The Literary-Abuser Trope Is Everywhere

A spate of recent works—some memoiristic, some fictional—points to how uniquely teachers and mentors can manipulate their power.

A girl reading a book, and a faceless man reading book
Najeebah Al-Ghadban

At the end of April, Eve Crawford Peyton published in Slate her account of being groomed and assaulted by the author Blake Bailey. Bailey, she wrote, had been her English teacher in middle school before he held her down and raped her when she was 22, years before he was hand-selected as the most simpatico candidate to tackle a biography of Philip Roth. (Bailey has forcefully denied this and other allegations against him, including that he raped a publishing executive in 2015.) Peyton’s account is harrowing, emotive, and masterfully written.

It’s also awfully familiar. Bailey, Peyton writes, “was a fantastic teacher; he was a sexual predator.” In a 2019 article for LitHub, the author Rachel Cline writes about her “groovy, revolutionary, married, draft-evading, girl-raping former teacher,” who “taught me how to write,” and whom she fictionalized in her novel The Question Authority. In her devastating memoir, Consent, released in English earlier this year, the French writer Vanessa Springora alleges that a feted French author sexually exploited her as a 14-year-old girl. At one point, she refers to a specific psychological injury: He began to dictate her English homework, replacing her authorial voice with his own in an act she likens to “dispossession.” (The author in question, scheduled to stand trial in September for promoting pedophilia, has called the book “unjust and excessive” while praising “the beauty of the love” that he says he and the teenager shared.)

Suddenly, this kind of abuse seems to be everywhere—in the real world and in fiction inspired by it—abuse by men who allegedly found girls who loved books, girls who were conspicuously vulnerable to the written word, and then manipulated and mangled that love in enduring ways. I don’t know what to call this new genre, in which women seem to use writing to separate their understanding of abuse from their understanding of language itself. But a genre it is, one whose authors confront a clichéd setup—the predatory teacher or mentor—before they even begin. In Kate Elizabeth Russell’s novel, My Dark Vanessa, published last year, yet another English teacher grooms a student by giving her books and poems that supposedly remind him of her, offering her “different lenses,” she thinks, “to see myself through.” In the lead-up to My Dark Vanessa’s release, the author Wendy Ortiz noted on Twitter that the book’s plot bore striking similarities to her 2014 memoir, Excavation, about an English teacher she says exploited her sexually for five years, starting when she was 13 years old. That teacher, like Bailey, and like the man who taught Cline, had his students write journals for class, allowing him to rifle through their innermost thoughts and scrawl in the margins of their imagination. The books aren’t similar, in other words; the men depicted in them are.

This is a tricky genre, too, because truth and invention can become so intimately enmeshed. Cline’s novel is directly modeled on her experiences with her seventh- and eighth-grade teacher. Russell, after the commotion over My Dark Vanessa’s origins led to calls for her to reveal how much of the book was fictional, wrote on her website that it was inspired by her experiences as a teenager, even though she didn’t believe that victims should be compelled to share details of traumatic events. Springora’s, Ortiz’s, and Peyton’s accounts are the stark, carefully composed testimony of nonfiction. In Kate Walbert’s 2018 novel, His Favorites, a charismatic English teacher preys on a student recovering from a tragedy, and his influence on her use of language becomes as insidious as his abuse. Walbert, as far as I can tell, hasn’t specified how much of her novel was drawn from real life, but as a teenager she attended the boarding school Choate Rosemary Hall; I can’t help but wonder what she made of its begrudging acknowledgment in 2017 that some of its former teachers had abused students for decades.

With narratives like these, the boundaries between truth and fiction are inevitably slippery. “Memory, as you may recall,” states Jo, the narrator of His Favorites, “is a revision of a revision of a revision, the fortieth draft, or the forty-first.” Ortiz echoed this sentiment in an interview with The Rumpus: “As soon as I tell a story about a memory, then I’m painting over what actually happened with what I recall.” The cloak of a novel can be a kind of self-protection. Meanwhile, biographers, like Bailey, as Ruth Franklin argued in The New York Times, “aren’t stenographers; we’re more akin to novelists, constructing a narrative of a person’s life and making editorial choices at every turn.” Readers have always relied on writers to interpret the world, to organize it, to humanize its characters, to shape its mordant chaos into something meaningful and enduring. We’re only now beginning to see how fragile that trust is, and how easily abused.

As she describes in Consent, Vanessa Springora met the writer Gabriel Matzneff (she refers to him throughout only as “GM” or “G”) at a dinner party in Paris to which she’d tagged along with her mother, clutching a copy of Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet. “With my blind veneration of the Writer with a capital W,” she writes, “it was almost inevitable that I would conflate the man with his status as an artist.” In His Favorites, the teacher who torments Jo first notices her while she’s clutching a Tolstoy novel in a diner. On the opening page of Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry—whose first section many readers have presumed was drawn from the relationship Halliday had in her 20s with Philip Roth—a young woman, Alice, is sitting on a park bench, reading a novel “made up almost exclusively of long paragraphs, and no quotation marks whatsoever,” when a very famous, much older writer sits down next to her. “Is that the one with the watermelons?” he asks. Alice hasn’t yet come to that part, but a few lines later her cheeks are described as “watermelon pink,” as if his influence is already bleeding into her story.

I read Consent and Asymmetry recently, and I have to note how different they are in scope and style. Consent is a blistering indictment of Matzneff—who has written and talked openly about his pedophilia—and of the French literary establishment that tacitly enabled and encouraged his exploitation of children. Springora, who met Matzneff as a 13-year-old who loved to read, has come as an adult to view books with suspicion, she explains in her introduction. “I know they can be poison. I recognize the toxic load they can contain.” Matzneff violated her sexually, but he also distorted her relationship with language, art, and education. “At the beginning, G. took me to museums and to the theater, gave me records, told me what books to read,” she writes. In his attic apartment, “he would … call me his ‘beloved child,’ his ‘beautiful schoolgirl,’ and softly recount the long history of illicit love affairs between young girls and middle-aged men. I now had a private tutor entirely dedicated to my education.”

Asymmetry is distinct, not least because it’s fiction. But it nevertheless expands the idea of what it means to be a young woman in the orbit of a literary legend. Ezra Blazer, the Roth-like elderly author who encounters Alice on the park bench, is written with the lightest of nostalgic touches. He’s avuncular and wry. Alice is in her 20s, and fully willing and able to consent to a sexual relationship. Aware of how the pair of them might appear to strangers, she observes that “everything was still more interesting with [Ezra] than without.” And yet Ezra woos Alice like a child, with Mister Softee ice-cream cones, boxes of cookies, and Barnes & Noble bags stuffed with books he considers fundamental to her literary education. The novel’s title refers to all the power imbalances contained within it—Alice is Ezra’s willing companion but not his equal. Although Ezra is not Roth, Halliday explained at a talk in 2018, she wanted to invite readers to think of him, and possibly imagine how a 20-something woman might have her literary ambitions pruned by what Harold Bloom calls “the anxiety of influence.”

To be ensnared by a powerful writer can mean having your sense of self defined by the glare of someone else’s commanding gaze. Matzneff, who published diaries and essays as prolifically as novels, wrote about Springora and cast her as yet another character in his work. He encouraged her to write him love letters, which she eventually realized sounded similar to all the other letters from girls he published in his work. “These weren’t words of contemporary young women, but the universal and timeless terms taken from the epistolary literature of love,” Springora writes. “G. whispered them to us by stealth, breathing them onto our very tongues. He dispossessed us of our own words.” All the while, he was also crafting a defense against allegations that might stain him in the future. “All these declarations of love were proof that he was loved, and better still, that he knew how to love,” Springora continues. “What a hypocritical way it was of going about things, deceiving not only his young mistresses but also his readers.”

Alice isn’t trapped within Ezra’s fiction in Asymmetry, but he imposes constraints on her work before she’s even confessed a desire to make it. “I know what you’re up to,” he tells her one day in the park. “I know what you do when you’re alone … You’re writing. Aren’t you?” He assumes immediately that she’s writing about their relationship, because who wouldn’t? Why write if not to develop and enshrine one’s own ideas, experiences, and impressions? But Alice’s interests lie outside the scope of her own psyche. “Writing about myself doesn’t seem important enough,” she tells him. Ezra’s gaze is turned inward; whether you, the reader, assume that he is Roth-inspired or merely Roth-like, you know he’s never found himself lacking in importance. The second section of Asymmetry, which abandons Ezra and Alice entirely to feature the first-person narrative of an Iraqi American economist detained at Heathrow Airport, by contrast, feels like nothing so much as a scrupulous rejection of Ezra’s advice; when readers learn that it’s written by Alice years later, it comes off as an act of authorial empathy and imagination. Alice’s relationship with Ezra may have been pleasurable and consensual, yet her writing, and Halliday’s, is an act of literary sedition.

Consent, too, is an expression of rebellion, and power. Springora had dreamed of revenge against Matzneff, she writes, and one day “the solution finally presented itself to me, like something that was completely obvious: Why not ensnare the hunter in his own trap, ambush him within the pages of a book?” Methodically, with brutal emphasis, she also savages the people complicit in her abuse: her mother, who eventually seems to have sanctioned her 14-year-old daughter’s “relationship” with a famous writer because of his cachet; the publishers and editors who fostered and funded a self-confessed predator; the police who she says investigated at the time and did nothing; the doctor who offered to surgically sever her hymen so that Matzneff could penetrate her; the teacher who cornered her in a bistro one day and told her of his admiration for Matzneff while ogling her breasts; the famous writer who told her that her role was to bow to Matzneff’s impulses and help him create. “Literature is all about lying, my dear young friend,” the writer tells her. “Didn’t you realize?”

The manipulation of language is the common thread sewn through each of these books. Springora includes a quote by the novelist Chloé Delaume at the beginning of her memoir’s final section: “Language has always been an exclusive domain. Who owns language owns power.” In one scene in His Favorites, Jo reports her teacher to the headmaster, who dismisses her. She thinks in hindsight that she should have responded by blasting his patriarchal fossilization into powder, but remembers that she was only 15 at the time. “I could no more have formed those words, those thoughts, than flown to the moon.” Springora describes in one chapter feeling as if she’s no match for Matzneff because she doesn’t yet have the words she needs to challenge him:

I wasn’t familiar with the terms ‘narcissistic pervert’ and ‘sexual predator.’ I didn’t know there was such a thing as a person for whom the Other does not exist. I still believed that violence was only ever physical. And G. manipulated language like others manipulate swords … It was impossible to do battle with him on equal terms.

Similarly, in My Dark Vanessa, the influence of the teacher who abused Vanessa is so profound even in adulthood that it’s obvious to the reader when she’s parroting his words in her narrative instead of forming her own assessments. “There was something about me that made it worth the risk,” she thinks. “I had an allure that drew him in.” She rejects the word abuse to describe what happened to her, because “in someone else’s mouth the word turns ugly and absolute. It swallows up everything that happened.” The simple integrity of a word cuts through the fog of her self-delusion too painfully. But she also twists language to deceive herself. To be groomed, she thinks, suddenly pedantic about definitions, “is to be loved and handled like a precious, delicate thing.”

Peyton’s account of how Bailey allegedly groomed his students includes the information that he required his students to keep personal journals and submit them to him; he would respond in red ink, positioning himself as a kind of omniscient narrator, armed with all the intimate details of his students’ psyches. In one girl’s yearbook, according to a reported Slate story that accompanied Peyton’s essay, Bailey wrote, “Mr. Antolini to Holden; me to you,” a reference to The Catcher in the Rye that implied she had disappointed him by distancing herself from him. (In The Question Authority, Nora, the central character, recalls how she once tried to write like J. D. Salinger in the journals she turned in for class; her teacher, Mr. Rasmussen, scribbled, “Nice try, Phoebe,” in the margins.) Bailey also reportedly told the same student to “unfasten your gaze from your own navel,” perhaps a caustic way of suggesting that she herself bore no value as a subject or as a person.

What I take from Consent and its cohort of books—and from the ways they play with language, with perspective, with myopia and clarity—is how neatly they balance exposing abusers with a radical reframing of subject and object. The New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote in March about the “predatory dimension of one person telling the story of another.” But when you’re telling a story about a predator, this dynamic gets fundamentally subverted. When Roth, in the last interview he gave before his death, was asked about the #MeToo movement, his response was to explain how consistently over the course of his career he’d written about “men enveloped by sexual temptation.” He had, he said, “stepped not just inside the male head but into the reality of those urges whose obstinate pressure by its persistence can menace one’s rationality, urges sometimes so intense they may even be experienced as a form of lunacy.” I don’t know whether Roth was a misogynist. (It is fascinating that he supposedly chose Bailey after a shared backslapping moment over the sexual appeal of Ali MacGraw.) But it is easy to say who attracted Roth’s interest, and who didn’t. Men in compulsive sexual thrall: interesting. Women violated as a result: far less so. And yet here are women, writing books, forcing their perspectives into the light, and proving what potent, insurgent art can be made in the process.