The Catcher in the Rye is famous for the intense and sometimes mysterious connection it makes with the adolescent boys who love it most. It’s a novel about the inner life of a teenage boy, and about the great struggle that so many boys have faced through the ages: keeping the depth of that inner life a secret. It’s a 250-page novel about trying not to cry, and that it speaks so loudly to so many boys says a lot about the experience of being an adolescent male in America.

It’s also a book about upper-class boys’ schools of a certain era—their casual cruelties, their obsession with status culture, and the vaulting chasm that exists between their Parnassian missions and their actual operation. It includes a scene that illuminates a particular, and hardly uncommon, aspect of such places in that time: the unexpected and unwanted physical affections of a male teacher.

At the end of the novel, Holden Caulfield is out of luck and out of options. Stranded in New York, he calls a former teacher named Mr. Antolini to see if he can stay in his apartment for a couple of nights. Of course he can, says the teacher, and from the moment the man opens the door, we realize we are dealing with a type. He has recently married a much older, wealthy woman, and the two are “never in the same room at the same time.” He’s been drinking—heavily, it seems—and after pontificating on various subjects, he makes up the couch for Holden. “Goodnight, Handsome,” he says. Holden drifts off, but then startles awake: Mr. Antolini is on the floor next to the couch, gazing at him and patting his head. Horrified, Holden throws on his clothes and disappears into the night, eager to get far away from his “perverty” teacher.

Sex, Orwell taught us in “Such, Such Were the Joys,” is a force that is “always smoldering just under the surface” of a boys’ school. When you add to that smoldering force a number of now blessedly outdated social norms—among them, the requirement that gay male schoolteachers lead closeted lives, and the absence of cultural vigilance regarding sex between teachers and students—it is hardly surprising to learn that there was once a Mr. Antolini, or several Mr. Antolinis, at many boys’ schools. By the 1970s, an accelerant had been poured on these coals: the sexual and personal liberation of the American teenager, and the idea that he or she might form egalitarian relationships with adult figures of authority, including even teachers. Gather together a group of prep-school graduates of a certain age—over 45, say—and you are likely to hear stories that, by today’s standards, would be the makings of a scandal.

Just such a scandal erupted in 2012, when a journalist named Amos Kamil published a blockbuster New York Times Magazine essay called “Prep-School Predators,” concerning the widespread practices of sexual abuse at the elite Horace Mann School, in New York City, from the late 1960s to the early ’90s. Kamil, himself an alumnus of the school, had been shocked when, on a camping trip with several other alumni in the early ’90s, one of them made a startling confession. “You guys remember Mark Wright, the football coach?” his friend asked as they sat around the campfire. He was a legendary and beloved figure at the school. “When we were in eighth grade, he raped me.”

As the evening wore on, three of Kamil’s four friends told horrifying stories of sexual assault by teachers at the school; Kamil himself had been touched inappropriately by one teacher, and experienced a weird, boozy night with two others who would later be charged with abuse. For years, Kamil did nothing with this startling information, but when news broke in 2011 of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, he remembered that night around the campfire: “The combination of the horrific stories and the happy-go-lucky man accused of being a rapist—a rapist charged with the task of taking care of defenseless children—was deeply disturbing. And it made me think of Horace Mann.”

The Sandusky story may also have been a catalyst in persuading so many Horace Mann survivors to talk to Kamil; so, surely, were the scandals in the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts. The era of keeping sexual abuse—especially the abuse of boys by men—a shameful, lifelong secret had come to an end. A year after Kamil’s piece came out in The Times Magazine, another reporter—and Horace Mann alumnus—named Marc Fisher wrote a long New Yorker essay called “The Master” about one of the school’s most notorious alleged abusers.

Now, along with a co-writer, Sean Elder, Kamil returns to the subject in Great Is the Truth. Part memoir and part exploration of what happened after the publication of his essay, the book is a bit padded. The two articles, and a withering evaluation released by “concerned alumni” in May—with which this new book dovetails very closely—would seem to provide all the information anyone could want on this sordid mess. But together, the documents give us a rare look into the world of a private school during a dark chapter of its history. They also provide insight into profound changes in the way our country regards sexual or romantic contact between teachers and students.

What’s striking about the victims’ reports is how many kinds of abuse were taking place at the school. There was frank molestation—and sometimes rape—of middle- and high-school boys. There were elaborate and manipulative relationships between senior teachers and older high-school students. And there were relatively typical ’70s-style teacher-student “affairs,” which flourished in an environment of such close and unsupervised contact between adults and teenagers. (“This is what private schools sell,” Fisher has observed: “a level of intimacy and teacher involvement in the lives of the kids that in a healthy fashion can be inspiring and life-changing.”) It seemed that almost anything a teacher wanted to do to a boy during the ’70s, a teacher could do at Horace Mann. The school became co-ed in 1975, and although Kamil heard plenty of rumors about the sexual abuse of female students (and of male students by female teachers), only two female victims stepped forward. Ultimately, the scandal, which resulted in credible charges of abuse against 22 teachers, overwhelmingly involved boys and men.

Who knew what, and when did they know it? In a way, Kamil reveals, everyone was both aware and not aware. “We knew on a DNA level what was going on,” an alumnus told him. Boys warned one another about “pervs”—teachers to avoid. And the faculty took its cues from the top. The climate and culture of a prep school are set by its headmaster. What he likes, the school likes; what he abhors, the school tries to stomp out. During the period when most of the abuse seemed to have occurred, Horace Mann was under the leadership of a stratospherically charismatic man, Russell “Inky” Clark Jr., who styled himself as a sort of young John F. Kennedy. He poured money into scholarships, he was fanatical about baseball, and he was—like the best teachers at the school—vividly intellectual. For whatever reason (perhaps because he had his own troubled and troubling relationships with male students), he couldn’t or was unwilling to stop the behavior.

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Where were the parents, you might wonder. They were right where the kids were, stuck in the ’70s. Back then, parents didn’t anxiously interview their children about every aspect of their school day, and teenagers didn’t frantically text Mom and Dad every time they got an 86 on a quiz. Parents weren’t people to turn to when things got weird. But by the mid-’80s, vigilance was on the rise, both throughout the country and at Horace Mann. The national fascination with the long-running McMartin case—in 1983, the owners and teachers of a California preschool were falsely charged with satanic sexual abuse of very young children, only to be exonerated seven years later—marked a turning point. Meanwhile, parents and teenagers—at least those in families on the private-school, college-bound trajectory—increasingly viewed the high-school years as a time that demanded deep closeness and constant hard work. Who had time to sit for an after-hours nude portrait with the art teacher? The PSAT was looming!

For many years, the reformed school sat uneasily with its secrets. “There was a kind of folkloric memory of the behavior,” one man who taught at the school from 2007 to 2012 told investigators; “it came up around the lunch table.” When Kamil’s article appeared, survivors of the abuse began contacting one another. At first they merely offered emotional support. Then they began talking about justice. Finally, in the spring of 2013, the school issued a public acknowledgment that abuse had occurred and that “these unconscionable betrayals of trust never should have happened.” The statute of limitations for a criminal case had passed, but Horace Mann was a wealthy institution that had been charged with its students’ well-being. Surely it would compensate the victims?

“It’s not Horace Mann’s bill to pay,” the chairman of the board of trustees reportedly told one of the first survivors to ask for relief. (To be a board member of an elite private school, you need the mind of a philanthropist and the heart of an assassin.) It was a harbinger of what became an exceedingly ugly process. Mediation revealed what many had long suspected: The survivors didn’t have a legal leg to stand on, and the school was not inclined to be generous. Parents of current students complained that their children’s college prospects might be diminished by all this talk about sex crimes that took place in the disco era. One enterprising 11th-grader came up with a killer community-service project: selling gently used designer clothes to help pay for the victims’ psychotherapy. When you’ve spent your adult life coping with the trauma of repeated rapes during your adolescence, and when the powerful and wealthy institution that turned a blind eye to those rapes nickels-and-dimes you so badly that a teenager holds a tag sale to cover your therapy bills—well, that is its own great and revealing truth.

Kamil reports that after the publication of his essay he was accused of being homophobic, and it’s easy to see why. The “monstrous” acts, to use a word favored by the author and victims, were primarily homosexual in nature. Clearly, these men caused profound and often lifelong suffering in their young victims. Yet some of the teachers, surely, were also suffering—“wounded, confused people trying to figure out how to function in a world that taught them that their homosexual desire was sick,” as one alumnus reflected after the Times Magazine article came out. “An intolerant society creates self-hating people who act out inappropriately.”

I had read The Catcher in the Rye many times before I realized that the scene with Mr. Antolini involves an artful bit of misdirection on Salinger’s part. The writer invites us to understand the teacher as a stock character from ’50s trash novels: the closeted groper, ever on the lookout for a young boy, taking immediate advantage of the juicy fly that suddenly appears in his web late one night. But if you reread the novel carefully, you realize that Holden has been talking about Mr. Antolini, in one way or another—and in admiring terms—since the very first pages.

They were student and teacher at the one school Holden didn’t flunk out of. (Why did he leave? “It’s a long story,” Holden says; “it’s pretty complicated.”) While they were there, Mr. Antolini was the one who courageously picked up the body of James Castle, the bullied student who jumped out of a window, when no one else would dare go near. “Mr. Antolini felt his pulse and all, and then he took off his coat and put it over James Castle and carried him all the way over to the infirmary. He didn’t even give a damn if his coat got all bloody.” In the years since, he and Holden have kept up a particular kind of friendship: Mr. Antolini checks up on him, invites him to play tennis, has dinner with him and his parents. Holden Caulfield is a person who keeps just three people’s phone number in his address book. One of them is Mr. Antolini’s.

Holden is everything a “prep-school predator” looks for—he’s sensitive, vulnerable, desperate for affection and guidance from a reliable adult. And Mr. Antolini is the one adult in the novel who really seems to care about him. He knows that Holden is an excellent writer, and he understands that the boy is “troubled morally and spiritually,” which he is eager to help him solve. He loves Holden, and he is in love with him. And once—just once—he makes a mistake.

Mr. Antolini pleads for Holden to come back, but the boy won’t come back. He’s gone to spend the night in Grand Central, and to think about how kind Mr. Antolini has been to him over the years, how maybe the physical gesture had been merely an act of affection. “The more I thought about it,” he tells us, “the more depressed and screwed up about it I got.”