. I wanted to prove I was good enough, smart enough, to understand them. I wanted the approval of men, especially my father, whose predilections for Roth, cock rock, and women so informed my sensibility.
I don’t mind considering Roth’s shittiness anew — I’m glad his death and his biography have brought new scrutiny to his treatment of women in novels and life. Reading things like this fantastically deep Laura Marsh review of Bailey’s biography in The New Republic (written before the allegations were made public) is bracing. Thrilling, even. But I am sad to have to consider Roth’s shittiness inside Bailey’s, to have to look at it in an infinite series of nesting dolls of male shittiness. It brings out my deepest pessimism. There is no beginning, no end, no reprieve. There is no way, really, to legislate these things out of existence, to cancel them all. Maybe in time, enough men will be scared enough not to do the things Bailey did. But it will only be out of fear for their careers, never because they see women’s full humanity.
I didn’t realize until later in life how damaging these experiences are. Many women my age will be working through this stuff for a long time to come. In my life, it was a subtly brutal combination: the belief that beauty and desirability were the most important things in the world for women; my father’s wandering eye and casual sexism; the misogynist tomes I read to gain entry into the world of intellectuals; the experiences of rape and sexual assault my friends and I had in adolescence; and the teachers who let it be known with that twinkle in their eyes that educating us could only ever be bound up with desire. These things contributed to a lifelong distrust of men, a belief that it is always only a matter of time before they try to take things there, make things sexual, say that this (your body) has been on their mind from the very beginning, as Bailey said to each of the students he raped or tried to have sex with.
This expect-nothing thinking has protected me in some instances, but it has messed up all of my dealings with men. It’s made it easy to simply write them off, to always be ready for hurt or disrespect, to expect that none of them could ever really take my mind or my work seriously.
That part is especially sad. Of course all girls, all women, want to be desired because we are socialized to believe that our inherent value lies there. But looking back, I hoped these grown men saw my intellectual promise. My whole life, I didn’t want to be “smart, for a girl” — I wanted to be smart like a man. (And yes, I see how painfully problematic it is that such a division even existed in my mind.) And for that, you had to meet them where they were, read what they read, know how they worked. Of course, it meant eventually they would try to sleep with you. That too seemed par for the course at the time. Bracing for that disappointment time and time again, sustaining it, and moving on, is at the core of a sadness that men will likely never understand.